Talking To Believers, Part 1: Purpose-Driven Dialogue

If you’re like me, you are a skeptic, who might find yourself embroiled in a conversation with a believer from time to time about matters of religion and faith.  It may happen unexpectedly, intentionally, or through the efforts of your religious interlocutor.  I’d like to offer a few thoughts about how you might handle yourself, prepare yourself for this sort of thing, and how you can do a good job in such a conversation and make yourself, and your fellow skeptics, look good as a result of your efforts.

The first thing you have to ask yourself is why are you having this conversation at all.

Now, that statement could be taken the wrong way, as an implication that your interlocutor by definition has nothing worthwhile to say or that dialogue between skeptics and believers is inevitably not worthwhile.  I do think that at some point the dialogue stops being productive, but it is also useful for a long time up until then.  No, by this, I mean to ask, what is your goal for the conversation?  What do you hope to accomplish in the dialogue?

By the same token, you need to ask yourself why your conversational partner is talking to you.  What does she hope to accomplish in the exchange?

It’s very important to understand what goals everyone in the conversation has, because then you can tailor your remarks along the way to better facilitate those goals (or obstruct them, if that is your own purpose).  I’m not here to judge when it is or is not appropriate to have any particular purpose because with one exception, none of the possibilities I’m suggesting here is categorically evil, and I’ll suggest that you not engage in that goal.

Although I’m thinking specifically about how skeptics should approach conversations with believers here, in fact these are good things to keep in mind whenever you find yourself disagreeing with someone on pretty much anything.

Affirmation — Have you ever had the impression that the person you are arguing with is saying what she’s saying in order to convince herself that she’s right?  That’s what affirmation is all about.  The affirmant wants to exercise her belief system by articulating it and attempting to communicate it to someone else.  The affirmant will know all the words to the song but not really have a feel for the melody.  “If it just makes so much sense to you, maybe that means it really does make sense and I am right to think as I do.”  If you find yourself trying to work through an idea that you are arguing for, you are seeking affirmance that you are right.  Let me suggest that someone who disagrees with the idea you are trying to articulate may not be an ideal source of that kind of validation.  If you get the sense that your interlocutor is seeking this sort of validation, you may want to shift your own purpose towards conversion because there is uncertainty on the other side, and thus an opportunity for persuasion to take place.

Amusement — I might be talking to you simply because I find it enjoyable or fun to do so.  Whether I win or lose, whether you are persuaded in any way that there is any validity at all to what I say, that’s all irrelevant.  What matters is that going through these conversational motions gives me pleasure.  Should you wish to end a conversation that I am pursuing for its amusement value, you need to start being tedious.  I may not always express my amusement in the form of jokes, smiles, or other overt signals of pleasure; my pleasure may be internal and leave me outwardly looking as though I am in deep, serious thought.  People play chess because it’s fun, even if they look like they’re anxious about a loved one’s pending surgery while they’re doing it.  And people sometimes have discussions with those with whom they disagree, for the same reason and with the same result.

Catharsis — If you find yourself expressing deep and possibly venemous emotions towards religion, you are giving vent to your own resentment and unhappiness, probably left over from your own de-conversion.  Similarly, a religionist who acts as though the mere presence of an atheist is an existential threat to life, the universe, and everything, is also venting a raw and powerful emotion — fear being at the root of most of these sorts of things.  The point of cathartic conversations is to express and exhaust these deep emotions.  You cannot reason with emotions.  Evidence and logic are useless against them.  Do not waste your time citing evidence, making logical appeals, or even referring to common sense.  The best way to avoid the tedium of an interlocutor’s catharsis is to validate their emotions early on, before they can build up a head of steam.

Conversion and/or De-Conversion — The goal here is to change your interlocutor’s mind on a particular issue.  It is my considered opinion that this task is impossible for the skeptic.  A skeptic will not get a believer to stop believing no matter how persuasive or logical the skeptic’s statements are.  The best you can hope for is to plant a seed of doubt, and that this seed will germinate and grow into a healthier attitude later in the believer’s life.  Even then, that’s hoping for a lot.  A decision to abandon one’s faith must come from within oneself and cannot be imposed from the outside.  Similarly, having had to listen to a number of people try and convert me throughout my life, I’m pretty sure that unless a skeptic is both weakly skilled in logic and critical thought and in an emotionally vulnerable state, nothing a religious person says will convert the skeptic.  It certainly can’t be done by an appeal to logic and evidence.

Education — Your goal as an educator is to accurately convey an idea to your interlocutor.  This is similar to evangelism (below) and conversion (above) in the sense that you must articulate the idea and get it into your conversation partner’s head.  But education occupies a middle ground between the two.  The educator’s job ends at the point that understanding is communicated.  The educator is not necessarily asking that the interlocutor agree with the concept being communicated, but it is also not enough simply to say the words correctly and with passion.  What matters here is that you really understand what I’m talking about; my goal is to turn on the light bulb in your head.  You may think about it and decide that I’m wrong, but at least you understand what it is that I’m wrong about.

Evangelism — I distinguish this goal from the goal of conversion, because the evangelist’s purpose is fulfilled by professing the doctrine.  A religious evangelist likely feels some sort of duty to “spread the good word.”  While this is often followed up by a pitch for conversion (or de-conversion; skeptics do this too) that is not necessary for the evangelist.  Simply reciting the world view and its tenets is enough.  The evangelist fundamentally wants attention, an audience, an opportunity to be heard.  Patiently listening and promising to think about it later is frequently enough to satisfy an evangelist who does not want to seek converts.
Gratification — If I speak or write from a gratification objective, it is because I want my ego stroked.  I want you to admire me — my intelligence, my quick wit and cleverness, the power of my arguments.  My goal here is to “win,” for the sake of winning.  I’m talking to hear myself speak, I’m talking to feel important.  You can either burst my bubble or play along, depending on your own conversational objective.  But what will make me feel good is if you say nice things about me that I feel like I’ve somehow earned through what I’ve said.

Money — Maybe your interlocutor is saying these thing because someone is paying him to do so.  Lawyers do this all the time but they’re not the only ones.  If your interlocutor’s motive is money, his sincerity might be questionable, but it is much more important is to understand the sponsor’s motivation in hiring this spokesperson.

Performance — A performer is not really concerned with the interlocutor’s response to the dialogue at all.  The performer wants to appeal to a third party observer.  The interlocutor is a foil for that pitch to third parties to take place.  Typically, any kind of a public or formal debate is aimed at the third-party audience; it is exceedingly uncommon for one debater to actually change another’s mind.  If I’m debating you, I’m really speaking to the people who are watching (or reading) us debate.  My purpose is something else on this list, but aimed at the third parties rather than you.

Persuasion — If you want your interlocutor to decide something in a manner you prefer, you are trying to persuade her.  Generally, this presumes that your interlocutor either has not made up her mind about the issue under discussion, or at least does not have a strong feeling on the issue one way or another.  For instance, you might have a believer on your hands who seems like she is willing to believe that evolution took place, but isn’t quite ready to let go of the idea that God was involved somehow.  She can be persuaded to understand that non-divine, naturalistic causes exist that motivate and move evolution.

Practice — Your interlocutor may be trying to sharpen up her arguments for use later.  You are not her quarry; someone else is, and she’s honing her blade, preparing her arguments, testing them in the crucible of a real interchange, so that when the real contest comes, she’ll be better prepared.  There may not be a specific event or discussion she has in mind; she just wants to be ready when it eventually happens.  The value she gets out of the conversation is directly proportional to your abilities as a sparring partner.

Proselytizing — I distinguish proselytizer from both conversion and evangelism in that the goal of the proselytizer is to gain recruits for their group.  A missionary comes to your front door to proselytize.  Sure, the missionary claims to care about what you really believe.  But what he really wants is for you to go to his church (and tithe).  Skeptics proselytize all the time, or at least they should, to get people to join their rationalist, freethinking, skeptic, atheist, or whatever other similar sort of group they might have.  Proselytism is a membership drive and its success is measures in numbers of warm bodies who join and in deltas on balance sheets.

Sadism — this is the one goal of a conversation that I think is outright evil.  A sadism-driven discussant is one whose goal is to humiliate and emotionally distress her interlocutor.  Note that for some of our other purposes, humiliation or emotional distress might be a side effect of particular tactical decisions, but the difference here is one of intent.  If I make my interlocutor cry, that bothers me.  I don’t want her to cry.  I want her to understand where I am coming from, and I regret that reaching that understanding (or not) has caused her to suffer intensely unpleasant emotions.  Nevertheless, even if your goal is not sadistic, you might suspect that your interlocutor’s goal is.  Use of direct personal attacks (“Well, you’re just stupid for saying that”) or sharply aggressive tones of voice are hallmarks of the sadist.  Should you be in a conversation with someone who seems to want to use the disagreement as a platform to inflict emotional injury on you, my first suggestion is to end the conversation, without backing down, but to firmly end it:  “You and I are not ever going to agree on this and we are done talking about this, effective right now.”  If you find this difficult or impossible, then directly confronting the sadist with their sadism is a good tactic:  “What are you trying to do here?  Are you trying to make me feel bad?  Are you trying to humiliate me?  Or is there something else that you want?  If there is, why don’t we focus on that instead of what you’re doing now?”

Understanding — The understanding-driven conversationalist really does not understand something, and solicits the interlocutor’s explanation.  If you are seeking understanding from your interlocutor, you will be doing more listening than talking, more thinking than questioning.  This is a fact-finding mission because your goal is to learn something about someone else.  To do it right requires an open mind as well as critical thinking skills.

When you know what it is that you’re trying to accomplish, and you know what it is that the person you’re talking to is trying to accomplish, you can consciously tailor what you say to help you achieve those results.

Burt Likko

Pseudonymous Portlander. Homebrewer. Atheist. Recovering litigator. Recovering Republican. Recovering Catholic. Recovering divorcé. Recovering Former Editor-in-Chief of Ordinary Times. House Likko's Words: Scite Verum. Colite Iusticia. Vivere Con Gaudium.


  1. Very thoughtful. Looking forward to your further thoughts on the matter.I am a firm believe that people of good faith — ok, strike that, people of good intentions — can discuss even deeply personal and fundamental issues like this if they are honest with themselves and reflective of the purpose of the conversation. It's not always easy, but it's worth it.

  2. Thanks! Stay tuned for Part 2: Sizing Up Your Counterpart

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