When people believe that their worldviews are epistemologically superior to others (which most do), the temptation is high to disparage other worldviews with condescending insults. Atheists and Christians are equally guilty of this. Members of both sides are constantly attacking each other in an attempt to make the opposition appear ridiculous.
Many atheists believe that Christians are stupid and vice versa. This belief is particularly present when in the middle of a heated debate with a member of the other side. Even I am often tempted to insult the intelligence of the other side until I remember that not too long ago, I was on their side.
It is a rather weird anecdote of human psychology that I, 1) Always consider myself intelligent, 2) Am constantly updating my belief system, and 3) Several months later I tend to think of anyone holding any of my old beliefs, as being “stupid”. It’s hypocrisy, I know, and it may just be me but I suspect it applies to many other people as well. It’s something I need to think about before silently or vocally insulting someone else’s intelligence.
Those insults do not help change the mind of the religious person or the atheist. I know this after experiencing both sides. All that an insult accomplishes is to anger the other person and destroy all chance of a continued dialogue. Insults probably do more harm than good.
As hard as it might be to believe, there really are intelligent Christians that wholeheartedly believe in the literal truth of the Bible. I should know–I used to be one. It is a testament to the power of indoctrination, and the atheist hoping to change religious minds would do well to understand this power. The Christian would do well to understand that the atheist is intelligent, and that he is also a seeker of truth, and not intrinsically evil.
Based once again only on my experience on both sides of the argument, here are some tips I have for encouraging a shift in a worldview. They will be written from the perspective of an atheist trying to change a Christian’s worldview.
1) Be an ethical and an intelligent person. Show the other side, by your speech and actions, that you’re not stupid or intrinsically evil.
2) Begin a dialogue. The tone of the dialogue is important. It should be friendly and never confrontational. Give the (truthful) impression that you are also seeking truth and not just manufacturing counter-arguments for the sake of disagreeing.
3) Take it slowly. It took me about ten years of thought to go from fundamental Christian (Amish) to atheist. What you’re seeking is a radical shift in worldview and it’s not going to happen overnight. In fact, if you throw too much “evidence” at the other side all at once, you’re more likely to push the other person away than to change their mind. Judge the other person’s position and level of knowledge and seek only a small victory in any given conversation. If you achieve it, leave it at that and let it ferment in the other person’s mind. Remember, you are trying to undermine years and years of indoctrination.
4) This may or may not be effective for everyone, but it seems to work for me: Guide the other person to the answer rather than giving it to them. I find that it is more effective to ask the right questions than it is to state the answers.
5) Provide well-written and easy to understand resources to help your fellow truth-seeker to understand the more technical aspects of your worldview. For example, several of Richard Dawkin’s books were instrumental in helping me understand evolution and grasping the general idea of evolution was a turning point in my transition from fundamental Christian to atheist.
So in conclusion; be nice. How nice? Pretend that the person you’re debating with is your best friend, your significant other, or your mother. They really are mine.