Religion

How should we talk to believers?

A while back I wrote about ridiculous things I’ve believed in the past and voiced my opinion that if I could come to my senses and escape my delusions, then anybody can. I mentioned that planting seeds of doubt can lead to a change of mind years, or even decades, later, and that we should not be discouraged if it takes time for people to recover from fundamentalism and superstition.

All that sounds good, but if it’s true, what should we be doing to talk to believers? And how much change can we expect? Should we be reason evangelists? Should we be actively fighting against religion? Should we make fun of ridiculous beliefs or believers? Should we try to turn everyone into a skeptic or unbeliever?

Here are a couple of guys who, I think, have a good approach: talking to each other.

(Read more about them below the fold.)

John and Craig from Purple State of MindCraig Detweiler and John Marks were college roommates. During the year that they roomed together, John fell away from Christianity and Craig became devout believer. Recently, after about 25 years, they got in touch and started talking about their experiences, their lives, and their beliefs. The result of this discussion is the website and documentary, Purple State of Mind.

I discovered these two guys when I picked up the book, Reasons to Believe: One Man’s Journey Among the Evangelicals and the Faith He Left Behind by John Marks, at my local bookstore.

In Reasons to Believe, Marks has done a fantastic job of telling two stories in one. First he tells his own story of finding, and later losing, faith in Jesus Christ. At the same time, he explores the world of evangelical Christianity in America today. During his research he interviewed over 400 pastors, missionaries, and evangelical church members, and he ties together the results of the research with his past experiences into a beautiful, easy to read narrative. As he visits churches, catches up with old friends, and reads his teenage journals, he finds himself drawn back toward the faith that he abandonded. (I’ve experienced the same feelings while working on my own book.)

Reasons to Believe begins with a question posed to Marks by a preacher he interviewed while he worked for 60 Minutes: “Will you be left behind when the rapture comes?” Marks does not answer until the very last sentence of the book, creating a trail of suspense that believers and unbelievers alike will find impossible not to follow.

To promote their video (which I haven’t seen yet), the two men have been holding screenings at churches around the U.S. That’s pretty normal for Craig, who is still a Christian, but somewhat unusual for John, who is not. Here’s a description of one experience Marks had speaking at a church. Excuse the long quote, but this is definitely worth reading.

In the last two years, I’ve had many remarkable moments in churches, but nothing quite compares to this morning. For one, I never expected to find myself standing in front of a congregation, at the pulpit, in my capacity as an unbeliever. Nor did I ever expect to say what I did to the flock.

Mike Moses, the pastor at Lake Forest Church in Huntersville, North Carolina, insisted. He asked me to tell the congregation what their unbelieving, non-Christian friends would be afraid to say to their faces. Who among us could resist such an invitation?

So I told a story that holds true for millions of Americans who might never be asked or might never feel comfortable saying it out loud. My life improved after I walked away from Jesus.

I didn’t say these words in a spirit of triumph. I wasn’t trying to be superior. I just wanted to make something clear.

By way of a disclaimer, I told the congregation first that if a pastor hadn’t asked me to speak up, I never would have done so. This was a command performance. Here’s what I said, roughly.

Anyone who believes that the mass of non-believers lead empty lives of quiet, depraved desperation hasn’t spent much time around them. Anyone who thinks that non-Christians cannot experience deep happiness, abiding love, abdundant life, ecstatic joy, moral rigor and profound meaning hasn’t asked. And anyone who wonders how non-believers can rise in the morning with exitement and conviction and sleep at night in peace and calm hasn’t made much of an effort to find out the truth.

The hard fact is that people can live completely outside the reality of Jesus Christ and away from the authority of god and have almost everything that believers crave in this life. This is one of the untold stories of the faith.

Instead, we hear a constant refrain about wasted, lost lives on the other side of the divide, devastated strippers, unhinged addicts, rabidly materialistic business executives, philandering husbands and self-centered wives, all of whom suffered in darkness and misery until they discovered Jesus.

I believe that these stories reflect a lived reality and are not told in cynicism or ignorance. People can feel redeemed by the Gospel and see radical and marvelous changes in their lives. But that is not the only true story. There are millions of Americans who walked away from Jesus and didn’t fall into despond. Their lives improved. They met wonderful people, fell in love, had children, had moments of spiritual intensity, felt the very real love of family, the delights of the intellect and the body, and never looked back.

There are just as many who never knew Jesus and never will and yet have had those same rich and rewarding lives. They have also struggled, seen loss and disaster, felt betrayed and lost and unhappy and have survived these struggles without Christ.

Both sides in the discussion of religion in this country have done a great deal to vilify and demonize the other side. Just as non-believers are meant to be reprobate and lost, no matter how happy and satisified many of them may seem on the surface, believers are characterized as ignorant, mentally fragile, emotionally needy fools who are stupid no matter how smart and successful they may seem.

These versions of existence are complete and total frauds, often but not always propagated by people whose livelihoods depend on division and alienation, and they must be dismantled. If you want to know how the other half lives, go and find someone over there and ask.

That’s what I said. Afterwards, in the lobby outside the sanctuary, one man testified repeatedly to the power of his own conversion. Most people shook my hand and thanked me for my words.


Please do visit this site and read more. Then let me know what you think.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

writerdd

Donna Druchunas is a freelance technical writer and editor and a knitwear designer. When she's not working, she blogs, studies Lithuanian, reads science and sci-fi books, mouths off on atheist forums, and checks her email every three minutes. (She does that when she's working, too.) Although she loves to chat, she can't keep an IM program open or she'd never get anything else done.

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25 Comments

  1. Both sides in the discussion of religion in this country have done a great deal to vilify and demonize the other side. Just as non-believers are meant to be reprobate and lost, no matter how happy and satisified many of them may seem on the surface, believers are characterized as ignorant, mentally fragile, emotionally needy fools who are stupid no matter how smart and successful they may seem.

    I gotta say, I don’t see it. Maybe the “ignorant” part, if you take “ignorant” to mean uninformed — and, for good or ill, that’s true often enough.

    This sounds more like what Dinesh D’Souza says that Richard Dawkins says, rather than what Richard Dawkins says, if you get what I mean.

  2. Is Marks saying this comes from Dawkins? I don’t think so.

    I certainly think calling people “faith-heads” fits the bill for this type of characterization, however. Dawkins may not be guilty of this on a large scale, but it certainly comes across on many atheist blogs.

  3. Blake Stacey’s point is true, I think. It’s not about Dawkins; that was just an example to make the point. The point is that the above statement about what atheists think of believers sounds more like what others say atheists think of believers than what they actually think. I only know of one atheist that really thinks that way, off the top of my head. That’s really a small percentage of all the atheists I’ve known, read, and heard.

  4. I disagree. So I’ll say it a second time and then let it go. :-)

    I’ve read a lot of posts and comments on blogs that say stuff just like what Marks is saying here.

    I think it’s a fair statement that many atheists — at least those who are vocal on blogs — view believers as fools or idiots. PZ’s blog is a really good example. But the comments on Dawkins’s blog are often similar. The No God Blog of the American Atheists often fits the bill as well. (I won’t include God’s 4 Suckers, because they’re just plain rude.)

    And mentally fragile is definitely true. I can’t tell you how many articles I’ve read that say something like, “I don’t believe in God, but these poor souls really need their emotional crutch so we shouldn’t pull it out from under them.” If that’s not condescending, I really don’t know what is.

    BTW, I’ve also been guilty of all of these things myself.

  5. I’ve met a few knee-jerk atheists on the Internets, but I can’t think of any I know in person. Even down in the Pharyngula comment threads, where you’d expect the bile to flow freely, the angriest rants get met with a “dude, chill out once in a while” response. So, yes, intemperance can get the better of the best of us, but I don’t think vilification is the top priority of very many godless folks.

    I noticed something funny about that word “faith-head”. First of all, I could think of many worse things to call Fred Phelps or James Dobson than “faith-head”, but that’s beside the point. In the preface to the paperback edition of The God Delusion, Dawkins says,

    The hardback God Delusion was hailed as the surprise bestseller of 2006. While it was warmly received by most of the 1,000-plus individuals who volunteered personal reviews to Amazon, paid print reviewers gave less uniform approval. Cynics might invoke unimaginative literary editors: it has “God” in the title, so send it to a known faith-head.

    Notice that here, “faith-head” is in the voice of an imaginary newspaper or magazine editor (a type which we might expect to be hard-bitten, concerned with the bottom line, etc.). This editor is being imagined by a cynic, to boot.

    Now, one could probably find more direct uses of the word, but I strongly doubt those could be made to support the thesis that RD’s work drips with vilification, let alone the stronger thesis that “believers are characterized as ignorant, mentally fragile,” etc.

  6. The derogatory term “knee-jerk atheist” was coined by PZ Myers, by the way.

    I can’t tell you how many articles I’ve read that say something like, “I don’t believe in God, but these poor souls really need their emotional crutch so we shouldn’t pull it out from under them.” If that’s not condescending, I really don’t know what is.

    Which is, of course, the exact opposite of the “New Atheist” attitude. For jebus’s sake, Dawkins calls this attitude “patronizing condescension.”

  7. Well, I don’t think Marks is talking about Dawkins and I don’t want to make this into an argument about Dawkins either.

    I think Shalom Auslander’s comment about Dawkins’s website is funny:

    Go on richarddawkins.net, just for a laugh. It’s got nothing to do with his writing at all. It has to do with just the way people are, believers in anything. Read the forums. They’re hysterical. Even when I agree with what they’re saying, it’s hysterical.

    It’s like, “Oh, did you see that thing on Salon.com? They completely took RD out of context. That’s not what RD says.” And they quote RD, and they argue about what RD really meant. Switch it to G_D and it’s a different forum. It’s the same thing.

    From this interview on Book Slut: http://www.bookslut.com/features/2007_10_011774.php

  8. If we want them to see us as equals, and treat us with respect, then I think that we should engage believers, and meet them halfway. We should meet them with compassion, respect, and understanding, and we should expect the same from them.

    We shouldn’t ridicule their beliefs, or try to talk them out of it. We shouldn’t try to “convert” them. If we meet them with ridicule and look down on them, then there’s no difference between the condescending atheist, and the overzealous missionary.

    Instead, I think we should not be afraid to speak, as well as to listen. And we should encourage them to continue to seek their own way, whatever way may be best for them. Of course we should be vocal about some of the most ludicrous things, like faith healing. But aside from that, we should leave them be, let them find their own way, and coexist with them as best we can.

    I like that quote. The part that’s being picked apart now might be a bit of an extreme example, but I think it’s somewhat in line with what I’m trying to say.

    I think that this might be an interesting documentary to see. I wonder if they’re interested in any screenings up here.

  9. Blake Stacey:

    This sounds more like what Dinesh D’Souza says that Richard Dawkins says, rather than what Richard Dawkins says, if you get what I mean.

    It also sounds like what Christopher Hitchens says, but to be fair, he doesn’t just reserve his superiority complex for theists.

    It also sounds like the typical Pharyngula commenter though, once again, not like PZ himself.

    While I agree with Peregrine’s comment, I will say one thing: You are not expected to have any respect for anyone who has no respect for you, though it’s probably best to be sure about that in advance.

  10. I agree with Peregrine on this. Just because people have faith in a religion does not automatically make them idiots. By that definition it would include the vast majority of people who have inhabited this planet within the past two thousand years. The ancient Egyptian culture had about as silly a religion as they came, but look at how advanced many aspects of their architecture were. The pyramids were not made by idiots. The Egyptians did not need an enlightened atheist to help them find their ass with both hands. I personally consider a person’s faith to be irrelevant to their actual IQ in most cases. Until they prove otherwise, at any rate. Most seem to have an IQ in the double digits, and even the smartest person can willfully overlook and ignore the best of information if they try hard enough.

  11. Regarding Shalom Auslander’s comment, there is a rather major difference between taking Dawkins out of context and taking “G-d” out of context.

    (And, btw, isn’t his remark yet another occurrence of the “those atheists are as crazy as us” argument?)

  12. The ancient Egyptian culture had about as silly a religion as they came, but look at how advanced many aspects of their architecture were.

    This obviously proves that aliens did it. :-)

    Regarding Shalom Auslander’s comment, there is a rather major difference between taking Dawkins out of context and taking “G-d” out of context.

    Yeah, I’ll second this. Criticizing people for being unnecessarily obsessive or passionate about something is a pretty silly thing to do on the Internet. It’s like the pot calling the kettle black while they both ride a raft woven of black licorice floating on a sea of black pudding during a starless, moonless night.

    The point isn’t that it’s wrong for religious people (or irreligious people) to care deeply about something. Each side just believes that the other is expending their effort on the wrong ideas.

  13. I’ve met so many atheists who were arrogant and condescending that I now refuse the title for myself – I prefer ‘agnostic’ instead.

    There are many believers who are also educated and smart. History is full of great inventors, philosophers, writers and artists who were also believers.

    My own father is a deeply religious man, and yet he fully accepts the fact I’m not. We live some 1,000 miles apart, and he used to visit me every year or so (being retired, it was easier for him to travel than it is for me). One year though, he said he wouldn’t be able to come as he was ‘involved in a little project with the church’. I didn’t know what this was, thinking maybe some repair work on the local church. I only found out the following year when I visited him. He had a wall covered with pictures and letters from a small African village, where he single-handedly financed the drilling of a deep water well, the construction of a school, the purchase of books, school supplies, medical supplies and even the wages of the teachers. ‘This is my duty before God’, he would say.

    In the end, when you do the right thing, it doesn’t matter whether we’re believers or not.

  14. GreenNeck2 makes an excellent point, and a distinction that I have no difficulty with. If people use their religious beliefs as a tool to help them be better people and to do the right thing, that is an appropriate use of religion (the only appropriate use as far as I can see).

    If they use their religion as an excuse to be nasty and to abuse others, then their religion is no different than any other rationalization used to cause harm.

  15. What a wonderful case of serendipity! I am in the midst of preparing to teach an adult education class on “Preaching the Word in a Skeptical World” this Sunday at my church!

    On the whole, my theme very closely matches that expressed by Peregrine, above, with some obvious reversals of the identities of believer and skeptic. I will be arguing that the “job” of the believer in this case is not to convert the skeptic, but to listen without ridicule, and do what we can to address their personal barriers to belief. The other aspect is to lead by example, as in the case of GreenNeck2’s father. The most compelling argument for the value of belief is not seeing someone badgering gays about their desire to marry the people they love, but seeing someone like GreenNeck2’s father selflessly transforming the lives of a village in Africa.

    I intend to steal heavily from the words on this blog entry! I just wish I could invite you all to be there as guest presenters. I fully expect some of those attending to disagree with what I have to say, but I doubt they’ll go so far as to stone me.

  16. SteveT, that sounds great. Keep us posted with an update about how it goes.

    I’d make one change to your topic/idea though. You said, “do what we can to address their personal barriers to belief.”

    There’s really nothing that can do that for me. I’m done with belief. After spending over 40 years exploring these topics, I’m pretty sure I won’t ever be a believer again.

    BUT, if you said “do what we can to address their personal barriers to believers,” I would be very interested in hearing more.

    That is, we don’t need to convince people to believe or to not believe, but rather to be accepting of other people who end up with a different conclusion than we’ve come to.

    I’m not sure anything will convince me that there is any value of belief for me, but that does not mean that I can’t see how others may find belief valuable.

    In the end, though, as I’ve said before, I think belief is an involuntary result of the activities of our brains, so we can’t choose to believe or not believe. So I can’t help myself and neither can you. :-)

  17. Absolutely, dd! I fully realize that the approach I have described will only be valid for some people, not all. I am thinking here of people who say things like:

    “Well, I can’t believe in a loving God because … X”
    where X = Auschwitz, tsunamis, SIDs, etc.

    Now, a lot of very intelligent people in the field of apologetics have come up with some very interesting ways to address these and other difficult questions. You may well have already heard these and remain unconvinced, but that may not be true for others. My goal is simply to make that information available, and let people decide for themselves whether or not it has meaning for them. That’s what I meant by removing potential barriers. I, myself, don’t agree with a lot of the things I have read in apologetics, but enough of my biggest questions have been addressed (more or less) successfully, that I have found myself on the believer’s side of the fence. Maybe not very far, but still definitely on that side at this point in my life. I don’t for a moment think that I am done with the journey.

    Of course, the end result of this approach can lead to a very individualistic approach to God and religion, which upsets my more orthodox friends. You hear the “You can’t cherry pick!” argument as often on this side of the fence as you do on the other! They knew I was a heretic before they put me in a leadership position, so it’s too bad for them if they don’t like what I have to say!

  18. Finch: did you mean to say triple-digit IQs? I thought 100 was absolute average.

    Regarding GreenNeck’s dad: this is something that I have trouble with. Why did this help to Africa have to be done through the church? If the only reason that one is compelled to help is that “god says so”, that’s not really painting the helper as someone with compassion and empathy, more as someone who either wants to score points with god, or use the help as a kind of “we gave you clean water, now take our god” kind of thing. Even if it isn’t a situation where the helped are required to attend religious services before getting the help, I think that it can be a subtle kind of proselytizing where the helped see where the help is coming from, and unless there is absolutely no mention of the church’s deal, well, you know?
    I’m not trying to be a negative nancy, but I think that a lot of people have been converted by getting fed or having basic needs met while in a horrible situation (Mother Theresa, I’m talking to you).

    Why can’t more people get involved in secular aid organizations?

    I’m sorry, Steve, but: “I will be arguing that the “job” of the believer in this case is not to convert the skeptic, but to listen without ridicule, and do what we can to address their personal barriers to belief.” ?

    Personal barriers to belief? It sounds like you are, in fact, trying to convert the skeptic. And why do people who don’t believe stuff that doesn’t make sense have to be called “skeptics” instead of “normal”?

  19. whitebird, I would have to say that you’re not so much of a” negative nancy” as a “cynical cindy”. Asserting only such negative possible motives on GreenNeck2’s father for his missionary work is both presumptuous and insulting. I’ll certainly grant you that plenty of missionary work is done for the bogus reasons that you state, but I have also known numerous people who have described a hugely magnified sense of empathy and responsibility stemming from their religious beliefs. I strongly suspect that GreenNeck2’s father falls into this category. Can non-religious people feel this way? Of course they can! But the hard reality is that the magnitude of their relief efforts pale in comparison to those accomplished by religious folk. We can argue about why that’s true some other time.

    As for my trying to “convert” people, I suppose it depends on your definition of the word. I view conversion as actively trying to convince other people that my point of view is correct, or at least superior to theirs. I don’t do that. If people give as their reasons for not believing in God things/concepts that have been (I think) well addressed by someone in apologetics, then I will happily point them to that source. If they read it and have questions that they want to discuss with me further to find out what I think about the issue, I am happy to do so. If they find the argument unconvincing, then so be it. Maybe they’ll even convince me I’m wrong. It’s happened before. I don’t have any answers, only varying degrees of doubts. I am happy to share them with believers and skeptics alike.

    Skeptics are far from “normal, as you should know well by now. Just look around you at the world and you can easily see that skeptics are far from “normal!” And what’s wrong with being called a skeptic in the first place? Wear the name proudly, just be careful not to let it devolve into cynicism.

  20. Gotta agree with whitebird on this one.

    To me, all missionary work has a negative connotation. By calling it missionary work, the idea that it includes prostelyzation in addition to whatever charity work may be done, is inferred. If it were devoid of the goal of conversion it would be called charity or aid, not missions.

  21. Steve: “but I have also known numerous people who have described a hugely magnified sense of empathy and responsibility stemming from their religious beliefs”

    what I’m saying is why do these people require religious beliefs to have magnified senses of empathy and responsibility? I would argue that religious beliefs being responsible for these feelings actually demonstrate diminished actual empathy/responsibility on the person’s part. Isn’t knowing that someone is suffering and that is not nice and you would like to help them enough?

    Why do people need to believe that the sky daddy will smile and his son will stop crying for a second (and they will have a ticket to cloudland and bonus points for everyone they recruit..) in order to feel really compelled to feel for others? It seems that they really aren’t feeling for others, just grooving on the idea that god wants them to feel for others. you know?

    As far as the apologetics go, I’m not even talking about that. I don’t disbelieve in god because “how could he let the babies get raped”etc…I don’t believe in god for the same reason that I don’t believe that the guy who used to come into the fabric store I worked at was the “Real” prince of wales, and the same reason that I don’t believe that my existence is reliant on praising a network of invisible orange elephants who sleep on pluto.
    dig?

  22. By calling it missionary work, the idea that it includes prostelyzation in addition to whatever charity work may be done, is inferred.

    It might be inferred, but it’s certainly not implied. To me, the word “mission” just means any important task.

    But it’s true, some people really do think that. A friend of mine who volunteers for TEAR had dinner not so long ago with a friend of his who is… uhm… a bit fundy, I guess. This friend of his would not believe that TEAR does absolutely no evangelism, despite being a thoroughly Christian organisation.

    This guy wouldn’t believe that the reason to do disaster relief and development work is because it’s the right thing to do, not to gain notches for your bedpost.

  23. “This guy wouldn’t believe that the reason to do disaster relief and development work is because it’s the right thing to do, not to gain notches for your bedpost.”

    now THAT is a “sin”.
    disgusting.

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