i am an atheist. i am also a skeptic. In fact, i consider myself a skeptic first, and an atheist second, as my lack of belief proceeds directly from my skeptical attitudes in how i view the world. Among the moments i count as the greatest in my life is the moment i realized that there were not only more skeptics in the world than just me, but that there were a LOT more skeptics in the world than just me. i’ve participated in local Skeptic/Atheist groups in three different cities now (Columbia, MO, Springfield, MO, and Branson, MO). Each one has had its differences, whether in general focus of discussion, structure of group and meetings, or simply the necessities brought upon by the sociopolitical environment of the specific area in which the group meets. The greatest similarity, however, and the one that i hold closest to my heart, is the skeptical attitude that no idea should be held sacrosanct or above criticism. The skeptical community thrives on asking questions, sometimes uncomfortable ones, about things that others simply accept at face value or even cherish as absolute truths. We love intellectual discussion and debate, and sometimes we’re not prepared for the reactions from others when we start heading down that road in conversation.
Unfortunately, we live in an era and a culture in which people tend to equate their opinions and beliefs with who they are as a person. People don’t say “I believe in Christianity,” or “I believe in Judaism.” They say “I am a Christian,” or “I am Jewish.” We in the skeptical community even have a tendency to do this very same thing. “I am an Atheist,” is a commonly heard statement of identification, and its not just an appropriation from the culture in which we live. Many atheists become just as strongly attached to their lack of belief as an aspect of their overarching identity as the religious people do. So it’s understandable that many people don’t understand the distinction many skeptics make when we say that it is possible to respect a person without respecting their beliefs. The border between those two separate entities is muddied by their own perceptions, and unfortunately we skeptics don’t always do a great job of keeping them separated ourselves. This is why saying that you find a belief in a six-day creation to be silly or even downright stupid makes the believers think that you think they, as people, are stupid. This is not what was said, but it is what was perceived.
One thing that it is essential to watch out for in any given debate is the level of emotional investment by people on both sides. A debate is meant to be dispassionate intellectual discussion of opposed ideas. It is meant to be civil and based on calm rationality. It also requires openness on both sides to question, and possibly even discard, their own ideas in the face of convincing evidence or discussion.
As humans, unfortunately, this tends to devolve over time, and a lot of that is thanks to the aforementioned equation of ideas with identity. Too often debates, especially online debates, wind up as little more than shouting matches. Even more often, both sides become agitated or otherwise emotional and are just talking past each other, trying to score points rather than actually have mutually beneficial discussion. Therefore, in the course of any debate it is incumbent upon each participant to keep an eye on their emotional state. If you find yourself becoming agitated or upset, it’s time to take a step back, a couple of deep breaths, and maybe even a break until you can approach the subject again from a place of calm rationality.
It is also incumbent upon each participant (and this is a point that a HUGE number of people either disregard or miss entirely) to keep an eye on the emotional state of the other people in the debate, paying especially close attention to possible offense that might be taken. More often than not, such offense happens because of a simple misunderstanding, but also more often than not, the person who was misunderstood disavows all responsibility and keeps barreling onward, to the benefit of no one. If you find you’ve offended someone, even if it’s a misunderstanding and “not actually your fault,” the best thing to do is apologize, and even try to re-frame what you said in a more understandable way. Apologizing will NOT make you look weak. It will show the other people in the discussion or debate that you genuinely care about their feelings AND their understanding of what it is you’re trying to say. If you offend someone, just say you’re sorry. Seriously. Remember it’s not always what you say, but how you say it that is most vital.
Another thing that dovetails nicely into the above: if you realize that you feel an absolute NEED to be “right” in any given discussion or debate, it most likely means you’re already too emotionally invested to continue. Part of being a skeptic is being willing to consider the information being presented by people on the other side. While it is true that the burden of proof is on the person making the positive claim, and that “assertions made without evidence can be discarded without evidence,” you still might try actually listening to what is being said rather than stonewalling them. Who knows? It might actually present you with a new way of framing your arguments that is more understandable, or even more convincing, to them… or it might actually make you sit down and re-evaluate your own position. The point is that ignoring what people are trying to say or dismissing it without an apparent second thought makes people feel like they haven’t been heard, and as many of us in the skeptic community can attest, feeling like you haven’t been heard, especially when it feels deliberate, can cause feelings of hurt, anger, and even mild desperation in more extreme cases. Remember that they are human…
…and so are you. You are not infallible, nor are your assertions and evidence unassailable. One of the greatest things i’ve found about the skeptic community as a whole is that we tend to be able to handle uncertainty better than most. Uncertainty can be an uncomfortable feeling, and society teaches us that it is weak. By society’s measure, there is more strength in knowing than there is in not knowing. More and more i find that this is not actually the case. Uncertainty is freeing. Being able to say “i don’t know” can be a very liberating thing. And it is essentially what most of us say every day to the question of religion and faith: “i don’t know for sure.” Granted, we also tend to add “but until i see compelling evidence i don’t believe it,” but that is where skepticism comes into play. But this skepticism can cut both ways. And if you’re following all of the things i’ve brought up previously (keeping a cool head, staying civil, honestly listening), you may need to be prepared to either discard your position outright, or even just say that the jury is out in your own mind for the moment and allow for uncertainty until you find more information sometime in the future that settles your mind one way or the other. Again, this will actually make you a stronger debater, not a weaker one.
A final thought that really involves everything from above is that you have to choose your battles and how hard you feel you have to fight them. Most of this will come down to how much you value the relationship you have with the people you are debating and the friends of the people you are debating. Because there will sometimes be discussions for which there is no real way to come to agreement, or where emotions always run high and there’s no easy way to maintain calm. These are the discussions and debates in which you may risk losing a friend, or even a group of friends. It is times like these that you will have to honestly balance how much you care about the person or people in questions, both their feelings and your friendship, with how strong your desire to change their mind(s) is. This is not as simple and logical as it sounds, because it eventually comes down to an emotional decision. But more often than not, i think you will probably find that your friendship will be more important, and hurting them to drive home your point really isn’t that vital. Also, if you let the issue rest for the time being, it is altogether possible that they will be more amenable to the discussion at some point down the road, especially if they are skeptics (or simply have skeptical tendencies) themselves… But even when it comes to non-skeptics, as long as they are not acting on the difference of opinion in clearly negative ways, it probably isn’t worth it to ruin your relationship.
Remember, as Kahless the Unforgettable said, “Destroying an empire to win a war is no victory, and ending a battle to save an empire is no defeat.”