How Useful Is Dialogue with Religious People? October 15, 2009

How Useful Is Dialogue with Religious People?

It can be frustrating to talk to religious people, and Z at It’s the Thought That Count isn’t sure how worthwhile dialogue is:

If everybody else gets to express their side, I want to express mine. At the same time, the dialogue seems futile. Nobody’s going to change their mind, and it doesn’t even feel like we’re speaking the same language. It just makes me exhausted and depressed, and obviously that’s no good either.

He has a point. Neither side is going to compromise on beliefs.

What has kept me relatively sane in the matter is that I try to focus the conversation on things we can agree on.

I talk about the need for separation of church and state, the importance of teaching kids to question their beliefs and seek out their own answers (Christians, of course, think this will lead them toward faith), the lack of politicians who represent our constituency, why we need to keep forced religion out of public schools, the myriad cases of discrimination against atheists, etc.

I talk about the need for them to take those ideas back to their churches and pastors. They have a hard time saying no to those ideas above. So that’s where I keep my focus.

It’s more important to me that Christians get on board with those ideas than whether they believe in a god or not.

If I’m talking to someone who already is with me on those issues, only then do we get into the godtalk and debate how much sense it makes to believe in the supernatural. At least that way, it’s not a total loss if I walk away frustrated.

What advice do you have for talking with theists?

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  • Angie

    Nobody’s going to change their mind, and it doesn’t even feel like we’re speaking the same language.

    It feels like this because believers and nonbelievers ARE speaking different languages. The two groups have completely different worldviews and vocabulary, and they can easily talk past each other because they are operating under different paradigms.

  • Minds might not get changed, but I reckon good dialogue will help reign in some of the excesses on both sides.

  • No, it’s unlikely that either participant will change their mind. The true target is the silent observer who is struggling to make up his own mind and stumbled over your debate. That is who you are trying to win over.

    That’s why it’s important to stay calm and as rational as possible. The silent observer is unlikely to be swayed by the one who sounds like an angry, raving lunatic.

  • I encourage open dialogue. Sometimes it can be challenging. I think welcoming a distinction between something taken on faith versus other approaches is helpful.

    If you can have someone acknowledge its faith, you together, realize an impasse. If they identify another source of discovery a dialogue is easier.

  • I think George Hrab of the Geologic Podcast had excellent advice about talking to theists. He agreed that we might not change their minds but we CAN plant seeds. We can ask if they REALLY believe that and if so, why. Then we can talk about what our understanding as atheists/agnostics is about that topic and be prepared to give evidence.

    Geo’s point was to ALWAYS be calm and polite. It can be difficult. It’s just hard for them to be nasty to someone who is being calm and polite.

    To quote the great philosopher Dalton, “Be nice until it’s time not to be nice.”.

  • Melissa

    I agree that these conversations, no matter how well-intentioned, can be frustrating (I’m engaged in an in-depth debate via email even now).

    But I think they serve to inform each side that we don’t live up to many of the assumptions we may have about each other. Just looking at much of the extreme commentary, you’d think both sides are crazy evil-doing haters, which usually just isn’t true.

    Once you get past that, there is a lot of room to find some common ground and build tolerance on the issues Hemant mentioned, which both sides can benefit from.

  • I think it’s good to talk with believers, because there is a lot of mythology built up around skeptics, agnostics, atheists, etc. In my experience, they always think they know why I don’t believe. I’m either:

    1. “Throwing the baby out with the bathwater” because of some bad religious experience;
    2. Rebelling against their particular god because I have a problem with authority;
    3. Demon-possessed; or
    4. Have never experienced the “real” faith.

    Only by putting ourselves out there do we work against that kind of mythology.

    Now, if the conversations are going to make you so mad that you’re going to rant and rave all the time, it’s probably better to leave the arguing to someone else.

  • Mark

    The thing this post leaves out is listening. I support the effort to begin from things both sides can agree on. But I find that so many of these discussions aren’t actually discussions – they’re just two people talking next to each other.

    In order for actual discourse, there has to be a question to answer. And both sides have to be interested in finding the “right” answer. Or at least an answer that both can agree on.

    Just my 2 cents.


    /Christian here. But the kind that listens.

  • I think it’s a bit fatalistic to say that you will never convert someone to atheism through dialogue, it’s rare but it does happen and even if it doesn’t go all the way, it can sometimes act as a nudge.

    But dialogue is valuable because it changes people’s minds about many peripheral issues. The religious people I’ve conversed with now believe:

    Atheists are capable of having a moral system as deeply genuine as theirs
    Atheists are far from certain about their belief and operate from a position of deep doubt
    Not all Atheists are hostile towards religion
    Atheists arrived at their position from careful thought and not a reflexive fear of God
    Some people have had religious transcendent experiences & still remain unbelievers
    The evidence for creationism is far weaker than they assumed
    If you get two Atheists together, you’ll get 3 opinions on any issue, Atheism is not a single creed

    On the other side, I’ve learned:

    Many religious people are smart, curious and have a well thought out & internally coherent belief system.
    Religion is an experiential phenomena & it’s hard for me to comment if I haven’t experienced God’s touch
    Liberal Christians aren’t by any means wishy washy about their faith and they’re as deeply committed as fundamentalist Christians but choose to express their faith in different ways
    Religion does drive a compulsion to do good and love thy neighbor which is in excess of what I see in Atheist communities

    When I help run dialogue discussions, it’s with the goal of understanding, not conversion.

  • I think it’s helpful if you blog your feelings so the whole world gets a chance to see what’s important to non-theists. Maybe it’s useless, maybe it isn’t. But the low cost of the experiment to put your thought train out for the world to stumble on added to the validation of being able to publicly ask certain questions has to be a good thing right?

  • Richard Wade

    Agreement is not important. Only understanding is.

    I avoid any conversations with theists where the goal is for one of us to abandon our beliefs or lack thereof about gods. Life is too short to spend on such futility.

    However, I will spend much time and effort trying to get them to abandon their beliefs about atheists. That is possible, and it is important.

    To do that, I have to do my best to be the evidence I’m presenting that refutes their bigotry. For instance, I’m not going to make a convincing case for atheists being good and moral people if I’m insulting and antagonizing them while I do it.

    There’s a difference between respecting someone’s beliefs and treating them respectfully. You don’t have to do the former, but you can still do the latter, and you will be more persuasive about the good character and ethics of atheists.

    If they trot out a canard that you’ve heard a thousand times, don’t roll your eyes and say so. It’s probably new and exciting to them. Dismantle it patiently, with the attitude that you’re helping them to see why this idea won’t work, but avoid sounding condescending.

    Always take the high road. If they throw an insult at you, calmly say that such diatribe will not convince you or anyone of their argument, and ask if the two of you can resume a civil discussion. If they become childish, don’t respond by being parental. Always remain an adult, expecting them to respond as an adult. If they won’t, then end the conversation with no insults, saying maybe some other time the two of you can talk as adults.

    If you feel your temper bubbling up, take deep, slow breaths.

    Talk with your ears and listen with your eyes. When you speak, try to imagine how they will hear it, not just what you mean. When they speak, listen carefully and look like you’re listening carefully. That will cause them to be more thoughtful in their statements. Pause for a breath’s moment each time before you respond. While they speak, watch their nonverbal cues, their expression, body language, breath pattern, voice inflection, dozens of things that give you an impression of what they are going through emotionally. Your own nonverbal cues will adjust, and will help them to be more receptive.

    Look for a chance to make a friend instead of a chance to make an enemy.

  • I stopped talking with theists about important subjects unless we were both drinking beer. A lot of people say that the two things you shouldn’t talk about over drinks is religion and politics. I believe the opposite.

  • Staceyjw

    People DO CHANGE- and while its rarely in one conversation, it DOES happen, so please don’t give up.

    My favorite example – and I apologize for bringing it up for the 100th time- is the atheist uncle that helped Vycki leave the damaging world of xtian quiverfull belief.
    It was his gentle questioning that saved this woman from a miserable life of biblical patriarchy.And I’m not understating his influence.Go to “Vykies story” to find her dialoge with her uncle- you will never again think talking to believers is worthless!!!

    Also, Check out:
    This site is all about how to talk to believers, and is helpful.

    There are some people you can’t reason with, but you never know……


  • Kenny

    Even though it feels like, and often is, beating your head against a wall, there is the hope that one of two things already mentioned will happen. You’ll have an impact on a silent observer, or you could plant a seed.

    I probably owe my own atheism to a debate I had with someone on Internet Infidels back in the mid-90’s. He did not convert me, but later when I did start thinking about my belief, his arguments resurfaced and I saw them in a new light. Those arguments helped me move toward unbelief because I saw the weakness of my own arguments. I know its rare, but it does happen. And now that is affecting the way I am raising my own children and will hopefully continue to reap benefits.

    You may not even know you’ve had an impact, the guy I argued with certainly didn’t, but he was very successful nonetheless.

  • My advice? Be yourself and talk about whatever you want to talk about. Theists are people too.

  • Andrew Morgan

    Think about it this way: if dialog with religious people is pointless because nobody will change their mind, how about dialog with other atheists? Surely that’s even more pointless, since nobody is going to change their mind either. 🙂

  • Thanks for posting this, Hemant, and thanks everyone for your comments so far. My mental state is benefiting greatly from your reassuring and helpful suggestions! 🙂

    If you’re confused by my exasperation, please check out my post (linked above) for a bit more context. In summary, what frustrated me the most is when I was trying to take the conversation with my friends in the direction of how believers treat nonbelievers, and how it feels to be told that you’re “evil,” “sinful” in every way, a “deceiver,” or a “fool” simply because of your lack of religious belief regardless of your other behavior. They didn’t seem to get my point, but said a lot of things about how “God is love” and how having Jesus in your heart is the same thing as being inspired to do kind and caring acts. When I asked if any nice and kind person should then be considered a Christian, they of course said no — you have to actually believe in God and Jesus and all that stuff in the Bible.

    I’ve been trying very hard to stay civil, and they’ve all managed to be very civil with me. I guess I just have to learn how to remain calm when they say “God says yes to every prayer” with a Bible quote in one breath, and “Sometimes God never answers your prayers because he has predestined plans for you” with a different Bible quote in the next breath. I don’t know how to corner someone in a contradiction without coming across as rude or antagonizing. If I find a way to say something politely, I might get lucky and have them understand my point, and hear a response like, “Yeah, that’s something we struggle with.” (And then they move on to another idea.) Struggle with? That’s all? I just can’t identify with their mindset.

  • Nobody’s going to change their mind…
    Neither side is going to compromise on beliefs.

    I disagree. I’ve often have conversations about religious topics where I change my mind. Very rarely on the major stuff of course, but on smaller peripheral issues about *why* I take a particular viewpoint. A large part of having an open mind is being willing to test your beliefs against a different view point. Until you start going in circles it’s usually productive…

  • Korinthian

    I make them run away and note their exit strategy. Taking offense is the most common one (this is usually after a good long conversation).

  • Peregrine

    Whichever side of the discussion you’re on, my advice is the same; Don’t be afraid to speak, and also to listen.

    We don’t have to agree. We don’t have to change minds. What matters is that we make the effort to understand each other.

  • I largely agree with Hemant’s comments in the context of private conversations. Which is not to say I’ve never pursued a pointless conversation, but I agree there is not much value in it.

    In the context of public conversations, I completely disagree. If I am arguing with a theist on a blog, clearly I will likely never convince the person I am arguing with… but who knows who else is reading? It could change another person’s mind who was on the fence, etc.

  • Stephen P

    It isn’t true that “nobody’s going to change their mind”. Some people will indeed never change their mind. But not everyone is like that. You do however have to be prepared for it, in most cases, to take a very long time.

    Occasionally however it can happen quite quickly, as I have seen in several deconversion stories on the web. These were people who only really started digging into the details of their religion in order to prove the skeptics wrong – and discovered to their horror that in fact the skeptics were right.

    Another factor to take into account is that most people dislike being shown that they are wrong. So even if someone does change his mind, that doesn’t mean he’s necessarily going to admit it – at least to you. And try not to get annoyed if, a few years later, someone says “oh, but I never believed that anyway”.

  • Andy

    People definitely change. Where else would this rise in atheism be coming from? It can take a while and it can be frustrating for both sides, but all of your arguments and reasoning do eventually have an affect.

  • Throw them to the lions.

    Oh, wait. That isn’t helpful. Um.

    OK, you don’t have to be right, you just need to ask the right questions. What is it that people know the most about in the whole world and that they find most interesting? Themselves. Talk about what they think, about their experiences, how and why they reached the conclusions they got to. When something isn’t clear or doesn’t make sense then ask for clarification.

    Don’t crow about making them stumble or stumping them. You may have introduced a doubt and it might take time to work through. Don’t be surprised that challenges to their views might well end up strengthening them. That’s how it works with me unless I get proven wrong.

    Be prepared to admit that you are wrong about something because you just might be. It could be something minor or something major but there is always a chance that you might be wrong. Hopefully they’ll extend the same courtesy to you.

    Keep your sense of humour. If you can laugh at yourself then you may not cause so much offence if you laugh at them.

  • muggle

    Look, the point of conversation isn’t to have an echo chamber. It’s to interchange thoughts, ideas and feelings.

    No one is always the same. Even the same person will react differently on different days. If you want predictable reactions, go home and talk to the wall. If you never want to hear any views but your own expressed, get yourself one those Teddy Ruxpin toys that echo your own words back to you.

    Isn’t this rather bigoted? Useless? Futile? Only if you overgeneralize.

    Of course, I’m not out to convert anyone. I only ask to have my disbelief respected.

  • Nobody’s going to change their mind? Tell that to the hordes of the de-converted. It does feel like you get nowhere. No worries! They feel the same way! People change their minds quite frequently. What doesn’t (usually) happen is people changing their ideas overnight. In the heat of a discussion, people tend to cling even harder to their beliefs, but if you are patient, persistent, and polite, people will often mull over the other person’s viewpoints later. What doesn’t work is pissing people off–studies show that in the course of heated arguments, people will begin to hang on to their beliefs much more tightly. And if you are rude, they will remember your rudeness later instead of your ideas.

    What is important isn’t the last word–it’s the words you do speak. Even if they don’t swing over to atheism, good dialogue has a way of at least helping people modify what they think. Generally speaking, anyways. There are exceptions, many people in my family, for example . . .
    There is a name for all of this in psychology, but I forgot the term. :S

  • ChrisZ

    What I like to do, is rather than frame the conversation as an argument, frame it as an explanation. “This is why I don’t find this argument compelling,” tends to lead to less frustration than “This is why that argument is wrong,” because there isn’t even the premise that you’re trying to change one another’s minds, but you still get the same ideas across.

  • Karen

    Be very, very patient. You may have heard Pascal’s Wager – and debunked it – 25 times, but to the theist who brings it up, it’s the unassailable argument they’ve accepted since childhood.

    It’s difficult for those who were never religious to understand how deeply held and deeply personal most religious beliefs are. Attacking them cruelly feels horrible to those who hold them – and makes atheists look like jerks.

    Explaining patiently and introducing new ideas a few at a time is the way to go. That’s how I went through deconversion, just getting little bits of new ideas at a time. It’s impossible to mentally digest more than that because the shift in world view is so extreme.

  • llewelly

    Perseverance is needed. Talk to almost any atheist who was raised devoutly religious. Read Dan Barker’s book. It usually takes a long time for someone to leave religion. It’s not something that happens in a day, a week, or even a year. It usually takes several years.
    The same is necessarily true of getting religious people to consider an atheist point of view. It will take a great deal of dialogue to convince religious people to give us a place at the table. It will take many different kinds of dialogue – both polite and impolite, both cautious and aggressive. There are no shortcuts on the path we have chosen.
    Most importantly, it is not true that neither side will ever compromise on beliefs. The numerous people who have left religion demonstrate that people’s beliefs do change.

  • Siamang

    I think that nobody will change their mind instantly, or during a discussion with you. But people do change.

    I think a lot of people have had very good suggestions. I like what ChrisZ says about a non-debate.

  • Rachael

    I agree that it can be very frustrating and sometimes futile to discuss belief with religious individuals, but focusing on political and social issues can lead to positive discussion. I come from a very Catholic family and am lucky enough to be able to be open about my atheism without facing too much scorn. Over the past few years I’ve had many deep discussions and debates with family members about issues like separation of church and state. In many instances I feel I have opened peoples eyes to the fact that there is a huge imbalance between theists and non-theists in politics. I’ve found that the key to having these debates is to approach it in a way that doesn’t attack the other persons beliefs, or call them wrong, but rather focuses on everyone’s right to their own individual beliefs and the basic freedoms laid down by our Founding Fathers.

  • Sesoron

    This topic really hits home with me, considering recent events. Time for a bit of a story, folks!

    So, for years, I’ve worked at my university’s writing center. For those of you who don’t know what a writing center is, it’s basically a place full of peer tutors who help students with composition and argumentation, and if those are good already, grammatical concerns. Most students don’t know what WCs do before going there (some still don’t afterwards), but we have big regional conferences for our work and everything.

    I attended such a conference this past Saturday. Not only did I attend, I presented. Back when I was considering what I might want to present, I got to thinking what makes me unique among the ranks of the tutors at my school. Yeah, I’m an expert grammarian, but I’ve already presented about that years ago. What else? I’m an atheist. Okay. What does that have to do with the WC? Well, argumentation. I’m part of an ideological minority group in this country. And that makes me valuable to our WC, because a WC that lacks minority or unpopular ideas is at risk for becoming a safe haven for fallacious majority arguments.

    So that’s why I should be doing it. But what did I do? Well, at first I considered a topic that addressed only religion, but then I determined that it wouldn’t be relevant or received very well. So, I decided to present about a concept I call “lines of argumentation”, that is, how far a person can rationally pursue an argument, or the point after which we have to agree to disagree. Sounds like something appropriate to a WC conference.

    Since I’m of the belief that one reason why America is so ideologically backwards is because we don’t like to talk about religion, and because I like to challenge people’s beliefs (or at least the degree to which they want to impose them on others), I was committed to leave religion on the table. I wrote a little speech for the presentation (the rest was to be a roundtable format) that included a very clear and diplomatic statement that, while perfectly valid on a personal basis, religious beliefs are not something you can argue for rationally. I had a feeling people were going to disagree with this. I was prepared to defend it. I set aside a portion for group discussion on this very point. Nobody bit.

    On the surface, I think my presentation and roundtable discussion went very well. But. After the conference was concluded, I was talking to some of my compatriots from my home WC at my university. One of the girls told me that she overheard people talking in the bathroom after my presentation, and evidently people were withholding objections to my arguments on grounds of unnecessary civility. A textbook example of completely missing the point.

    I don’t know what I could have done better to make my point. I was extremely careful to establish that all religious beliefs were valid for individuals, and none of them more valid for their believers than others. I had a hypothetical situation, using the Grid of Disputation, that took a pro-religion stance on church/state separation (i.e. pro-religion was “agree”, atheism was “disagree”). I never mentioned that I was actually an atheist. I acknowledged that many ideas that are popularly attributed to Jesus would be persuasive in an argument, because they adhere to our secular common sense and don’t require divine authority to be good ideas.

    Any ideas as for what I should have done better to convince educated theists that people who disagree with them believe just as strongly as they do and with just as much reason?

  • Jeff Satterley

    I think it’s important to realize that when you’re talking with a persistent theist, they might not be the only person listening (if they’re even listening). Even if you’re not going to change that person’s mind, others might be interested in what you have to say. That’s what keeps me talking about this stuff…

  • Richard P

    An old boss and I used to have many conversations about raising kids. We had considerably different opinions. Beliefs like a child’s right to an opinion, Whether or not they should be allowed to eat at the same table, if spanking was an effective teaching tool. We argued about this many times and it seemed fruitless. Then one day I heard him arguing with someone else, using a perspective that was originally mine. It seemed a very short time after that that I noticed a tremendous change in how he was treating his son.

    It was a change in thinking that slowly came to take place.

    I see talking to theists this way. Small conversations bringing new ideas will eventually take seed and grow. If not it was good practice for when it could happen.

  • I truly believe that for any meaningful change to happen, we need to be in relationship with people that are different from ourselves. Dialogue is a pretty important part of relationship. I can never hope to change someones mind by yelling, ignoring or disrespecting, but I can hope for change through love, understanding and compassion.

  • pete

    hoverFrog Says:”Throw them to the lions..Keep your sense of humour. If you can laugh at yourself then you may not cause so much offence if you laugh at them”

    L.o.L ..I like it…Seems to work for me also.

    Hemant Mehta says:”I talk about the need for them to take those ideas back to their churches and pastors”

    Me too.People feel better if they feel less pressured,they more likely to considder rather than close their minds off.And we need folks of faith to start discussion amongst themselves also.

    Blogs and public forums are important.You might get no where with teaching the old dog you speaking with new tricks,but many puppys in the background quietly listening are often keen to learn.

    Dialogue is very useful,we see its having effect already.The big part of the ball game is keeping it up..In the past progress was made,only to be lost when many folks lost interest.

  • Pseudonym

    Here’s a free clue: If you think that the point is to convert the other side, make them compromise their beliefs, or persuade an innocent bystander that you are right and they are wrong, then you don’t have a clue what “dialogue” is about.

    If you want to know what the point is, look at what’s happening in the world of interfaith dialogue.

  • The Other Tom

    I have frequently debated against religious morons about their opposition to my civil rights as a gay man. Debating them about religion outright is pretty much the same experience.

    I approach such arguments with some consideration: if I think it’s just going to be an argument with the one person, unless it’s someone I care about personally, I skip it. But, if it’s in a public forum, I might take them on, for the sake of the audience; I know that I may not convince the person I’m arguing with, probably won’t, but that I might convince the audience.

    Next comes a choice of tactic. I could go for a direct and mannerly confrontation, in which I express disagreement with the points of my opponent and bring up evidence to support my arguments, or I could ridicule them, taking every opportunity to show how ridiculous their remarks are and goading them into saying increasingly absurd stuff to demonstrate to the audience what an idiot they are and, by extension, how idiotic their position is. Usually, I choose the mannerly confrontation if I think there’s any hope of actually convincing my opponent to agree with me, and ridicule if I just want to destroy their image in front of the audience.

    On the other hand, a couple of times I went with the “ridicule” approach and actually managed to win over my opponent to my side anyway.

    I also keep in mind that a conversion (to believing in gay equality, to atheism, whatever) is not an overnight event. It takes a lot of time and consideration. So, when I’m trying to actually make someone change their mind, I don’t go into it with the expectation that they will do so in one session, so I don’t use the argument “here is why I am right and you are wrong and that’s definitive so either agree with me or I have nothing else to say to you.” I argue points, I go after specific fallacies they have used, but above all I try to force them to recognize that the memorized BS they’re parroting at me is… off. That could involve proving it wrong, or it could involve making them see that right or wrong it’s still harming people, or it could mean demonstrating to them that even if they’re right I don’t believe what they’re saying, so they have to stop and consider why, or it could involve forcing them to realize that even if they’re right they’re not actually convincing anyone so they have to stop and think about it just to come up with a new argument to try.

    But regardless of the method, my goal is to force them to stop and think about it, even if only to choose a new tactic. Every time their brain turns on for a moment is an opportunity for them to come a little closer to realizing the truth. I may be the one who finally pushes them over the edge into realization, or I may not. It may happen that day, or it may not. I may be there to see it when it happens, or I may not. But when it happens, that’s one more person working on the side of reason, sanity, and civility, which makes the effort I put in worthwhile.

  • Just remember, people may not change when you are discussing but some things will stick with them and they will change years later. Especially if your statements emotionally hit them: either kindly or with piercing criticism they just happen to be sensitive to. Or at least that is how I deconverted.

  • andrew

    He doesn’t know that that individual will change their mind or not.

    Losing faith is a slow process. If we keep beating stuff with the reason stick, something’s got to give.

  • I’ve just started a blog series on this question, and the response has been great.

    I think several of the commenters here have it exactly right: It’s crucial to have the arguments out there for those who’ve reached their teachable moment, but as Jonathan Swift did or didn’t say, you can’t generally reason someone out of something they weren’t reasoned into. Direct argument rarely accomplishes even a fraction of what we can do by being both out and normal.

  • TXatheist

    I disagree because just like they think, “you’ve planted a seed of doubt” (not a seed of faith/hope for heaven) I went round and round yesterday with a nun who swore up and down she had a jesus statue that bled blood tears that were from THE jesus and that a cloud she saw once was exactly like the baby jesus. I’m not making that up.

  • I suppose you get precisely the same thing I’ve gotten in my conversations with atheists: an opportunity for real, honest exchange and the potential to develop a relationship based on respect.

    There are some folks with whom that’s just not possible. Both Ray Comfort and the RRS come to mind. But these conversations are important, particularly if we can approach them with open minds and hearts.

    Knowing 1) how to listen and 2) how to speak so that you’re comprehensible to the other are essential here. Even if y’all might not buy into our Easter Bunny Sky Daddy God, there are plenty of things that we still share. If we’re just being trolls to one another, we get nowhere.

    It isn’t how we treat those like us that matters, but our ability to be welcoming and gracious to those who are different…even to the point of being an “enemy.”

  • Nobody’s going to change their mind, and it doesn’t even feel like we’re speaking the same language.


    Neither side is going to compromise on beliefs.

    I don’t agree with either of these statements. At all. I’ve had more than one person tell me that they became atheists, in part, because of things I wrote. And I became an atheist, in part, because of things other people wrote. Most atheists were once believers… and we had our minds changed by something. Our numbers wouldn’t be increasing if that weren’t true.

    I do think that, in one-on-one conversations, we need to shift our expectations. We can’t expect people to change their minds overnight. People tend to be very attached to their religious beliefs: we need to remember that letting go of those beliefs is emotionally hard, and that simply making a killer argument isn’t going to do it. We need to shift our expectations from “make the killer arguments that will change this person’s mind” to “plant the seeds of doubt and give them the tools they’ll need to re-think these questions on their own.” (And we also need to do a better job of making atheism a safe place to land once people do leave their religion.) We’re not dynamite under the foundations: we’re water on rock.

    You might be interested in a survey I took and a piece I wrote (sorry for the self-linkage, but it really is relevant): What Convinced You? A Non-Belief Summary… and an Atheist Game Plan. I did an informal survey of non-believers in my blog, asking, “What changed your mind?” — and then summarized the answers into a game plan for what is and is not actually helpful in getting people to question their faith. Short answer: Yes, we can make a difference. It just takes time.

  • The Other Tom

    Greta Christina, your survey is very interesting, thank you for doing that. And I agree with your remarks in the article that it would be very interesting to do as a detailed study on a much larger group of atheists.

  • Dan

    I disagree. They could be made to believe as children, they can be made not to believe as adults. It’s a harder lesson, but it can be done.

  • Willis

    “…focus the conversation on things we can agree on.

    I talk about the need for separation of church and state…

    I wish that were true. Fundamentalist (and other?) Christians tie themselves in all kinds of knots to establish articles of their faith in laws that affect all of us. I don’t understand.

  • margarita

    What advice do you have for talking with theists?

    I’d give the same advice that I wish theists would follow when talking with atheists. Do not tell them what they believe. Tell them what you believe. Listen and respond to what they say, not what you think they secretly mean.

  • Philoctetes

    I agree that trying to argue theists out of their core beliefs is either like shooting fish in a barrel (pardon the pun) or like trying to crack a rotten walnut. Either it is too easy and they are embarrassed, or it is so hard that any points you score are tainted by the struggle.

    I find my most productive conversations with theists are either why they believe or why they should stop persecuting atheists.

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