Excellent Skills and Methods for Talking to Believers

Richard Wade here.

Are you interested in actually influencing a religious believer to start thinking critically, rather than just scoring “points” that only you are counting? Are you bored with doing the same old song and dance with faith-based minds, assured that your arguments were better, but knowing they had no effect? Would you like to make a difference rather than just make noise?

Dan Fincke, who writes the very astute blog Camels With Hammers, has written a series of ten articles titled “Tips for Reaching Out to Religious Believers.” Dan has a PhD in philosophy, and is a highly skilled teacher at six different universities in the New York area. He is adept at getting his students to challenge their own beliefs and assumptions, and to grow beyond their initial self-expectations.

I highly recommend reading these thorough and cogent short essays, each delineating approaches and techniques that are essential in the art of rational persuasion. Dan explains what works, what doesn’t, and why. If you use even some of these tips, I think you will find yourself less frustrated and more encouraged after interacting with religious believers.

Here are the links:

1. Don’t Call Religious Believers Stupid.

2. Make Believers Stay on Topic During Debates.

3. Don’t Tell Religious Believers What They “Really Believe”.

4. Clarify What Kinds of Evidence Warrant What Kinds of Beliefs.

5. Help Break The Spell Of Religious Reverence.

6. Don’t Demonize Religious People’s Motives, Focus On Their Objective Harms.

7. Take Philosophy Seriously.

8. Both Refute The Best Counter-Arguments You Can Think Of And Create Gestalt Shifts.

9. Be Unapologetic, Rigorous, Patient, And Gracious With Religious Believers.

10. Love Religious People.

About Richard Wade

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

  • http://www.facebook.com/AnonymousBoy Larry Meredith

    all for $19.95. But wait, there’s more.

  • http://religiouscomics.net/ Jeff P

    I read #1 and #3 so far and thought he had some really good points. 

  • Anonymous

    Good post Richard. This flew under my radar before, thanks for bringing it to attention.

  • Anonymous

    Good post Richard. This flew under my radar before, thanks for bringing it to attention.

  • Rieux

    Fincke’s ideas are nice advice to the extent that one has the (frankly rather optimistic) goal of actually changing the mind of a religious person one is debating with, but I don’t think it’s accurate or fair to characterize the alternative as “scoring ‘points’ that only you are counting,” or to assert without support that arguments that fail to sway an opponent therefore “just make noise.” Indeed, the presumptions inherent in those characterizations come awfully close to violating Fincke’s points #3 and 6 themselves, with Gnu Atheists standing in for “believers.”

    The very assumption that assertive and not-necessarily-nice advocacy against religion is designed to convert the specific theists posting in the discussion, or can only have value insofar as those theists are convinced to change their minds, is simply false to fact. That is not the point or the intended effect of atheist brashness at all:

    [Phil] Plait naively presumed, throughout his ["Don't Be a Dick"] lecture, that the person we are ridiculing is the one we are trying to convert. Speaking for myself, it is often a third party (or a large number of third parties) who are listening in, or reading along. When Peter Medawar destroyed Teilhard de Chardin’s The Phenomenon of Man, in the most devastatingly barbed book review I have ever read, he wasn’t trying to convert Teilhard. Teilhard was already dead in any case. Medawar was trying (and succeeding, in spades)to convert the large number of gullible fools who had been taken in by Teilhard.

    Similarly, when I employ ridicule against the arguments of a young earth creationist, I am almost never trying to convert the YEC himself. That is probably a waste of time. I am trying to influence all the third parties listening in, or reading my books. I am amazed at Plait’s naivety in overlooking that and treating it as obvious that our goal is to convert the target of our ridicule. Ridicule may indeed annoy the target and cause him to dig his toes in. But our goal might very well be (in my case usually is) to influence third parties, sitting on the fence, or just not very well-informed about the issues. And to achieve that goal, ridicule can be very effective indeed.

     - Richard Dawkins

    Fincke’s ideas seem to me fine, as far as they go; to the extent we are interested in changing the minds of the people we are directly engaging with, the tactics he advocates could possibly be more effective than others. Given that that is not the primary motivation for a large proportion of atheist advocacy in the world, however, it it not so clear that the tactics advocated in some of Fincke’s essays are good fits for every variety of such advocacy. (Though of course severally of Fincke’s principles, especially #5, seem quite a bit more generalizable, as well as very much compatible with brashness and mockery of religion.) 

    Fincke’s specific ideas aside, however, the notion that atheist advocacy that violates one or another of his principles therefore amounts to nothing more than “scoring ‘points’ that only you are counting” or “just mak[ing] noise” is unfair and substantially inappropriate—certainly more so than anything I’ve seen Fincke write. Please stop it.

    Let me also suggest that it is never a good argument to complain about someone’s tone by saying something like, “You’re not going to convince anyone!” That is a lazy argument used exclusively by people more interested in seeming above it all than in actually engaging the issues. Incivility is a tool in the arsenal. It is very good for calling attention to an issue and to a point of view. If the incivility is backed up by a good argument it can be very powerful.

    [....]

    So much of the discourse on these topics imagines two clearly defined sides with everyone having already taken a stand one way or the other. People with an emotional stake on one side are likely to dig in when confronted by rudeness from the other, so we are all supposed to speak in soothing, gentle tones. But that is a ludicrous oversimplification of reality. What about all the people who are on the fence? What about people who have long been uncomfortable with their religious lives but have never heard a non-cartoonish version of any alternatives? What about all the people who have their eyes opened by the visibility atheism now has as a result of Dawkins’ writing? What about all the other books, and public presentations, and You Tube videos that were sparked by Dawkins’ success?
    And, yes, some people will be turned off by his tone. So be it. Life is full of trade-offs. The price of reaching a large audience is calling attention to yourself in ways that some will find distasteful. You can’t please everyone and all that.

     - Jason Rosenhouse, “It’s Never Really About Civility

    • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

      Rieux, I have not said nor have I implied that we have only the choice of scoring meaningless points and making ineffective noise versus applying Dan’s ideas. That would be a false dichotomy.  Just in case you think I’m implying it, I have also neither said nor implied that we have only the choice to make nice or be rude. That would be another false dichotomy. I’ve simply seen many people do the points-and-noise thing, and they often seem to come away frustrated and dissatisfied.  What is presented here is a suggested alternative.

      There are many ways besides these two to approach interactions with religious believers. People’s approaches reflect many things about the people trying them, including, but not exclusive to,  their level of skills, their level of emotional involvement in the issues,  their motivation, and their goals. 

      I’ve seen many people fall within two groups: (Again, I’m not setting up an either/or dichotomy.) Some want to win arguments or feel that they have, and persuading the other person to think differently is not that important to them.  Others want to have the person start to question their uncritical ways of thinking, and winning an argument is not that important to them. Of course, these two things are not necessarily mutually exclusive.  There are people who have both motives in varying measures, and there are people who have entirely different interests in mind.

      These ten tips are not presented here by me nor by Dan as a panacea that works for every person, in every case, every time. They’re useful, that’s all. Use them as they seem applicable, and set them aside if they don’t work for you, or they don’t reflect your goals.

      • Rieux

        That’s fine. Given the cultural context of (1) overwhelming religious privilege and (2) the atheist community’s longstanding debates on “How shall we argue?” issues, though, it’s hard to read the first paragraph of the post here without inferring some uncomfortable things about what it’s intended to say about brash, mocking, etc., advocacy. It’s all too easy to understand the first paragraph to be drawing the very dichotomy you didn’t intend.

        Fincke, in the linked essays, explicitly argues that he is (and the principles he states are) not opposed to open and even aggressive gnu-ish advocacy. (See, for example, the blockquote below.) It’s nice to see him stating that caveat openly.

        In a cultural milieu in which gnus are continually attacked for alienating believers, “hurting the cause,” using ineffective methods, possessing ignoble motives with regard to religious people, and so on, it seems to me that that is a very important caveat to make explicit. The original post here, especially in light of its initial paragraph, could have used a few sentences expressing a similar sentiment.

        I am not saying to avoid offending religious believers. I have a sterling track record of being unfriended by my religious friends because they find me plenty offensive just for mocking what is ludicrous and refuting what is false in their beliefs.

        But those are different things than calling people stupid when they are only quite systematically confused and for reasons I too was once upon a time.

        [....]

        Name calling is not an argument. You can and should argue vigorously and be a “firebrand” New Atheist, rather than a diplomat OR an accommodationist. (I’ve already written tips 2-9 and some will be hopefully helpful techniques for aggressive argumentation.) These are wholly different things than being school yard bullies or the partisan extremists who dehumanize and overly denigrate your enemies.

        I believe in speaking the truth and standing up for reason with no words minced and no bad ideas politely accommodated. But such truthfulness involves recognizing the difference between stupidity and ignorance and systematic confusion, etc.

         - Fincke, here

        • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

          I don’t want to belabor this more than this: Save us both a lot of typing by reading just my words, and not the spaces between the words. All you’ll find there are your own misinterpretations.  If you think I’ve implied something, it’s not likely, but please ask me rather than jumping to conclusions.  I try to be as explicit as possible in my writing, but I cannot anticipate and write a disclaimer for every possible misinterpretation. What I don’t say is not implied by what I do say. Those are your inventions.

    • Trina

      Different approaches are appropriate depending on what goal you want to achieve.  And that applies to all sorts of subjects.

      • Rieux

        Right. The only examples of alternative goals mentioned in the original post are “scoring ‘points’ that only you are counting” and “mak[ing] noise.” No other possible motivations are contemplated.

        Richard has now explained that he didn’t intend to communicate that the only two options available to outspoken atheists are are (1) following Fincke’s approach toward converting one’s opponents or (2) scoring meaningless “points” and making useless “noise.” His response to me here declares outright that he has not said or implied anything of the kind.

        I’m sorry to disagree with that last part. I’m afraid that the (1) vs. (2) dichotomy is very much what the “Are you interested” paragraph above implies. Moreover, that implication isn’t contradicted anywhere else in the post.

        I think the post would be much better if Richard had, like Dan Fincke before him, made it clear what kinds of atheist advocacy he was and was not trying to discourage.

        • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

          I’m not trying to discourage anything. I’m noticing people seeming frustrated and dissatisfied by one approach and so I’m suggesting an alternative approach, ONE OF  AN INFINITE NUMBER OF POSSIBLE APPROACHES, OKAY?  There is no value judgment implied about one “advocacy” (your term, not mine)  over another, and nothing at all about being offending or not offending to religious believers  in my statements. These dichotomies and implications are all products of your very creative imagination. 

          If I ever use a metaphor about how some people like chocolate ice cream while some other people like vanilla ice cream, please don’t reply with an indignant comment about how I have  set up a false dichotomy, and I’ve completely ignored the other 29 Baskin Robbins flavors. If I haven’t anticipated whatever will be your next acrobatic leap to an incorrect interpretation, and I haven’t written some lawyer proof disclaimer against it, try just asking me about it.  The chances are extremely high that my answer will be, “No, that’s not what I meant, but thanks for checking.”

  • NorDog

    Seems like this would be good advice generally for anyone wishing to have a civil relationship (not “civil union” type relationship, I mean aquaintance or friendship) with someone with whom there is a major disagreement.

  • Catpurrnicus

    I read #1, but I still find it very difficult to restrain myself when it comes to the subset of religious people that believe the universe is 6,000 years, creationism, and want to deny equal right to gays. Other than ignoring them and hoping that they won’t vote – how should I cope? It’s one thing to be religious. It’s another matter when, quite frankly, they really are ______.

    • SJH

      Perhaps you can try loving them for who they are. Perhaps they are not as smart as you or perhaps they fall for things more easily than you do but I guarantee you that they have a talent that you do not have which makes you no better than them. It just makes them different. We all have talents to share. We should try and build each other up in an effort to make everyone’s living experience a better one. By doing so we improve society and our own lives.

    • SJH

      Perhaps you can try loving them for who they are. Perhaps they are not as smart as you or perhaps they fall for things more easily than you do but I guarantee you that they have a talent that you do not have which makes you no better than them. It just makes them different. We all have talents to share. We should try and build each other up in an effort to make everyone’s living experience a better one. By doing so we improve society and our own lives.

      • Ing

        Loving someone who wants you DEAD and tortured for eternity? Please. Might as well advise women to love their husband more when he beats them.

        • SJH

          I feel sorry for whoever it is that wants you DEAD and tortured forever. I am sure that you can find it within yourself to still love those people. I think that they are probably few and far between however so maybe it is not as difficult as it may sound.

          I would ask a women to love their husband even if he beats her but that does not mean that she should allow herself to be subjected to such things. She should separate herself from harms way but still love from a distance. Love is always the key.

          • SphericalBunny

            SJH, I’m gobsmacked at your second paragraph. The only charitable reading I can give it is that you somehow mean ‘love’ as an entirely different thing from the way I understand it. Can you please clarify?

        • Nordog

          Yes, anyone who wants to hurt others is hard to love.  What to do?  Me?  I would stay away from someone who wishes ill on others.

    • SJH

      Perhaps you can try loving them for who they are. Perhaps they are not as smart as you or perhaps they fall for things more easily than you do but I guarantee you that they have a talent that you do not have which makes you no better than them. It just makes them different. We all have talents to share. We should try and build each other up in an effort to make everyone’s living experience a better one. By doing so we improve society and our own lives.

    • http://abb3w.livejournal.com/ abb3w

      Perhaps it might help restrain you if you bear in mind that among those who DO accept the Bible as the Inerrant Word of God, lower acceptance of evolution is correlatively associated with higher intelligence. Similarly, stronger religious affiliation, higher church attendance rates, and more frequent prayer tend to be correlated with higher intelligence not only among those who take the Bible as Inerrant, but also those who merely consider it Inspired.

      Citation needed? US General Social Survey 1972-2010, variables BIBLE, WORDSUM, EVOLVED, RELITEN, ATTEND, and PRAY; the Berkeley SDA archive has a web-based interface for anyone to play with the data there, or you can download the lot from NORC and play with it in SPSS or R. There are other variables you might find of interest (HOMOSEX and MARHOMO, for instance); many combinations have correlations you’d expect, but some may present your prejudices with surprises.

      Correlation is not Causation? No, it isn’t; but at least correlation is a correlation.

  • http://ltt.bottle-imp.com Daniel

    This is outstanding advice, and pointed too in that I see many atheists stoop into these traps very often.

  • SJH

    I read through three of these and got through part of some of the others.How about this to save some time:We discuss our beliefs rather than try and win an argument. What is more important truth or winning?Just tell me what you think. I will tell you what I think and lets collectively find where the truth lies. Hopefully we can all be open minded and courageous enough to accept when the other person is correct and be humble and gracious enough to befriend the other person when we are correct.Lets do it in a loving way by respecting other’s beliefs, experiences, intellect and individuality.This goes for Xians as well as atheists.Sounds easy enough… or perhaps its not so easy but lets try.

  • SJH

    I read through three of these and got through part of some of the others.How about this to save some time:We discuss our beliefs rather than try and win an argument. What is more important truth or winning?Just tell me what you think. I will tell you what I think and lets collectively find where the truth lies. Hopefully we can all be open minded and courageous enough to accept when the other person is correct and be humble and gracious enough to befriend the other person when we are correct.Lets do it in a loving way by respecting other’s beliefs, experiences, intellect and individuality.This goes for Xians as well as atheists.Sounds easy enough… or perhaps its not so easy but lets try.

  • Trace

    That Fincke sure is smart….I want to be like him when I grow up. :(

  • Trace

    That Fincke sure is smart….I want to be like him when I grow up. :(

  • Trace

    That Fincke sure is smart….I want to be like him when I grow up. :(

  • aeiou

    Believing is different than knowing.

  • http://eternalbookshelf.wordpress.com Ani Sharmin

    Thank you very, very much for pointing this out.  I’ve read the first one so far, and he makes some very important points.  (I’ve never liked it when people assume religious people are stupid, either.)  I’m going to go read the others, now.

  • TheBlackCat

    “Make Believers Stay on Topic During Debates.”

    Good advice, essentially impossible in practice.

  • Pap

    It is 404ing for me. Anyone else see that?

  • Wib

    As a Ph.D psychologist and atheist also, I wrote a dissertation on religion that caused my Christian college to lose financing. It hit home by looking deeply into the Catholic religion and Christianity as religion in favor of and actually promoting advanced forms of goal directed, specifically designed, coercive persuasion that begins with infants in the formative years, and is structured to continually push the fears that keep adults in line and directed. This structured brainwashing is more advanced than that any cult has ever used. It is a highly successful, well known, structured campaign of the Christian religion that keeps Christianity alive and benefits those higher ups in the church who receive their subsistence through donations to the church. 

    Subsistence is a poor word, but one advanced by church elders. Many of the higher ups have garages filled with luxury cars, and live in homes that rival rock stars. As example are the TV evangelists who constantly have something to sell “for the word of God” or some such nonsense.  Nonsense is appropriate here as those who have read and preached the bible intentionally eliminate the less welcoming phrases. 

    What I was able to ascertain from my studies of Christian brainwashing is how well developed it is, and how it produces the fears that hold people in place. It is most effective against the less educated and the less inteligent iin the human race. It preys on the lower classes as their social structure has religion so deeply embedded into it.  

    To be effective in assisting others, it is best to avoid arguments and point out hoe the leaders of the religion keep them in place. Attention to the real points is what is most beneficial. Perhaps our working to bring attention to the money they give to humans who have no actual connection to God. The preachers are no different. They suck our purses dry and provide no benefit. 

    Does God need money? Of course not.  One other thing, I found that of the claimed religious 73.2% of the American population, 39% of them will openly admit that they are not fully convinced but play the role because it is such a deep part of The American life and our cultural expectations.

    My apologies. I realize what I have provided is overly broad. The study was done over three years and contains some 240 pages of information. I cannot post it in a meaningful manner here.  Please do your best to fill in the blanks yourself.  In time I will possibly open a website that reveals this. The study was done in the 70′s when being an atheist was different–and even dangerous.

    I was awarded my Ph.D but have not found my dissertation posted anywhere. I believe it was intentionally withheld. Additionally, my name is no longer on the schools roster. They politely asked me to avoid mentioning their name in any writing I make as it had already cost them much of their financing and a major financier had threatened to stop altogether if another article was posted that mentioned the college. They were good to me, exceptionally understanding (except one Bishop) and I agreed.  I can post the information but I cannot reveal some things. I did learn, from an undercover investigation where I posed as an elder church member, that many older church ministers have not believed in God for many years.  This included one Pope. They all said that reading the bible does that to you.

    All considered, they were aware that religion was only a bronze age myth, effective them when people needed belief, but a bit silly now.   They keep it, and their incredible incomes alive through a well structured, very advanced form of brainwashing the church developed over the last thousand years.

    God, simply stated, is an ancient myth that can only be effective on the less intelligent, the fearful, and those who received the highly effective persuasion that deeply sets the fears during formative years. Religion is mostly fear based, not reality based.

  • http://slrman.wordpress.com James Smith

    Exactly how and why are we  to love people that openly state they are condemning us to an eternity of torture if we do not accept their personal delusions as facts?  

    Accommodation with the religious reich never works.  From their view, accommodation means “abject surrender”.  That we will just shut up and allow them to continue to pass their own ideas into laws for everyone and continue to spout their nonsense in even tax-supported venues.  No thanks, firm and stern resistance is where I stand.

  • http://www.facebook.com/aristotles.muse Aristotle’s Muse

    And above all, always remember, it shouldn’t be about “winning”, it should be about helping the other person see their own errors for their own benefit and others.  I’ve seen people take things like this on as a matter of pride and have only ever seen them fail.  Benevolence is your best weapon, so to speak.

  • Nick

    How bout let them believe what they want. As long as they aren’t blowing up buildings, I could care less if religion exists. It’s a comfort to some people, and I see no reason to take that away from them simply because I think I’m right about something no one will ever know for sure until death.


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