The most important things are:

1) Provide information, not advocacy. Point them to the best information both pro and con.

2) Provide emotional support – many people who are doubting their faith feel cut off by their friends and congregations, and it’s very helpful for them to know that there are others out there like them. This is especially important because there are so many closeted atheists. I’ve spent some time on the Ex-Christians Discussion Board, and they’re pretty good at that part.

3) Give them references to some believers who have changed their beliefs. The Infidel Guy Show has some nice interviews with ex-theists…

Posted: December 30th 2007

See all questions answered by Eric_PK

John Sargeant www

It has to be voluntary – because to think for yourself means that you will not take at face value what someone is saying – or assume it is true because an organisation says it is true. However, you may trust some sources more than others – but there will be a reason for this.

In short the person has to see a benefit to being a freethinker – the key here is that seeing different ideas, hearing both sides of the story is beneficial even if we are inclined to reject one over the other. The key is that understanding another’s point of view is useful even if you think they are wrong.

The mantra of a freethinker is to consider that they may be wrong, or that another concept or way of thinking could be proven better. It is not that you do not believe yourself to be right – only that you will critically review alternatives offered, within the means that are at your disposal.

The benefits of this approach are that you will be open to ideas, but that you take stock in developing your critical faculties. You freely admit that you may not be the best placed person to know everything – what you at least want is the ability to know and test those that may know more than you.

Thusly, you are honest and acting with integrity, aware of your limitations yet aiming to expand your horizons. These qualities are noble for not only do they benefit you but in trying to be a better informed person this can benefit the society you participate in.

Posted: December 23rd 2007

See all questions answered by John Sargeant

SmartLX www

The question is correctly worded. Nobody can be made a freethinker, they have to come to it themselves.

Talking about a person’s religion with them is a great start, if they’re willing (don’t bother if they’re not, or you seem as bad as a missionary) but it’s important to realise that they will almost never have an epiphany during the conversation. Human belief doesn’t work like that.

The best you can do when you make your points is to bring someone to a state of aporia. It means that a concept has been dismantled to a place of doubt or puzzlement. The conscious thought at the point of aporia is, “I hadn’t thought of it like that. I need to go away and think about this alone before we discuss it again.”

When someone in aporia does go and think about it properly, they may either accept your point or come back with a response they’ve had time to prepare. Either way, the discussion has progressed and the two of you have a new jumping-off point.

Another important thing to keep in mind is that it’s not just an intellectual campaign you’re waging. It’s usually easy enough to expose a basic flaw in religious thinking, or a clearly false doctrine. Once you make progress on the intellectual side, though, emotional or social pressures can undo it very quickly through the use of cognitive dissonance.

Basic definition: Cognitive dissonance is the unconscious use of bad logic to support a desirable conclusion, because good logic would give an undesirable one. Here are two examples.

  • The Napster dilemma: “Downloading pirated MP3s is stealing. I download pirated MP3s. Therefore I am… not a thief because…the musicians are rich anyway/I’m not stealing anything real/everyone else does it.”
  • Prison rape: “Men who have sex with men are gay. I am a man who has sex with men. Therefore I am… not gay because…the men I have sex with are women.” (This is the purpose of calling the receiving partner the “punk” or “bitch”.)

As an exercise, consider that the Hebrew word for “young woman” was translated to the Greek word for “virgin”, and therefore the doctrine of the virgin birth of Jesus is based on a mistake. Imagine presenting this criticism of this central doctrine to a devout Christian, and the responses you might get back.

It is really very hard to get past cognitive dissonance, because you’re trying to guide a mind at war with itself. At any point you may be shut out entirely when the person does not want to think about it anymore.

Just be patient, and be careful to be correct. Avoid straw men; represent the other side fully and properly before you question it. This is something the religious tend not to do when criticising atheism. Most often they treat it like another faith or religion, with no more support than any other. It is not.

Everyone wants to be right, so those with strong beliefs will defend them with all their might until the instant that they are truly convinced they are wrong. Then they will abandon them immediately, if they can. (I pity the many clergymen who no longer believe but have so much to lose by admitting it.)

Finally, be a freethinker in public and be a good, happy person. Lead by example.

Posted: December 22nd 2007

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