My dear friend Maria has an ongoing debate on her blog, The Fledgling Skeptic, about Accommodation VS Confrontation in the skeptical community. Her and Rob Smith had and interesting first round of their debate and I suggest that you go read it at the link above.
This is a debate that has been going on for a while now. Phil Plait brought it to the forefront in his, “Don’t be a dick”, speech at TAM 8, and it was a major topic of conversation and debate at Skepticon III.
As I said in my reply to Maria’s and Rob’s first round, it seems that the more we debate this issue, the muddier it gets, and I think it is because every situation is different. What is important is to avoid blatant accommodation of the kind where we are afraid to criticize someone’s beliefs. Beliefs can always, and must always be criticized if they are based on superstition and magical thinking. The important thing is to show respect to the person(s) who’s beliefs you are criticizing, unless, of course, you are dealing with the Sylvia Brown’s, Rush Limbaugh’s, and assorted religious leaders who are doing real harm, where open ridicule is more appropriate. But for your average believers who have only a personal stake of their own beliefs, respect the person, but criticize the beliefs.
I believe that we need to respect the believer and let them know that we respect them and aren’t just writing them or their beliefs and opinions off. At the same time, we cannot give an inch when it comes to calling out their superstitious beliefs. We need to engage them in conversation and ask them to tell use why they believe what they do. Make them defend their beliefs with more than just, “Because the bible says so”, or, “It is God’s plan”. They need to give us real, tangible evidence. Of course, they won’t be able to, but we need to insist on it. The tone we use, sarcastic, sincere interest, etc, will depend on their tone. It is a play-it-by-ear situation and each person and situation will be different.
The really important thing is to gage their mood and level of attachment to their beliefs and then attempt to engage them in dialogue. Unless you are debating a hell bent (that’s an ironic term!) true believer, with whom you will almost surely get nowhere, you need to realize that this person, this believer, is human, with the basic human inclination to assign agency to things in their world (some say it is an instinct, an evolutionary trait developed to protect our hunter/gather ancestors from predators). They don’t realize that they are involved in superstitious or magical thinking because thinking rationally and critically goes against that particular part of our evolutionary development. We need to show them that we can use another product of our evolution, our capacity to reason, to overcome that other evolutionary by-product that is rarely ever needed anymore.
Respect for the individual is the key with dealing with most believers. When they know that you aren’t attacking them personally, you can start to help them separate their beliefs from themselves. Its no small task, but every journey starts with just one step, and showing them that they are valuable not because of their beliefs, but in spite of them, is a good beginning.