Below is part 2 of my 8 part discussion with Richard Wade of the Friendly Atheist’s “Ask Richard” column. In part 1, Richard discussed how he became involved in atheist issues and discussed how the idea for his “Ask Richard” column came about. Below we talk about the prevalent theme of anger in the letters he receives for the column.
Richard Wade: Many of the problems the letters describe are appalling and heartbreaking. They are at the level of pain that I’ve seen in thousands of patients while I was an addiction counselor. My initial reaction still is often “Oh man, what the heck can I do for this person?!” But after brooding over them for several days, something begins to sprout, something about hope and possibility and positivism.
The letters are so varied in what they present, but they do fall into categories. The biggest group is about young people who are agonizing over how and when to tell their parents or their spouses that they’re atheists.
Another big category is people who are reeling from the explosion of anger, hurt and fear from their families or spouses after they’ve told them that they’re atheists. It has been an amazing education for me to see how much strife and unhappiness comes from this single conflict, and how tragically unnecessary it is.
Daniel Fincke: I thought atheists were supposed to be the angry ones, do you get a lot of angry atheists?
Richard Wade: I get a few who are really stuck in their anger, but basically anger is the smoke while hurt is the fire. Whether it’ s a Christian father raging at his atheist daughter, or a young atheist complaining bitterly about his religious parents, if I address the hurt rather than the anger, things seem to loosen up, and possibilities for a better outcome begin to appear. You’ll see a few repeated themes in my responses to the letters about family conflict.
For instance, I often encourage the atheists to keep an open door in their hearts for the possibility for love to return between them and their families, even when the upset is so bad, it’s like a hate grenade has exploded in the living room. Just be open to the possibility. People generally want reconciliation. They just have to work through their hurt.
Daniel Fincke: So, all these Christians assuming atheists are angry because we don’t have God are mistaken—they’re really angry because Christians won’t let them be atheists?
Richard Wade: It’s not really about Christians not letting them be atheists. It’s about Christians not being willing to see them directly, as they are, real, rather than an idea that they have about “atheists.” They don’t see us, they see their concept of an atheist. So often Christians will tell us what we think, feel and do, rather than openly and sincerely ask us what we think, feel and do. And there is an opportunity for a manipulation. If someone tells me that I’m angry when I’m not, but they won’t accept my correction to them, that’s a little irritating. They pick up on that and say something about my irritation.
That’s downright annoying, so my next response is full of annoyance. Then they can crow, saying “See, I told you so, you’re an angry atheist!” By then I’m seeing purple. I’ ve been suckered into anger that he thinks confirms his first assumption.
Daniel Fincke: Do you think we are guilty of the same thing?
Richard Wade: Oh yes, we atheists are certainly capable of all the same kinds of prejudice, manipulations, unkindness, and unfair practices that we complain about in believers. I don’t spend as much time commenting on blogs as I did before starting the column, but sometimes I still find myself arguing with an atheist about his or her tactics with a theist if I see it as just as destructive as what we so often face from them.
Daniel Fincke: Are there any mistakes you think activist atheists are making? Is our confrontationalism as justified as we like to think? And regardless of its justification or lack thereof on moral or political grounds, do you think it is likely to be as counter-productive a way to persuade religious people as our detractors always warn? You’re someone who is passionate about healthy relationships. How can we be so confrontational and yet have a healthy discourse here? From the PR to the rhetorical to the personal levels, how might we improve what we’re doing already?
Richard Wade: I hope it’s not a vanity to quote myself, but there are a couple of things I often say. One is, “If you want someone to see something more clearly, don’t start by poking him in the eye.” The other one is, “Speak with your ears, not with your mouth.” By reading online I’m able to “listen in” on many, many dialogues. Some atheists get into these dialogues with theists just to vent their feelings. They’re focused on expression only. Other atheists actually want to persuade others of something instead of just venting. They’re focused on communication. But sometimes they make the mistake of not communicating with a strong sense of empathy.
They need to accurately imagine what it is like for the other person to hear what they’re saying to them. That’ s what I mean by speaking with your ears. They can say wonderfully logical, rational things, but if it begins with a deliberate or an inadvertent insult, or if there is an undertone of snide contempt, then it doesn’t matter. The message will be deflected, not received. Even if it is compelling by its technical points, it will not be persuasive in its effect. Now I fully understand that many religious people can be hair-trigger ready to take “offence,” and some are already offended just by our very existence. But if you get one who is actually talking to you, then use that opportunity skillfully with a delicate touch. Don’t blow your chance to change someone’ s viewpoint by indulging in a dumb wisecrack or using an insensitive tone.
I think you can get your message in deeper if you deliver it politely. I don’t mean being obsequious, or fawning, or meek. But you don’t have to shame or humiliate people into a wider view. Coax them. Imagine what would you need to be convinced if you were them. You probably have a pretty good idea what their thoughts are, and their basic framework. Instead of just sneering at it, get inside it and see where the openings are. Using empathy and understanding the other’s motives are the most important things in persuasion.
That’s where I see atheists fail when trying to persuade religious people to reconsider their ideas about atheists or about science, or about social issues. We need to be more patient. Plant seeds, and wait, and come back a little later and attend to them a bit more, and back off again. Don’t try for instant victories where your “opponent” will concede right there on the spot. That never happens, does it? Always give them a way to say “I’ll think about it” with their dignity in tact, and let them rest a while. That way they’ll be open for more seed-planting later.
Daniel Fincke: I completely, completely agree. I have a friend whom I have debated hours at a time and sometimes suddenly a key issue is clarified and he says, “okay, I understand, let me go think about that”, and it just ends there for the time being. You gotta let someone go when they’ve had enough and they have to go think things over before returning to the discussion.
Richard Wade: Yeah. and at that crucial, delicate moment, if you were to crow “Ha! I have beaten you!” then you’ve completely blown it. We should never go for trophies when it will rob us of a persuaded ally who now sees things our way. They might never fully realize that we were the one who persuaded them, and we won’t get that ego-boosting acknowledgment. So what?? We have a better situation. That is all that matters. Being an effective agent for positive change is so much more important than some fleeting feeling of personal triumph.
Continue to part 3 of our discussion, in which we discuss the pros and cons of seeing atheism as part of one’s identity. In the meantime, Your Thoughts?