Continuing in my ongoing theme of exploring conversational successes and failures I have a little ditty of an anecdote to share of my own interaction with somebody. I was meandering through our local video store looking for a movie to rent and as I did so I overheard two of the coworkers bantering with each other. The subject of religion came up and the one employee made it clear that he did not believe in God. He was by no means attacking the other employee and it was all friendly banter packaged in humor.
Well I tore across the store, leapt over the counter and starting beating him until he converted.
Just kidding. I didn’t make that big of a mistake. Instead, I found a video to rent and wandered over to the counter to pay for it. As he was ringing it in I sparked up a conversation that (from the best of my memory) went something like this,
Me: “Why don’t you believe in God?”
Him: “I just looked into the different religions and I’m not interested.”
Me: “What kind of research did you do?”
Him: “I went to a Catholic school for two years and I did some of my own research. I’m just not interested.”
Me: **shrug** “Fair enough.”
Well, it was friendly enough, and honestly I’m not sure it was necessarily my place to drive the point home too hard, but it didn’t dawn on me until I left the store that I certainly could have handled that brief exchange a little better. What I did right was treat him with respect and honour his non-verbal cue that he didn’t really want to discuss the issue; he repeatedly told me that he wasn’t interested. Ok, I can take a hint.
But you’ll notice what he did “wrong.” When joking around with his coworker he stated that he didn’t believe in God. When I asked him about that he essentially moved the goalposts to “I’m not interested.” The implication of the claim to “not believe in God” is that one believes that God does not exist, but when I asked him about that he moved from the implicit claim that God does not exist to the softer position of “I’m not interested.”
[With respect to the idea that Atheism is about the claim that God does not exist versus the claim that one simply “lacks belief in God” I have written about this at the other blog I write at; you can read that here.]
In hindsight when he said he wasn’t interested I should have pointed out that, really at the root of this discussion, his interest is kind of irrelevant. Obviously I would have worded it differently, but that’s basically the point. Whether a person is interested in the truth or not has no impact on what is true. I may lack belief in the nation of Togo but my belief has absolutely no bearing on whether that nation exists or not. It does exist, by the way; it’s in Africa (West coast, between Ghana and Nigeria).
My response should probably have been something more like this,
Me: Well I am very interested in knowing whether or not God exists and you seemed to suggest you had reason to believe he did not exist. I am curious what your reasons are.
Of course, hindsight is always 20/20 so we don’t always think of the right thing during the moment. This is why we debrief.
There is another side of this, though, which should factor in to our response. He made it clear that he was not interested, having taken at least a superficial look at some different religions. His lack of interest would be an interesting subject to explore; perhaps it is also more influential in his present worldview than the question of the evidence for or against God’s existence. If I figured this was a more important avenue of discussion then I might have asked a question more like this,
Me: What was it about the religions you looked into that left you disinterested?
Me: What kind of religion would interest you?
Either of these would probably spark a rather interesting discussion. Well, as interesting of a discussion as one can have across a counter at the checkout of a video rental store I suppose. This brief exchange highlights a few principles that I describe in more detail in Arguing with Friends. First, be willing to get into the discussion. As you can see, nothing horrible happened when I broached the subject; his head didn’t explode and I didn’t get kicked out of the store. Just talk with people! Second, make sure your expectations match the context. Given the context it would have been ridiculous to suppose he would have converted on the spot. If I could have given him something to ponder (which I really didn’t, oops) that would have been enough for that discussion. Third, pay attention to non-verbal. He didn’t really want to discuss it; ok, that’s fine. Again, given the context I think it was wise to honour that by not pushing the issue. Lastly, debrief after conversations. Reflect on what you did right and what you should have done differently.
Since my usual plea for stories from other people’s experiences has gone more or less unheeded I thought I would throw out a different question. What do other people think I should have said or asked in response to his declaration that he wasn’t interested in religion?