Reason Freely

Talking about Freethought

Posted in essay by reasonfreely on May 17, 2010

No one ever converted to Christianity because they lost the argument” -Phillip Yancey, Christian author

There you are having dinner with extended family, friends-of-friends, or some other such informal group. They know you to be a freethinker or even an atheist or agnostic. After a few glasses of wine, someone turns to you and says “so you really don’t believe in God?” or perhaps “so what’s a freethinker/deist?”

(I realize not everyone who reads Reason Freely is a freethinker or atheist.  But those of you who are religious — as in, following a religion — may find this post useful.  Refer your heathen friends here and maybe they’ll be more polite with you!)

What is the best way to handle this situation?  They say politics and religion are hot button issues.  How do you talk about them without getting everyone upset? Well, I don’t claim to know, but here’s my preferred strategy.  This is something I’ve been evolving in my head for years, and will continue to refine on Reason Freely every now and again.

Why use this strategy?

1) It engages deeply, without trying to avoid talking about freethought. If I want to deflect questions or change topics, I use a different strategy. Similarly, it’s easy for others to be dismissive of freethought if they avoid delving deeply into ideas of what we believe and why. And of course, a good surface-depth argument might persuade people, but it doesn’t inform or enlighten, and what is freethought if not reverence for enlightenment?

2) People don’t find it offensive. (I call them “partners” instead of “opponents”) Smug, sure — freethinkers have a reputation of smugness to uphold after all. But it doesn’t open a direct argument; instead focusing on the what and why of belief. Similarly, it limits my exposure to ad hominem attacks and personal affronts. I achieve this by focusing on others’ beliefs and letting them talk without attacking them.

3) As a discussion tactic, it’s engaging and interesting; not a dry discussion of semantics, name-dropping or philosophy. To make good conversation, one must engage with one’s partner, and that’s the point here.

4) This is not the kind of strategy to use on rabid Westboro fundies at a protest march. See #1: This strategy is designed for deep, civil discussion — not a shouting match. You’re going to take someone who is actually interested in listening to you, then you’re going to have them do some self-reflection, which will open their mind a bit, and then have them empathize with you. The best result you can hope for if you’re proselytizing freethought is to have your conversation partners go home and think about what you said.

5) Results are not guaranteed!  Some people are very sensitive about their beliefs.  If things are getting heated, stop.  Agree to disagree or back down.

What do you do?

Don’t argue. As the quote I opened this essay with implies, losing an argument doesn’t make someone happy with you, and certainly doesn’t make your ideas popular.  Freethinkers aren’t the same as atheists — most freethinkers are agnostic atheists, but the point of freethought is to avoid arguments from authority and let people reason freely.  Blunt argument puts people on the defensive, but, worse, it causes them to argue back.  And where are their arguments coming from?  Above all else, if things are getting heated, the conversation needs to end.  Try to end gracefully.  (“This isn’t really an appropriate conversation for right now, because it seems to be generating a lot more heat than light.  I insist that we change subjects.”)  Or else you’re going to have to take off the kid gloves, if that’s the kind of person you are.

Ask questions. Your conversational partners will turn it into an argument if you spend all the time talking about yourself or your philosophy.  Even if you don’t, when  you start stating strong positions, they’ll consider it an argument, look for holes or misstatements and then try to dismiss you.  Avoid that by focusing on them instead of stating strong positions.

Get the details. 99.9% of the world would probably agree with the statement, “I believe in something bigger than myself, you know?”  Heck, freethinkers  and even atheists could agree with that statement (if you consider democracy, the scientific method, compassion, or human ingenuity to be bigger than yourself, which I hope you do).  Where you’re going to get people to really examine their own beliefs is not the big picture, but the nitty gritty.  If they have a stated religion, ask to see if they agree with the particulars, like the power of prayer, transubstantiation, gay marriage, women priests, hell, heaven/resurrection, salvation, the second coming/rapture, the “chosen” people, Revelation, etc.

Get the history. Everyone’s beliefs came from somewhere.  The occasional believer will have actual spiritual experiences to talk about (seeing a ghost, predicting a death, etc.) but most have beliefs strongly informed by ministry and upbringing.  For each religious detail (above), see where it came from.  For instance, if a friend of yours believes in the resurrection, she probably learned about it from her parents, grandparents, or minister/priest.  See when she first learned of it (Sunday school?) and why she accepted it to be true.  This is where you’ll really make her think.  Don’t argue though!

Ask them to think. But don’t tell them they’re wrong! (Remember: Don’t argue!) Toward the end, ask your conversational partner to think about other faiths and the details of their beliefs.  Ask them why believers in other faiths believe what they do and where they learn it.  Start with the other people in the room (so they don’t get dismissive and have to actually empathize) and then move on to similar religions (Catholicism for protestants, then Judaism, then Islam, then Hinduism, Buddhism) and finally, historical religions (Hellenism, Norse).

Stay positive. Nothing is more bitter than two people arguing only the bad parts of each other’s philosophy.  Focus on the positives of freethought and the positives of your conversational partner’s beliefs.  For instance, while nonbelievers make up 10% of Americans, secular charities are more than 10% however you slice it (DYOR).

Points You Might Want to Hit

Morality is complex, but can’t be learned from a book. The list of ten commandments, in addition to being muddled is hardly about religion.  Commandment 1,  2 and 3 are about religion:  Don’t worship any other gods, don’t take God’s name in vain, and take the “Sabbath” off for church.  The other seven are pretty obvious:  No murder, theft, or adultery; and no planning murder, theft or adultery.  I don’t think people thought murder, theft and adultery were OK before Moses.

The threat of hell is not a good reason for doing good. If doing good were the way to get to heaven, you wouldn’t need a death-and-resurrection.  If necessary, ask your conversational partner if they would go on a killing and stealing spree if they found out there was no heaven or hell.  They probably wouldn’t because they know that it’s wrong, regardless.  Followers of religions without a Final Judgment aren’t sociopaths.

There are easy ways to derive a secular morality. An action is good if it benefits more people than it harms.  Intentions and actions must be judged separately.  A person must consider whether he would like everyone to be allowed to take an action before he deems it acceptable for himself.  (e.g. Would it be right to commit premeditated murder if you thought it might save a life in the future?  No — unless you were definitely sure, as in the case of defense of another against clear and present attempted murder.)

Occam’s Razor is about parsimony, not brevity. The simplest explanation must also be a complete explanation.  Ergo, the big bang theory, which requires a PhD in astrophysics to even begin to understand completely, is more parsimonious than fiat creation, which doesn’t explain how the creator actually did any of that (Did He create atoms?  Did he create the big bang?  Did he telekinetically manipulate amino acids into chains to create the first RNA strands in the primordial soup?).

Natural selection is not a theory, but a fact. You can prove it in 48 hours with simple tools found in any high school biology classroom.  Human evolution is a theory, but it is supported by a massive fossil record, DNA matches along the phylogenetic tree, and other chemical and macroscopic factors I’m not qualified to explain.

Jesus was a great guy, but he didn’t have to do magic to be inspirational. He didn’t even have to exist to be inspirational. Inspiration is an emotional and cognitive event, and is not caused by a god influencing your mind.  You can tell because you get that same feeling when you learn a new algebraic relationship, or hear a good poem, or a song comes on the radio that makes you smile.  Moral inspiration comes from secular as well as religious sources.  Has your conversational partner heard “Imagine” by John Lennon, read the Emancipation Proclimation, or studied John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty?  If they have a problem with secular morality, lead in with morality that comes from other religions, which (if they’re Christian) they probably believe are false.

There are simple rational explanations for many allegedly supernatural occurrences. (Not all of them are credulity, hysteria or psychosis, either.)  Instead of challenging someone who had an allegedly-supernatural experience, ask them “have there been times you’ve thought there had to be a rational explanation for that?” and let them talk.  A surprising number of people have had experiences that they have convinced themselves are supernatural, that they never made any effort to replicate or verify.  Why haven’t they done so?  Probably because some part of them knows that jumping to conclusions about magic and ghosts is irrational.  But why do they still believe it?  Usually the supernatural explanation is more pleasant.  For instance, most people who believe they saw a ghost believe they saw a dead relative coming for pleasant reasons.  Ask why the event was meaningful to them, and ask if the meaning could have come before the explanation instead of vice versa — but don’t push it!  Remember: Don’t argue.  You can agree to disagree, especially about non-disprovable supernatural events.

Praying for something doesn’t seem to work unless it could be explained by a coincidence. See if your conversational partner can explain that.  Somehow, prayers are never answered in ways that are scientifically impossible.  For instance, cancer patients can go into remission from prayer (and without prayer, too!) but amputees never get limbs back through prayer.  Does God have a bias against amputees, or toward cancer patients?

There are real costs to religion, but also real benefits. The costs are measured in harm done to others by forcing beliefs on them, and harm done yourself by taking actions based on irrational beliefs.  The benefits are in community and charity, which secular organizations can also achieve (secular Americans are only 10% of the society, but secular charities actually account for a disproportionately high portion of services provided).  Don’t argue the costs unless your conversational partner brings it up; and focus on the positive instead.

The world is a good place to live even if all there is to it is what we can observe. Life has all manner of joys and fulfillment without the love of an invisible creator.  And even death doesn’t have to be the end, if you’re able to make a positive impact on the world and raise good children (if you’re a parent).  Death is terrifying whether you believe in an afterlife or not, but fear should not cause you to believe something without evidence.

The meaning of life is something you get to decide. Even most world religions don’t reveal the meaning of life.  In the Judeo-Christian faiths, the meaning of life is ineffable, with some commandments and requirements thrown in to make things more confusing.  For a freethinker, the meaning of life is what you decide it to be.  And you can and will be judged (by other people) based on your personal meaning.  That’s just how people are.  It gives us feedback and keeps us from choosing a purpose that’s dangerous, unethical or harmful.

That’s about it.  Let me know what you think, dear readers.  I hope you’re not tl;dr’ing this 🙂


6 Responses

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  1. ayb109 said, on May 17, 2010 at 12:35 pm

    Nope, not tl;dr’ing. So does this actually work? Does your questioner not realize that you’re turning the question back on him? And if you’re being asked about your beliefs, why not give a straight answer (calmly of course, without trying to start an argument)? You can always come back and ask your partner about his beliefs later if you’re curious.

    • reasonfreely said, on May 17, 2010 at 1:22 pm

      In my experience, if I give a long treatise on reasoning freely, it leads to an argument because people think I’m being preachy or pushing my beliefs on them. I’d rather have an honest discussion about faith.

      Usually someone asking “So you don’t believe in God?” already knows at least the basics. Of course, I address mistaken assumptions. The semantics just get in the way, though. Typically, for instance, I don’t try to explain that “agnostic atheist” is really the same as “agnostic.” If they say something immediately hostile like “So you’re going to hell then…” I won’t even engage.

      I’m writing about a technique I actually use, as opposed to one I think might work. I really enjoy having honest and open discussions about the meaning of faith and listening to other people’s faith experience. I do not like arguing about religion, though. So I’ve learned to not argue, stay positive, ask questions, etc.

      • reasonfreely said, on May 17, 2010 at 1:24 pm

        Misconceptions do tend to be common though. When I say, “my beliefs” for instance, a lot of people assume I mean that I believe that there is no god. But I don’t. (That one is a really annoying misconception). My beliefs are about reasoning freely, (and are outlined in the About page if you’re curious).

      • ayb109 said, on May 17, 2010 at 3:04 pm

        Doesn’t have to be a long treatise, but if a person asks you about your beliefs you’ll have to say something before you segue into asking about theirs. Your strategy is to be the one asking the questions, and you gave some great advice for once you’re in that position. I’m just wondering how you maneuver into it.

        • reasonfreely said, on May 18, 2010 at 9:53 am

          Yeah, that’s true. I like the word “freethinker” as opposed to “agnostic atheist.” It has a more noble history. I love Dawkins and the New Atheists, but I’m more laid back than them. Unfortunately, there is no nonbeliever term that avoids the angry atheists: The “Freedom From Religion” folks are too hardcore for me, and they call themselves freethinkers, too.

        • reasonfreely said, on May 18, 2010 at 9:55 am

          But freethought is more fun to explain to people because it doesn’t immediately start out with a statement about god. It starts out with a statement about belief and knowledge. That gets people thinking from the get-go.

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