Ask Richard: Atheist’s Christian Father Poses Challenging Questions September 10, 2012

Ask Richard: Atheist’s Christian Father Poses Challenging Questions

Note: Letter writers’ names are changed to protect their privacy.

Hi Hemant and Richard,

My dad is a fundamentalist Christian who has only recently discovered I’ve become an atheist. Luckily, he has a very logical/curious intellect which I know has been clouded by his own religious upbringing, and now he’s interested in engaging in a decent, sincere discussion with me. I know we have a potential “convert” here…

He’s given me a list of starting points. I’ve come to realize that the hardest questions are the simplest, so I’m reaching out to see if you can give me your two cents on each of these:

(1) What is truth?
(2) What is faith?
(3) What is evidence?
(4) Does evidence equal proof?
(5) What roles do faith and evidence play in order to reach the truth? How do they relate?

Clearly he thinks faith is a valid pathway to truth…
I know you’re busy as ever, but I’d appreciate any input!
You rock. Thank you.

Your fan,

Dear Raphael,

In every conversation there is what relationship counselors call the “content,” and what they call the “process.” The content is whatever is the surface topic being discussed, such as where to go to dinner, what to do about the leak in the roof, or what is truth, faith, and evidence.

The process is the relationship between the two people that is being acted out under the surface during the conversation. Perhaps they are meeting as equals. Maybe one is dominating or trying to dominate the other. It might be an adversarial competition. It could be a cooperative effort to decide something. A completely unrelated problem might be what’s really on one of their minds. There can be all sorts of roles that the two people might be playing, and they can experience all sorts of feelings, from very mild to very intense.

Yet they often think they’re just talking about the content, such as dinner, or the roof, or what is truth. Realizing what the process is can help people to make their interactions more positive and productive.

Take a couple of steps back from this whole scene, look for the process, and question whether or not you really want to play these roles with your dad.

For instance, you said,

…and now he’s interested in engaging in a decent, sincere discussion with me. I know we have a potential “convert” here…

Most of the atheists whom I know find believers’ efforts to convert us to be annoying at the very least, all the way up to infuriating. If you have a similar reaction when it’s done to you, then don’t do it to him.

In the meantime, your dad’s underlying intention might be to convert you, but if you don’t get sucked into countering that with your own conversion effort, you can turn the whole interaction toward something far more valuable, something precious.

He wants to have a “decent, sincere discussion.” This is a rare opportunity to make your relationship with your dad more intimate and mutually satisfying. For too many families, discovering a member’s atheism results in a catastrophic collapse of the relationship. Winning agreement is a trivial distraction here; building mutual understanding is what is important. Your dad will come to his own conclusions about his own beliefs of his own accord and in his own time. If you handle this wisely, you can both have more love and respect for each other regardless of where either of your opinions go.

The other process that you should stand back and look at is the role that your dad is trying to set up here. He’s probably a decent fellow, but I get the impression that he likes to be in control of things. He has given you “a list of starting points.” Why should he decide what the starting points should be? This is an attempt to lay down his rules for his game, to have a debate framed by him with his criteria. It’s a manipulation called one-upmanship, where he has cast himself in the role of the boss or the professor, and you are expected to play the employee or the student who must come and stand before him with your (probably inadequate) attempt to answer his questions.

Don’t fall for that. Speak as respectful equals, or not at all.

You don’t have to answer his list of questions like it’s a Philosophy 101 midterm exam. The way he has presented them, they’re clearly rhetorical questions anyway. These are issues that he has brought up, and it’s clear that he has something to say about them, so tell him he should answer his own questions. You’ll listen and think about it, and then you can gradually discuss where you agree and disagree.

All your life, he has presented religious assertions and claims to you. Now he has discovered that you are not convinced. I emphasize that phrase because that is how you should describe your position. An atheist is a person who is simply not convinced of the existence of gods. You need more than some other people do to be convinced. Quaint fables, soaring sermons, impassioned testimonials, the endless repetition of reassuring clichés, and a pervasive system of social rewards for believing and social penalties for doubting have not been sufficient to convince you.

That’s not your fault. It’s the fault of a presentation that is inadequate for your needs.

This is not about being superior or inferior; it’s just a difference. Some people need more of certain vitamins than others to be healthy. Some people need more calories per day than others to maintain their weight. Some people need more than hearing words to convince them of invisible, intangible things.

This stance of being unconvinced puts the work back where it ought to be, on the shoulders of your dad, the person who has been making the assertions and claims. Do not be put on the defensive for being unconvinced. He should have to defend and support the assertions and claims that he had hoped you would easily accept.

Keep your responses to his remarks cordial, simple, and personal. You don’t need to present eloquent and masterful arguments of epistemology. Just describe in simple terms the kind of things that have convinced you of something, and the kind of things that have failed to convince you.

For example, perhaps you heard someone claim something sounding a little strange, and so instead of simply believing it, you went and looked for yourself. Whatever your conclusion was, seeing for yourself was far more convincing than hearing someone claim it. This is how you are different from others who are convinced just by hearing a claim. It’s part of your deeply-rooted individual personality. You need to look and see it rather than just hear about it. That’s what “skeptical” means: To look, to investigate.

A series of brief chats with lots of “think about it” time in between will probably be better than a long, heavy discussion. Both of you can gradually discover in each other an interesting, thoughtful person neither of you had fully appreciated. Let humor, affection, and the simple enjoyment of each other’s company be at least as important as the content that you talk about, and better yet, let them be much more important.


You may send your questions for Richard to AskRichard. Please keep your letters concise. They may be edited. There is a very large number of letters. I am sorry if I am unable to respond to them all.

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