Thursday, April 16, 2015

The art of persuasion

It's always interesting to look at other people's sales strategies, especially when they involve selling things to you! Often the articulation of a sales strategy exposes the inherent weaknesses of an idea or product, Human nature is to avoid talking about your weakest features and to steer potential customers toward the best bits (and keep them there!), so what's not being talked about is often a good signpost to the very things that a consumer should be examining!

On wikihow there's a 3 part series of "how to" advice points for Christians wishing to persuade atheists (i.e. friends and family) to become Christians too; it's not a bad piece, quite civil and reasonable in many ways but it's still enlightening for the very reason above, i.e. it betrays the key points of weakness in their own thinking and the areas they wish (perhaps subliminally) to avoid; let's take a look at what's being suggested along with my own observations from the perspective of the Atheist.

Part 1 - Approaching the Subject

1.1 Put yourself in your friends shoes - Perfectly sensible sales move; understand the value of your proposition to the client. Unfortunately it goes off the rails where the author suggests that most Atheists are concerned with being good people rather than souls and not to "judge" them for this. As a logical argument this boils down to the pernicious belief that it doesn't matter how evil you are so long as you believe in God you'll be OK. To Atheists (and all empathetic primates) this is not a plus point for Christianity, it's a horrendous thought, one that encourages evil people to do absolutely anything they like so long as they come to Jesus on death-row - is this honestly what moral Christians believe?

1.2 Choose a convenient place and time - Again, a sensible suggestion, no one wants to talk about such deep topics at places of work or in the middle of something unrelated; the advice is also not to "debate" but rather have a "dialogue". Clearly there is underlying fear here; fear about being perceived as entrapping someone or making them embarrassed. This is good advice, but it's also clear that debate is to be avoided because proper debate involves appeals to facts and evidence and not appeals to emotion and feelings; this is barren ground for Christians; the evidence of reality outside of their own hopes and desires works entirely against their position. It usually forces them to retreat to a "God of the gaps" stance from which it's difficult to build credibility with someone who values evidence based arguments.

1.3 Have a genuine arms-length conversation - The fear of serious fact-based debate is highlighted even more here as the recommendation is to listen more than you talk. The advice is don't preach or shock. What this translates to in my ears is "your logic is weak, your facts non-existent, stick to building empathy with the person, make them think you care about them and hook them that way" This is a tactic often employed by good sales people, it's very powerful. The invocation of emotion and (faux) friendship in order to overcome objections is a tried and tested way of avoiding awkward conversations about inconvenient facts and building advocacy; when things get sticky buy them a "free lunch" or treat them to an England rugby match ticket, it's an approach that's as old as the hills.

1.4 Don't try to convert your friend or to present ultimate ideas - Again, we have advice steering potential proselytisers away from "facts", facts are clearly "silver bullets" as far as theism is concerned. Far better to stick to the fluffy stuff, desires, hopes, aspirations and excitement. Unfortunately what most Theists fail to understand is that Atheists are usually Atheists because they have thought seriously about these questions and they value and use facts and evidence to reach conclusions about things; avoiding them simply reinforces the perception that Christianity is a con job.

Part 2 - Talking About Your Faith

2.1 Tell your friend what your Christianity means to you - The main theme here is to avoid talking about things like eternal punishment (Hell) and quite right too; a more ridiculous and immoral idea has yet to be thought up. The advice is also indicative of the fact that most Christians don't seem to believe the (apparently) core stuff in their Bible; creation, heaven, hell, gender inequality, slavery, stoning gays etc. etc. an inconvenient truth that places another nail in the credibility and "truth" of these ideas as far as rational people are concerned.

2.2 Establish a common language - Essentially the advice here is to use "secular" rather than "theological" language, good advice! Theological language sounds like babble to most people; no coherent argument can be had using "theological language", arguing about how many angels can fit on the head of a needle with someone who values facts, evidence and logic would be utterly non-overlapping.

2.3 Don't try to debate the specifics of the Bible - those pesky facts again; the advice here is essentially "avoid talking about dinosaurs", the reason is obvious, i.e. they don't fit into the narrative being sold.

2.4 Try to understand the perspective of your friend - The best advice in the whole piece, it suggests that no assumptions should be made about why someone is an Atheist; quite right. I've never met an Atheist yet who is "angry at God", making assumptions like this about people is simply bad manners.

2.5 Let your friend try to convert you - Again, good general advice for meaningful human relations, i.e. be open minded! Unfortunately the advice then goes on to reinforce the dogma that no matter what argument or evidence is presented by the Atheist the religious person should not change their mind - not much point in talking about it then is there?

Part 3 - Keeping the Dialogue open

3.1 Walk the walk - Fair enough, it says don't be a hypocrite, unfortunately most people are, so maybe it would be better to explore the idea that Human beings come with certain built in universal behaviours; we are all evolved from the same primate ancestors after all.

3.2 Invite your friend to come with you to church - Most Atheists I know quite like a good sing-song and a BBQ.

3.3 Be patient - OK; but I would advise also being realistic; best not to have too much invested in the idea that you might convert someone to your way of thinking. It's unlikely that you will, and this isn't because Atheists are closed minded. Most Atheists were once believers or at least educated in the ways of believers, such is the monopoly and visibility of religion in our world. Atheism isn't a belief, it's the lack of one and is usually arrived at by careful examination of the reasons offered for that belief. The Atheist simply finds the reasons lacking; they don't cut the mustard. Don't expect what you're going to say to be much of a surprise to the Atheist it's almost certain they will have considered your points before. Actually it's probably better to expect to be surprised by the weight of evidence against your position; in my experience most Christians end up on the defensive (many often "offended") after such interactions.

3.4 Be persistent - Good advice; know when to quit and don't let a difference of opinion regarding things that cannot be known ruin a perfectly serviceable friendship in the here and now; this is certainly my philosophy in these matters.

3.5 If you want to pray for your friend, do it in private - More good advice, most Atheists I know don't actually take offence at this kind of thing as they don't believe it makes any difference (other than in the mind of the person doing the praying); some (more strident) Atheists might see overt displays of religiosity aimed at them as unwelcome possibly even rude, depends on the person.

So, all in all not a terrible set of advice; but I don't feel this really prepares the Theist well for the usual outcome of such debates.

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