Ask Richard: Being an “Out” Atheist Without Being a Jerk

Dear Richard

I am a member of many online forums and LiveJournal communities. Whenever the subject of things such as ghosts, religion, astrology, homeopathy and other bizarre things come up, I often feel the need to make the lone dissenting comment. For example, occasionally the question of “Do you believe in Ghosts?!” comes up, and my standard response is “I prefer to live in a reality-based world.” I understand this probably isn’t the most unconfrontational approach, but on one level I rather enjoy starting the debate.

Is there a good way to go about this without being a jerk? Does anyone ever “win” these types of conversations? Should I even be commenting on these posts when I’m just going to get laughed at and told that “Science can’t explain everything”? I feel as though when I walk away from these types of conversations without contributing at least a token skeptical or Atheist viewpoint, I lose an opportunity to show the world that other sides exist. I want to be an Out Atheist, but perhaps I need to scale it back a bit so as not to get overwhelmed, or simply come across as a jerk? Any advice on this would be helpful!

Trying to be an Out Atheist

Dear Trying,

It sounds like you have some new attitudes mixed with some old habits. I agree with you that it is important to offer dissenting opinions, especially if they are reality-based. Superstitious or rumor-based ideas left unchallenged tend to grow into destructive monstrosities. Sometimes they can become so hurtful that the skeptics among us become angry and then react with that anger to even the smallest bit of woo.

It can help to keep your overall desired outcome in mind, and steer toward that goal. Ask yourself if you’d like the woo-believing person to begin to question things critically, or if you’d rather enjoy the sadistic pleasure of humiliating and ridiculing them in a public forum, even though that will most likely not change their way of thinking about woo, and will only make them hate all people with your point of view. I’m not saying that you do that, but I used to. I could be very hurtful of the person as well as their argument, and I am not proud of that. The fact that you want to avoid being a jerk shows that you have a good heart, and so all you need are some new habits.

If you want to help someone to see more clearly, don’t start off by poking them in the eye. Before you say something, listen to the implied statement that often is inside an overt statement. For instance, replying to the question about believing in ghosts with “I prefer to live in a reality-based world” sounds like you’re saying, “I live in a better world than yours, and you are inferior.” Now, you might even candidly think that, but saying it is the poke in his eye that will not help him to see clearly. All he will be aware of is his hurt feelings and his resentment of you.

Instead, try “I prefer to withhold belief in things until I see convincing evidence, and so far, I have never seen convincing evidence of ghosts.” That expresses your basic skeptical stance, and introduces the concept of evidence to him. It does not insult or belittle him, and it even subtly challenges him to find some evidence to offer. You don’t have to respect what he believes, you don’t have to respect what he does with those beliefs, but you can still speak to him respectfully. Your dignity gives your words as much power as does your logic.

Keep in mind the effect that the tone and implications of your remarks will have on the other person’s emotions. This doesn’t mean that you pussyfoot around and avoid confrontation of any kind, it means that you can be the dissenting voice for reality by stating your view of the issue rather than your view of their worth. Try to imagine yourself in their shoes, and ask yourself how would you react if you were on the receiving end of what you’re about to say. Would a half-hidden insult really cause you to question your superstitious thinking? Perhaps a respectful offer of a different method of thinking would subtly coax you toward rationality.

“Does anyone ever “win” these types of conversations?”

I don’t think so. What exactly would “winning” mean? That the person says, “Oh my goodness, you’ve shown me the light. I hereby abandon all my woo belief forever!”? That’s not likely. After thousands of such discussions I’ve never seen that. Or would “winning” be that your insults are clearly more clever and stinging than his? How sad and ugly a waste of your creativity that would be.

Think of it as planting seeds. The seeds of reason and skepticism grow best when planted gently, just under the surface, not when stomped into the ground with the heel of a boot. For most people, giving up superstitious thinking is a gradual process. You might never see the final germination of the seeds you plant, and so you’ll not be able to say you “won.” Many other skeptics will be adding their encouragement before the person embraces reason. The real winner is the person who matures to become more reasonable, and all those who benefit from his improved thinking.

Should I even be commenting on these posts when I’m just going to get laughed at and told that “Science can’t explain everything”?

The unkind laughter doesn’t change your way of thinking, it only makes you hurt. So it can help you to remember to not use the same counter-productive method on others. If it gets to be too hurtful, it’s perfectly okay to say “Ouch! That hurt my feelings even though it did not even dent my argument,” and then take a break to cool down.

To “Science can’t explain everything” I have responded with something like this: There will always be mystery and wonder, there will always be the unexplained. That is because mystery and wonder come from the human mind, rather than from the world about which we wonder; and things will be unexplained because the human mind will always be asking even more demanding questions as soon as things become explained. What science can explain, it can explain well, in terms that almost anyone can understand, if they have the patience to listen and learn. Many things that were once unexplained are now the stuff of grade school. To assume that any particular thing will remain unexplained forever is probably foolish.

Keep trying, Trying. Being an “out” atheist who is not a jerk simply takes patience, empathy, honesty, self respect and practice. I have the impression that you are capable of all of those in abundance.

Richard

You may send your questions for Richard to AskRichard.

About Richard Wade

Richard Wade is a retired Marriage and Family Therapist living in California.

  • Luther

    When discussing religion I often state simply that “I am atheist”. But it depends on context. When I am at a funeral or other church service I don’t make a point of it, I am a guest that chose to be there, yet I don’t pray etc. If someone asked, of course I would answer clearly and simply.

    There is a side benefit. Often someone else tells me publicly or privately that they are also. I have it that every time I say that, it may eventually make a difference for someone. Perhaps one of the group has never considered that apparently “normal” people might actually be atheist. Maybe a younger person is listening nearby and will see they are not alone and are free to choose and express their self.

    Just Monday I was briefly volunteering with a person I had not met. Someone else mentioned something about God causing something and walked away. She mentioned something about not going to Church. I said that I was atheist – she was so surprised and happy, she said she felt isolated and knew no other atheists – I gave her some suggestions on how to connect with atheists, she had no idea.

    Yet there are instances where I don’t tell people anything. I am involved as a point person for a particular cause. When acting in that role, I avoid mentioning any other positions on other issues – if I mention my party registration I lose some supporters – if I mention my positions on the war, health care, etc., I lose supporters. Even if I were religious, I would avoid mentioning that.

  • jemand

    while Christian and posting on then-iidb.org I was received with some respectful posts such as those you’re outlining– but also a good number full of snark. I think both were helpful in getting me to think. I think both helped speed my deconversion. But if you’re the only skeptic speaking, yeah, you probably want to err on the respectful nonsnarky side.

  • http://fargazmo.blogspot.com Fargus

    I agree completely with Luther. If someone asks, I answer clearly and concisely. The rest of the time, I’m not in people’s face about it, unless it’s a forum where that’s the norm (generally online). I don’t hide it, but I don’t put it out there for everyone.

    I was reading Hitchens’ God Is Not Great during a slow time at work one day, not feeling that I had to hide it, and a co-worker came up to me and asked if I was an atheist. I said yes, and he said that he was, too. No big deal, and he and I don’t have a secret atheist club now or anything. But my belief shouldn’t be hidden because someone finds it offensive just like Christians shouldn’t have to hide their cross necklaces, or Jews hide their yarmulkes (if they wear them), etc.

  • SarahH

    This touches on a large part of what makes Friendly Atheist different from many atheist sites (and earns their scorn, more often than not). There’s definitely a sub-set of atheists/skeptics who don’t think it’s important or even helpful to treat theists/woo promoters with any respect. They subscribe to the theory that a swift kick in the face, figuratively, is more appropriate (maybe more helpful, but at least more deserved) than a respectful attempt at conversation – that these people don’t deserve respect because of the beliefs they hold.

    I don’t think that any atheist has the right to speak for all atheists – which is partially why it doesn’t really bother me when other atheists are in-your-face and snarky. I even think that, occasionally, it’s called-for, and it’s definitely understandable. Still, I think they’re wrong to mock us “friendly” atheists for using restraint and respect in our interactions with theists, because whether they realize it or not, we’re helping to make the world a better place for all atheists in our own way. Some people who won’t react well to snarkiness and sarcasm will open up and change their opinions when treated with respect (even if you don’t think they deserve it).

  • http://skepticsplay.blogspot.com miller

    Does anyone ever “win” these types of conversations?

    Yes, but don’t count on it. Don’t ever expect people to abruptly change their minds. It hardly happens. In fact, it’s probably better that people don’t so easily change their minds, lest they be persuaded every time they talk to some random guy on the internet. However, “planting seeds” can be unsatisfying because you never see results. So one thing you might try is narrowing down the topic to one specific point. For example, with ghosts, rather than trying to disprove the whole thing, I might start talking about the wonderful power of illusions and the mind. Or try discussing the many different beliefs out there about the afterlife. Or, if people bring up evidence, you could talk about why anecdotal evidence is so biased.

    Another thing to remember: context and setting. In real life, you would be more polite than online because you’re talking face to face. I find that most people are really uncomfortable talking about religion, and may have little to no experience doing so. The way I see it, if you can just make them comfortable with the subject, that’s as big a victory as you could possibly hope for. Online, it is permissible to be more snarky, but this depends where online you are. Obviously, you’re not going to talk the same way when you’re on Pharyngula as you would on a LiveJournal forum. Always remember who your audience is and where they’re coming from.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    I am very open about my being a jerk, despite the continuing social stigma.

  • http://betapwned.com Tanya

    Please keep trying. I owe the shedding of Fundamentalist Christianity and all the woo that goes with it to the logical, and persistent efforts of a number of Atheists and Skeptics who engaged in debate with me through various forums.

    Personally, my blogs and comics are waiving the “New Atheist” flag more prominently every day. I’m beginning to think there’s a great deal of social value in simply standing up and saying “the things you believe in are not only ridiculous, but hazardous, and I refuse to respect them.”

    In debates, however, I tend to let the facts speak for themselves – those who value knowledge will learn and those who value fantasy won’t.

  • http://religiouscomics.net Jeff

    One possible strategy for interacting with people who believe in the paranormal (like ghosts) is to discuss with them what kind of experiment would be necessary to show evidence for the entity’s existence. They would find this interesting because they believe in the entity’s existence, but it would also get them thinking about the concept of empirical evidence. You could simply state that you have yet to see any convincing evidence of the entity’s existence.

    The same would also apply to all the supernatural aspects of religion.

  • Luther

    SarahH,

    I generally agree with what you have said. Yet, I have no experience of the following happening:

    Still, I think they’re wrong to mock us “friendly” atheists for using restraint and respect in our interactions with theists,

    Can you give us some examples of “They” mocking “Friendly Atheist” or mocking being respectful?

  • stephanie

    I think I am an obnoxious atheist because I’m friendly and sunny and am willing to nicely point out I have no faith in any gods when someone makes the inference I am religious because of my behavior. :D
    There’s probably nothing more confusing to a conservative mindset than the ‘evuhl atheist’ being a nice and ethical person.

  • http://immortalityltd.blogspot.com/search/label/Skynet ImmortalityLTD

    My standard answer to the snarky “Science can’t explain everything,” is “Of course it can’t. Not yet, anyway.”

  • Siamang

    I love your response, Richard. I would further offer the idea of shifting your “goal”.

    If your “goal” in such a conversation is to get the other party to change their mind about the existence of ghosts… then you probably are choosing the wrong goal for yourself. If you’re truly “reality based”, then accept reality: Your goal is nearly impossible.

    However, and Richard can attest to this as well…. a useful goal can be to get the other party to SEE YOUR POSITION and respect it as a defensible position that they merely disagree with.

    This worked wonders in the “Sold my soul on ebay” experiment, where we were not trying to convince Christians to be atheists… we were merely trying to convince them that we were good folks with an honestly arrived at different position on God than they had.

    A doable, and worthy goal that plants the seeds of tolerance and acceptance of the rational mindset.

  • Ron in Houston

    or if you’d rather enjoy the sadistic pleasure of humiliating and ridiculing them in a public forum

    Hey, I thought that was why the internet was invented!

  • Thumpalumpacus

    Being a friendly, yet blunt atheist is easy if one remembers that ad homineim attcks are the surest sign of a weak argument, and to engage in them is an admission of defeat.

  • Myrdek

    We need to embrace the difference in atheist disbelief because each group is useful in fighting religious ignorance.

    Weak atheists are good at being patient and offering calm logical arguments that can’t be refuted by religious people.

    Strong atheists back christians into a corner and force them to reveal what they truly believe. We all know how ugly religion is when it shows its true face. It manages to disgust even their own believers.

    Agnostics are useful for offering the olive branch, saying you can still believe in God even if you don’t follow the bible literally.

  • Kurt

    Richard, thanks for taking the time to do the Ask Richard series. They have all been good, and this readership obviously had an unsatisfied need for some counseling!

    I daresay today’s entry in particular should be required reading for anyone thinking of posting in any online forum on any topic. If everyone had this much respect for their fellow humans, we might have solved “vi vs. emacs” by now!

  • Karen

    Richard, you’ve got a wonderful knack for this! Great advice again.

    I add my voice to those who say they began questioning long-held religious beliefs and then deepened their research after engaging in online discussions such as those mentioned by the questioner.

    The friendly disagreement and respectful tone of skeptics and atheists online were far more persuasive to me than snarky ridicule (though that occasionally has its place when bigoted nonsense rears its ugly head).

    And Siamang is right, the ultimate goal should be to educate and show that there’s a viable option to religion, not to “de-convert.”

    Thanks for doing this, Richard, you’re definitely adding a much-needed voice to the discussion.

  • panoramafly

    Why do the comments sound eerily familiar to me? These are the same thoughts you may very well hear over at the Christian camp, if the identifying words were switched. Generally, I don’t think people are all that different regardless of their beliefs.

    It’s not necessarily what you believe that offends people, but how you voice that belief.

  • http://thedailyatheist.blogspot.com/ Rodney

    Good stuff. Much needed answers for people like me, a friendly atheist.

    I think there are two goals of such conversation. One is to keep the other person from being offended. As soon as they get offended, they stop listening. The other goal is to help the listener give consideration to your point of view, but you have to do it a little at a time. Unless the listener specifically asks, don’t jump to abiogenesis if you’re not even sure that the listener understands what atheism really is.

  • Catpurrnicus

    Richard, an excellent way of working through this issue. It’s something that rational people encounter from time to time.

    Your suggestion of starting with ” “I prefer to withhold belief in things until I see convincing evidence, and so far, I have never seen convincing evidence of ___” will be my new opening line.

    Thanks!

  • Anna N.

    I’m in a livejournal community that occasionally gets those sorts of “woo” topics and there is one member who doesn’t come out and say “I’m an atheist and this is all rubbish” (well, unless that’s the question, which it has been once or twice) but what she does is ask people to explain what they’re talking about. What exactly is a ghost? Where is the soul? And she’s trained in, I forget exactly what, but she knows enough about various sciences to say “but that doesn’t make sense because of x, y, and z, how do you reconcile it with…”. She’s polite, but she asks very deliberate and provocative questions. I love reading the discussions she’s involved in.

  • SarahH

    @Luther

    Can you give us some examples of “They” mocking “Friendly Atheist” or mocking being respectful?

    You just need to know where to look. I read PZ’s blog regularly, and FA has actually been mentioned specifically in the comments there as a place that “panders” to the religious and that’s a “joke” according to those who don’t see the value in *ever* treating religious people respectfully. Additionally, it’s not uncommon for people to leave comments here on the blog accusing Hemant of being “too friendly” and not addressing issues satisfactorily.

  • http://examancer.com/ Carl

    There will always be mystery and wonder, there will always be the unexplained. That is because mystery and wonder come from the human mind, rather than from the world about which we wonder; and things will be unexplained because the human mind will always be asking even more demanding questions as soon as things become explained. What science can explain, it can explain well, in terms that almost anyone can understand, if they have the patience to listen and learn. Many things that were once unexplained are now the stuff of grade school. To assume that any particular thing will remain unexplained forever is probably foolish.

    This is one of the most quotable paragraphs I’ve read in a while. You gave “Trying” some great advice.

    I think its very important to show respect for people’s views when discussing almost anything. I don’t just feign respect for theists when discussing religion, I really do respect their views, or at least parts of them. Help yourself by finding the portions of someone’s viewpoint you agree with, respect, admire, or even envy. I agree with certain core values most major religions teach. I respect their desire to live a good life. I admire the sense of charity many religious people have. And, honestly, I envy their faith. I would love to know that there is someone out there watching over me. I would love to know there is a beautiful life for me after death with the same conviction that I believe the earth is round. I explain this to my religious friends and family and suddenly they are a little more willing to hear what I have to say. Then, I must politely tell them that just because I want something to be true doesn’t make it true. As much as it would be comfortable to have blind faith in something I am not blind. I must accept that whatever might be out there is not currently observable, probably won’t be in our life times, and quite likely doesn’t exist at all.

    There are so many reasons people have faith. Maybe that faith is misguided and ignorant in a way, but the reasons for that faith are actually quite logical. Wanting to belong, wanting to believe what their parents and love ones tell them, wanting to feel comfortable in the differences between right and wrong, and wanting to know waits us after death… those are all logical reasons for faith even if their articles of faith are anything but.