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
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.
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