I have recently been intrigued by what I suspect may be a vastly underutilized conversational approach when discussing religion with others.

I could be wrong, so if anyone knows of contrary evidence, please send it my way.

I see and hear lots of arguments about religion that seek to point out factual errors, contradictions, mutually-exclusive propositions between competing religions, etc.

But, aside from the well-known appeals to verses that support slavery and genocide in the Bible or other religious texts, I rarely see anyone discussing their own personal emotional barriers to accepting religions as true. Similarly, I don't often see atheists ask religious people to discuss their emotional reasons for their own belief. And, I do not recall any accounts of, for example, a Christian listing his or her emotional barriers toward believing in Hinduism or Islam.

Why do I think this might be important?

It's just a hypothesis right now, but in my experience so far trying this approach, people are very reluctant to say they are emotionally untroubled by verses in any holy text that calls for murder.

Now, I am not saying that they do not have rationalizations. People who believe in Christianity will say that the New Testament turns the Old Testament on its head, or they will say that God, as the author of life, has different standard and cannot tolerate sin.

Yet, when you continue this conversation, not by belittling their books or beliefs, but by continuing to uphold your own emotional barriers, it can lead to, at minimum, a better respect from them (depending on who they are, I suppose).

I know there are very sophisticated explanations of theodicy and such, but regardless, it is an emotional barrier for me, personally, to believe that an all powerful, loving creator would show ethnic favoritism and order his followers to murder other creations of his own. This is not consistent with the values we hold as modern human beings, in my opinion, and we have explicit laws against such behavior.

In a recent converstaion, one yet to conclude, I asked a religious believer how I should differentiate the calls from one religion to murder unbelievers with the calls from another religion to murder unbelievers. Both religions claimed that the commands came from the creator of the universe. Both religions claimed that unbelievers would spend eternity in hell for disbelief.

I did not state that I simply "did not believe in either", instead I asked the believer to help me figure out how I should differentiate.

I am hoping that this gives the believer opportunity to think about how they themselves came to believe that their religion is the true one instead of the other.

I hope that all sincere believers would be willing to continue such a conversation as long as possible and into literature that questions their own certainty. And, if not, then I hope it at least helps them realize that others who disagree with them do so not just on "facts and figures", but on deeply questioning the morality of their espoused creator entity.

Maybe it won't go where I hope, but it already feels more productive than discussing facts and fallacies. In this case, I already learned that this believer values the call from Jesus to pursue the golden rule higher than the claims of "exclusive salvation via Jesus and only Jesus".

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You may be correct in your thinking and you may be very effective in your approach. There is no one way to react to new understanding, and there are many different beliefs that contradict each other and the bible contradicts what is written. Some people read from the bible what they want to read and seem to be blind to the things the bible has printed on the pages they do not like. The old "smorgasbord" bible. 

I would say to trust your instincts. A gentle, Socratic method may work for you and I sincerely hope it does.

As for myself, anger remains too close to the surface for me to be gentle and kind. Some tell me I am wrong in my technique, however, my honest, sincere thinking leads me to say what I think and be as clear and specific as I can possibly be. Contradictions cannot be denied, nor can incongruity, and inconsistency. 

Be sure to develop a thick skin because no matter what you think or do, someone will find fault with it. In many ways false accusations make you stronger; another's honest description of perception about you helps to hone your thinking. 

Thanks Joan, I appreciate the response. I just wrote up another post at http:// joshua-gough.blogspot.com but I am already thinking it might be inflammatory to some readers. I might have to revise it. I am still trying to figure out for myself whether I really want to actively seek to engage in the discussions or whether I would prefer to reserve the approach to when I do need to use it as a response.

There is part of me that wants to just figure out a way to work together with believers and nonbelievers not for discussion and debate, but for simple acts of service in our communities that are not related to metaphysical beliefs.

But, it is hard to lose the desire to discuss and debate entirely :) Maybe I can do both in their proper places.

I understand where you are coming from with this line of questioning but I would be reticent to use it outside of people I know very well.  As emotionally charged as this topic can become I would be wary of a stranger who already views me as infidel, sinner or agent of satan becoming emotionally wound up.  In an online setting or with someone I know I can see the value.

Thanks Grant!
That is a really good point. The whole Satan and demons angle is one that makes me the most exasperated. It is possible to attribute absolutely anything to a demon.

But, I wonder how many Christians are willing to entertain the possibility that Satan has demons influencing them and that the worship of Jesus is actually demonic influence? I mean, maybe Judaism or Islam is the true religion, and Jesus was a sophisticated demonic power that infiltrated the middle east 2,000 years ago.

I am just wondering if anyone would be willing to entertain that hypothesis, given that they believe demons and Satan are real beings to begin with.
Hi DW,

I hope it is useful to you. I already am having some difficulty with it myself though :)


It is easy for me to feel uncomfortable around deeply fervent believers. It is especially easy to feel that way when I see that they behave in all others aspects of life as if only nature, and no supernatural powers, exist.

I think I end up feeling sad for them, even though I do not think they feel sad....they feel happy!

I think I reached an agreement with someone very important to me, that we will take turns reading selected writings from each other, at least once a week for 30 minutes. We will do it in a public place like a coffee shop or bookstore so that it feels neutral and non threatening to both of us.

She is having us read a Christian book, Radical: Reclaiming faith from the American Dream, and I think I will select The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark -- though I tbought maybe I should select something about the Canon formation. The Homeric Epics book was very informative and eye opening to me when I read it ten years ago. Unfortunately, I could not interest any Christian friends at the time to read it. One of them even stopped talking to me because I did not believe in the literal historicity of Jesus's resurrection.

Okay, we all can play here:

  • How do you know Islam is true?  It's in the quran, read the quran!
  • How do you know that Hinduism is true?  It's in the Bhagavad Gita!
  • How do you know that Baha'i is true?  Read the Hidden Words of Baha'ullah!
  • And so on, ad nauseum...

If their logic got any more circular, I'd be dizzy from it.  And you're absolutely right: these people so identify with their belief system that to criticize it is to criticize them.  Most of them haven't the capacity to look at their own belief objectively.

This is where the techniques which Peter Boghossian has developed may be very useful.

I've

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