Afternoon InquisitionReligionSkepticism

AI: A Good Talking To?

I go to the gym everyday at lunch for an hour’s worth of cardio work. It’s a great break in the day, and I return to the office alert and energized.

There’s an older, retired gentleman who’s on the same workout schedule I am, and he and I chat frequently. He’s a friendly guy, in his late 70s, and I like his company well enough. Usually the conversation is light and not too specific, but today, somehow we started talking about religion.

The good news is, the conversation was civil and pleasant, even though it was evident that he and I are on opposite sides of the issue. He’s a religious man, and has apparently been that way his entire life, and I am not.

But he’s great to talk to. He speaks when it’s appropriate, but he also listens when others are speaking. So when I mentioned that I wasn’t religious, he listened intently to what I was saying, and he asked me to clarify when he found something I said vague or unclear. He seemed genuinely curious about my thoughts.

He wanted to know what it was like not to believe in anything, and when I recited a long list of things I actually do believe in, he seemed pleased, if not surprised. He wanted to know why anyone would live a moral life unless there was a god to reward it, and when I said “because it’s the right thing to do, and it is a reward in itself”, he got it. And when I further explained that what we recognize as moral behavior is simply evolutionarily advantageous, that declaring it a gift or mandate from an unseen being is needlessly complicating the matter, and that moral behavior easily pre-dates organized religion, he was very interested. He wanted to know how I could be happy if this life is all there is, and when I told him my happiness is no more difficult (nor any easier) to attain than his, that it’s indeed daunting knowing that death is the end, but it’s liberating as well, and it makes one’s time so much more precious, he was speechless.

And eventually I left, having enjoyed the conversation, thinking we both got something from it.

But then I balked. Not that I thought I necessarily “converted” the guy, but I began to think, “He was happy in his delusions, and he probably doesn’t have a lot of time left to get comfortable with a new worldview. Did I give him too much to think about at a time in his life when he should be riding the wave of what makes him happy to the grave?” So I wondered:  

If it makes them happy and they are not being hurt, is it appropriate to dismantle the delusions (psychics, superstitions, glucosamine, god, etc.) of a person of advanced age? How would you discuss these issues with someone who might not have a great deal of time? Would you discuss them at all?

The Afternoon Inquisition (or AI) is a question posed to you, the Skepchick community. Look for it to appear daily at 3pm ET.

Sam Ogden

Sam Ogden is a writer, beach bum, and songwriter living in Houston, Texas, but he may be found scratching himself at many points across the globe. Follow him on Twitter @SamOgden

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  1. An old lawyer friend of mine once told me: “Don’t ask the question if you’re not ready for the answer.”

    He asked the question…you gave him the answer. If you’d fibbed to him to make him feel better, you’d feel horrible for lying to him.

  2. I would say you did just fine. Since the man was obviously interested and intrigued by what you had to say and asking questions, he wanted to know your take. It’s actually quite nice to hear that the conversation went along so respectfully. Especially when we hear about so many conflicts when these topics come up between believers and non-believers.
    It sounds like you handled yourself well. I wouldn’t have too many seconds thoughts in this instance.

  3. you never know, he might have a crisis of faith before his end comes and maybe your words will be a comfort. It never hurts to discuss things intelligently. If you were harassing him and berating his religion when he had no interest in what you were saying, that would be wrong, but it sounds like you guys had a good discussion.

  4. Sam,

    I think the answer lay in your experience with this man. He sounds reasonable, thoughtful and open-minded to new ideas and even seeks them out. He may or may not ponder the question of a deity or of an afterlife, but it probably won’t cause him to suffer much angst.

    On the other hand, I think it is pointless and maybe even cruel to have such a conversation with someone who is less open-minded and is near death, relatively speaking.

    Unless of course that person is a decrepit lawmaker about to block legislation in order to prevent “Death Panels”.

    Then it’s ok ;)


  5. This is exactly my dilemma with my parents. I’m pretty open with most people, when asked, about my religious views. My parents are retired and very involved with their church. They really enjoy those relationships. I can’t bring myself to compromise that for them.

  6. I believe critical thinking is important at any age. I think by engaging in an honest conversation like the one you described, you showed respect for your gym buddy. A lot of old people are, like, wicked smart, you know, so censoring your conversation based on the other person being old doesn’t seem like a good comprehensive strategy.

  7. I don’t think think age should enter into it. I think it is disrespectful to change your conversation on the perceived nearness of death of the person you are talking to. If someone figures out that you’re deliberately hedging your answers they might be legitimately ticked.

  8. @Sam Ogden: well, I think it has to be decided on a case-by-case basis. If someone is asking questions about your beliefs, you should never hesitate to answer honestly and completely. Most people who are older and have faith have probably come across non-believers before. Though you might give them a new perspective on the reasoning of non-believers, you’re probably not going to shake their faith.

    If someone just states that they are a christian, on the other hand, you’d probably be best off not spewing out all the reasons their religion is wrong.

  9. In my very, very limited experience most people aren’t open minded and won’t discuss ideas in a civil manner. When you are lucky enough to find someone who is willing to do so then it isn’t your/mine place to decide what new idea they should be exposed too. My parents and grandparents and almost every person I know at any age has a set of ideas and beliefs that settled in and solidified around the fourth grade.

    If the person is interested and enjoys the conversation and the exchange of ideas then be honest no matter their age.

  10. This is something I wrestle with all the time regardless of the age of the person involved. I’m agnostic and there are many people in my life, including my wife, who are religious. On those occasions when I’ve discussed religion with any of these people, I’ve kind of felt bad about it. I don’t know that I would ever convince any of these people that they’re wrong, but if I did, or even if I put serious doubt in their minds, I would feel like I had taken something from them. I don’t advocate living in ignorance, but the fact of the matter is that I’m terrified of dying and I sometimes think things would be much easier if I was capable of really believing in a supreme being.

  11. This question smacks of a kind of arrogance — as if someone of “advanced age” shouldn’t be bothered to think, reason, or find challenge in the opinions of others.

    Of course it’s appropriate to challenge someone whose beliefs are not based in reality, and it has nothing to do with how much time you think they do or do not have left.

  12. I would take it case-by-case. If I were in Sam’s position, I would have probably had much the same conversation. By Sam’s account, the guy was interested, thoughtful and asked questions. It was a conversation. Perfectly fine.
    If, on the other hand, I were having this conversation with my grandma, who is in her 80’s, not in great health and wants nothing more than to ‘see’ my Grandad again when she gets to heaven, I might not be able to answer those questions as honestly.
    I haven’t really been in the latter scenario, yet.
    So it’s only my guess.

  13. It really depends on the person and if they are asking. I don’t see any point in getting into it with someone for your sake or if they are very closed minded.

    There’s a practical element to dealing with people that, IMO, is often forgotten during discussions like this. If discussing the topic doesn’t help you achieve your goals then it’s not worth discussing.

    A hypothetical example, a man cheats on his wife and immediately regrets it and decides to never do it again (for the sake of discussion he never does). While many would claim that he should own up and admit his indiscretion, in practice this will cause nothing but trouble and pain for both him and his wife.

    If they are not open to the idea of non-belief, or are going to worry about your soul in their last remaining years what have you achieved through discussing it with them?

  14. @Skept-artist:

    That’s exactly what I was getting at. This is not new to me. I have experienced much the same thing with my parents and relatives before, but I still think about it.


    You don’t have much contact with people, do you? Or maybe you do, and you just don’t care what others feel. You might be lacking an empathy gene.

  15. It’s the old “hit-by-a-truck” thing. You wouldn’t have an issue bringing this up with an 18 year old – but that 18 year old might be much closer to death than the man you’re talking to. You can’t really know how long anybody has.

    And you can’t know how much impact your ideas may or may not have on another person, either.

    You had an enjoyable conversation with a friendly acquaintance. Let that stand on it’s own without reference to questions of age or impact you can’t objectively answer.

  16. @Danarra: How much do you think your average 18 year old thinks about their own death? How much do you think an 85 year old thinks about their own death?
    I’d wager the 85 year old thinks about it more. Of course that 18 year old COULD die first, but I don’t think Sam is talking so much about that. I think he’s talking more about folks who KNOW they are reaching the end, because objectively they can’t expect to live for another 30 years.

  17. I think it’s advisable to talk about your (lack of) beliefs if the issue comes up in conversation, but do it in a polite and respectful way, and don’t try to “convert” people if the topic never comes up. And this applies to all people, regardless of age.

    This is tangential, but I get especially annoyed when people argue that morality comes from a higher power. In that case, you should ask the person if they’d be willing to do bad things if their was no threat of Hell to stop them from doing it, and they’ll often realize that their own morality doesn’t just come from threat of punishment (or promise of a reward like Heaven).

  18. My father died last month, after rapidly declining over a week, and I was there while it happened. As time went on, he became absolutely *terrified* of what was happening.

    So, while I might have argued the point 5 or 10 years ago, there was no way in hell I was going to disabuse him of the notion that he was going to be going someplace with angels singing and chocolate ice-cream every day. There are times when being right loses out to being moral, and that’s one of them.

  19. Despite all the talk of grace and forgiveness in the Christian faith many people of that persuasion are wracked with feelings of inadequacy and guilt associated with the majority of the teachings of their faith. Then again walking away from years of religious belief can often involve grief and rejection by family and friends, not to mention the existential angst some people grapple with as atheists. Tough questions and these are topics I choose to not discuss with some of my friends and many family members unless asked very specifically. At a certain point these relationships are more important than any need I have to expound on my lack of belief.

    So like others have already said, the decision to advance a more rational view of religion and question the anemic evidence for anything supernatural would depend on the person and the situation. And it’s still a free market for ideas and what is said can always be rejected by the listener.

  20. I agree with most here, openness and honesty in this regard is the best course of action.

    However, I do not think you can say that someone in their seventies, especially someone in their seventies who goes to the gym daily, is anywhere near dying of “old age”. by working out daily, he is probably on the other end of the bell curve, frankly.

    He may die of cancer or some other ailment, but so could any of us.

  21. I think it is totally OK. If a conversation on a treadmill could shake an 70+ year worldview, it wouldn’t be that strong to begin with. I’m not a fan of people who proselytize in either direction but open, respectful, intelligent conversation – see no harm

  22. Is it hurting him in some way? Clearly it’s not, he sounds happy in his beliefs. You had a good conversation with him and put forth your opinion in a polite way and that is as far as I’d take it. You’ve given him something to think about.

    Generally I’ll only argue with someone about faith or woo if it’s either hurting them (or causing them to hurt others) or they press the issue. Otherwise polite discussion is the way to go, I’ve really shaken up some Jehovah’s Witnesses that way.

    Now if this gentleman had been a little senile or otherwise not capable (like my uncle who is developmentally disabled) then it wouldn’t be right to have the conversation at all. My uncle still believes in both God and Santa but we don’t press the issue because he can’t understand and would probably be upset by it.

  23. @Skept-artist – I’m going to question your assumption. When I was 18 I thought about my own death quite a bit. Of course there were reasons for that, and I’m not sure if they were average or not.

    My 80 year old grandfather and I had weekly discussions that often veered into death and dying. He didn’t seem more frightened about death than I was. Perhaps more resigned to the fact, but sometimes not so much.

    Again, it’s a person-by-person thing. I’m sure everybody’s known people at 18 who appeared more thoughtful and mature than other people at 80.

    My guess is that Sam is a decent sort of guy who wouldn’t have been pushing his views on someone who wasn’t interested in them. So I tend to think talking to anyone at any age about something interesting is just dandy.

  24. @James Fox:

    At a certain point these relationships are more important than any need I have to expound on my lack of belief.

    My mother, 88, has had my lifetime to deal with our differences, and my only “spiritual” concern now is that she is happy with me as I am, whether she thinks I’ll eventually end up in torment for eternity or not. I think we’d both rather have peace than be right.

  25. @Sam Ogden: You’re too kind and I wish I was as wise as I can sound with a few moments of thought and a quick read through to edit can make me look. And at 50 I think about death every time certain friends remind me I still don’t have a hole in one or a round in the 60’s.

  26. @Danarra: I did think about the possibility of 18 years olds contemplating their own death. I even edited out an “18 year old goth” joke from my original reply to you. Certainly anyone of most any age thinks about these things. I did when I was younger and do now. My point was just that, probably, an older person is more aware of their time left. When you are older and you see your friends and loved ones disappearing from your life, one by one, I imagine the effect would be greater. Not necessarily frightening, but more, I don’t know, present?
    And I agree with your last paragraph. But there may be more weight to the conversation with someone who is older. But, as everyone keeps saying, case-by-case.

  27. @Skept-artist – You make a valid point. Argument conceded. (Wish you could hear the tone of voice on that – picture me grinning and tipping my hat.)

  28. @Sam Ogden: I can only speak for myself, but your experience is by far the most common experience I have when discussing religion. In general, people are open and honest about what they believe and tolerant of my beliefs, often surprised because they came into the conversation with a whole lot of misconceptions about what Atheists do and do not believe. We go our separate ways and we both have a little bit to think about.

    Unless I’m very busy, I try to make time for those conversations when I find myself in one. I don’t push, but I don’t hold back what I think either. I am perfectly willing to take someone through my reasoning step by step. 9 out of 10 times, they accept what I say even if they have come to a different conclusion. You can challenge someone’s beliefs if you still respect them as a thinking human being. Assume they’ve put as much thought into what they believe as you’ve put into yours and you can’t go far wrong. There is even the odd time when someone says “You’ve given me a lot to think about.” That makes up for a lot, even though my intention is never to convert anyone. My goal is always to understand what they believe and why and give them an understanding of what I believe and why. Conversion isn’t something you can make happen anyway. You can only present the facts as you see them. “I doubt you’ll ever make someone collapse, sobbing “You’ve destroyed my world. My whole life is a sham!!”

    However, the conversations that end with one or both of us either shaking our heads or wanting to throttle the other make up for their infrequency by being infinitely more maddening and memorable, unfortunately, and I have NEVER had one of them end with the “That’s interesting.” mutual exit.

    Sometimes I wonder if I bring it on a little too eagerly, but I’m not about to apologize for what I believe in and the majority of the conversations that end badly were started by a fundamentalist getting in MY face with a phrase like “You are a fool.” so I figure they get what’s coming to them.

  29. @swordsbane:

    I can only speak for myself, but your experience is by far the most common experience I have when discussing religion.

    That is a good thing. You are lucky.

    And you know, it’s proabably the most common for me as well. A lot of that has to do with the fact that, since I prefer that type of conversation, I strive to conduct my end of them that way. And a lot has to do with the fact that I don’t suffer aggressive, overbearing, shouters anymore. I have better things to do.

  30. @mulveyr: I’m really sorry for your loss. Sounds pretty similar to what happened with my dad last year – lost him in October to angiosarcoma after a really fast decline.

    Initially, he survived an incident where his spleen ruptured from the cancer in it. So when that news story broke about the survey that showed X% of Americans believe in angels, he said he believed somebody was watching out for him, since he hadn’t died on the operating table. I think it would have been absolutely cruel to argue the point with him.

    Some may call it arrogance to believe that you’re more emotionally equipped than somebody else to handle these things. But it’s absolutely reasonable in some contexts, like with certain mental illnesses or one’s proximity to their death.

  31. Don’t worry about it! He sounds like a nice, smart, mature guy who has an honest curiosity about how others think. Good for him! Would that more people have conversations with those on opposite sides of an issue!

    With his lifetime of experience, he surely knows that he might hear some things he doesn’t agree with when venturing into this topic.

    The likelihood is that no matter what you say, he isn’t going to give up his religion at his age, and if he does, the process has been underway for a while. Humans are exceptionally good at protecting themselves from facts that challenge their most cherished beliefs.

    Like others have said, I think it would have been arrogant and dishonest to have “protected” him from the facts of your beliefs. Also, I think we often overestimate the power of our rhetoric when we assume that merely speaking with us will “dismantle” their lifetime of beliefs. I try not to delude myself into thinking I’m that persuasive.

    If he were suffering from dementia or severe emotional illness that was obvious, then there might be a point to dodging the issue, but it sounds like that’s not the case.

    In this case, he probably feels a bit less worried about the supposed “amorality” of atheists, which is a good thing. In any case, he had a stimulating conversation with an interesting person. And YOU met a religious guy who was at curious enough and brave enough to ask!

    I’d call it a win all around.

  32. As a doc I have been placed in end of life scenarios many, many times.

    The simple answer is no.

    The slightly longer anger is no, it’s not about YOU – it’s about them, their comfort, their voyage.

    Even if I am asked what do I believe, if it’s an end of life or near end of life scenario, I do not dismantle their comfort zone. EVER!

    Now … I think that your scenario is different, it was in a gym, he was not dying – even though he is 70 plus, he might live another ten plus years. Plus, it was not a clinical scenario. It was simply a discussion. He may have left the conversation enlightened, or converted , or not effected at all. I would have had a similar discussion with him in that scenario. But perhaps Sam, it was you who were more enlightened or effected by this conversation; his willingness to listen to well defined arguments that run contrary to faith without damning interuptions, but rather with interest and concern for you as a person seems to have touched you. How nice is that! This sounds like a fantastic conversation by two friends who only share a treadmill in common. May you have many more.

  33. I think people should be treated with decency, and that includes yourself. So don’t talk religion under circumstances where you’re uncomfortable doing so, regardless of who you are talking to.

  34. start with your respect for the man, you clearly found such.
    after you ascertain that point, he is responsible for his actions and their effects.
    is that not how you want to be treated yourself ?

  35. @Sam Ogden:

    Really? I lack “empathy” because I think that we shouldn’t treat the elderly like they don’t value learning new things, understanding others’ points of view, and such?


    I submit that you have a little too much hubris. You had a wonderful, respectful, and interesting conversation with a man. He listened to you, showed every sign of being interested in what you had to say, and you have the nuts to suggest that maybe you shouldn’t have had that conversation.

    Here’s a thought: no matter how elderly someone is, they have the right to be treated as human beings. If he’d not wanted the conversation, he certainly had enough wherewithal to have stopped or discouraged it. It is unbelievable hubris to make assumptions about how a person wants to be treated based only on their advanced age.

    Maybe you need to meet some more elderly people and actually, you know, get to know them before you make yourself look like an even bigger fool.

    (Yes, I’m a little pissed off — I have a good number of older friends, and I hate how people treat them as cute and fragile; and they despise it too, but most are just too polite to say so.)

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