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How To Talk To An Atheist

November 26, 2008

One of my favorite bloggers, Dana, is taking part in a self-flagellating blog-thing called NaNoWriMo, in which she will write an entire book during the month of November.  Her entry is called “How To Talk To An Atheist, a guide for the religious”.  Since I am only good for short pieces before my brain says “Sorry, empty!” here’s my take on that subject:

Back in about 1971 we were living in Ellensburg, Washington.  Our minister, Al Sweet (yes, that was his name), told a story about an angry phone call he received at the church.

(Al, if you’re out there somewhere Googling your name and reading this, you rock!  Because you must be, like, really old by now and yet here you are using The Google.  I always knew you were a sharp guy.)

Anyway, he was in the church kitchen making some coffee when the phone rang.  So he picked up.  He listened incredulously as the caller harrangued him about Methodist theology.  “I suppose you Methodists think X! and Y! and Z! and you’re all wrong because of this and that other thing…”

When the caller had cooled down a little bit, he cut in; “Well, I can tell you what I think about those issues, but we’re a pretty unruly bunch.  I’d be happy to get even half that much agreement in the rest of the congregation.”  And they went on to have a lively conversation about angels dancing on heads of pins or whatever it is people talk about, when they talk about theology.

The story must have stuck with me, because here we are In The Future and we’ve got flying cars and dinner-pills and moon colonies and yet I am still repeating it.  But the main point is that groups are seldom all that homogeneous.  And some kinds of groups are more homogeneous than others.  There’s an organizational conformity continuum from students in a Pakistani Madrassa through Sarah Palin’s church, through Catholics and Methodists and Unitarians to… atheists.  You won’t find a more unruly bunch than that last one. 

To some extent, most of us are constrained in our beliefs by scientific reality but to put it mildly, even within that enclosure debate goes on.  There’s no “atheist position” on anything but the existence of God, which is that He/She/It is very unlikely to exist.  Consistency on gun control, taxation, school vouchers, the Detroit bailout?  Forget it. 

So my advice on ‘Talking To An Atheist’ is that all the normal rules of conversation apply: The conversation should flow in two directions. Don’t make stereotypical assumptions. Remember that your impression of any group is often forged by the loudest members of that group, and by that group’s opponents.  Forget what James Dobson or Ray Comfort told you about “atheists” and talk to the individual person. Don’t be a bully or a doormat.  Just engage. 

Dana, of course, is going into a lot more detail.  She’s been posting chapters and yesterday, an appendix on “Life After Faith”.  In a few days, her entire book will be available.  And then she’ll probably sleep for a week or so.

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. james old guy
    November 26, 2008 at 09:41 | #1

    I think there are probably three groups. The I believe in some sort of god, I don’t believe in any kind of god. Then you have my group, I don’t care one way or the other its a boring argument.

  2. November 26, 2008 at 10:47 | #2

    Then you have my group, I don’t care one way or the other its a boring argument.

    I think I can relate… I feel the same way every time I hear people talking about sports.

  3. November 26, 2008 at 12:19 | #3

    A whole book on how to talk to atheists? Sounds like a huge waste of time to me. Most people couldn’t care less how we want them to talk to us, and what needs to be said could be finished in a paragraph or two.

    And mybe Dana was too busy being offended by all the god-botherers to notice that NaNoWriMo is about writing a novel, not an instruction manual.

  4. November 27, 2008 at 03:12 | #4

    I think I would have titled this post “How to talk to a Human” and have the subtitle what your current title is. It seems those that will fight with atheists the loudest easily forget this.

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