Among the seminars I used to offer Managers, one of the most challenging was my “Making Convictions Contagious” (I preferred this to the classic “The Power of Persuasion”). Sensitizing people to the necessity of avoiding trying to ram one’s point of view down others’ throats is no easy task. In theological debates, dogmatism on both sides is still common practice.
In any polemic, the first self-evident truth to keep in mind is that the other guy may not be as stupid as he looks (!). He is not necessarily a moron or a hypocrite (though, we tell ourselves, he must be pretty dumb not to agree with us . . .). He may even be sincerely convinced of his opinion and feel that it is supported by adequate, strong arguments. We all know that in polite conversation we are advised to avoid topics like religion and politics. Which is why in cocktail parties, you don’t start off by either attacking or defending Trump. Choose the safe, the consensual, things you can agree on. It doesn’t have to be the weather, but to get off on the right foot with strangers, don’t start by putting your foot in your mouth and getting his back up from the get-go.
Applied to an exchange about the existence of God, it makes sense for the atheist to express – so long as it is his sincere conviction – his appreciation of many of the arguments which are the foundation of his opponent’s belief in God. (Obviously this requires a certain finesse, to avoid creating the impression that this is a gambit you picked up in a seminar or on somebody’s blog . . .). After all, at first sight, it does appear rational enough to say that “creation” (already a begging of the question !) – from the beauties of nature around us to the vastness of the Universe, the extraordinary ingeniousness of the laws that govern it, and above all its evolution to the phenomenon of life and human intelligence – points to a “Creator”. It serves no purpose to begin by blasting him and his belief out of the water. He will appreciate your recognition that atheism, far from being self-evident, contradicts a widely-held conviction that there must be an omnipotent, omniscient First Cause behind it all. Without this “captatio benevolentiae”, this initial getting him on side or at least ready to listen to you, the best of your arguments will be lost on deaf ears.
It is the transition from this consensus that is the most difficult. Rather than use a wrecking-ball, it is more effective to take a Socratic approach and proceed by a series of questions : “In spite of how impressed we may be by the existence of the Universe, its extraordinary complexity and apparent order, does it not seem strange to you that “God” would create storms on Jupiter (see my post “Storm Alert”, July 13, 2017), get neutron stars to emit deadly gamma radiation (see the previous post “Insanity in Space etc”, October 25, 2017), or have galaxies hurtling meaninglessly away from each other, increasing their velocity on their way to . . . nowhere ?” (Once again, I have written no less than ten posts on this subject : enter “Expanding Universe” in the “Search” box.)
Sowing doubts pays off more than dogmatic affirmation, ridicule or cruel sarcasm. Premature accusations of irrational credulity are to be eschewed; in English : don’t call him an idiot (unless this is your opponent’s own (unlikely) humble admission, it is pointless to expect him to accept your judgement because of your vehemence and the volume of your voice).
This Blog may not be exemplary in this regard. My only excuse is that I do not have the pretension of being able to convince the brick-wall, die-hard, 100% believer that he is mistaken. Only people who already have had serious doubts about their faith (Believers on the Brink), are likely to appreciate my efforts at “reductio ad absurdum” and ridiculing religious belief and practice. But I do recognize I need to learn to practise better what I preach.