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Note: Letter writers’ names are changed to protect their privacy.

Richard,

My wife and I are atheists. Some of our close friends are non-denominational Christians, and are very involved in their church and have active spiritual lives. I’m writing because they (our friends) hold regular discussion/bible study groups in their home, and we have been invited as ambassadors of the faithless. Exciting!

We (I think I speak for both of us here) welcome the discourse, and our friends have described a respectful conversation about ideas, as opposed to a witch-hunt, or a proselytizing free-for-all. I think we’re going to do it.

My question is: How do we express our beliefs and convictions without disrespecting our friends, without making them feel like we think we’re smarter than them, and with an intact friendship at the end of the meeting?

Thanks for your help!
Ray

Dear Ray,

This sounds like an interesting gathering. I’d love to do something like this, if the invitation was sincere and not something like what Admiral Ackbar experienced.

I’m going to offer several suggestions, probably much more than you’ll need, but other people will find themselves in similar situations, and some of what is unnecessary for you might be useful for them.

The first thing is to make sure that you and your wife both feel comfortable about doing this, and that you are more or less on the same page regarding the kind of questions you’re likely to be asked, such as questions about morality, sex, death, abortion, GLBT issues, science, evolution, and education for children. You and she don’t need to have identical opinions, but it’s better if you know beforehand what your different takes on such things are.

I think the best way to keep your friendships with your Christian hosts intact is to explicitly state that that is your desire right at the start. Thank the group their open-hearted attitude, saying that it’s not what non-believers usually face. Say that you have seen or heard of friendships and even families that have been shattered by differences in religious views. These remarks will subtly impart a challenge to them to actually be open-hearted.

Also make it overtly clear that you want to have a discussion, not a debate. The evening should be about understanding each other, rather than trying to convince each other to adopt the other’s foundation beliefs. Agreement is not important, only mutual understanding is.

Despite all the nodding heads, there will likely be someone who wants to be contentious and tries to start a debate anyway. As soon as you recognize that’s where it’s going, don’t be afraid to politely interrupt the process and re-state that you want to stick to dialogue for understanding each other, not “defeating” an opponent.

Expect them to ask many questions. Assuming that you’re in the U.S., it is basically a given that they know far less about atheism than you know about Christianity. There’s the content, or subject of a question, and then there’s the nature of the question itself. Learn to recognize the four basic types of questions, and feel free to label them as such when people ask them. They are:

1. Information-seeking questions, such as “Were you always an atheist,” “Where do you get your moral guidelines,” or “How do you find meaning in your life?” Answer them as best as you can, but don’t require yourself to be an eloquent expert. It’s okay to not have all the answers. Enjoy the process of exchanging understanding.

2. Rhetorical questions are really statements disguised as questions, as if someone is playing Jeopardy. They usually start with “Isn’t it true that…” or “Don’t you…” and then there’s a rather long speech about what the other person’s opinion is. It’s not from a desire to learn, but a desire to express. Technically they’re yes-or-no questions, so after all that you could answer with an unembellished “No,” but that would probably confuse and irritate the questioner. Better to politely say you think that was a rhetorical question, state that you’ve understood their opinion, and ask if there are any information-seeking questions. If you really don’t mind responding to a rhetorical question, then patiently clarify whatever misconception is probably behind the person’s disguised statement. There almost always is.

3. Challenge questions are asking what qualifications you have to be sitting there talking about this topic. They’re about your credibility or veracity. They sometimes come in rhetorical form. Don’t get defensive. Say that you’re here at their invitation, that you have only your own opinions and views, and you’re here to work with them to hopefully clear away misconceptions that believers and non-believers have about each other.

4. Loaded questions are usually built around a false dichotomy or an unacceptable choice, like the classic, “Have you stopped beating your wife?” Keep your cool, don’t answer it, and politely explain why it’s a loaded question. Then move on.

Hopefully you’ll get mostly sincere information-seeking questions. If you reinforce that behavior in the group by not getting sucked in by the other kinds, they’ll probably quickly learn to ask that type. Have some sincere information-seeking questions of your own handy just to keep it mutual, in case you get a turn.

To express your beliefs and convictions without disrespecting your friends, keep respect for beliefs and respectful treatment of persons from getting mixed up. If their beliefs are absurd to you, you won’t be able to respect them, but you can still treat the persons respectfully. Some clever person might try to strike a pose that their beliefs are one and the same as their selves. Don’t fall for that. That’s just a ploy to try to make their beliefs unassailable by pulling them under the umbrella of decent treatment of them. You can treat them respectfully, even as you patiently explain why you’re not convinced of what they believe and why you don’t buy that tactic.

Don’t worry too much about appearing to think that you’re smarter than them. That perception is usually based on something that seems unfriendly rather than smart. You might be smarter than them about something, and they might be smarter than you about something else. If you are genuinely warm and receptive, then you won’t come across as being condescending or conceited. Speak to be clear, not to impress.

Keep in mind that most of the typical animosity that Christians have against atheists seems to be rooted in fear rather than anger, even if it looks like anger. Remembering that can help you to relax and reduce the tension in the room. Just be yourself and enjoy the talk. You don’t have to represent atheism perfectly; that can’t be done to any consensus anyway.

Basically, if neither conceit nor disrespect for them are in your heart, they won’t be in your mouth. If someone really, really wants to feel offended by you, as we’ve seen over and over, no amount of good manners is going to prevent that. Oh well. If you simply manage to get a few to think “Gee, maybe atheists aren’t ogres after all,” then you’ve done us all a great service.

I hope that everyone has a pleasant time. Write a comment here to tell us how it went, or if it’s not soon write to me again and I’ll publish a follow-up post.

Richard

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