Why are we so bad at talking to each other?

This is a guest post by Robby Bensinger. He is a senior at Indiana University, and is a member of the Secular Alliance at Indiana University (SAIU).

Whether the secular movement ultimately falters or flourishes will rest on how well it can carry on a dialogue with its religious friends and foes. It’s through conversation that we will change our public image, negotiate political gains, and form alliances on specific issues. It is conversation that will determine whether our numbers expand or wither away. But the stakes are inestimably higher than that. In an increasingly interdependent world, our ability as human beings to resolve disputes verbally is the only abiding safeguard against war, against polarization, against seeing informed democracy degenerate into a blind and stagnant shouting match.

Why, then, are we so averse to talking to those with whom we disagree? Why do dialogues fail? Why are we so rarely persuaded? If we can understand why we’re so bad at resolving our differences, maybe we can do a little to change that fact. And if we can change ourselves, maybe there’s hope for us yet.

Greta Christina noted at the Secular Student Alliance Annual Conference that “arguing about religion is not a waste of time.” Although debaters themselves may be bewilderingly obstinate whilst in the heat of battle, onlookers are surprisingly receptive to new ideas. This suggests that the best way to promote atheism is to argue before a large audience; our active opponents are a lost cause, but bystanders tend to keep heads sufficiently cool for taking rival arguments seriously.

This is superb advice. But it’s not quite enough. There will always be cases where we need to get a point across to someone directly. Most interactions between theists and nontheists will be in small groups, or one-on-one. We can’t all be celebrities. And it is in any case these direct chats that are ideal for reaching out to those individuals who are least informed about atheists, least inclined to waste time on the Internet perusing atheist blogs or YouTube debates. Aside from the occasional atheism-related sound bite that breaks into prime-time pop culture, person-to-person discussion will be what tends to define our image and plant the earliest seeds of doubt. So the question retains its urgency. What makes discussion break down? Judging by the debates I’ve seen and participated in, I’d focus on two main culprits.

I. Our discussions aren’t collaborations.

We see debate as an opportunity to defend ourselves, attack another position, fight for dominance and power and respect. We see it as something either I win or you win, not as something both sides succeed or fail in together. Our discussions are antagonistic because we enjoy being right, we take pride in the strength of our reasoning — and we feel shame and dismay when we are proven wrong.

Why don’t we feel the happy excitement of a new discovery when someone corrects a mistake of ours? Because the discussion has been framed as a competition, not as a mutual pursuit of deeper understanding. It’s not enough to make overtures of camaraderie; even exchanges between the best of friends can become bitter squabbles if either side becomes too invested in who is right, overshadowing what is right. A healthy discussion should feel like trading recipes or researching a common interest; each side should keenly (or casually) desire to understand the other, to learn and not just to teach. We have plenty to learn from the religious; if nothing else, we have plenty to learn from them about other religious people, and how to better reach out to them and find common cause. This sort of cheerful shared curiosity must drive discussions, for a religious discussion motivated only by the pedagogical or evangelical desire to banish ignorance is doomed to failure.

Remember: It’s not fun to be wrong. Always put yourself in the other person’s shoes. Sam Harris suggests that our brains process falsehoods with an experience akin to disgust. It’s a delight to encounter beliefs you agree with. It’s a pleasure to hold beliefs which seem to make sense of your experiences. At the same time, it’s not easy living with contradictions and lacunae; cognitive dissonance is unpleasant. A discussion of deeply held beliefs is more like an affective rodeo than like trading indifferent data points.

What’s the take-away? Be nuanced. Be moderate. “Nuanced” doesn’t mean “complicated.” Express your views clearly and concisely, but follow up a negative comment with a positive comment, to mitigate the inevitable emotional sting while leaving the intellectual content intact. And “moderate” doesn’t mean “wishy-washy” on points of substance. You will come across as moderate if you are willing to make concessions, ask sincere questions, compliment the other side, and admit your own shortcomings, even if these sugar-coated asides are irrelevant to your central argument, and even if the argument itself is a radical one. A very little friendliness and good humor goes a very long way. Indeed, just coming across as a nice guy tends to do a lot more to attract skeptics and allies than even the most devastating logic. And, of course, it leads to more interesting and involved conversations.

II. Our discussions aren’t specific.

When we speak of persuading people about atheism, we aren’t really speaking about some discrete, isolated theological doctrine. Atheism here is code for a very broad and complex world-view, rich in methodological and theoretical commitments. This is our long-term strength, because it provides something with which to fill the epistemic void left by deconversion. But it’s our short-term weakness, because it makes our discussions too ‘all-or-nothing.’ It forces us to demolish a towering world-view in one fell swoop, when we’d be better off chipping away slowly at the foundations.

We are at our strongest when we can debate particular, relatively weakly-held claims. This allows us to show off the power, the richness, the appeal of scientific and philosophical reasoning — without drowning out that appeal in the backlash of immediate outrage. Why leap to debate God when you can hone Ockham’s razor first on ghosts, or homeopathy, or climate change denialism? In this way you can teach the intellectual methods motivating atheism, which are in any case far more important and life-saving than atheism itself. If the methods manage to take hold, they will do more to eat away at dogma from within than any argument made by another ever could.

Sticking to specifics makes it easier to convince the other side of some particular claim; and even if the issue is a trivial one, there is much value simply in the act of learning to inquire skeptically and revise one’s views. Moreover, it is on these innumerable factoids, far more than on deep and unshakable moral convictions, that theists and atheists disagree.

The same, surprisingly, is true of American liberals and conservatives. If a discussion were had on interpreting some specific data or theory, the dialogue could advance and both groups could come away better educated. Because the debate is instead halted at incredibly broad topics — we don’t debate some claim about abortion, we debate abortion itself — no progress is made. Instead, both sides fall into the well-rehearsed rituals of their cherished established beliefs, camouflaging a mass of negotiable factual disagreements as a monolithic dispute of irreconcilable values. This is how sides in a dispute fossilize into factions. There are indeed real conflicts over values — but these are as dust compared to the mountains of cost-benefit analyses, empirical generalizations, and causal interpretations on which the two sides would first diverge. When the discussion stays in vague, well-trodden territory, we do nothing but go in circles.

How does this work in practice? Paul Veyne, in “Did the Greeks Believe in Their Myths?”, quotes the missionary Évariste Huc’s account of Tibet:

We had adopted a completely historical mode of instruction, taking care to exclude anything that suggested argument and the split of contention; proper names and very precise dates made much more of an impression on them than the most logical reasoning. When they knew the names Jesus, Jerusalem, and Pontius Pilate and the date 4000 years after Creation, they no longer doubted the mystery of the Redemption and the preaching of the Gospel. Furthermore, we never noticed that mysteries or miracles gave them the slightest difficulty. We are convinced that it is through teaching and not the method of argument that one can work efficaciously toward the conversion of the infidel.

Set aside the manipulative evangelism and notice the lesson in psychology. Even the best arguments tend to fail when they’re pitted against the deepest convictions of a competing religion, cemented by habit and guarded by stereotyped, mantra-like counterarguments. Non-argumentative, factual accounts, on the other hand, slip through the cracks quite easily. This is not simply because they are framed as indisputable facts, nor because they are too idiosyncratic and exotic to brook easy retort. It is because they are friendlier, less confrontational; they invite listening and learning, rather than intellectual combat.

Such a technique, of course, can easily be abused. It merely replaces one authority with another. We want to encourage productive and dynamic dialogues, not just a one-sided soliloquy. Yet if we want the communication without the rancor, we must make argument its own reward. It must be a happy act aimed at real discovery and mutual enrichment.

We must remember that the critical thinking and open-mindedness that goes into a healthy discussion is itself our methodological goal. If our only goal were to make everyone believe the same thing we believe, we’d be better off relying on the rhetorical power of facts and figures and jargon. But orthodoxy, even scientific orthodoxy, isn’t our goal. Our goal is a world of open-minded critical thinkers, of people who have made a habit of questioning, and of seeking, and of imaginatively advancing the human discussion in science and in politics. However you envision secularism’s end-game, no path is possible in the absence of civil and productive dialogues between people with radically different world-views. This is not to say that such dialogue is easy. It is to say that we have no choice. We have to talk.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • http://www.facebook.com/GooBallin Goo Ball

    When is Children’s Blog time going to be over again? I started coming to this site only a few months ago, and it’s already gone from discussing actual news and info to mostly opinion.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100001071231218 Andrew Pfaff

      Hemant is on vacation and is giving these students an opportunity to add their 2¢ to the movement. 

    • Anonymous

      Oh no, please don’t leave! 

    • Anonymous

      Oh no, please don’t leave! 

    • http://honesttogodless.blogspot.com Matt Foss

      Wow, you sound like a paying customer complaining about a purchase.

  • Anonymous

    Very thought-provoking. I’ve had the opportunity to debate with my religious friends and see an ugly end to it. I think you’re right that we should focus on teaching skepticism and intellectual methods than attacking religious beliefs head-on. Though I wonder if there are situations where this approach might not work, for example when the other party insists on debating about the existence of God.

  • Bill

    I’ll combine this advice: be specific, start small, be nice, with Greta Christina’s: do discuss, do debate, but do it in public, because it really does make a difference.

  • Bill

    I’ll combine this advice: be specific, start small, be nice, with Greta Christina’s: do discuss, do debate, but do it in public, because it really does make a difference.

  • Bill

    I’ll combine this advice: be specific, start small, be nice, with Greta Christina’s: do discuss, do debate, but do it in public, because it really does make a difference.

  • Sam

    It’s not that easy to say “I think your beliefs are absolute B.S” politely.

    • Nordog

      Yes, superiority complexes are difficult to overcome.

      • http://annainca.blogspot.com/ Anna

        Thinking that someone else’s beliefs are false means you have a superiority complex?

        • Nordog

          “Thinking that someone else’s beliefs are false means you have a superiority complex?”

          No, but finding it difficult to refrain from saying, “I think your beliefs are absolute B.S.” politely does.

          • http://annainca.blogspot.com/ Anna

            That’s not even remotely what was said. Sam did not say or imply that it was difficult to refrain from doing so. Sam merely stated that it was not easy to politely convey the message.

            Unfortunately, there are millions of people who do not repond well to criticism of their beliefs. You can say that you think their beliefs are false, and you can say so in a polite manner, but they are going to be upset regardless.

            • 59 Norris

              Ah, Anna, that’s exactly what he said.

              • http://annainca.blogspot.com/ Anna

                Where are you getting that?

                It’s not that easy to say “I think your beliefs are absolute B.S” politely.

                This is one sentence, and I agree with it. It’s not easy to politely tell someone that their beliefs are totally false because even if you say it in a polite manner, chances are they will still be offended.

                • 59 Norris

                  Apparentlythe ability to recognize  irony is not the only thing in short supply here.

                • http://annainca.blogspot.com/ Anna

                  Pithy little remarks aside, I’m afraid you’ve lost me. I have no idea what you’re trying to say.

                • 59 Norris

                  I know.

                • http://annainca.blogspot.com/ Anna

                  Sigh.

    • Rob Lingle

      So don’t. Talk about things that interest and amaze you as if you want to share them. In most interactions, we give people some leeway when they say dumb things. Religion doesn’t deserve a special beating any more than it deserves a special pass. At the end of the day, most dumb statements stem from ignorance or dogmatism, and religion is just one symptom of those conditions.

    • http://www.facebook.com/meaty Robby Bensinger

      This suggests that the only point of a discussion is to show the other side just how wrong it is. That’s certainly pleasant when it happens, but the more general virtue of discussion is that it gives all the participants more practice examining ideas, weighing arguments, and learning about how the Other sees the world. It’s not just a problem of politeness. It’s that we’re too fixated upon replacing a False Doctrine with a True one, when we should be equally concerned with replacing bad skeptical methods with good ones.

      When open discussion itself becomes our primary goal, rather than merely a means to the end of ‘winning’ some epistemic competition, everything else will fall into place. We’ll be less impatient and frustrated when we don’t immediately ‘win.’ We’ll be more open to listening and asking questions, which is indisputably valuable as a rhetorical strategy even if you don’t think you have anything to learn from the other side. And since the former two things will make our discussions more enjoyable and productive, we’ll be motivated to talk to religious people more. Which means spreading the Good News further rather than staying in our insular bubble. All good things, and good no matter how pessimistic you are about our capacity to change minds.

  • Nankay

    Don’t let the door hit you in the ass on your way out.

  • Marguerite

    I’m with Sam.  It’s hard to be “moderate” when the atheist position basically boils down to the idea that Christianity and other religions are only mythology, and thus entirely untrue.  There is no way to put that across in a way that doesn’t offend a theist, unfortunately.

    • Kenneth Dunlap

      You are confused. The atheist position IS that religion is mythology, and it is. It is NOT that myth = untrue. If you want to boil the atheist stance down, it is this: 

      Keep your religion, superstitions, and myths to yourself. Believe what you’d like, but do not hamstring the capacity for children to think critically and do not try to promote your beliefs as if they have scientific accuracy. Do not force kids in schools to deal with your beliefs through prayer and do not force your beliefs on society with laws and invocations. 

      If these simple rules were followed, there would be no issue. 

      • Anonymous

        The problem with that is that many of these religions explicitly require their followers to promote them. What you’re doing is telling people that they can have their religion, just as long as it’s completely inconsequential. It should not be surprising to anyone that your simple rules are not followed.

        • Anonymous

          and yet that “simple” rule goes out the window, when it comes to say, gay rights. or even civil rights for ethnic and religious minorities. “promote” your religion all you want. but don’t tell me it should define civic law. how hard is that to understand? you wouldn’t like it if say, Jain or Hindu theology defined your society’s laws, would you? it’s the same for us and the abrahamic mythologies. if you want to stand on the side walk all day long shouting “sinners repent the end is near” or whatever, go for it. just remember that this is a secular society, a democratic republic of laws that apply equally to everyone. religion is for believers, not for everyone on a mandatory basis because that’s what you want. no one is stopping you from praying, going to church, or giving away the farm to con men and kiddie rapists. if that’s what your god tells you to do, the Constitution says you’re free to do so. have at it. just leave us alone. 

      • Marguerite

        Maybe I am confused, but I can’t see how one can say religion is a myth without also saying it’s untrue.  But I could certainly be wrong.  In any event, my point is that it’s rather difficult to avoid offending theists when our position is that there is no god and thus everything they believe is wrong, just as it’s hard for them to avoid offending us when their position is that we’re going to fry in hell for all eternity (in the case of Christianity, anyway).  There is bound to be friction between these two viewpoints.

  • Susan

    I am reminded of friend’s recent satus update that went something like this: “For those of you that doubt the existence of god, look to the children. My daughter just described a little angel sitting in a tree. She was so detailed that there is no way she could’ve been making it up.” I was so irritated that I didn’t even bother responding. But perhaps taking the time to remind her that kids like to pretend and that my daughter swore there was a mermaid in the bathtub the other day would have planted a seed of doubt in her brain. It can be so hard to be kind and polite when faced with that kind of nonscense.

  • http://twitter.com/dartigen Dartigen

    It’s hard to stay polite when people are screaming in your face. Unfortunately, you can’t just not check your email for 3 or 4 days while you formulate a response, or hang up the phone. And the ever-useful phone response of ‘I’ll call back later when you’ve calmed down’ doesn’t work in real life.
    Hence why I restrict arguments re: religion to the Internet. I can just choose to stop visiting a site or an article if it becomes clear I’m smashing my head on a brick wall.

  • Ronlawhouston

    In a way this question is not all that hard.  If you look at science, the studies show that in the human mind belief is often stronger than facts.  Once someone believes that the world is a certain way, they reject those facts that argue against that belief and accentuate those beliefs that support their belief.  Arguing with a believer about their beliefs whether they be political or religious really is a waste of time. 

  • Adam Shannon

    “It’s not fun to be wrong. Always put yourself in the other person’s shoes. Sam Harris suggests that our brains process falsehoods with an experience akin to disgust. It’s a delight to encounter beliefs you agree with. It’s a pleasure to hold beliefs which seem to make sense of your experiences. At the same time, it’s not easy living with contradictions and lacunae; cognitive dissonance is unpleasant. A discussion of deeply held beliefs is more like an affective rodeo than like trading indifferent data points.”

    See, I think that’s were both sides often run into trouble. Why is it considered a bad thing to be wrong? So what, you had previous beliefs or ideologies, and you were confronted with evidence. Now you’ve changed to confirm with reality, and you’re supposed to feel BAD about that?? You should, if nothing else, be extremely happy! You’ve just CONFIRMED WITH REALITY for fuck’s sake, how is that a BAD thing?

    Living with doubt should also be thought of as a GOOD thing! You’ve come upon a question or problem that you don’t know and you’re suspending judgement instead of jumping to some conclusion? Isn’t that what you’re supposed to do? Often religious people are attacked because they cling to irrational ideas, yet when people don’t they are shunned and supposed to feel bad? NO! You’re not jumping to irrational conclusions and waiting for further evidence. Again, WHY is that considered bad? Why?

  • Laurie

    Very nice post!


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