Breaking Down Barriers

Have you ever spent a long time debating someone and trying to persuade them, before ultimately realizing that it was all wasted breath and that they weren’t really listening to you at all?

This has happened to me more than once. I’ve had e-mail conversations with theists, some of which went on for weeks and involved numerous rounds of replies, before the realization dawned on me: they weren’t actually talking to me at all. They were talking to The Atheist, a rather vague and shadowy figure they know from Sunday sermons, apologist tracts, TV preachers, and Josh McDowell books. My efforts to communicate with them were futile, because they were rewriting my side of the conversation in their own head to correspond to what The Atheist would say. Any statement of mine that did not fit that rigid script was summarily edited out.

From these conversations, frustrating though they may be, I’ve gleaned a fair amount of information about The Atheist. Apparently he bears a strong animus toward Christianity, a degree of hostility which he does not feel towards any other religion, often as a result of some personal grievance or pain in his past. He does believe in God, but hates him and wants to do things his own way. He strikes me as a rather selfish and hedonistic fellow who values his own pleasure above all else. He knows that the Bible is a set of old stories and therefore is not true, even though he’s a relativist who doesn’t believe there’s any such thing as truth. He seems to be strongly in favor of banning all prayer from schools and punishing Christians who talk about their faith, and I’m pretty sure he wants to abolish marriage and force everyone to be gay.

All in all, The Atheist doesn’t seem to bear much resemblance at all to real atheists. Yet this false image has gained life thanks to religious leaders and spokesmen. The average believer reads and listens to little, if anything, said by real atheists, but much by his own religious leaders. When those leaders promote misleading ideas about what atheists are like, the average believer will be apt to believe them. As a result, when they meet a real atheist, most theists come with a completely inaccurate understanding of what we want and what we believe. How can we break down those barriers of misunderstanding and promote a more accurate picture of atheists among the public?

Though some believers are irretrievably mired in their false assumptions, I think there is a much larger number who can be reached, and here are some ways I suggest to do it:

Stress that you believe in the existence of absolute truth. This is one of the most common false stereotypes held about atheists, and also one of the easiest to knock down. Believers who come to debate equipped with this misconception will be knocked back on their heels to find out that we do believe in truth and falsehood that are objective, universal, independent of human desire, and discoverable through diligent investigation, and that we do not believe God’s existence is among the catalogue of true things. (Of course, this assumes that you do actually think this way – but if there are any atheists who truly conform to this stereotype, they must be keeping themselves well hidden indeed.)

Stress that you believe in the existence of objective moral facts. Again, if you actually are a moral relativist, this point will not help, but true moral relativists are far less common among atheists than most religious people probably think. Point out that what we share is a commitment to human welfare, and the only religious commands we reject are theological edicts that either bear no relation to the well-being of real people or, worse, increase the suffering of real people in the name of pleasing an alleged god. If they argue that atheism offers no guarantee of moral understanding that does not change, point out that morality based on religion has been changing for millennia, and that even today, religious believers argue furiously and unendingly about what God’s will is.

Stress that you’re happy to be an atheist. Most proselytizers expect that people are all secretly longing to join their religion, or that their religion can fill a need which cannot be satisfied any other way. We atheists, however, know that those claims are self-serving falsehoods, and that god-belief is unnecessary to lead a life of happiness and inner contentment. So tell them so! Make it clear that we find more than enough joy in the world as it is and need no primitive mythologies to make our lives complete.

Don’t be an angry atheist. This is probably the most common stereotype about atheists, and if you jump into a debate with guns blazing, you will only reinforce it. It’s okay to offer strong criticism of dangerous and discriminatory beliefs and the actions that stem from them. What is not okay is to attack people personally. Except for a few truly reprehensible bigots, the majority of religious believers are ordinary people who can be communicated with and reasoned with, and we should not be going out of our way to offend or insult them. Make it clear that you do not share their beliefs, but also that this difference does not mean that you cannot be friendly, approachable and civil. A difference of opinion does not have to translate into personal animosity, and should not.

Come on strong and stay on the offensive. Religious fundamentalists in general, and Christian fundamentalists in particular, are used to standing in judgment of others’ beliefs; they are not used to having their own beliefs judged. If they persist in stirring up a debate, do not let them put you on the defensive. Be knowledgeable about their beliefs, particularly the unsavory parts of their holy book that most theists don’t know about themselves or would like to forget, and be ready to quote them on request. Challenge them to defend these terrible passages or admit that their scripture was not divinely inspired, and point out that any humane moral system would recognize them for the atrocities they are. If suitable, tell them you know that they’re better than their own holy book and shame them for trying to defend these savage words.

Suggest that they put themselves in your shoes. This tactic can be one of your most effective. Many religious people consider atheists the “other”, and steadfastly refuse any suggestion that we might be people just like them, which is the greatest single aid to demonization. Asking them to picture some issue from the perspective of an atheist can be a very powerful way to bridge this gap and make them view things in a new light. One particular example of this which I’ve used successfully many times: When Christians start complaining about alleged persecution, is to point out the vast wealth, power and influence held by Christian groups and then suggest to them, “If you think it’s hard being a Christian, you should try being an atheist sometime.”

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Adrian

    Stress that you believe in the existence of objective moral facts. Again, if you actually are a moral relativist, this point will not help

    Do you have any links somewhere which can explain your position wrt moral facts? I’m not a moral relativist in the sense that I think each person should make up their own morals, but I am in the sense that, reluctantly, I have to admit that each person does make up their own morals.

    I look around at the human world and at the rest of the animal world and I can see nothing which would allow us to discern objective morals. I wouldn’t even know how to begin.

  • http://kellygorski.blogspot.com Kelly

    It really depends on the person you are debating. To be candid, both people on each side of the debate seem to converse only to hear their own voices or read their own writing. They have no desire to learn something new have already decided they won’t change their minds. This is a stifling realization, but nevertheless, it’s there. We really need to have HONEST discourse, but more and more debates turn out to be boasting and yelling more than about learning and understanding. Willful ignorance is killing us. This is why it has so much to do with WHOM one’s debating. Pick wisely. (Although I admit that most of the people I debate with pick me.) ;)

    And for Adrian, you may want to check out this great essay.

  • http://kellygorski.blogspot.com Kelly

    It really depends on the person you are debating. To be candid, both people on each side of the debate seem to converse only to hear their own voices or read their own writing. They have no desire to learn something new have already decided they won’t change their minds. This is a stifling realization, but nevertheless, it’s there. We really need to have HONEST discourse, but more and more debates turn out to be boasting and yelling more than about learning and understanding. Willful ignorance is killing us. This is why it has so much to do with WHOM one’s debating. Pick wisely. (Although I admit that most of the people I debate with pick me.) ;)

    And for Adrian, you may want to check out this great essay.

  • http://kellygorski.blogspot.com Kelly

    Oh no! It didn’t link. Here is the URL: http://www.update.uu.se/~fbendz/library/morale.htm

  • Will E.

    People get their morality from society. People are social groups and our morality is a function of those groups, and is pretty much hardwired into our DNA. Insects, chimps, dolphins, wolves, etc., etc. all have group cooperation, altruism and empathy. Michael Shermer’s “The Science of Good and Evil” and Matt Ridley’s “The Origins of Virtue” are excellent popular books of where people get their morality–and it ain’t religion, not by a long shot.

  • Taylor Murphy

    Stress that you believe in the existence of absolute truth.
    I wouldn’t make this a goal, since it’s a false view. There is certainly right and wrong, facts and illusions, but none of it is absolute or even not invented by us. Actually, I take that back. It may be false, but when they read your claim that absolute truth exists they are going to interpret that properly – at least, more properly than if you say that non-absolute truth exists. If they hear you say that truth is non absolute, all they will be able to think about is how you must be admitting that you have no idea what is even close to true or false.

    Don’t be an angry atheist.

    Come on strong and stay on the offensive.

    I hope you realize that by doing one, you can’t do the other. It’s an unfortunate stereotype, but it’s very hard to do the latter without seeming angry.

  • ex machina

    People get their morality from society. People are social groups and our morality is a function of those groups, and is pretty much hardwired into our DNA. Insects, chimps, dolphins, wolves, etc., etc. all have group cooperation, altruism and empathy. Michael Shermer’s “The Science of Good and Evil” and Matt Ridley’s “The Origins of Virtue” are excellent popular books of where people get their morality–and it ain’t religion, not by a long shot.

    Isn’t that moral relativism? If our moral and ethical standards are only evolutionary functions, then one isn’t really any better than the other. I think what Ebon is saying is that most Atheists don’t adhere to that type of thinking. While our desire to be moral my be partially due to evolution, I still think that how we treat others should be derived from objective observation as to what will benefit mankind the greatest, rather than evolutionary process.

  • Taylor Murphy

    Isn’t that moral relativism? If our moral and ethical standards are only evolutionary functions, then one isn’t really any better than the other. I think what Ebon is saying is that most Atheists don’t adhere to that type of thinking. While our desire to be moral my be partially due to evolution, I still think that how we treat others should be derived from objective observation as to what will benefit mankind the greatest, rather than evolutionary process.

    It’s not moral relativism. If they are evolutionary functions, they are still quite universal and not “relative” at all.

    Plus nobody thinks that we should derive morality from evolution, just that morality has come into place via evolution – not magic. What we do with our moral reasoning abilities is held up by evolutionary pillars of intuition, metaphorically speaking, that’s all. It’s neither relative nor without forbidden, obligatory and permissible moral judgments.

  • http://blog.dmcleish.id.au Shishberg

    You mentioned being knowledgeable about their beliefs… I’ve found that one of the biggest assumptions theists make is that nobody but them knows anything about their religion. Knowing as much about what they believe as they do (and possibly more) is a big blow to the atheist stereotype. Most discussions of this kind that I’ve had have usually included a comment like “you should read about Jesus some time”; and they usually fall over backwards when I can quote the bible back at them (and point out when they’ve misquoted or contradicted it).

    Maybe your experience in this is slightly different because most people find you through this site, so they already know that you know your stuff. Then again, maybe not; I think some theists assume that anyone who knew as much as they did would have reached the same conclusion as them, so you must be ignorant by definition, even if it’s obvious that you’re not from what you’ve written.

  • Polly

    This should be a handbook or something. I absolutely agree that these are the approaches that are best to emphasize.

    Oh, yeah, and here’s one more for the list
    “No I do NOT worship satan, I DON’T EVEN BELIEVE IN SATAN.” :-)

  • http://atheisthussy.blogspot.com/ Intergalactic Hussy

    I was never HAPPIER the day I admitted to myself that I am an atheist!!! And I’ve never been happier in my life then when I just went along with the theism thrown in my face.

    Thanks for the post! Great advice!

  • Snaars

    I laughed out loud. I am The Atheist to my in-laws. I was never able to hold a normal conversation with them after I deconverted.

  • Heather

    ** My efforts to communicate with them were futile, because they were rewriting my side of the conversation in their own head to correspond to what The Atheist would say. Any statement of mine that did not fit that rigid script was summarily edited out.**

    That’s amazing, isn’t it. This happens to me time and time again. It’s like two or three ‘trigger’ words were selected and a new argument was developed around them. During the times I’ve had conversations with someone who does this, I often had no idea where to start replying, because they weren’t addressing my argument, they were telling me what I was *really* arguing. Much like I am told how much I *really* need their absolute truth.

  • terrence

    Usually try to weigh in witty or humorous, but only sad after this trenchant post. When I finally “came out” to someone close to me, she didn’t challenge me on….evolution vs. creation….the origin or meaning of the universe….the truth of ancient scripture….whether or not there is a god…no, she asked “What do you want for dinner, to bite the heads off frogs?” How could I have the heart to say, I prefer the LEGS? Don’t recall whether I saw it on Ebon’s site or blog, but I love what Carl Sagan’s widow said in a reply to a reporter’s question “Did he ever want to believe?”

    “No – he wanted to know.”

  • terrence

    Usually try to weigh in witty or humorous, but only sad after this trenchant post. When I finally “came out” to someone close to me, she didn’t challenge me on….evolution vs. creation….the origin or meaning of the universe….the truth of ancient scripture….whether or not there is a god…no, she asked “What do you want for dinner, to bite the heads off frogs?” How could I have the heart to say, I prefer the LEGS? Don’t recall whether I saw it on Ebon’s site or blog, but I love what Carl Sagan’s widow said in a reply to a reporter’s question “Did he ever want to believe?”

    “No – he wanted to know.”

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    Readers who want to know more about my view of morality should consult “The Ineffable Carrot and the Infinite Stick” on Ebon Musings, and “The Roots of Morality” here on Daylight Atheism.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    Readers who want to know more about my view of morality should consult “The Ineffable Carrot and the Infinite Stick” on Ebon Musings, and “The Roots of Morality” here on Daylight Atheism.

  • http://elliptica.blogspot.com Lynet

    Sometimes it sounds really tough to be an American. My experience in New Zealand is that courtesy and confidence will generally see you through. Bearing that mind…

    Don’t be an angry atheist.

    Come on strong and stay on the offensive.

    I hope you realize that by doing one, you can’t do the other. It’s an unfortunate stereotype, but it’s very hard to do the latter without seeming angry.

    Maybe it’s just my sheltered environment, but I find I can give a quiet, heartfelt explanation of my reaction to eternal hellfire without sounding particularly angry. In fact, confining myself to explaining how my own reasoning works, leaving indirect any implications about what their reasoning should be can be a good way to have a pleasant conversation:

    “I don’t think we are all evil. I think we’re quite beautiful, actually.”

    “I care about the truth of things. I can’t just accept statements without evidence.”

    “Torture is wrong. Eternal torture is nothing short of horrific.”

    Simple, honest, emotive. It works for me. People — some people, at least — are more likely to listen sympathetically if you’re explaining something that sounds personal. I realise, though, that sometimes there’s really nothing you can do.

  • http://elliptica.blogspot.com Lynet

    Sometimes it sounds really tough to be an American. My experience in New Zealand is that courtesy and confidence will generally see you through. Bearing that mind…

    Don’t be an angry atheist.

    Come on strong and stay on the offensive.

    I hope you realize that by doing one, you can’t do the other. It’s an unfortunate stereotype, but it’s very hard to do the latter without seeming angry.

    Maybe it’s just my sheltered environment, but I find I can give a quiet, heartfelt explanation of my reaction to eternal hellfire without sounding particularly angry. In fact, confining myself to explaining how my own reasoning works, leaving indirect any implications about what their reasoning should be can be a good way to have a pleasant conversation:

    “I don’t think we are all evil. I think we’re quite beautiful, actually.”

    “I care about the truth of things. I can’t just accept statements without evidence.”

    “Torture is wrong. Eternal torture is nothing short of horrific.”

    Simple, honest, emotive. It works for me. People — some people, at least — are more likely to listen sympathetically if you’re explaining something that sounds personal. I realise, though, that sometimes there’s really nothing you can do.

  • valhar2000

    This post brought to my mind all those people who say that being an atheist requires more faith than being a Christian because you have to beleive this, or you have to beleive that. And, much like some of the commenters here, I never can begin to imagine where they get those ideas.

    Sometimes, given the things they say and what I know about Christianity (which is, I’ll admit, not much) it seems that what they do attempt to interpret the things we say and do in the framework on their own religion, and simply cannot imagine that another framework is possible.

    A common example of this is, I beleive, their fixation on our beliefs about the origin of life and the origin of the universe. The idea that one might not know the answer to these questions and be confortable with that does not occur to them, since they are used to an answer in the form of “In the beggining…” and cannot imagine amything else.

    This is not limited to religion, by the way. Once I had a conversation with a woman who seemed unable to understand that it is possible to live without being a “fan” of somebody; she kept comparing her fandom for The Backstreet Boys to my fandom for Albert Einstein, and I simply could not dispel that notion from her mind.

  • lpetrich

    Nice article on rebutting common stereotypes. I also wish to add that many Xian apologists brag that they had once been atheists — and often describe themselves as having fit this caricature of atheism.

    C.S. Lewis had claimed: I was at this time living, like so many Atheists or Anti-theists, in a whirl of contradictions. I maintained that God did not exist. I was also very angry at God for not existing. I was equally angry at Him for creating a world.

    And in the debate between the Rational Response Squad and the Way of the Master, Kirk Cameron claimed that he had once been an atheist, that he had once thought like the RRS people, Brian Sapient and KellyM78. But Kirk Cameron had had an abundance of opportunity to research what Brian and Kelly really think, and if he had, he had not shown very much evidence of having done so.

    In many such cases, such “former atheists” appear to have been more indifferent to religion rather than the sort of atheist who had carefully thought through his/her positions and who had gone on record with atheist arguments.

    In fact, the closest to the latter sort of atheist I’ve ever found is C.E.M. Joad, but he converted only after the big scandal caused by him having been caught riding a train without a valid ticket. His last book, Recovery of Belief, contains arguments that the earlier Joad might have easily refuted; he debated Bertrand Russell and lost.

  • http://badnewsbible.blogspot.com XanderG

    I had two Jehovah’s Witnesses come to my door every couple of Saturdays, one of whom was an old school friend. I quite liked the talking about religion, and I listened to them fairly, and took the bible and apologist material they gave me. I told them I was an atheist, but if they could provide some good evidence for a god, and specifically their god, I would have no choice but to except his existence. When I asked them if there was anything I could say that would convince them not to believe, they said no. Thus is the power of faith, I suppose. It saddened me that I was willing to give them a full hearing, and yet there would be nothing I could say to convince them; but then I haven’t seen them here for a while, so maybe they gave up.

  • OMGF

    I also wish to add that many Xian apologists brag that they had once been atheists — and often describe themselves as having fit this caricature of atheism.

    I’ve noticed this too and it has always bugged me. I’d be willing to bet that the majority of people who make this claim are basically lying. They are generally now “born again” and believe that they couldn’t have really believed in god before their rebirth, so therefore they were atheists, even though they believed in god before. They “reason” that they didn’t “really” believe in god somehow. What a load of crap.

  • Jim Coufal

    {From these conversations, frustrating though they may be, I’ve gleaned a fair amount of information about The Atheist. Apparently he bears a strong animus toward Christianity, a degree of hostility which he does not feel towards any other religion, often as a result of some personal grievance or pain in his past. He does believe in God, but hates him and wants to do things his own way. He strikes me as a rather selfish and hedonistic fellow who values his own pleasure above all else. He knows that the Bible is a set of old stories and therefore is not true, even though he’s a relativist who doesn’t believe there’s any such thing as truth. He seems to be strongly in favor of banning all prayer from schools and punishing Christians who talk about their faith, and I’m pretty sure he wants to abolish marriage and force everyone to be gay.}

    I suggest and believe that this could easily be turned around, as follows:

    From my conversations, blog readings, Christian background, and other forums, I’ve gleaned a fair amount of information about the Christian. Apparently, he bears a strong animus towards atheism, a degree of hostility that he does not feel toward any other religion—and he considers atheism to be a religion—often as a result of some personal grievance or pain in his past. He believes in God, and wants everyone else to believe in God—HIS God. He strikes me as rather hidebound and brainwashed and one who values chastity to the point of prudishness. He knows that the Bible is a set of old stories, but he doesn’t know that much of it is borrowed from more ancient traditions, that it is full of contradictions and violence, because he has probably never read, or at least never studied, the Bible. He is an absolutist who believes he has the truth.He seems to be strongly in favor of prayer in schools, government, art and sporting events, and where that two or more gather. He doesn’t want atheists or other religions to threaten his comfort zone with facts, and I’m pretty sure he wants pass laws that interfere with the privacy of the bedroom and to punish gays.

    IMHO, the trouble with both characterizations is that they are stereotypes presuming monolithic clones, whether atheists or Christians.

    Atheist Jim

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    As I see it, Jim, the difference is that many of the traits you list actually do describe a significant fraction of Christians. I’m not aware of any atheist who advocates the stereotyped view I was poking fun at. In general, I find that’s the frustrating thing: we attack theists for the views they actually hold; they attack us for many views we do not hold.

  • Polly

    This probably won’t mean much considering the source (hehe) but before deconverting, I used to have much more respect for the atheist/agnostic position than I did for other religions, especially ones without a strong factual basis (I know I know, how deluded I was!)

    One of my friends commented to me once that he felt more at ease with Muslims than with atheists. Bear in mind this is POST 9/11!! I disagreed and said that I trusted skeptics more than those hellbent on converting others against their will. I didn’t say it that succinctly, but that was the gist.

    I don’t advocate lumping all Muslims into a monolithic group, but surely, if someone else is already doing the lumping, it’s not bigoted to point out that atheists have a better track record as a group, historically? Why such distrust of atheists? What did we ever do?

  • Polly

    Oh, it was this comment that reminded me of the short exchange I related above

    Apparently, he bears a strong animus towards atheism, a degree of hostility that he does not feel toward any other religion”

    Unlike the alternative theistic beliefs, atheism goes right to the heart of the matter, it’s not about which god you serve or how you serve him/her, there just ISN’T one. There’s no dealing or pleading with death, it will take you and there’s nothing you can possibly do about it, no incantaion to chant, no magic words, no appeasement or peace offering or animal sacrifice or anything else. And that perhaps is what’s so disturbing about atheism.

  • Jim Coufal

    Ebonmuse:

    I hear you and to a large extent agree with you. But don’t you think many Christians hold the same kind of belief in reverse? Also, I’m not as sanguine about atheists who don’t hold the stereotyped view as you apparently are. I’ve read too many blogs where it seems apparent atheists do sterotype Christians. I don’t have empirical evidence for this, its only an impression.

    Jim

  • Adrian

    Ebonmuse,

    Thank you for the links about moral relativism. You’ve given good reasons to reject epistemological relativism, but just demonstrate that so-called objective morals must rest on an arbitrary (“relative”) foundation. I left a longer comment on one of the follow-up links.

  • TR

    Debating with anyone about almost anything is inevitably frustrating. Whether it’s politics, religion, sports or whatever – if the other person’s beliefs are strongly held and tied in with their emotions and self-image, they’re not going to listen to any contrary facts.

    I used to argue with Christians a lot when I was younger, but gave it up because it was just pointless. Also, I was stunned to discover how Biblically illiterate most of them were. How can you argue about the Bible with people who’ve obviously only had it read to them in church?

  • http://atheistrevolution.blogspot.com/ vjack

    Wow! This is one for my bookmarks. Of course, I have come to count on you for some of the most thought-provoking atheistic blogging around.

    I’m suspect that all atheists have had the experience you describe of having a debate or discussion and realizing that the other party is interacting with a straw man rather than with us. Many have concluded debating Christians is pointless because they do not follow the rules of rational debate. In many ways, it is like trying to carry on a rational discussion with someone suffering from schizophrenia.

    I like your ideas for reaching believers even though I expect you may take some flak for what you say about the angry atheist thing. I think that you are right because anger in this context will be perceived as a lack of emotional control. The key is not to abandon one’s anger but to learn how to use it effectively.

  • Brian Macker

    What is the morality of having a web site that destroys a well crafted comment if you don’t notice a stupid check box?

  • http://elliptica.blogspot.com Lynet

    Brian,

    Poor you. That would be frustrating — but surely you can just press the ‘back’ button? That’s what I do (again, and again, and again…).