What Would a Humanist Do? Communicating with Science Denialists

Photo by Korney Violin on Unsplash

Today we bring you our latest installment of “What Would a Humanist Do?”—offering multiple AHA staff opinions on reader questions. Because while humanists are committed to being good without a god, sometimes we need a little advice on how to pull it off.


I’ve recently encountered a challenging situation that I believe many of my fellow humanists and atheists may face. I am a humanist who enjoys engaging in conversations with people of various beliefs. However, I’ve encountered instances where the discussion takes an unexpected turn, sometimes to some scientific theory, and the religious person involved counters by saying, “I don’t believe in science,” seemingly as a means to shut down and end the conversation.

I find myself unsure of how to navigate such situations without causing offense or escalating tensions. How can I continue engaging in discussions, especially about science, with very religious individuals in a way that fosters understanding and respect, even when faced with a statement like, “I don’t believe in science”?

Thank you for your guidance.

—Questioning Conversationalist


It can be incredibly jarring to be reminded of the existence of scientific ignorance—especially during a face-to-face conversation. It’s a testament to your openness and curiosity, however, that you seem to seek out discussions with folks who have totally different lifestances than yours. It’s a cliché notion, but it’s really only through interactions like the one you described that we (as individuals and as a society at large) can begin to evolve and change through tolerance and acceptance.

You mention that religious people “seemingly” try to shut down conversations by denying science. How sure are you of that word “seemingly”? Is it possible that you are so taken aback by their rebuttal that you don’t know how to continue engaging, and it’s that uncertainty that is ending discussion? As someone who seems to be interested in the perspectives of religious people, you should try to press on. “If you don’t believe in science, what does your religion say about [the topic of discussion]?” “Are there areas where you do believe in science? What makes [this topic] different?”

Your commitment to engaging with people from all faiths is admirable. Apply that same open mindedness to this problem.

Peter Bjork, Web Content Manager


According to a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), “antiscience attitudes are more likely to emerge when a scientific message comes from sources perceived as lacking credibility; when the recipients embrace the social membership or identity of groups with antiscience attitudes; when the scientific message itself contradicts what recipients consider true, favorable, valuable, or moral; or when there is a mismatch between the delivery of the scientific message and the epistemic style of the recipient”. According to the authors, finding commonality or common ground and acknowledging the drawbacks to science—while explaining why science is still more supported—are evidence-based ways to counteract antiscience attitudes. There are many reasons why someone might declare disbelief in science. As humanists, we need to remember that people are more than their nonreligious and religious beliefs; historically, science has excluded, exploited, and marginalized many communities; and research shows that “greater cognitive sophistication (e.g., stronger analytic thinking) does not necessarily reduce antiscience view”.

—Anna Clay, Development Assistant


Science, both pure and applied, is a constant in our lives. The alarm clock you wake up to every morning: science. The food that you keep safely stored in your home, and the logistics of its journey to get there: science. If you drive or take public transportation throughout the day: science.

I could go on, but I think you get the point. We’d all find it difficult to think of aspects of our daily lives that aren’t influenced by science.

I’d question whether continuing to engage in conversations with somebody who says, “I don’t believe in science,” is fruitful. My instincts say it might not be, and I think it depends on the type of person with whom you’re dealing.

If the person who declares they don’t believe in science is a hardline, impervious religious type, they’re likely using it as a trump card to end the conversation. They’re signaling to you that they’re not ready or equipped to engage in a conversation in which their core belief system is challenged.

If I encountered this type of person, I’d recognize the gambit they’re trying to pull and then I’d disengage; they’re not in a position or willing to continue the conversation, and I don’t want to keep them locked in a conversation that neither of us wants to be in.

Before the conversation ends, though, I might ask them what the time is. If they pull out a watch or phone and give the time, I’d question how they can trust what their device is telling them. (Spoiler alert: science).

If their method of telling me the time involves staring up at the sky and using their hands to approximate how long before the sun or moon hit the horizon, maybe I’d buy the idea that they don’t believe in science. But then I’d wonder about what faith they put into mathematics and how that reconciles with their feelings about science— which brings up a whole host of other questions.

On the other hand, if the person who declares they don’t believe in science isn’t completely insufferable, they might be signaling that they don’t like to engage in conversations in which they don’t have all the answers. I think that’s fairly common. Being presented with new information can make people anxious, and so many of us are frightened to utter the words, “I don’t know.”

Maybe you could defuse the conversation by saying something like, “It’s okay to admit that you don’t know something. There’s a ton that I don’t know, and that’s okay too. That’s fundamental in science. The pursuit of new knowledge that’s tested and proven by peers.”

If they’re open to conversation, maybe pivot to asking them to walk you through their day. I’m sure there are aspects of their day that are influenced by science, and you can point that out. After the person is less tense about the prospect of science, maybe you can return the conversation to where you had to pivot originally.

David Reinbold, Communications Manager


When you’re in an engaging and respectful discussion with someone asserting differing views or values from your own, you may find that wanting to maintain an actively open mindset—great for understanding and connecting with the perspective presented to you—actually does an injustice to truth.

Science in and of itself is not a belief or philosophy to be debated—it is a method system characterized by measurable, observable and evidence-backed principles that organizes knowledge. Science is also not static. The very nature of it ensures conclusions are available for improvement and change, which indeed actually leaves it open to—specifically—testable, reasonable interpretation, and brings us closer to factual information.

It is truly unfortunate that lending authority in the denial of science and reason has proliferated in the United States and other countries, oftentimes as a means for profit and political gain. It is dangerous. And not believing in science should be called what it is: ignorant. While science has definitely been used nefariously and for personal gain in the past, that doesn’t put science into question. It puts us into question.

Anyhow, if someone is casting aside the legitimacy of science as “a means to shut down and end the conversation,” are they even meeting you at your standard of an understanding and respectful conversation?

Basically, while it’s always important to understand where people come from and why they think a certain way, I don’t think that it is morally right of you to compromise on facts. You don’t automatically jeopardize respect by being assertive on such matters.

Isabella Russian, Policy Coordinator

For humanist advice from multiple perspectives on all manner of situations, please send your question to wwhd@americanhumanist.com.