My boyfriend and I are both atheists, although he identifies more strongly with agnosticism. While all my close friends are atheists (not by my intention, it just ended up that way), his are Christians — very conservative Christians. Both of us, but especially him, get into heated arguments/debates with them over religion, gay rights, and the current administration. (Obama is the Devil, apparently, and Bush was the bees knees.) I’m writing to you about the way he *handles* these arguments. Like Mr. Friendly Atheist has said repeatedly, we’re not going to change any minds — about most anything, but the treatment of atheists in particular — by being hostile. And my boyfriend is very hostile.
When debating with them, he very quickly becomes overly sarcastic, insulting, patronizing, and belittling. Even when the argument ends, he brings it up shortly after and badgers about it endlessly. I’ve tried talking to him about it — even as it happens, I’ve tried bringing it to his attention. I told him that his behavior with them isn’t helping our “cause” — which would be the efforts to rid the world of the prejudices against atheism. He just doesn’t seem to understand that repeatedly talking about/insulting their invisible man in the sky, he’s alienating them and just proving them “right”.
I’ve debated with his friends myself — particularly the one he fights with the most. I managed to convince an extremely conservative friend of his to just *not* vote for Prop 8, with the right comparisons and patience, instead of cementing his decision to vote yes like my boyfriend had after 5 hours of arguing.
I love my boyfriend dearly, and in every other situation imaginable, he’s the sweetest, kindest man with more patience than a saint. It’s just this one thing… I don’t know how to get through to him that he can’t always beat people down until they admit he’s right or leave. What can I say to him? Or do?
Thanks for reading,
After witnessing hundreds and hundreds of such discussions, I’ve decided that there are two very different basic reasons why people do it. One is to try to persuade another person to change their opinion, viewpoint, belief or behavior. The other is simply to express themselves.
I think your boyfriend may be in the second group. If so, he is focused on the satisfaction of expressing his opinions and venting his aggression. He is not focused on the effect he will have on whoever is listening. In fact, someone actually listening may be almost incidental. It’s expressing and venting that is the main point, not being heard, understood or gaining agreement.
When two opposing “expressors” get into one of these diatribe duels, it resembles ritualized combat. Although it may sound angry and loud, sometimes it’s more like a sparring that is not really intended to actually vanquish the opponent. If one side was to actually concede to the other, abandoning their opinion and adopting the victor’s opinion, then the fun would be over.
Think of what you have observed. Your boyfriend and one of his friends indulge in this game again and again, but nothing in either person changes, and they remain friends. For all their belligerent and bellicose bellowing, they both might as well be deaf. Yet they eagerly come back for more. It’s reasonable to conclude that they are getting exactly what they want: Play.
So helping our “cause,” (I hesitate to use that term) whether better treatment of atheists or promoting skeptical thought about religion and its social-political prejudices, is probably not really his concern. From how it sounds, you’re probably not going to get him to change his behavior. You can encourage him, but don’t expect a sudden turnaround, and don’t struggle so much that you end up calling yourself “Frustrated.” From his point of view, he’s enjoying the sport of it, so why should he stop? Little boys love to play out the dramas of epic struggles, and some of them don’t grow out of it until their hair is thin and their waists are thick.
Although I prefer constructive dialogues, I don’t think that we should presume that any individual atheist “owes” support to any goal, agenda or cause of atheists in general. Some want to act in ways that make things better for other atheists or society in general, while others are unconcerned with such things. For both better and worse, that is the nature of free thinking.
Now, if your boyfriend ever gets interested in actually persuading someone to rethink their views, then he would do well to learn from you. He will have to put aside his combative style because it just doesn’t result in a change of opinion. As you have noted, it results in reinforcing the original opinion. This is because when he includes insults with his argument, he gives the other person a strong emotional incentive to not agree with the argument. The implication is there that if the argument is valid, the insults are valid too.
The art of effective persuasion requires patience, empathy, compassion, tact, humor, and a good will that rises above the differences of opinion, to appeal to the mutual interests and needs that we share. It involves seed planting, nurturing, coaxing, and most of all, really good listening. The best persuaders talk much more with their ears than with their mouths.
Frustrated, when all their hostile posturing becomes tiresome, excuse yourself, telling them that you’ll be back after they’re finished having fun clashing their wooden swords. Find a mature person to converse with out of reach of the noise, or just enjoy the restorative and clarifying wisdom whispered to you by trees, sky, and fresh air. Listen well.