“I’d agree with you, but then we’d both be wrong.”
In 2006, I posted a video on youtube which resulted in me gaining a little bit of youtube fame. The video wasn’t anything fancy—it was essentially a slide show explaining that atheists aren’t bad people. You wouldn’t think that would cause much controversy, but the culture wars at the time were heavy on the religion debate, and my video seemed to strike a nerve. As a result, I was overwhelmed with emails and youtube personal messages. Many of the people who contacted me were quite nice, expressing how my video helped them to not feel alone, or inspired them to “come out” as an atheist. However, the majority of emails I received were from people critical of the video. These people either had an issue with the arguments presented in my video, or wanted to debate some random aspect of religion with me. And some were just insane!
It wasn’t just a few emails that I received—it was hundreds and hundreds. For about a year, I would come home every day, and respond to emails until I went to bed. Every single day. Initially, I would respond with the same tone that people used with me. Nice people would get nice emails, and mean people would get mean emails. The nice people never seemed like they were trying to convince me of anything—they just wanted to have a discussion about religion. The mean people, on the other hand, definitely were trying to change my mind.
Like all people in their early 20s, I thought I had it all figured out, and saw anyone who didn’t completely agree with me as an idiot. As such, I would argue and debate with these people as long as it took for them to either concede an argument (which rarely happened), or just give up and stop responding. I REFUSED to let anyone have the last word, or feel like they had the better argument.
As a result, I got very, very good at debating the points regarding atheism, theism, religion and science. I knew the arguments backwards and forward, and often knew the arguments better than the people emailing me.
Unless an email had a very obviously friendly and non-aggressive tone, I would respond antagonistically, and never hesitated to let people know of my contempt for their views. I reveled in the idea of making them feel like idiots, and feeling like I demolished their arguments. While this was good for my ego, I eventually found that it wasn’t helping my larger goal—which was to change people’s minds. As such, I slowly started to reconsider my tactic—instead of approaching everyone with an aggressive tone, I started to be nice. Extremely nice. Instead of just saying “It’s not my job to teach you the basics of evolution, the big bang, etc—go read a book!”, I would patiently explain the topics in as much detail as I could. At first, this took forever, but I eventually compiled a bunch of documents going over certain topics and arguments, and would just copy/paste. I figured if I wasn’t willing to patiently explain things in as much detail as was needed, I wasn’t a very good activist for my cause. It was much easier to say “Apologies for the alliteration, but I find your ideology to be incoherent, internally inconsistent, immoral, irrational and incompatible with a modern scientific inspection of the world” than explain why someone was wrong, but that line didn’t do anything other than make me feel like I was clever, and make the other person think that I was an arrogant little shit.
So I changed my approach, and low and behold, I started to change people’s minds! It wasn’t everyone who was convinced, and it wasn’t all right away. When I didn’t put people on the defense, they started to listen to me. I even received emails months and years later from people I had corresponded with, saying that I was the only person they had ever spoken to on the internet who was nice to them, and I was one of the reasons they started to think about religion differently.
Several years ago, I found that this technique worked almost too well. In two separate cases, I had been having a friendly, casual discussion about religion with a friend who was deeply religious. I didn’t think much of it at the time, but later found out that in both friends left the conversations more shaken in their faith, and eventually were brought to tears by the doubts! When I found out, I felt pretty bad, as I had no intention of changing their minds, and definitely didn’t want to upset them. But those experiences removed any lingering doubt that being nice was the superior technique.
While I am not an expert debater (or even amateur, for that matter), I do think I am fairly good at convincing people I am right, and getting them to change their minds. I hope the previous few paragraphs demonstrate that I have a decent amount of experience with it, and have had a fair amount of practice experimenting with various techniques. My goal in the next few blog posts is to try and explain how to go about doing just that: how to convince someone that their beliefs, values, ideas, etc are wrong. I have no idea how many posts this will take, but hopefully people who are interested will find them helpful or interesting.