One Step at a Time

I think the problem of belief is part of a wider issue, that is thinking skills. For that reason, I don’t really focus on trying to talk someone out of a belief. I simply ask questions and listen for root ideas and assumptions. I trained with the great atheist, psycho therapist, Dr. Albert Ellis and learned very quickly to identify the irrational ideas that underlie most belief systems and all faith systems. I could not possibly go in to these methods in this short essay, but I can clue you in to some things that may help in your dialogue.

You can assume that the religious people are driven by both shame and guilt. That is what religions do best. I know that sounds like an overgeneralization, but I haven’t found any real exceptions in my career. A religionist will not admit they are motivated by shame and guilt, so don’t even try to talk to them about it, just listen for the cues, and you may be able to gain a better understanding of their inner world. Why do you need to understand their inner world, so you can help move them along the spectrum of disbelief. Yes, you read it right, spectrum of disbelief. Visit here for an explanation of this simple idea: It was developed by my colleague, Sarah Morehead, executive director of, an organization I founded in 2009.

In my opinion our job is not to de-convert someone, but to simply help them ask well formed questions. Generally speaking, a well-formed question helps move a believer down the spectrum. If you can move someone a single step, you have done a great job. It may take them years to move three or four steps. So take it easy and take the long view. De-conversion doesn’t happen overnight, and it happens most efficiently when people learn to use well-formed questions. Think about your own journey. I imagine there were some critical questions that pushed you down the path of disbelief. Those were your questions and they had special meaning for you. No one imposed them on you. You may have heard hundreds of questions over the years, but one day, one question stuck. It stuck because it was a well-formed question that matched your current state. Then other questions began to stick. Before you know it, a whole group of well-formed questions are dragging you down the spectrum of disbelief.

A religion creates a lot of internal conflict in the victim. They are infected with a God Virus that requires them to act in unnatural ways and believe unverifiable things. Being religious is to be in a constant state of conflict with the real world. To understand this, is to gain a great deal of sympathy for the infected. They did not choose this disease, it was passed on to them by their parents and culture. Have some empathy as you would for a person with the flu. Imagine feeling deeply dirty and guilty every time you masturbate? Feeling fear of your erotic emotions every time you see a woman wearing 'provocative clothing.' Feeling terrified that your children will go to hell if you do one thing wrong! Feeling shame should someone learn that you have porn on your computer. (See my discussion of shame and guilt in Sex and God: How Religion Distorts Sexuality.)

This frames the discussion so that you can see how the guilt and shame are affecting their behavior. The goal of a deeply religious person is to relieve the pressure of these emotions so they can feel better about themselves. They may do this by witnessing to you for example, it brings relief from their suffering, at least for a while. If they aren’t the witnessing type, they may be the judgmental type. A judging person gains relief from doubt and shame by letting you know that they are superior since they believe in a God and you don’t. A passive-aggressive person will say, 'I’ll pray for you,' this helps them feel they have done something to help you, even if you don’t want it. It absolves them of responsibility to engage or dialogue and gives them some temporary relief from the doubt-guilt they experienced.

Now there is a real danger of oversimplifying things in this short essay, so let me clear. What I am saying is they engage in specific behavior in order to avoid bad feelings and to create good feelings in their own brain. Shame and guilt are horrible things to carry around all the time, when you question or challenge a religionist, the doubt you create often leads to shame around the doubt. A challenge creates doubt, the God virus is designed to label doubt as a shameful thing. In questioning them, you have just created a huge negative feeling, and you didn’t even know it. At that moment, they will experience flight or fight emotions and act accordingly. They need to do something to relieve their pain or fear, and that is the response you will observe. 'I will pray for you.' Then they leave. 'You are going to hell.' Then they begin arguing.

In both of these cases, the so-called limbic system, takes over. Emotions trump thinking and no reasoning will take place. You will hear well-rehearsed ideas and responses or they will withdraw. This is why we see many discussions backfire on the atheist when the religious person digs deeper into their faith position.

Dr. Boghossian’s approach avoids this common trap. That is why I am so enthusiastic that people learn and use his simple methods. But more importantly, these methods are not just good for talking with religious people, they are good ways to dialogue with anyone, including yourself. You will be a better person for learning the skills in his book and this application, even if you never de-convert a religionist.

In conclusion, keep your focus on moving a person one small step on the spectrum of disbelief by using these excellent tools. Keep the long view and learn how to dialogue without creating the backfire effect. And, enjoy learning a skill that will benefit you in many areas of life. —Darrel Ray, EdD