Greg West at the Poached Egg website has been graciously shared a story of his own personal failure in dialoguing about life’s biggest questions. He described his story over Skype and I used the recording to pen this version of the story. He has reviewed it and confirmed its accuracy.
Dolores (not her real name) was a friend of Greg’s. Though she and her husband were nominally involved in the Church – she attended Church and even went to a Christian school at one time – neither of them would have been labeled as the most active Christians you’ve met. But they were good friends with Greg and his wife, and professing believers. That profession of faith was not to last.
One day, out of the blue, Dolores made it clear that not only was she no longer a Christian. She had watched the movie “Zeitgeist”  and its claims had seriously impacted her. She did not settle for merely rejecting Christ while maintaining some form of spirituality, she parted company with the entire world of religion and became a dedicated Atheist. That was one burnt bridge she had no intention of crossing a second time. She bolstered her new-found anti-faith by soaking up everything she could from Dawkins, Hitchens and whatever other literature she could find from the New Atheist movement. She laid out the barrage of challenges and objections to faith. The ball was in Greg’s court.
Greg had been studying Christian Apologetics since his “reconversion” several years prior. Despite having some familiarity with the subject matter, and despite having had some prior conversations with others outside the faith, interacting with Dolores exposed him to a whole new side of Atheism. His previous conversations had been relatively cordial but what he saw in Dolores, and the online Atheist community he was compelled to become familiar with, was far more aggressive, and also far more prone to accepting and propagating misinformation, than what he was accustomed to.
To his delightful surprise there also existed an online presence of Christian Apologists dedicated to addressing the claims of the online Atheists, and those from other beliefs as well. So he studied whatever websites he could find (Apologetics 315, Please Convince Me, etc). He read. He reflected. He wrestled. He continued to learn the arguments and evidence he was already somewhat familiar with, and he also familiarized himself with the strategies of the New Atheists that Dolores was obviously enamoured with. He began to share his online discoveries with others, too, and so The Poached Egg website was born as a response to the mountain heaps of New Atheist misinformation that he was forced to wade through on the internet.
His heart was certainly in the right place, and his mind had been sharpened and educated, but his strategic approach left something to be desired. Or, perhaps a lot to be desired. What started as a noble ambition – open a dialogue with Dolores to better understand her motivations for rejecting Christ – slowly drifted into a less-than-noble effort to set the record straight on a number of factual issues and philosophical flaws. She believed false information; surely it should be as simple as correcting the errors, right? So he presented the arguments. She rebutted them. He clarified and reworded. She fought back. Back and forth they went. They bantered often and almost always via email despite the fact that they lived in the same town and could easily meet in person. The advantages of writing concepts down and sending them via email were attractive to a conversation like this, so that became the form of their dialogue.
With time their in-person conversations became less frequent and their email exchanges more frequent. At the same time Greg’s passion – and consequently his verbal assertiveness – grew. Facts are facts and Dolores was wrong on many very important issues, but Greg’s method of correcting the misinformation lacked the gentleness and respect that 1 Peter 3:15 very specifically demands of Christians. Her less-than-sensitive demeanor did not help the situation either as Greg had never engaged in a discussion like this with such an aggressive “opponent” before so he did not have enough experience with “turning the other cheek.” The love of Christ that he knew he should be sharing quickly morphed into a desire to prove her wrong which simply creates animosity. The truth of Christ was a major part of what Dolores needed in her life, but that truth needed to be infused with the love of Christ and that was conspicuously absent. His lack of either gentleness or respect cost him his credibility.
To the best of Greg’s knowledge Dolores remains the Atheist she was when they last spoke. The real life conversations gave way to email conversations, the email conversations became less and less frequent, and the friendship became a memory as they drifted apart over the weeks and months that followed. As Greg summarized it, the entire episode ended in disaster, they do not talk any more and the door is pretty much slammed shut. The failure of this particular conversation even ended up opening relational chasms between Greg and other friends as well; something of a ripple effect. Though it has been several years now, to this day Greg feels bad about the way he handled himself in the conversation, and the way it unfolded, and he continues to pray for her despite her continued silence.
Greg was almost eager to share his story with me when he found out that I was looking for such examples from real life. I must admit that I feel some discomfort with writing it out; it feels as though I am pointing my hypocritical finger at Greg. This story – or one very similar to this – could be written about my own exchanges in the past. In time I will probably write some more of my own failures for public scrutiny in my blog (I already shared one story regarding my discussions with a Mormon friend) but for today we dissect somebody else’s failure.
When I asked him about what he would do different he had some very specific ideas. First, he would get her to stick to one subject. This is a very common strategy that a lot of people use, and in my personal experience Atheists have it down to a fine art. Start on one subject, get onto a tangent, followed by another and another, and never actually finish any one discussion. Secondly, he would have spent more time dialoguing in person instead of over email. I cannot emphasize that enough; virtual discussions have their place, but electronic communication should be a distant second to in-person dialogue. Thirdly, he has also learned to recognize that some people are not interested in honest dialogue, but have their hearts and minds so made up that simply presenting them with evidence, reason and argument will not be effective. Not to say we ought to give up on using these tools, but we must become very strategic in how we use them.
He also felt that he should have shown the love of Christ while sharing the evidence and arguments. As he explained it, it is the difference between saying, “you are wrong and here is why!” and saying something more like, “You seem to have your mind made up, but are you willing to consider that you may be wrong?” Instead of trying to get her to see that she’s wrong, he should have tried to motivate her to move in the direction of self-reflection on her own worldview. Direct attacks only motivate people to self-defense, not self-reflection.
He is also aware, now, that he should have been far clearer in his own motivations for the discussion. His motivation at the time was merely to prove that she was wrong whereas his motivation ought to have been for her own personal, spiritual and eternal well-being. In other words truth was important, so important that he was trying to get her to see the truth because he loved her. At root, his motive was his love for his friend, but it came across as though it were a love of being right. If he had made sure that she was aware of his deeper motives (assuming he actually had the right motives, which at the time he did not!) then hopefully she would have understood that the conversation is motivated by love, not personal victory.
He has also learned a few strategies for better conversational success. Instead of thumping people over the head with his views, he now tends to wait for an opening in the conversation that makes sense. In other words, just talk to people and as you talk share your perspective as a Christian with them. Ask questions. Lots of questions. Most people are not opposed to talking about the big life questions, so he has learned to more effectively use the conversational opportunities he finds before him.
What about you?
Like many of us, Greg fell down. He fell hard. When he fell he hurt not only himself but more than one of his friends in the process. Greg got up again, learned from his mistakes and moved on from their to far greater conversational success with other people. He regrets the mistakes he made in the past, but he would never have learned to succeed unless he first tried and failed. Like Neo in the Matrix, “Nobody makes their first jump.”
The second worst thing we can do in conversations about the really important stuff of life is to fail and then decide we will never try again. The worst thing we can do is avoid the conversation in the first place. Greg made many mistakes, but he did not make either of those two. He learned from his mistakes, as I have learned from mine, just as any person can also learn from the mistakes they make. In fact my book, Arguing with Friends would never have been written to help others in these conversations if I had never had the conversations and failed at them so miserably. The Poached Egg website was similarly rooted in the garden of Greg’s failed attempt to set the record straight with Dolores. My encouragement is to prepare yourself for the discussions by studying the excellent material at Greg’s website and many others like it, learn some of the tools for conversational success as I describe in my book (and there are other books like it, too), and practice, practice, practice. You will fail, you will get hurt, you will hurt others. Eventually, though, after a few bumps and bruises and some sincere apologies (chocolate sometimes helps that process), you will get better and you will become a much more effective (even relationally effective) conversationalist. If there is hope for Greg and I there is definitely hope for anybody.
Perhaps you have a story like Greg’s. Have you had some conversation about the big questions of life go wrong? Would you consider sharing it? Maybe you have a conversation like this go far better than you thought it would, and you would like to celebrate your success. Please consider dropping me a line and sharing your story for the benefit of others. We can all learn from our own successes and failures, but we can also all learn by watching others in action. If you are interested, my contact info is here.
 – You can find a very brief, scholarly, commentary about the accuracy of the claims made in the Zeitgeist movie in this video interview.