Love Religious People (Tip 10 of 10 For Reaching Out To Religious Believers)

Top Ten Tips For Reaching Out To Religious Believers:

1. Don’t Call Religious Believers Stupid.

2. Make Believers Stay on Topic During Debates.

3. Don’t Tell Religious Believers What They “Really Believe”.

4. Clarify What Kinds of Evidence Warrant What Kinds of Beliefs.

5. Help Break The Spell Of Religious Reverence.

6. Don’t Demonize Religious People’s Motives, Focus On Their Objective Harms.

7. Take Philosophy Seriously.

8. Both Refute The Best Counter-Arguments You Can Think Of And Create Gestalt Shifts.

9. Be Unapologetic, Rigorous, Patient, And Gracious With Religious Believers.

10. Love Religious People.

If Jesus got anything right it was that you should love your enemies and if you are some combination of irreligious, anti-faith, anti-theist, atheist, skeptic and secularist, then you are going to wind up philosophical, and maybe political, enemies of religious people. And that means you should redouble your normal efforts to be a kind, generous, patient, sympathetic, appreciative, magnanimous, admiring, affectionate person when you are engaged with religious people—at least in those times of explicit philosophical or political conflict and maybe even more generally if your identity, beliefs, and practices as some variety of cultural secularist grows more and more deeply divided from the identity, beliefs, and practices of your religious acquaintances.

Now this topic of how to love one’s enemies in general is a massive one, worth several posts. And the topic of how an anti-faith/anti-religious variety of atheist should go about loving people with deep religious identities could probably take as many posts. For this post, there is only room to outline key points on the both the broader love your enemy question and the narrower love the religious question. I may elaborate them further, down the road.

The first thing to note is that I don’t want to trivialize the word love. Love is not the same thing as simple respect. At minimum, we have to respect our fellow human beings but loving them is a different matter entirely. And true love, worthy of the name, is not something we can provide to everyone realistically. And we should be extremely dubious of anyone who claims to love you because they want to sell you something—including Jesus and including atheism. Fortunately for our team, I have yet to meet the atheist guilty of that one and this post is not intended to make you into that person that turns people into projects for fixing out of an empty love of humanity that only wants to change it.

So, with a few obvious misconceptions dispatched, what I do recommend, why I recommend it, and how I recommend you do it, is as follows:

Some loving we can do in general. We can generally love movies insofar as we have a special appreciation for the possibilities of the art form, find ourselves frequently choosing to watch them rather than participate in rival activities, find ourselves frequently able to find films that we wind up loving, and we greet the prospect of each new film with a warm sense of hope that it will be good and are disappointed when it fails to live up to what a good film could be.

We can love people in general in the same way and it is a healthier emotional and social disposition to do so than to be generally misanthropic. Of course it is impossible to forge deep reciprocal relationships of affective attachment, desire, admiration, intimacy, cooperation, commitment, sympathy, mercy, etc. with every human. Even as we are as genial, gregarious, and empathetic with the many people we meet as possible, we simply do not have the time or emotional resources to devote to loving every single person.

But the key is this, having a general love of people—a general, admiring appreciation for the good that human beings in their dazzling varieties are capable of, a general sympathy for human natures of so many potentially positive varieties, a general commitment to the advancement of maximum possible human flourishing, a general optimism about the possibilities for a positive connection with each new stranger or colleague or mutual acquaintance you meet, etc., you can love people in general. And you can and should love religious people in general in this same sense in which you can and should love people in general.

You should recognize that religious people (or whoever else your enemy is), no especially less than any other people, are capable of all the net-good things that makes people in general net-lovable and you should orient your fundamental disposition to them in such a way that rationally recognizes and properly honors this truth emotionally.

Of course you should not love what is despicable about either people in general or about your enemies in specific. And in that spirit, you need not love faith or superstition or regressive politics or authoritarianism or anything else that you commonly associate with religious people in general or of some particular stripe. Nietzsche, maybe a little too harshly, puts the point that all great love involves great contempt. If you love someone or something you should want what is best for it and that involves being willing to be unsparingly critical of what is failing in it. In this way, it is consistent with loving someone or something to demand improvement and realization of potential. So, yes, mercilessly shred the irrationalism and related harms that are owed to religion or faith, etc.

But this advice to be properly contemptuous has to be seriously subordinated in all things to a deeper law: Do what most maximizes both the flourishing of the most people and of the people you interact with directly. Contempt for humanity’s inability to realize perfection is only a vital good when it is in the actual service of constructively aiding the greater perfection of a human being or of all of us. Contempt which dominates, demoralizes, discourages, and dispirits a person only ruins him or her further and is perniciously counterproductive.

There is a fine line between love and misanthropy in this way. Many a person loving the ideal potential of humanity is tempted too much to hate the reality of humanity. Many of the worst abuses in the history of religion and government were and are done in the name of fixing human nature. All too many do-gooders presumptuously think that if they can break a person they can recreate him in the image of his greatest possibility but find it is easier to break a person than to recreate him, if he cannot recreate himself.

So, in this spirit, we need to always scrupulously ask whether our contempt is constructive, whether it actually improves those we hold in contempt. So, yes, fully criticize errors and harms but always in such a way that actually teaches the ignorant and effectively blunts, stops, and reverses the harms of the destructive.

When dealing with specific religious people, realize that simply being a more scrupulous thinker in one area of investigation (or several as the particular case may be) and being more correct on some matters of intellectual knowledge and virtue, does not make you an inherently better all around person. Having one virtue is often worse than having five. Any given faith-based religious person may be overloaded with more virtues than any given atheist, or vice versa. It is indecent, hypocritical, self-deluding, and counter-productive to true personal growth to let yourself feel superior to someone else because you have opted only to focus on and judge people on the areas where you are better than they are. You are not the standard or perfect realization of all virtues, no matter how rightly proud you may be of the ones you have. And failure at your distinctive virtues is not failure at all virtue.

And in loving humanity in general it is crucial we learn to love the ways that we all complement each other, the ways that a variety of dispositions and virtues and feelings have been retained in the species and are constantly being reshuffled for our greater good in the exciting evolutionary experiment that is each and every single individual. Love those with opposite virtues to your own, for those such people may be humanity’s feet and whereas people like you are its hands. You need each other.

And even where the virtues are the same, one must appreciate that in different cultural forms, comparably good versions of the same basic virtues or comparably good arrangements and orderings of values and practices can generate comparable levels of human flourishing.

So while I might not like religious superstition, faith, authoritarianism, patriarchy, etc., etc. I can still recognize that the rest of a given religious person’s life and character and values may very well be effectively equal to, or more admirable than, my own, and on that account no less worthy of love than my own. I can recognize this in the particular religious people I have relationships with and develop bonds of mutual trust, love, appreciation, and admiration.

And these bonds can serve as the one of the best kinds of common ground for rational discussion (probably second only to shared expertise in the areas under discussion). And in the context of successful rational discussion in numerous areas where vigorous, mutually respectful open-minded open-ended debate and disagreement aimed genuinely at the truth is possible, religious debates can arise and be the best, most fruitful, and mutually edifying they will ever be.

Loving religious people as an anti-religious person means, if necessary, conscientiously avoiding the lie of “loving the sinner but hating the sin” by which churches damage so many gay people (and others). Just as the religious cannot hate something as basic to people’s identity as their sexuality and still genuinely love them as who they are, we cannot hate everything about people’s specifically religious identities and still genuinely love either religious people in general or the religious people in our lives for who they are.

So, we have to walk the delicate balance of hating what is bad in the teachings, practices, and organizational structures of religions, and yet simultaneously finding and rightly appreciating the good in them.

The accommodationist mistake is to say that the good people find in religion is enough to paper over all the bad. We need to be unapologetic in demanding the bad be rectified and not lie and say that it fits perfectly with our best ethics and our best rationality and our best politics when it flatly does not. But we also have to recognize the numerous ways that religious traditions, however imperfectly, create virtues, practices, and cultural forms which are themselves beautiful and can be loved as beautiful in the religious people we are friends with.

It requires laser like precision to love the good and to hate the bad and not to hate entire things or entire people when we associate them with all we recognize is bad within them. This is a difficult intellectual and emotional skill but truthfulness demands it of us. People are more lovable than the negatives we do not like about them. They are also more unlikable than the positives we like to fixate on as well. But most of us are more sympathetic, the more we are truly understood. Most of us, I think, are on net lovable. And it is a better general human disposition to give each of us the benefit of the doubt that the other is on net lovable, or at least on net redeemable.

And the key to loving those whose most unlikable features are most prominent to us given our particular relationship to them or our particular opposition in fundamental values or our particular grouping against them, etc. is to recognize the ways that tons of things that are genuinely lovable can be constituted in alien forms. When we do that, we can love what is lovable in those aliens and even love what is lovable in those alien forms, and when we do that they will not be aliens to us anymore and they will not be alienated from us anymore. And in that context, mutual peace, mutual flourishing, mutual understanding, mutual honest criticism of each other’s genuine errors, and mutual correction of each other’s harmful tendencies are all possible.

There are many more things to say about the ethics of loving one’s enemies in general. I have, for example, only indirectly considered any of Nietzsche’s reasons for loving enemies or manners of doing so. And there is more to say about why we must appreciate the good in religious people’s religiosity itself in order to love them as people. I developed that argument at greater length already in my post Can You Really Love Religious People If You Hate Their Religiosity?. Following that up I also wrote What Can An Atheist Love In People’s Religiosity specifically to answer skepticism I received about whether there was anything in religiosity for a virulently anti-faith kind of guy like me to admire. In the latter post I describe various instances of religiosity that I love from my own friends’ lives.

Your Thoughts?

Clarifications to the Tips, Based on Objections:

Audiences and Approaches

I Am A Rationalist, Not A Tribalist.

I Don’t Really Give A Fuck About Tone, Per Se

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About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.


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