Recently I decided to see about finding a few friends from high school. I found one, we'll call him Pete. We have been chatting on Facebook and it was looking like maybe we could be friends again. I was feeling pretty good about the whole thing. Well, then I mentioned that I went to a group meeting this past Sunday. I realized after mentioning it that the very name of the group would open up the discussion of religion and I tried to change the subject. I didn't want to lose a friend before even getting him back.
The meeting I went to was for Morgantown Atheists. I've become rather active with them, as they are local, seem quite friendly, and hey, they're atheists! Yay! Well, Pete immediately asked me, why am I an atheist? I started to tell him. I said that there's no evidence for any gods. He said he had proof of god and the afterlife. I was intrigued and asked him for details, and to tell me why he is a christian, and he then told me 2 stories from his past, which have made him a believer.
He has a very unusual set of beliefs, culled together from different christian ideas, but mainly filtered down to only be the happy stuff. The stories he told were very much not happy. So I guess it makes sense for him to see the afterlife as a good thing.
As he told me more and more, I realized that if I said anything at all, to shine the light of logic and reason onto his stories and perceptions of god and the afterlife, that I'd alienate him as well as make him mad. He apparently derives great comfort from his beliefs, and I didn't think it was appropriate to burst his bubble with talk of evidence, especially since it was clear that he felt he had more than enough proof. In fact, at one point he asked me if he had freaked me out. I had to say no, and that it wasn't going to convert me either.The thing is, he ended the conversation and I haven't heard from him since.
On a side note, my sisters-in-law are also very religious and on Facebook. They were in my face about god and praying and stuff until I finally reminded one of them that I refuse to pray for anyone. Right after that I started getting more atheist friends over there, thanks to you fine people, and I started sharing and posting more atheist stuff on my page. They have since stopped talking to me.
The other sister-in-law (that I didn't confront about prayer) still comments if I put up a happy post about how lovely the weather is, but neither have chatted with me since I've become more vocal in my atheism on Facebook. What's really sad is that it's not really a great loss. I was constantly trying to stifle my irritation at them shoving their god down my throat. So now things are much less frustrating. But they're part of my family, so it's still sad.
Anyway, while in the middle of the conversation with Pete, I thought, hey, I'll contact the Morgantown Atheists forum and ask for some help! I felt that I was too frustrated to not snap at Pete, so I thought maybe they could give me some objective pointers. I sent a message to them and got some great advice back. I thought I'd share it with you, so we all have it for when atheists and religious family and friends collide.
I'm sure you all have your ways to deal with this stuff. I already use a lot of this information all the time. But it just seemed particularly helpful all in one place.
First, David Mills wrote Atheist Universe. I've read the first 2 chapters awhile ago and loved it, but I was reminded that the second chapter is a question and answer between a christian and David, the atheist. If you go to his website, he offers the second chapter in audio format to listen to. I found that to be a great refresher and reminder, as well as found a few new points that I had missed when I read it. Now I'm going to read the rest of the book. (Sometimes I'm a bit slow with books, but I get there eventually.)
Neil offered me this advice: (I changed the beginning to sort of a list for easy reference)
Personally, I would say:
- "I'm an atheist, for the same reason that you're an atheist, when it comes to gods like Zeus".
- Atheism isn't a rejection of any God, it is just the default position, the null position. I just don't believe in magical, or supernatural, things until there is adequate evidence to support it.
- Also, I notice that people often tend to get "get stuck" into the same beliefs of their parents, be they; Christians, Hindus, Muslims (or even the followers of Zeus). Because of that, it seems to me, that all religions are just dogma perpetuated from one generation to the next. And it seems to me to be just an arbitrary accident of birth, as to which one we end up getting saddled with. I try to keep an open mind, but until I see adequate supporting evidence I'll just keep my default position.
Don't be surprised if your friend seems a little bi-polar with you, from day to day. I've gotten into the God conversation with a very close friend and I found out that his Christian friends were telling him, on some days, how great it was that he can witness to me (the atheist). But, on other days they were telling him that he should remove himself from any godless people, and/or godless influences. Personally, I think "believers" are quick to try to pigeon-hole everything into two classifications, Good and Evil. So again, don't be surprised by him getting a little bi-polar with you.
If it is a healthy, fair and rational discussion, you should be free to bring it up in conversations, and/or ask just as many questions, as he does. It is also very helpful (in any discussion) to try to be aware of your word choices, try not to put him on the defensive. Use qualifiers like "I think", "its my opinion", "I've heard". Try to be inclusive by saying things like "we get saddled", "we can't know". If you think your statement will be too attacking (How can YOU! think that) try deflecting your "attack" into something like "how can Christians think that". And you may want to have him, and you, both agree that it is ok to disagree, when all is said and done. Nether of you should expect to change the other's position. Discussions like this are more about learning the other's position (at least to a better degree) and learning about gaps your own knowledge about your own position.
To help you articulate your position, as an atheist, you should definitely read/listen to books like Atheist Universe (which is sounds like your doing), The God Delusion and Letter to a Christian Nation (it's a quick read). I really like Bill Maher's movie/documentary "Religulous" (you should be able to find it at BlockBuster or on NetFlix). You might want to recommend Religulous to your friend, it's very funny, in places, and may be eye opening for him. I've changed my cell phone's name (it's blue tooth name) to say "U Must C Religulous", I don't know how often people look for other blue tooth devices, but if I'm around they see that :)
Neil asked me to give his contact information in case anyone had questions, which I thought was pretty cool.
A few notes: Religulous was a great movie. I recommend it. I haven't read the other 2 books. If you have feel free to give us a review in the comments.
I also got a short note from another group member who added:
The advice the others gave is very good, especially the David Mills Q&A that you downloaded. But don't expect too much because in my experience most believers are coming from an emotional stance, not an evidence based one. So don't be surprised if all the evidence in the world won't convince him. To paraphrase Carl Sagan: "You can't convince a believer of anything, because their belief is based on a deep seated need to believe."
I didn't get his permission so I won't give his name. But it's good stuff too, so I thought I'd share it.
If you have any thoughts on how to talk to true believers about atheism and religion, feel free to share! We can all use new techniques for these potentially difficult confrontations.