Reading Time: 4 minutes

tincan59904My plan was two posts about Facebook, but events keep running ahead of my little typing fingers. This is the second of a probable five-in-a-row about Facebook. I’ll start by describing an exchange in which I took my own advice pretty well, then continue with a couple of less successful efforts.

A reminder: This series is NOT about how to engage in big formal discussions. It’s NOT about trying to directly challenge this or that element of religious belief or to change someone’s beliefs. It’s about finding ways to be out and normal in a room with people of mixed perspectives. Most of all, it’s about hearing and being heard. (Tired of that yet?)

I posted a status update on Facebook:

Just back from a great trip to the Ethical Society of St. Louis. WHY is there not an Ethical Society in every city? Not a rhetorical question.

Somewhere during the thread that followed, I said

If more people knew what these Societies were like (the benefits of church community w/o the negatives), they’d be everywhere.

A good high school friend (“Bob”) asked what I considered to be the negatives of church community. Another good HS friend (“Andrea”) seconded this very reasonable question.

My first reaction to this is always, “You’ve GOT to be kidding,” as the list of negatives ballooooons before my mind’s eye. I typed, “It’s really beyond me how anyone could fail to see the negatives”—then deleted it. Sure, it’s obvious to me. But it clearly wasn’t obvious to Bob or Andrea. Is my goal of being heard served by bringing up their defenses? Not a chance. I have to accept that it wasn’t obvious to either of them or they wouldn’t have asked.

This is why you don’t reply with your first reaction—because if you do, you’re only talking to yourself.

I started drafting — phrasing, rephrasing, venting, deleting, adding modifiers. As I did so, both my accuracy AND my “hearability” increased.

Before I could finish, a good friend of mine (“Wendy”) with a similar POV replied:

Negatives: Promising Heaven, threatening with Hell, brain washing from a very young age, ignorance, discrimination against homosexuals… just to name a few.

I winced. This is exactly how I used to answer. But these are guaranteed to draw the “not-my-church” denial, and often rightly so. Those on the other side of the conversation feel that their experience refutes these claims on a weekly basis. Having seen me unjustly paint them with my broad brush, they stop listening.

And I can’t blame them. Think of the last time someone brought up Stalin as a renunciation of atheism generally. That’s my clue that the person has nothing useful to say, and I can’t get myself to take them seriously from that point forward. If I don’t take a minute to think about how something will register from the other person’s perspective, I don’t deserve to be heard.

Sure enough, Andrea came back:

@ Wendy – Ok. I’ve been a Christian all my life. Never been promised anything I didn’t have to work for, never been threatened with Hell. I don’t feel brainwashed and am far from ignorant – also, 3 of my very best friends are gay…just to name a few.

I put on the brakes:

Hold on, we have to do this right. First, read what I’ve written about the positives. Then I’ll post my thoughts on the rest.

The link goes to a post about things I think Christians do better than secular types. Establishes my evenhandedness, keeps ears open.

I needed to speak to my concerns without doing a leg-sweep that left the other person nowhere to stand. Allow them to share your concerns, even if only in principle. Let them distance themselves from the target if that’ll help them hear you.

Here was my answer:

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

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.

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. To then watch what I believe is a false idea lend unchallengeable authority to bad ideas along with good is very, very painful. Honest questioning is too often disallowed, the word “values” often turned on its head. There is ever so much more, but not in this space.

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.

Andrea responded:

@ Dale – Thanks for your answer. I agree with you wholeheartedly about learning your personal path and I greatly respect the search for your truth. You are by far one of the most well-spoken, amiable and approachable atheists I have ever encountered. Not only do I appreciate that as a person, but as a Christian, you make me feel like there is always room for discussion – which is not all that common from either side…Seriously, thanks for answering.

I’d accomplished just what I wanted to. I’d been heard.

Wendy sent me an email with the subject line “How do you do it?”:

I don’t know how you do it. So you have these questions on your FB status. You give some cool answer, after which the asking person tells you what an awesome person you are… blah blah… and you move on. I admire you for that.

That was when I realized I might have something useful to share and this little series was born.

Next time I’ll take apart my answer to Bob and Andrea to see why it worked.

[Complete series]

Avatar photo

Dale McGowan is chief content officer of OnlySky, author of Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies, and founder of Foundation Beyond Belief (now GO Humanity). He holds a...