So, I wrote my midterm assignment on “Creating a Handbook”, using various styles we’d learned throughout the course of study and wrote a smartassy piece on how to communicate with a theist as a smug non-believer. Was a little worried that I’d get a poor grade just for being a cynical asshole, but the professor ended up diggin’ it and gave me 100%. Figured I’d throw it on this wall for the hell of it.
[The formatting from Word to WordPress sucks.
My bullet points are a little screwy. Oh well. It fits with the satirical implications.]
Handbook for an Atheist
(on how to [kinda] communicate with a theist)
The term “Atheist” is very broadly defined to include those who firmly do not believe that there’s enough evidence for a God to exist, those who believe in no God of any sort, and those for whom the term “God” has no meaning.
The Gallup Organization regularly finds that about 93% of the 228+ million adults living in America believe in either a God or a ‘higher power’. However, it should be noted that this source is often taken out of context by the media as stating that over 90% of Americans believe in a personal God.
In fact, you’ll find statistics similar to these in most parts of the world. Atheists (and agnostics) are the minority and typically misunderstood, disliked, and treated with many stereotypes. The same can also be said for the view many Atheists have towards those with religious beliefs, but it’s rare because atheists tend to lead near-perfect lives. A non-believer will say that the burden of proving the claim of a higher power should rest on the one making the claim. Most Atheists understand that science is objective and, by its very nature, evolves through technology and better understandings of our universe. Science can be proven, disproven, tested, and explained. God, on the other hand, is created entirely based upon what the believer chooses to incorporate into their personal system of belief – both at the individual and group levels.
As an Atheist, I try not to butt-in or engage in discussion with Theists unless I’m provoked into the conversation either directly by a pointed question, or indirectly overhearing ridiculous nonsensical clichés in a neighboring conversation. Only then do I decide to open the doors of communication. However, it’s a tricky situation to jump into. My personal experience has proven that anyone (religion aside) with strong, passionate convictions regarding their systems of belief is generally difficult to convince to see things any other way. Throw God and religion into the mix and suddenly you’re no longer debating ‘logic’ in a scientific, provable sense; you’re debating that person’s sensitive Faith. Faith, by its very definition, is holding a personal belief that something (God, in this case) is truth without the ability to present tangible, testable, viewable evidence. However, Faith is not the pathway to truth… it is gullibility.
Regardless, these discussions can generally become heated if not approached correctly. The following tactics can be used to successfully ‘steer’ the conversation in a productive manner. Perhaps both sides of the argument can learn something from this. It’s doubtful that either will budge much, but maybe you’ll diversify your friend portfolio if nothing else.
Communication is Symbolic
- Both verbal (speaking), and non-verbal (facial expression, body language) is usually employed when conversing with someone. When controversial and taboo subjects such as spiritual beliefs are discussed, it’s important to be cognitive of these things.
- It can be easily taken as condescending and smug if you roll your eyes, shrug your shoulders, yawn, or mumble under your breath about how ignorant they seem while listening to the person speak. You can usually lead a horse to water, but if you’re making faces and calling it a stupid horse, then it probably won’t drink and may even kick you into the pond you just led it to.
- Maintaining eye contact is important. It tells the listener that you’re not just ‘hearing’ what they have to say; you’re being respectful of their time and ideas. Yes, they may be uninformed and wrong… but amuse them by remaining consistent to this technique. In the end, you’ll win by default. This will make more sense in a moment.
- Do not instantly assume the intentions behind their verbal and nonverbal communications. It could be they’re leading up to some Nobel Prize winning statement. By prejudging their reactions you could possibly break their train of thought. That’s one less potential genius you just yanked from the gene pool. Congratulations.
- Remember, just because they’re not instantly buying into your crazy scientific explanation of, say, how we evolved from apes and not Adam, doesn’t mean anything. It could be distrust, but it could also be curiosity. Or they’re just fearful of standing too close to you in case of a sudden lightening strike.
- Beliefs in anything (whether the belief is in the idea of supernatural deities, Intelligent Design, and divine laws – or just the belief of “not having a belief”) commonly derive from the cultural background of the individual in question.
- Johnny was raised Mormon. Every part of his childhood memory includes some form of church doctrine. The monthly Ensign on the back of the toilet, the Boys Life subscription he can’t wait to receive in order to earn a new Merit Badge, or that one thing that happened in the Bishop’s office that Johnny would rather not talk about. Johnny was raised to be respectful and moral according to church standards and family tradition. If you sin, you pray to God about it or you don’t make it to the upper-echelon of heavenly resorts. Nobody wants to spend eternity in a Motel 6 while their family parties it up with God at the Taj Palace.
- Darren wasn’t raised with any belief in a higher power. His parents simply taught him how to be respectful of others, make moral decisions based on cause and effect, open doors for people, and try to be a decent human being. If Darren made mistakes, he’d apologize to the person he wronged. Afterwards they’d go get a beer and put the whole mess behind them.
- Understanding the audience you’re engaging in is critical. Most of the time, in order for them to comprehend where you’re coming from, you may need to ‘speak their language’ (or at least know of its rules), and construct your words and nonverbal actions accordingly.
- Hone in on those cultural differences and exploit ask questions to understand them better. This is a good way to begin bridging the gaps between Darren and Johnny.
- Nobody thought it was cool when Tom Cruise jumped on Oprah’s couch because of his excitement over Katie. Yeah, yeah… it’s great that you’ve found the ultimate happiness in life, Tom. However, your happiness has nothing to do with mine. Unless you’re providing ways I can incorporate whatever gave you such joy into my own life, then I couldn’t care less. The odds of you sharing Katie with world is as likely to happen as Xenu coming back to earth to rescue the lost Thetans from the volcano. So, simmer down and let’s chat like adults.
- The same can be said for anyone engaging in the delicate topic of God. Be polite. Be respectful. Keep in mind that, even though creationists have a difficult time differentiating between logic and fantasy, what they need to say can still be an important lesson to learn. Plus, as long as you’re maintaining composure, when it’s your turn to speak you’ll be able to kindly remind them that you just wasted 30 minutes of your life hearing them come to absolutely no point.
- Many people of faith will try to disprove and discredit your beliefs by using science and history against you:
- Carbon dating isn’t accurate!
- This country was founded on Christianity!
- It says right here: In God We Trust!
- You must be a commie!
- Hitler was an Atheist!
- How is there good and evil, right and wrong, without God?!
- Yes, while it’s often difficult to contest these well thought out points, the truth of the matter is: sometimes it’s just best to just smile and nod.
The Listening Process
- When people are speaking passionately (even if it seems foolishly aggressive), it’s best to listen to their words and silently placate them. This is most helpful when tallying up all of the horrifically inaccurate mistakes and contradictions they’re reciting in order to turn it back around by asking specifically pointed questions. How else are you to unravel the comfy sweater of their belief system without first waiting patiently to find the loose threads. Eventually they’ll get tired of flailing their arms around. This is your chance to grab and yank… hard.
- Language is used to express feelings. Chances are that a religious person is feeling all sorts of tension by the sheer anxiety of standing this close to someone of your intellectual capacity. Be cautious. Just because there’s a Christian moniker, it does not exempt them from hurling a colorful vocabulary of non-God-approved words at you. You may also be dammed to Hell at some point. Unfortunately, when God is on your side you’ve got an unlimited amount of Get Outta Jail Free cards in the form of prayer. In some situations it might even be claimed that God would approve of their message. Of course this isn’t true. God would simply smite you on the spot and not waste much time communicating his holy message through the mouth of this knuckledragger before you.
- When replying to anything, remain on the low side of the abstraction scale.
- “You’re an ignorant knuckledragger, Creationist!” is not a healthy approach.
- This can easily be modified to instead say, “If I’m hearing you correctly, you’re not quite grasping the context of what it is I’m trying to explain. I apologize. If you could please cease fire on the ad hominem attacks then I’d be glad to summarize my views in a less aggressive manner .”
- To which they’ll most likely refer to you as a snooty know-it-all jerk. If that’s the case, maintain course, assure them you have the best of intentions, and continue proving to them that you’re indeed superior in the ways of communication.
- Don’t be a defensive listener. People on “the other side” are like less likely to respond well. They’ll perceive your reactions as selective, selfish, and hurtful. If you’re out to hurt, hurt with the truth.
- Avoid stereotyping.
- Just because there’s a Sarah Palin or Glenn Beck bumper sticker on their car, doesn’t mean this person isn’t open to new ideas. They might have recently purchased the vehicle from a car lot and the previous owner was more than likely a religion zealot. This isn’t the fault of the individual you’re now talking with; they may not realize what they’ve been advertising. Perhaps even offering to grab a razor to help scrape off the bumper stickers would be a welcomed and inviting gesture.
- Regardless, leave the stereotyping to them. Don’t become as a theist would by allowing your prejudices to interfere with rational thought. This is what separates you from them. You are clearly not as stupid.
- Perceptual barriers form when we perceive things, or a situation, or a person, to be a certain way based upon our tendency to judge and store what we learn in Schemas.
- Remember: it is human nature to judge your surroundings. Often times we get stuck with predefined ideas of what the outcome of a situation will be simply based upon our Schemas, or mental structures that put together related bits of information. In layman terms: schemas are created through years of conditioning. Anytime we experience something either positive or negative, we store selective parts of that experience in our minds. When a particular situation arises, we instantly look into our box of predisposed schemas to select the best response for that situation. If someone says, “Hi!”, you search your schema set and reply with what you’ve learned as the appropriate response (“Yo, dude!”).
- The trouble with using schemas for every situation is getting stuck in a rut of mindlessness and selective perception. Before you know it, you’ll have a tough time discerning between the true intention of a conversation with a religious person and the outcome you invented in your head based solely on past occurrences with similar encounters.
- Mindlessness allows you to go through certain communication transactions automatically; you don’t have to consciously think about how to talk with a creationist. You just know that it’ll end with you feeling better about yourself while he/she feels drained of all they thought was true.
- Also, undue credibility occurs when you give greater credibility or importance to something shown or said than should be the case. This is clearly the case with religious fanatics claiming God created the universe in 6 days.
- Pointing schemas out to less educated theists can be entertaining, but it’s best to not waste these scientific discussions on sheep. Save them instead for dinner with your more evolved God-dismissing, evolutionist friends over expensive brandy, a crackling fire, and soft Mozart playing on the hi-fi in the library.
- Avoid schemas. They lead to boredom, overconfidence, and laziness; the hallmarks of one without freedom of thought.
Conflict and Managing Conflict
- Conflict is a negative reaction with two or more independent people, rooted in some actual or perceived disagreement.
- Conflict Management is the way that we engage in conflict and address disagreements with our relational partners.
- Most generally, it’s safe to assume that conflict is bound to happen with most political and religious debates. Sure, there are the rare situations where a disagreement may arise over which 90′s artist would have been the better spokesperson for Greenpeace: R.E.M. or Midnight Oil, but those conflicts are normally well intended and resolved quickly.
- Productive conflict fosters healthy debate. The end goal of arguing with a creationist is to get them to see your side. Name calling and making things up aside, if your opponent can’t see the logic of your discussion in a rational manner, then what’s the point? You should both come to an understanding at some point without blunt force trauma to the head caused by a thrown bible or a Richard Dawkins book on natural selection.
- Productive conflict leads to better decision making. Well, unless the decision is to continue worshipping man-made myths, then clearly the debate wasn’t successful on the atheist’s part.
- Watch for conflict triggers:
- At some point, odd as it may seem, someone is going to disagree with something you’re saying. No need for alarm! This doesn’t mean you’ve lost the cause, it only means your cause needs to be reassessed. You must have missed vital points along the way. Retrace your steps and hammer every topic home again.
- As discussed earlier, beware of making inaccurate perceptions by assuming the person you’re debating with is a devout Glenn Beck follower. Sure, they may invest in gold from time to time, but that is no reason to stereotype them as a mindless teabagger.
- What is the goal of your discussion? If the goals are incompatible from the get-go, is there any reason to storm through the meadow hosing down Bambi with an automatic assault rifle? No. Your goals should be mutually accessible even if you must agree to disagree and celebrate with venison for dinner.
- Keep it fair, keep it accurate, stay on target, and don’t be a jerk. That’s what your religious friend needs to remember.
- If conflict does arise, keep in mind the following strategies to wriggle away from or nose dive through:
- Escapist: Avoid the conflict in the first place by looking for obvious signs of the difficulty you’re about to face (bumper stickers, hair kept a certain way, pleated pants, a Jesus fish on the trunk). Get out well before trouble sparks.
- Challenging: Jump in, full force, regardless of stickers and hair. You’ve got a point to make and it’s going to take more than a few memorized scriptures to throw you off track. You’ve been warned, Christian.
- Cooperative: If all else fails, agree on some middle ground. Work together to understand each other’s stance. Even if it’s completely against the grain of reason, chances are they’re just envious of your awesomeness.
- Win-win, lose-lose, or win-lose – with science it doesn’t matter. You’ll always be a winner because science is objective and can change anytime there’s ‘new evidence’ presented. Keep that in mind and continue feeling proud. Your self-esteem should be glowing like Chernobyl by now.
- What is there to say? A group of God loving/fearing nuts is the cornerstone of what makes religion, religion. The trouble with confronting a complex group all following the same handbook is strength in numbers. And numbers involving idiocy with an indefinite amount of zeros behind it is unfortunately a daunting task to face and overcome.
- ‘Groupthink’ results from overly strong feelings of loyalty and unity within a group.
- The more people you have following along with one set of ideas, the less likely they are to speak up and spawn new ideas. Everyone goes with the flow and keeps the wave-making to a dull ripple.
- Members who do express disagreement with the majority are pressured to conform to the majority view.
- Tough questions are ignored, discouraged, or advised that not enough praying has ensued.
- Members will inevitably spend more effort justifying their decisions than testing them.
- This is why churches thrive to this day and the same ideals have been regurgitated for a few millennia.
- As an atheist, getting your point across to a group versus an individual is like trying to hang out with one gang member versus the entire violent gang. Sure, your gang friend is fun and can play a great round of Wii Bowling in a 1 on 1 scenario, but as soon as his gang buddies join in, you better either be packing some heat, or escape quickly out the backdoor!
- Many different varieties of leadership exists. Determining whether or not you’ve ‘got the stuff’ to lead people is another question entirely.
- Atheists don’t necessarily have leaders, but they do have spokespeople who represent the local groups. Herding atheists together is akin to herding cats. Yes, they’ll all meow loudly and maybe eventually meander to where you’re trying to get them to go, but some will hide under the car, others in the attic. Some will hiss and whine, or maybe they’ll just lick themselves and fall asleep.
- A participative leader will understand what the people (ie: cats) need. He/she welcomes their meow as a valid opinion. This style works best when group members are competent and motivated and get enough catnip.
- A supportive leader attends to group members’ emotional needs. This style is helpful when members feel frustrated with a task or get discouraged with the group’s progress. And who wouldn’t be occasionally frustrated when the religious right continually attempts to crush the progress by accusing your group of being soulless alleycats oppressing their freedom of religion?
- An achievement-oriented leader sets challenging goals and communicates high expectations and standards to members. If it’s the big day to rally against the pro-lifers who are currently picketing the local Planned Parenthood, then this type of leader will encourage out-of-the-box thinking and keep you focused on tangible outcomes. In this case, the outcome would be to make those guys look way outnumbered and foolish.
- Not all leaders demonstrate these qualities. Surprisingly, some of them resort to poor ethical tactics such as bullying, or behaviors such as harsh criticism. If the leader of your particular group suddenly begins to stick out his tongue, flip off, or become overly sarcastic towards the ‘other’ group you’re protesting, quickly jab a tazer into his (or her) neck and vote for a replacement.
- All paws up if you’re in agreement.