I’ve had online conversations with Muslims who tried to convince me Allah is the only and true god, Christians who tried to persuade me that Jesus is my Savior, several traditional Buddhists who insist that by not believing in reincarnation I’m screwing up my karma and the karma of others, and an Atheist who believes that crop circles are made by aliens from another solar system.

In each case, I was approached by the person wanting to make their case in response to some article, blog, or video I had posted. These conversations had several traits in common:

  • The believers felt threatened that I didn’t share their view
  • The arguments they presented were identical to each other, even though they believed in different gods or concepts, with a few minor word changes
  • None had anything remotely resembling evidence
  • Each conversation ended exactly in the same way: Our minds were unchanged

Yet, for me, the time invested was not time wasted. It fascinated me to see how similar these conversations were, and how utterly pointless from a change of point of view perspective. So, should we even bother to engage in these conversations, or should we just shut up when they arise?

The Amazing Meeting (TAM) conference I attended in 2011, I went to a workshop called Advancing Skepticism Online. I found it helpful and instructive, not just for advancing skepticism, but for advancing any agenda, and more importantly for discussing topics that tend to be controversial.

Much of our discussion concerned the online conversations that occur in the comments areas of blogs, articles, videos, as well as threads on Facebook and in our emails. A good majority of these conversations end up in bitter, angry name calling that is just juvenile. We all agreed, when a discussion deteriorates to that level of immaturity, bounce out immediately! You’ll only discredit yourself to others who come along by engaging in childish antics.

But are discussions like the ones I mentioned above worthwhile? Doesn’t it seem pointless when someone is obviously locked into their belief? Actually no. Because while you may realize early on that no evidence is going to emerge that will change your mind, and that no evidence you present will change theirs, there are people reading the discussions, who are not directly involved, who may be open to what you are saying, who are on the fence of their beliefs.

While there is little chance you are going to change the mind of the person who originally engaged you in conversation, you likely will pique the interest of others who are reading the thread but not participating. After all, they did show up at your article, blog, or video for a reason. Additionally, occasionally, you’ll come across an new argument that you can learn from.

The following tips came up that are helpful in deciding if you should present your view or just shut up and leave:

  • Don’t engage in controversial topics unless you are specifically asked to. There is nothing worse than having someone suddenly pushing their view on you. Don’t be one of those people.
  • Don’t engage people with the intent of changing their minds. We can only share our viewpoint, the evidence we are aware of, and our feelings on a topic. We do not have control over others. Present your side of a view, politely, and from a personal viewpoint.
  • When someone opposes your blog, article, video first give others a chance to respond to that person. Often the community will back you up, and many times you need not get involved.
  • If you feel angry, threatened, etc. do not respond. Instead be mindful of where your feelings are coming from, and back away, give yourself a rest from the conversation. Many of us have sensitive backgrounds concerning the religion that may have been pushed on us. If someone pushes one of those buttons, it’s best to recognize you’re going to be defensive, and hence ineffective.
  • Even if you see someone is attached to their belief, present evidence to the contrary for those who may be receptive. Do it in a matter of fact way, without insults to the other person’s belief.
  • When someone insists you believe what they believe, always ask for hard core evidence of that belief, or at the least what causes them to have the belief.
  • If the person you are communicating with becomes angry, starts name calling, or obsessively posts message after message in some insane diatribe, disengage, shut the hell up, and get out!
  • Have advocates who are particularly good at presenting on certain topics engage in tricky discussions. It’s amazing how a person will react angrily to a blog author but will respond positively to someone else in the community, even though the same thing is being said but worded differently.
  • Allowing comments and arguments can be good for advocating your area of interest, but watch to be sure they don’t get out of hand.
  • Get involved in conversation outside of your site, blog to share your perspective, to advocate and provide evidence you have, and to practice being courteous even when verbally attacked. Again, if you feel threatened or angry, shut up, get out, and sit with your feelings. This is an excellent time to kick your practice in gear.

We each have to decide internally for ourselves what kind of time we want to invest in these discussions. While on the surface they may seem pointless, you’d be surprised how many heads are turned and minds are changed from the quiet readers who are taking in all the evidence you’re providing, the statements you are making, and your logic and reason. I’ve had people email me to thank me for standing up for a certain point of view, for presenting information that explained some phenomena. I’ve had relatives of the person I’m arguing with email me to thank me for challenging their father or brother because they can’t.

We can’t make the world a better place in a day, and we certainly aren’t going to to it through just online conversations, but knowing when to share our perspective and when not to is a valuable skill we can all develop. It’s goes a long way in creating change in healthy direction.

When dealing with the god belief, always ask the other person to define god, so you know what kind of god you’re dealing with, and whether or not they believe in the Old or New Testament. Many Christians don’t follow the Old Testament. I know I was told as a child that the Old Testament was just a book of stories, and the New Testament was the truth. So, making arguments against the Old Testament would be pointless if you are talking to someone who doesn’t follow it anyway.

Also, take time to examine your own beliefs. You may not have religious beliefs but you may have some concerning politics (which is mostly beliefs and opinions) beliefs about flying saucers or aliens from outer space, beliefs about Big Foot, etc. Dig into those beliefs and notice how they are based mostly on emotion, a desire for the topic to be true, and see if you can loosen your hold on that belief. Ask yourself what it would take to convince you that you’re wrong?

Above all else, remember that believers are not stupid. If you go into conversation with an attitude of superiority, the conversation will go south. Most believers were convinced of their belief when they were very young. Most of them are afraid to let go. Let’s face it, burning in hell for all eternity is not a small thing! Be sensitive, and remember, we all are struggling in this world in various ways and don’t want to be picked on.

 

2 Comments

    • Larry Gott

      Excellent article, Dana. I have tried in my comments sections on YouTube to follow the methods you suggest, not always successfully. That is to say, I have become emotional from time to time, and have met snarky comment with snarky rejoinder, when it would have been better to pull in my horns and at least wait awhile before answering. This being human thing is a bitch sometimes!

    • Susan McLean

      Dana, I am so grateful for your emphasis on kindness and staying calm. The “angry atheist” became a stereotype years ago, and I will be delighted to see that fade. Most of us are not foul-mouthed, bitter monsters, and we need to demonstrate our good values when carrying the atheist banner.

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