Talking To Believers, Part 3: Civility

Just because you’re an atheist doesn’t give you the right to be arrogant, condescending, nasty, insulting, or mean.  Indeed, I would far prefer that you were not those things if you represent a skeptical point of view.  I would rather that you were polite, respectful, and pleasant to converse with because whether I like it or not, if you’re going to be a skeptic talking to a believer, you’re an ambassador for a group of people to which I belong and I want to be well-represented.

Skeptics, when a religious missionary comes to your door, how does that person act?  Quite likely the missionaries are conservatively dressed, well-groomed, and smiling.  They have a friendly demeanor and are polite.  That’s not by accident.  Maybe they’re all really jerks in their private lives, but they are aware that they are representing their religious community and they want to make a good impression.  That’s the same attitude I want you to have when you represent me and our fellow skeptics.

More to the point, very often when you’re talking to a believer, the person you’re talking to is someone with whom you will either want or need to have some kind of a relationship when the exchange is done.  Perhaps if you’re exchanging blog posts, you care less about what the other person thinks of you, but don’t forget that nothing posted on the Intertubes ever really goes away.  And it’s not all that hard to track down someone’s identity.  So don’t be a jerk on the net, either.  Take this discussion, for example — almost no one in it looks good, whether they are believers or skeptics.

So don’t ever lose sight of the need to be civil. I don’t mean be a weak conversationalist; it is entirely possible to strongly articulate your point of view, and not back down, while still not being a jerk. My advice today is don’t be a jerk. On the very first day I was sworn in to practice law, on law and motion day, the judge heard a discovery dispute and announced his rule for resolving such matters: “Jerks lose.” This rule holds true outside the context of litigation, too.  Now, I’m sure you want to feel like you’ve “won” whatever exchange your in, so let me give you a few tips for how to argue forcefully but civilly for your position.

1.  Moderate your aggression, at least in tone.  If you take too aggressive or confrontational a tone, your interlocutor will a) get defensive in your conversation, and b) resent you for doing it later.  Maybe you want an adversary in a debate to assume a defensive posture in certain situations, but I’ll suggest that whatever short-term gains you have by getting someone to become defensive will be outweighed by the long-term diminishment of your reputation that will result from that choice of tactics.  If the person you force on the defensive is your friend, you will weaken your friendship.

2.  Control your body language and facial gestures.  There are some easy traps to fall into while expressing your disagreement that can be interpreted as a lack of civility.  Most of them have to do with not what you say, but how you say it.  Scoffing, rolling your eyes, snorting, chuckling when your interlocutor is being sincere, name-calling, or most of all, acting angry or offended at something that a reasonable person would not get angry at are all things that will tell everybody that you need to put on the “Big Ol’ A-hole” T-shirt.

3.  Limit your use of profanity.  If you find yourself dropping the f-bomb every fifth or sixth word, chances are pretty good that the substance of your communication is going to be obscured behind your entry for the Andrew Dice Clay Award For Most Profane Monologue.  In fact, unless the word itself is germane to the topic under discussion, perhaps you want to avoid profanity altogether.  For some of you this might be a challenge but if it is, I’m all but ready to guarantee that those around you will appreciate your rising to it.  If you do indulge in profanity, but it’s rare, I can guarantee you that the profanity will be much more effective and deliver a greater emotional punch.  And when you do use it, try not to use it in a way to add emphasis to something that could be seen as an insult to religion itself, because that magnifies the emotional impact of the insult without adding any substance to the point you’re making: A tone of incredulity at being asked to believe the literal truth of the Jonah-in-the-big-fish story may be appropriate, but saying “You’re telling me that you really believe that a man lived for three days in the stomach of a giant fish?  That’s just f-in’ stupid, dude,” doesn’t really add anything substantive to the rather obvious impossibility of the tale.  I personally think it’s more powerful if you just leave this granddaddy-of-all-fish-stories right there where it lies.

4.  Don’t assume the worst.  If you go in to a discussion with a believer with the idea that the believer has some kind of malicious intent, amazingly, you’ll find evidence of that in what they say and suddenly what started out as a polite discussion becomes Deathmatch 2010: Good Versus Evil.  The worst you should assume about your interlocutor is that she is misguided or has reached a bad conclusion and the likely reason she has done that is because of bad education.  This is not her fault and she is not evil.  Even if a believer has really done something evil to you in the past — let’s say you’re one of the miniscule numbers of people who really were molested by one of the miniscule numbers of priests who were also pederasts — the believer you’re talking to is not that person, is not an apologist for that person, and is not a surrogate for that person.  She does not deserve the anger and wrath that you might appropriate direct at such a person.

5.  Don’t lose your own temper.  If you find yourself giving vent to catharsis in your discussion, stop, take a deep breath, and change your focus.  Yes, it may be the case that you wasted years of your life and huge gobs of money believing a lie, the same lie that your religionist conversation partner is trying to defend.  And maybe you want to stop that from happening to someone else.  Great.  But your interlocutor is not responsible for your wasted time, lost money, misdirected emotional investment.  You are, for not coming to your senses earlier in life than you did, or for giving in to peer pressure or a desire to please authority figures by acting contrary to what you knew all along to be true.  Don’t put that on someone else.

6.  Understand the limits of what you can accomplish.  This is one reason why I think it’s so important for you to understand your interlocutor’s purpose in the conversation, and to understand their emotional stakes, which are points I raised in parts 1 and 2 of this series.  You’re not going to persuade someone to abandon their faith all at once.  The most you can do is plant a seed and let them figure things out for themselves with the ideas you disseminate.  And if you’re an a-hole about it, that’s going to kill an otherwise viable seed.

7.  Remember that you’re supposed to still be friends later.  If you find yourself in such a disagreeing discussion with a friend, try to adopt the “quest for mutual understanding” objective, and encourage your friend to do the same.  It’s entirely appropriate for friends who have different sets of beliefs to explain to one another where they’re coming from.  It’s entirely inappropriate for friends to try and convert one another.  That goes for skeptics as much as for atheists.  The point of being friends with someone is that you enjoy being with them and doing things with them just the way they are.  Maybe you think your friend has some flaws, but you accept them and are friends with him despite his flaws.  That’s what being a friend is.  And what’s more, it’s not necessarily a “flaw” if your friend has a different outlook on the world as to matters of spirituality and the supernatural, anyway.  If you’re a Republican and your friend is a Democrat, or vice versa, you hopefully understand what I’m talking about here.*

Now, with a friend, and in the context of certain kinds of friendship, a lighthearted tone of teasing or joshing around is entirely okay.  That’s when you’re both confident enough in your friendship to tease one another and know that the other party is going to understand that the teasing is just that and nothing more.  “How can you Republicans think [X], are you just all stupid?” you might say with a sneer in your voice.  Your Republican friend will respond either with a serious explanation and ignoring the tease, or better yet by teasing you right back, hopefully giving as good as she got from you.  But I hope you’d never do that with a stranger.  If you’re very, very good friends with someone you might do that with religion.  But again, unless you’re acting within a very good friendship and everyone participating in the conversation understands that the teasing is not intended to be taken seriously, don’t go down this road.

8.  Don’t Contradict Personal Testimony.  You may also get a personal story.  You can’t invalidate a personal experience.  You can’t tell someone that they didn’t do something they clearly remember having done.  You can’t tell them they didn’t see and hear and feel and smell something that they know they did see and hear and feel and smell.  There is no choice but to accept that this person really thinks something like that.  When you get the story about how your Christian friend “Saw Jesus and He spoke to me,” well, chances are good that your friend really and sincerely does think he really saw Jesus and Jesus really did speak to him.  You might find it interesting to probe that with questions about what Jesus looked like and so on, but at the end of the day, that’s a real experience your friend had and if you tell your friend that he was just hallucinating, that’s something he will too easily take as an insult and now look what you’ve done, you’ve just insulted your friend.  Or I should say, your former friend.

How do you deal with that?  You do what I heard my friend do the other day at a gathering of folks that included believers and nonbelievers.  My friend and his interlocutor were talking — quietly, civilly, and with friendship and mutual respect — about the other guy’s Christian faith.  I’m paraphrasing it, of course, because it was Sunday and I’d had a beer before sitting down at that couch, and I don’t remember the exchange quite verbatim.  But it went something like this:

Believer:  “Well, you know that I’ve had the experience of meeting Jesus and accepting Him as my Lord.”

Skeptic:  “Sure, we’ve talked about that before.  That’s your experience, something that is within you.  I can’t and wouldn’t tell you it didn’t happen.  All I can say to that is that this isn’t something that I’ve experienced.  But, what can you tell me or someone like me like my other friend here [he indicated me] who hasn’t had that experience?  If we haven’t been through that, what is it about Christianity that we can look at and say, yeah, that’s the way to go?”

Believer:  “Well, one thing is the incredible tradition and history that you find in the Bible.  You see a real moral transformation and progression in the way of thinking as you move through the Bible, and you can see how our modern understanding of what’s right and wrong was created through all that history, from the Garden of Eden up to now.”

Now, you know what?  The believer’s answer to that last question was a pretty good one.  And my skeptic friend kept eye contact, nodded his head to indicate that he understood the point the believer was making, and acknowledged that he liked the answer, too.  It’s not a game-changing answer; neither my skeptic friend nor I were moved by the answer to suddenly start believing in Jesus.  But at the same time, it was a smart, responsive, and interesting point to make.  Which leads me to my penultimate point about civility:

9.  Don’t be afraid to concede a well-made point to a civil interlocutor.  I’m not saying concede the ultimate argument or the key to the argument.  But recognize and acknowledge when your counterpart has made a good point.  This tells anyone who is paying attention that you are paying attention, and therefore that you are intellectually engaged in the conversation rather than just preaching.  (Yes, skeptics preach too; we do it all the time, and it’s just as annoying and boring as when believers do it.)  It also makes your interlocutor happy because it strokes her ego.

There is an exception to this, which is when your partner is not being civil herself.  Such a conversation partner has become an “adversary” and your conversation is at risk of becoming an “argument.”  When you’re not getting civility back to your own, you need to step away from the subject matter of the disagreement and go back to regulating the emotional tone of the discussion.  Dial it down a notch or two in a direct way:  “Hey, we’re just talking here.  You look like you’re getting a little steamed.  You say you’re not?  Okay, sorry I misunderstood you.  Yes, I know you believe strongly in what you’re saying, and so do I, but we’re friends so this is a friendly discusion, right?”

10.  If it can’t stay civil, end it.  Finally, when a disagreement fails to resolve, it’s easy to become frustrated and say things out of that frustration.  Watch that.  It can lead to you saying things you shouldn’t, things you might not even really mean.  But it’s those words, uttered in anger and frustration, that can cross the line.  Particularly when you’re talking with a friend, a co-worker, a member of the family, or someone else that you will want to have a good relationship with, it’s better to end a discussion and not revisit the topic than to let things get hot and steamy (in a bad way).

Civility requires listening to acknowledging what your conversation partner says.  It means not saying things that sensitive people will take as attacks, it means keeping control over your own tone and your own emotions.  This isn’t always easy to do, and if you’re having difficulty with it, or if your conversation partner is having difficulty with it, you really ought to consider withdrawing from the conversation until you’ve got your own emotions in check.  But if you can stay civil, you can have a meaningful exchange, and your point will be made in a a much more powerful and persuasive way than it would if you had used venom instead.

* It could be that you are such a die-hard partisan that you cannot imagine ever being friends with someone who is of the opposite party.  About ten years ago, I met an attractive, intelligent, funny woman at a bar and we flirted over drinks for about an hour and it was going great.  When I asked for her phone number, she wanted to know if I was a Republican or a Democrat.  I answered truthfully but wrong, and she pretty much sprinted out of the door.  Needless to say, I did not score digits.  Oh, well, it’s her loss — by now, everyone should know that Republican men are better in bed than Democrats.  Now, I’m not still upset about that or anything because I’m very happily married now; my point is, if you’re going to let a disagreement about religious world views, or political preferences, or anything else that reasonable people of good intent can and do disagree on, you’re limiting your social options unnecessarily and are on the path to becoming an insufferably shallow, bitter, unhappy person who uses warm, overpriced, over-olived martinis and the occasional hit of marijuana to temporarily drown the twin sorrows of a less-than-thoroughly-progressive agenda from Preisdent Obama and a repeated failure to find even a halfway decent guy to date after ten lonely years of ideological rigidity and I hope you’re enjoying sleeping in the bed you’ve made for yourself.

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. If someone refuses to date you because you are a Republican or a Democrat, you have almost certainly dodged a bullet, relationship-wise.Once again, thanks for this series. I'm contemplating one from the other side of the coin, but I'm thinking now I can't do a half-assed job. As a churchgoer, though, one of my core rules would be this, a variation on the commandment — are you invoking God's name for his glory, or for your own?

  2. I have one slight objection to make. Unlike any religious, political, or other community, non-believers are not in fact a group. There is no such thing as a unifed Athiest Community, or Skeptical or Rationalist or anything else. Although there are many small bands that identify as such, there is no equivalent organisation that all non-believers fit into. So, a skeptic-to-believer conversation is not, in fact, representing you or me or anybody else. That aside, wonderful post. Thank you for it, and all your writing.

  3. First of all, I really, really wish all religious people were as polite and well-spoken as door-to-door missionaries try to be. It seems that not a day goes by that I am not mortified or appalled by something done or said by a person who nominally shares my religious affiliation. I think it's essentially indisputable that there would be a lot less hostility toward religion if believer-types did not have centuries of belligerent, arrogant behavior to answer for.As your new resident Cheerful Believer commenter (which, in all seriousness, I hope you don't mind), thanks for this. Many of my best friends are atheists, and they run the spectrum of respectfulness in their manner of addressing my beliefs. One very good friend of mine made me quite angry during one such discussion by saying she was confident I would one day see the error of my beliefs and abandon my belief in God. This despite my never, ever having tried to convert her to Christianity (largely because I don't actually believe in a God that would demand such conversion), and despite knowing that my beliefs (which I freely concede are probably emotive, irrational and residual from my childhood) have great meaning to me.Maybe I'll politely suggest she start reading your blog.

  4. Dan's concern is why I disagree with nanani's quibble — whether she and I are members of the same group or not, what one skeptic does will wind up reflecting on others because to a believer, all skeptics are part of some amorphous and ill-defined "them." It takes a not insignificant amount of sophistication for a skeptic to understand that there is no unified Christian community, for instance; why should Christians be expected to be any more sophisticated than skeptics on this point?Ken, I've never seen a single blog post from you that looked half-assed. And I think the point you raise here is one that would surely be important for believers to consider.

  5. TL, thank you for reminding me of the importance of remaining civil, even online.

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