May 24, 2007
How to talk to religious believers: A guide for atheists-1
One of the consequences of the outspokenness of the new atheists is that it enables people who are quasi-atheists to become more frank about their doubts about religion. Unlike closet atheists who are people who keep quiet about their atheism, 'quasi-atheists' those people who would not call themselves atheists but are already tugging at the some of the beliefs that hold together the fragile structure of belief and are thus close to bringing down the whole house of cards. Such people tend to say they are agnostics and not identify any specific religious group and instead hold on to some unspecified notion of spirituality.
Quasi-atheists' religious beliefs are just hanging on by a thread. Most thoughtful people have serious doubts about the existence of god and the afterlife. How could they not since everyday experience provides no support at all for such beliefs? But given the climate of official piety, most people will just keep their doubts to themselves to avoid the attention that expressing views that are different from the mainstream brings.
But the new atheists, by being so public in their dissection and dismissal of religious beliefs and the lack of evidence for them, are creating room in the space of public dialogue for regular people to take their more limited and hesitant doubts public. When they find that the heavens don't come crashing down on their heads for expressing doubts about religious dogmas, they will be on the road to a more complete disavowal of religion.
So my prediction is that within the next few years one will find opinion polls that show a dramatic rise in the numbers of people who describe themselves as non-religious, as more and more people become willing to express their doubts publicly and respond frankly to such polls. People may still shy away from the word 'atheism' and use euphemisms, but the shift away from belief will be palpable.
As more and more atheists and quasi-atheists speak about their lack of belief in god, it is going to be increasingly common for them to have to deal with the reactions of the religious believers around them. The kind of reaction they will experience will vary widely and require a flexible attitude, so here is my contribution to keeping the dialogue friendly.
Dealing with the concerned devout believer: This is the reaction of a devoutly religious person who knows you well, either as a family member or close friend. They will experience complete incredulity that you have rejected ideas that seem to them to be so obviously true. For them, everything that they see around them is testimony to god's existence. They are unshakeable in their beliefs and cannot imagine how anyone could think otherwise. Since they are good people, they will not be angry with you but will worry that you risk losing your soul and going to hell. They will make earnest attempts to convince you of your error, suggesting that you try different churches and pastors and Bible study groups, they will recommend books for you to read, and they will tell you that they are praying for you.
Suggested response: It is important to realize that such people are well meaning and have your best interests at heart. One should take react graciously to their efforts to try and bring you back into god's good books and not get upset. Such people are so wedded to the rightness of their beliefs that they do not see the irony of saying that they will pray for you to someone who thinks the whole idea of prayer is a waste of time.
With such people, one should simply and gently tell them why you don't believe in god. Remember that these people genuinely care about you and are concerned about you, even if in a misguided way, and such people are to be valued and treasured. Eventually, over time when they realize that you are still the same person that they always knew and loved and haven't suddenly become a mass murderer or rude and abusive and a person who is cruel to animals and children, they will learn to accept you for who you are.
Next up: The offended devout believer.