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sentence418Last time I described an exchange I had on Facebook. A friend asked what I considered to be the negatives of church community. I answered, and the friend who had asked the question expressed real appreciation for the reply — despite the fact that it includes actual direct critique.

A fellow secular humanist asked how I’d brought an exchange like that to such a satisfying conclusion. Here’s an anatomy of my reply, with key “defusers” in bold to keep the ears open.

Notice that the question asked what I see as the negatives. So I start by acknowledging that

For some people there are no negatives. For others, there are no positives. I can only speak for myself.

Religious folks often think I just haven’t experienced as much as they have, when in fact I’ve usually experienced a helluva lot more. So I need to establish my bona fides and my evenhandedness:

I went to church for 25 years in nine denominations and studied religions in tremendous depth. I have talked at length with ministers, theologians, and believers across the spectrum. I have cared profoundly about the answers. I am now a secular humanist, but I find some religious expressions very appealing: liberal Quakerism and Jainism, to name two.

Then I start with basics, always from my own perspective:

The negatives of theistic churches for me start quite simply with the idea of a god. If I don’t believe such a thing is real, it’s beneath my humanity to pretend otherwise.

I explain why that’s a problem and encourage them to feel empathy for my situation, even if they don’t share my opinion:

To then watch what I believe is a false idea lend unchallengeable authority to bad ideas along with the good is very, very painful.

“Painful” encourages empathy, whereas something like “Pisses me off” would bring up defenses. And I always circle back to include the presence of “good ideas” — there are some, you know, and that’s often all they see, so you’d better mention it. If I only harp on the bad, they’ll think me mad and tune out. I elaborate on what I think is bad, always including qualifiers like “often” and “sometimes” and “much of the time” to avoid doing a leg-sweep (and because it’s true):

Honest questioning is too often disallowed, the word “values” often turned on its head.

I could have said this:

God isn’t real, and it’s beneath my humanity to pretend otherwise. To watch something false lend unchallengeable authority to bad ideas just pisses me off. Honest questioning is not allowed, and the word “values” is turned on its head.

About a ten-word difference, but the other person can’t hear this one. Too busy planning a reply like, “You can ask honest questions in my church!” (as Andrea essentially said to Wendy). Their church is allllllways the exception. And we’d still be going back and forth in escalating, pointless spirals. They cannot as easily deny that it is too often disallowed. I get to make my point AND have my lunch.

Finally the common ground, and a reminder that I’m not trying to take away what they have. I couldn’t even if I wanted to — they can only do that themselves. But this way, they know it isn’t even my goal:

Ethical Societies provide community, mutual care, meaning, inspiration, life landmarks, and other positives of religious experience without the negatives that come reliably — though in different degrees — with supernaturalism. Those who find theistic churches attractive can and should find community there. The rest of us are looking for alternatives.

So what was accomplished here? Is this really nothing more than “making nice,” a case of accommodating any and every religious belief and action?

Hell no. “Making nice” is ever so much easier. I could handle that in a single 50-word post. You just switch off your cortex and say, “Hey, to each his own. Whatever floats your boat. Live and let live. We’re all pursuing our own truths.” That’s vacuous bullshit. I’m not just looking for “co-existence.” I want engaged co-existence.

My reply offered an actual critique. It went to the very heart of what made me finally give up on churchgoing: An idea I see as false lends unchallengeable authority to bad ideas. Honest questioning is often disallowed. Values are too often turned on their heads. But by acknowledging something that’s true — that there are exceptions — I gave the listener a little breathing room, which lets them hear rather than merely ducking.

By the end, I’ve made it possible at every step for the other person to agree with me. It’s a Socratic thing, and it’s really effective. All that remains is to get them off their butts to help me do something about the negative uses of religion. As a bonus, Andrea and Bob might just be hyper-aware the next time they are in church. Not to mention more than a hundred other churchgoers among my Facebook friends who might be listening in the wings.

Was that worth ten minutes of my time? You decide. As for me, ten years of watching (and participating in) shouted exchanges that achieve nothing, or emptyheaded refusals to engage at all, was enough for me. I’m still saying what I want to say, but now, at last, someone’s actually listening.

So what do you think? Is this productive, or just a game of manners? Are we fiddling with qualifiers while Rome burns? Or have you felt the same difference in your own ability to listen depending on how someone says what they have to say?

Next time: The Joy of Giving Up

[Complete series]

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Dale McGowan is the author of Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies. He holds a BA in evolutionary anthropology and a PhD in music.