Begin With Respect & Empathy

When speaking to a person of faith, my attitude is of the utmost importance. I may be “armed” with all the facts and arguments I have gained over years of reading and study, but if my attitude is wrong, these arguments will alienate people and create division.

Respect is key. Before someone is a believer or an atheist, they are a person, and deserve respect. The assumption I often witness—especially on the internet—that believers are ignorant or stupid, only builds walls. It isn’t hard for me to remember when I was a believer and I would not have continued a conversation with someone who attacked my intelligence. Even now, I tend not to continue a conversation with people who ridicule me and attack my character.

I am also aware that, most of the time, people are not believers because they’ve carefully considered all the evidence, for and against, and on the basis of logic and reason, have decided that God exists and their religion is the right one. Most of the time, people inherit their beliefs from their family, their culture, or both. In the face of cognitive dissonance, people hold on to their faith because the mental, emotional, and relational pain of letting go is greater than the pain of holding on.

Understanding this requires empathy and respect, not insults and condescension.

Understanding that people hold on to faith for personal and emotional reasons also informs how my conversation with that person unfolds. Typically, if I express understanding and solidarity with their plight, the person drops their guard and, on their own, confesses that they really don’t believe all the dogma of their faith. They’re just scared of how this terrifying realization will effect their relationships.

Now we’re getting down to the crux of the issue. —Ryan Bell