Dealing With Believers – Accommodation VS Confrontation

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.


6 thoughts on “Dealing With Believers – Accommodation VS Confrontation

  1. How wonderful is the mercy of God. I posted what I was led to post then went “readomatic”. He leads. But I wonder if I would have written something different if I had read this post first.

    May God receive all Glory and Honor through the name of Jesus, the Christ of God!

    by His Grace.

  2. ^ sigh…

    I tend to (mostly) avoid debate with believers because of the (general) tendency toward rapid disintegration. There are mercifully few exceptions.

    • I don’t going looking for debates with believers, but when they respond to my posts with anything resembling a thoughtful reply, I will try to engage in a discussion with them. It is rare that this happens, the thoughtful reply, that is. I have a childhood friend on FB who has responded to several of my posts and seem genuinely interested in not just a discussion but actually considering alternatives to his beliefs if the evidence indicates it. At least that’s what he says. We shall see how far he is willing to go before he starts to fall back on “faith” for his evidence.

  3. Thanks, Freethinker, for being part of our discussion. I’m the Rob that Maria is debating with and your imput is very welcome. However, you say:

    “Respect for the individual is the key with dealing with most believers.”

    Key to what? Dealing how? Doesn’t it depend what you’re trying to achieve in the first place?

    I think there might be a mistake somewhere in here, which is that ‘respect’ is somehow a binary thing. It’s not. I respect some people for their conviction and intelligence while at the same time not respecting them for their racism, sexism etc. I respect what I percieve as the good qualities in people and disrespect what I have decided are the bad qualities.

    Considering the religious, I don’t respect credulity as a position or the credulous as adopters of that position. I don’t respect senior officials in churches who enable and excuse child abuse. I don’t respect people who make assertions for no good reason.

    • Hi Rob! Thanks for the thoughtful reply. I’ve responded with a new blog entry. I hope I’ve made myself clear. I really appreciate the feedback and I’m looking foreword to reading more of your and Maria’s debate.

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