Yes, I know the title of this post is a little dramatic for the remaining text, but you will soon see that it isn’t far off from what I am trying to say.
About a month ago I had the “pleasant” experience of trying to explain to my parents that I am an atheist. It all started as normal conversations do in my family. My father was as close minded as usual and my mother, always there to listen, was at least somewhat understanding of my thinking even if she did not agree with it herself. In spite of a normal beginning, by the end of the conversation, my father was yelling, my mother was crying, and I was wondering what had gone wrong.
I hope that you will use this article to see how to go about a similar discussion with your own family and avoid some of the mistakes that I have made. When debating your own family, you can’t be prepared enough, but you likely already know the arguments they will make or what they believe so that is an advantage.
How it all happened
I started the conversation out by suggesting that we watch an episode of The Atheist Experience together. They didn’t like the idea and immediately responded with “Why are you always trying to push your ways on us.” In reply I stated that it was merely a suggestion that we could use to learn about other religions (as they are commonly discussed on the show) and atheism. After all, my mother had previously expressed distaste for the catholic church with their constant demands for money and their child abusing priests.
Following this, I asked why they felt so sure that a god exists. My father answered saying, “You know, sometimes you just have to take things on faith.” With complete disregard for my argument explaining that science is a better means of discerning whats true than just believing something is true, he began to become quit irritated with my arguments and asserted that I was close minded. Yes, he asserted that the person who was proposing we watch a television show to expand our understanding of other religions and atheism is close minded. However, he was practically out of the discussion at this point and didn’t talk much for the next 30 minutes while my mother and I discussed religion. When he did speak, it was only to rephrase his first two arguments (assuming we count calling someone else close minded an argument) and to inject irrelevant information which has no logical impact on the existence of god.
Fast forwarding into this debate, it was visibly discernible that my logical points where having some kind of an impact on my mother who was beginning to cry as this brought into question her own personal dream in which she saw her dead mother.
She is too emotionally attached to the idea of an afterlife to even conciser the issue logically. This is what religion does to people. It clouds their minds with thoughts such as this so that they don’t want to leave; they don’t want to see the truth.
It is essentially a prison, a prison for your mind. You can be perfectly happy sitting inside it, however, if one you try to leave, all these emotional traps are sprung. Nobody can show you them the truth because they don’t want the truth. Sure, people have escaped this mind prison, but first, they generally accept that the truth is more important than a fantasy (or they are just not that far into religion where they need it to be happy).
Things I wish I would have said
In no way do I wish to imply that I am unhappy with the outcome. To be honest, I am shocked I got as far as I did. However, there are always things which could have been done better.
- I let my father get away with yet another of his classic “You’re so close minded” well poisoning fallacies. I’ve really gotten sick of this one and had even prepared a response to it. Sadly, I did not manage to use my response as I was too busy addressing other more logical points to acknowledge a simple fallacy such as this one. (In case you are wondering, my counter argument would be something like this: “You’re pinned up against a wall with valid logical arguments against your claims and the only thing you can say is a fallacious statement that I am close minded?” Another one which would work in this situation for many people is “I’ve gone out of my way to look at other religions, atheism, and weigh the facts and evidence for both of them. That doesn’t sound very close minded to me.”)
- Both my parents during this discussion/debate used a form of Pascal’s Wager and I which I would have focused on this more as it would have been important later in the discussion (of course, I did not know that at the time). If you are looking for arguments to use against Pascal’s Wager, I would check the Iron Chariots Wiki, the same place where I get much of my information.
Things I wasn’t prepared for (but am now)
- At the time of this debate, I was not prepared to respond to the argument “it requires faith” properly. Arguments requiring evidence obviously fall upon deaf ears when used against someone what takes religion purely on faith. Since this time, I have approached my mother with a simple example of how foolish this is (maybe for another post, sorry). If you want information on this topic, I will have to (once again) point you towards the Argument from Faith article on the Iron Chariots Wiki.
- Answering to to people at the same time it a debate can be rough. Don’t fall into the trap of giving short half-constructed arguments when debating two people at the same time. Force them to wait for you to give your full reply before answering any objections. Short responses are unlikely to be sufficient, especially if they are dealing with logical proofs and fallacies the people you are discussing/debating with don’t understand.
I hope that after reading this you are better prepared to address this issue with your own family, but remember, you can never be too prepared for it. You are likely to encounter some type of emotional trap like the one I described above, so think about how you would deal with that too.
Of course, if you are not a legal adult yet, remember that your parents can force you to go to church, to Bible camp, and other such events. If you fear that this might happen, you may want to hold out. Of course, if you enjoy debates as much as I do, de-converting the kids at Bible camp might become a favorite past time (I think a tactics article is necessary to cover this).
Anyways, keep the above advice in mind. And if you have any questions, feel free to contact me by email or IRC at any time.