Common pitfalls in discussions between atheists and believers

The discussion between atheists and believers is rife with personal attacks, defensiveness, accusations of rudeness, actual rudeness, and all manner of other debate-pollutants. Sometimes this is because one party or another is being boorish or disingenuous, but often two well-meaning people attempting to argue in good faith get entangled in the same mess. Both atheists and believers would do well to be conscious of a few exacerbating factors that can lead people to misinterpret the other’s intent.

1) Believers feel very personally attached to their beliefs, and therefore have a hard time seeing the difference between attacking their beliefs and attacking them.

If you say to an atheist, “I think it’s silly not to believe in God,” they’ll usually respond with something like, “I don’t see why… what’s your basis for saying that?” If you say to a believer, “I think it’s silly to believe in God,” the typical response is, “How dare you call me silly?” An atheist’s beliefs about the nature of reality are external to their core sense of identity. A believer’s beliefs about the nature of reality are usually part of their sense of identity, and challenging them feels acutely personal, like attacking someone’s ethnicity.

In addition, many believers believe in one or more personal, self-aware deities. They often believe they have a personal relationship with this deity, and/or that this deity has preferences about how, when, and by whom they are referred to. Hearing someone question their deity’s existence, or do something that for the believer is blasphemy, provokes a protective response, as if the atheist is speaking ill of a family member.

Believers need to remember that atheists don’t think their deity exists, and they feel no more need to respect said deity’s feelings than they do to respect the feelings of Harvey the 6-foot bunny. Also that, if you’re getting into a discussion about religion, it is going to be a discussion about ideas, with someone who rejects many of yours. Thicken your skin, and don’t take criticism of your beliefs personally. If hearing someone say, “I don’t believe your god is real,” is going to offend you, you probably shouldn’t be discussing religion.

Atheists need to remember that believers feel a personal, emotional connection to their deity and their faith, and that it is in the interests of a productive discussion to stay away from emotionally-laden words. For example, instead of “silly,” try “unfounded.” Strong, emotionally-laden language is good for galvanizing a crowd, but in interpersonal conversation with someone who is almost certainly going to be more sensitive than you, it’s only going to derail the discussion.

2) In a typical conversation between a believer and an atheist, the believer has had at most two or three similar conversations before, while the atheist has had dozens or hundreds. This is mostly just because there are so many more believers than atheists. Believers of the majority religion– in America, Christians — tend to live their life surrounded by people who share their religion, and only occasionally encounter atheists or people of other religions. Atheists, however, usually live their life surrounded by believers, and have no shortage of opportunities to talk about beliefs. So a believer may have an argument point that seems quite powerful to them, only to find that the atheist greets it with weariness and impatience.

Atheists are also generally much more informed about religion than believers are about atheism. Most vocal atheists have read a number of religious texts, as well as works of theology and apologetics. Very few believers have read the works of prominent atheists.

Atheists need to remember that the believer they’re talking to hasn’t had the same conversation fifty times before, and muster some of the same patience any teacher or customer-service worker has to employ in telling different people the same things over and over. If you’re going to engage in these conversations, you need to give each person the courtesy of a fresh answer, even if it sounds stale to you.

Believers need to educate themselves about atheism and atheist arguments. Read some Dawkins, Harris, or Dennett. (I don’t recommend Hitchens for a believer new to atheist writings; his polemic style is intended to provoke.) Even if the atheists you talk with don’t agree with those writers, you’ll have a frame of reference to start with, and you’ll be less likely to put forward an argument that they’ve heard and responded to fifty times already.

3) Most of the words we use when we talk about religion — “God,” “faith,” “Christian,” and “religion” itself, to name a few — are exceedingly roomy concepts. It’s all too easy and all too common to be having a debate about the existence of God, or the relative merits and demerits of religion, where the precise meaning of “God” or “religion” slides all over the map according to the convenience of the debators. Then everybody gets all huffy at each other.

The cure is simple: define your terms. If you’re discussing the existence of a god, decide at the outset whether you’re talking about Jehovah, Krishna, Allah, a self-aware pan-universal spirit, a projection of human craving for meaning and justice*, or what. If you’re talking about whether Christianity is harmful or helpful overall, decide at the outset whether “a Christian” is anybody who claims alliance with any sect of Christianity, or someone whose life reflects your own personal values and interpretations of what Christianity means (hint to believers: you’ll never get the atheist to agree to the latter, for very good reasons, but it’s good to go ahead and make that explicit.)

*I’m not trying to be flip here: near as I can tell, this is what Karen Armstrong means when she talks about God, and while I find it irritating, it is a working definition, so let’s put it on the list.

These are the big pitfalls I’ve seen in operation. Anyone have any more to add? (Please refrain from sniping at the other side in your comments: I really am trying to promote good-faith discussion. Clever quips and snide mockery have their place, but this is not that place.)

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