In the vast majority of cases, if you talk religion with friends or family, all you will likely accomplish is hurt feelings. Most people don’t want their beliefs challenged on any topic that matters to them. However, every friendship and every set of circumstances is different, so we will assume some set of unusual circumstances. For instance, suppose your friend has an extraordinarily even temperament or initiated the discussion of his or her own volition and seems earnestly to want to understand your position. Alternatively, you might believe that your friend might be suffering as a result of their religious beliefs. Perhaps the cognitive dissonance of believing that their “father” both 1) loves them and 2) is willing to burn their flesh for eternity (if they think bad thoughts) is eating away at their brain. Or perhaps they are a gay Muslim, a black Mormon or a female theist of nearly any kind. Firstly, make sure they know what “agnostic atheist” really means. Also, make sure you do. Secondly, when you begin, you will automatically want to put forward an affirmative position, because that is how one usually argues. But agnostic atheism is an inherently negative position. Embrace that! It recognizes where the burden of proof lies, and demands evidence to back up claims. That’s all. So instead of attacking, acknowledge your negative role and simply answer your friend’s queries, being unafraid to answer, “I don’t know.” If you don’t feel comfortable with citing extensive paleontological evidence, don’t try to argue that dinosaurs existed, even though you know they did. You can’t be expected to explain the whole universe.
Remember, no matter how well a theist argues that our knowledge of the world is incomplete or has been incorrect in the past, it does not strengthen the theistic position; pointing out what is missing from science does not make the claims of religions any more correct. Finally, end the argument with something fun and distracting before chairs are thrown. For instance, Richard Dawkins famously dissected a giraffe — while wearing a raincoat for the blood — for a university evolution class to demonstrate the ridiculously circuitous route of its laryngeal nerve. Find the video on YouTube, and watch it together. It’s awesomely gross and educational!
Connor Oakes is a fourth-year political science major.
It truly belongs among the acts most loving, to rid one’s comrade of the mind-numbing shackles of religious dogma. Whichever one they happen to woefully adhere — Buddhism, Christianity, Scientology — the stratagem one ought to enact never varies: Show them the facts, then show them once more.
But from which truths does one attempt the logical dismantling of the supernatural? It is true, the facts are diverse and numerous, so it’s wise to remain focused in conversation on one complete argument rather than become a noisy fact-faucet, spewing facts from the mouth with no coherence as if you were a politician. For this reason I’ve taken to naming my arguments (a common hobby among philosophers) against the faithful myth-cherishing that animates religion. The argument I’m perhaps most fond of is “Fat Family Tree.” This argument is visually and conceptually powerful, and one surely to convince your friend if he has any inkling to appreciate the force of rationality. Its power is its simplicity: Imagine for a moment your family tree, and the relatives that populate its branches. How far back can you go? Grandfather? Great-grandfather? How far you can go in naming your ancestral dead isn’t the point, however. The point is to see that no matter where your knowledge stops, your family tree marches on, stretching deeper and deeper into the past, going further back through time, through all eras of Earth’s history. In your family tree there are species both extinct and unfamiliar, as well as the alive and similar: We are primates, and as primates we are close cousins to other primates that bear an uncanny resemblance to us. Yes, we and the chimpanzees share an ancestor whom we’d both call “uncle”.
To bring the point strongly home, emphasize the beautiful thing that unifies us all on the “Fat Family Tree”: our DNA. What relates you to Mommy is your shared DNA and nothing else. And if sharing DNA is all there is to being someone’s relative, then whatever has DNA is our relative.
Most myths tell different sorts of children’s tales to explain how we got here. I think evolution is bit more mature. But if your friend stubbornly wants both his myths and his maturity, then you might be wasting your time.
Brian Gallagher is a fourth-year philosophy major.