COLUMN By RICHARD WADE
Mar. 03, 2010
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My boyfriend and I are both atheists. Many of his close friends are Christian-and very conservative. Both of us, but especially him, get into heated arguments/debates with them over religion, gay rights and the current administration (Obama is the Devil, apparently, and Bush was the bee's knees).
The problem is that my boyfriend comes off as being very antagonistic in these discussions. When debating with his friends, he quickly becomes overly sarcastic, insulting, patronizing and belittling. I've tried telling him that his behavior isn't helping any efforts to rid the world of prejudice against atheism. We're not going to change any minds–about nearly anything, but especially the treatment of atheists–by being hostile. He just doesn't seem to understand that by repeatedly insulting the invisible man in the sky, he's alienating his Christian friends and just proving them "right" about people who don't believe in God.
I love my boyfriend dearly, and in every other situation he's the sweetest, kindest man with more patience than a saint. But I don't know how to get through to him that he can't always beat people down until they either admit he's right or flatly end the discussion. What should I say to him?
After witnessing hundreds of such discussions, I've decided that there are two basic reasons why people engage in this kind of behavior. One is to try to persuade the other person to change their opinion, viewpoint, belief or behavior. The other is simply to express themselves.
I think your boyfriend may be in the second group. If so, he is focused on the satisfaction of expressing his opinions and venting his aggression, and not on the effect he will have on whoever is listening–or even whether they will agree with him. In fact, the person or people he's talking to may be almost incidental.
When two opposing "expressors" get into one of these diatribe duels, it resembles ritualized combat. Although it may sound angry and loud, it's actually more like a sparring match and is not really intended to vanquish the opponent. If one side were to actually concede to the other, then the fun would be over.
Think of what you have observed. Your boyfriend and one of his friends indulge in this game again and again, but nothing in either person changes and they continue to remain friends. It's reasonable to conclude that they are getting exactly what they want: play. From how it sounds, you're probably not going to get him to change his behavior. From his point of view, he's enjoying the sport of debate, so why should he stop?
Bettering the image of atheists is probably not really his concern. Although I prefer constructive dialogues, I don't think that we should presume that any individual atheist "owes" support to any goal, agenda or cause of atheism in general. Some want to act in ways that make things better for other atheists or society in general, while others are unconcerned with such things. For both better and worse, that is the nature of free thinking.
Now, if your boyfriend ever gets interested in actually persuading someone to rethink their views, then he would do well to learn from you. He will have to put aside his combative style because it doesn't result in a change of opinion and, as you have noted, only results in reinforcing the original opinion. This is because when he slips insults in with his argument, he gives the other person a strong emotional incentive to not agree with that argument. The implication is that if the argument is valid, then the insults are valid, too.
The art of effective persuasion requires patience, empathy, compassion, tact, humor and a goodwill that rises above the differences of opinion to appeal to the mutual interests and needs that we share. It also involves seed-planting, nurturing, coaxing and, most of all, really good listening. The best persuaders talk much more with their ears than with their mouths.
Frustrated, when all their hostile posturing becomes tiresome, excuse yourself, telling them that you'll be back after they're finished. Find a mature person to converse with beyond the reach of the din, or just enjoy the restorative and clarifying wisdom whispered to you by trees, sky and fresh air.
Richard Wade identifies as both a humanist and an atheist. He has worked as an artist and as a marriage and family therapist with many years in the specialization of addiction. Now retired, he has counseled more than ten thousand patients. Questions to this advice column are welcome from any perspective or belief, not just that of humanism or atheism. Richard Wade's column can also be read on a regular basis at The Friendly Atheist blog.