Nudging The Precontemplator

When attempting to talk someone out of their faith, it’s important to remember that every other conversation they’ve had about their faith has likely been with other believers who were trying to talk them out of one religion and into another.

The individual will likely be very defensive, already choosing which team should win, and even grasping at straws in an attempt to convince you of the reasons why their religion is sound. This will appear to you as the person being in what Dr. Boghossian refers to as the precontemplative stage. They don’t even seem willing to consider any other possibilities. It does show up on our radar as precontemplation, but it is driven by fear. The defense mechanism in the human brain, especially one that has been indoctrinated, is incredibly tough to discern from willful ignorance.

This is why it’s very helpful to first explain to the person, that your primary goal is not to drag them unwillingly into another belief system, but to simply explain why you hold your particular position. Comments like 'I just want you to understand me; you don’t have to agree' will often be met with a slight sign of relief. When offered as a simple explanation of why you don’t believe, they will likely not be so defensive, because their beliefs don’t have to be threatened in order for them to hear you out. They will see that your first goal is just to get a mutual understanding, not an immediate conversion.

Explain that you want to clear up some common misconceptions about atheism and explain what secular humanism means to you. Show them examples of good happening without religion, and bad happening within religion. You can reiterate that you’re not attempting to blame religion for the bad; but you’re simply dispelling the myth that religion is required for good. The two are not mutually inclusive.

I’ve found that by starting with the explanatory method, I’ve been able to actually nudge people from the precontemplative stage, into the contemplative stage, simply by sparking interest and clearing up misconceptions.

From this point, when he or she begins to ask questions like 'Then how do you explain X?' or 'How does an atheist account for Y?' they are at least beginning to entertain alternate ideas. This is where clear, nonthreatening explanations come in; followed by imploring the Socratic method of question and answer: 'Tell me how to reconcile a loving, intervening personal God helping some, but not others who clearly need it.' This moderate challenge poses the question without the personal attacking words of ‘you’ or ‘special’ or ‘death’ or ‘children.’

Then, you can offer your explanation for why this doesn’t bother you. 'In the atheist worldview, it makes perfect sense that bad things happen at the same statistical rates to believers and unbelievers, or to Muslims and Hindus, because it’s based on random chance and environmental attributes, without the involvement of the supernatural.'

This Q&A will likely lead to sensitive topics, so it’s important to remember your explanatory model, and to avoid an accusatory or proselytizing tone. If one makes the decision to leave his or her faith, you want it to be a willful and purposeful step in the right direction; not at the pressure of coercion that lead to their religion in the first place. —David C Smalley