How to Effectively Discuss Sacred Cows

Important topics should never be taken off the table when it comes to legitimate discourse. But do we have to hurt people’s feelings in talks involving sacred cows? Philosopher Daniel C. Dennett said, “There is no polite way to suggest to someone that they have devoted their life to a folly.” While I agree with Dennett on a number of issues, I do think it’s possible to minimize the negative feelings resulting from any interaction… including those involving religion, myths, and superstitions.

Don’t assume it’s a lost cause.

I often hear people say, “They’re never going to change their minds!” But the fact is that, from Christians and Scientologists denouncing their faith to so-called “Truthers” admitting they were misled, I’ve seen some great examples of evidence-based thinking from people who once believed. Even if you aren't trying to necessarily change minds, it's important to recognize that it does happen all the time—we've all held irrational beliefs at some point and eventually gave them up.

Understand and adjust for cognitive dissonance.

Confrontation most often results from religious and other “sacred cow” conversations for one simple reason: you’re telling a person that some of his or her most fundamental beliefs are probably false. This can be a scary thought, but the fact that you are telling believers they’re likely to be wrong isn’t necessarily a bad thing, especially if you recognize and demonstrate that the error isn’t unique to them and it can be corrected.

Find common ground.

Discussions featuring hot-button issues are difficult because of the “us vs. them” mentality that is present in our very nature, but controversy itself can also be a powerful learning tool. So how do we overcome the former and take advantage of the latter? We establish similarities and work from there. Finding common ground can apply to anything—any point on which you can agree with your interlocutor—and it almost always improves the quality of a discussion.

Ask questions.

Sometimes you can say more with a simple question than you possibly could with any definitive statement, and that’s because questions make us think. Statements of fact, even when they are true, don’t always encourage a person to think more deeply about an issue. Questions are better at spawning fruitful dialogue and, in turn, additional queries.

Treat those you debate like they’re on an honest search for reality.

While it may not always be the case, friendly and effective debates are easier if you assume your counterpart is legitimately searching for the truth—and not simply seeking convenient lies. This ensures that the discussion remains informative and real, and that you don’t seem condescending or rude. —David G McAfee