TAKE YOUR EGO OUT OF IT: At some point in any debate or argument both sides start to lose sight of the goal, which should of course should be to inch or leap closer to the objective truth. Instead we become invested in winning, because of course, that is what feels best to our egos. I know from personal experience that a fruitful friendly discussion which may end up enlightening your protagonist just a little bit ( but does not convince them) is far less emotionally satisfying than a winner takes all “ha ha I was right you were wrong!” ending in your favor. Which leads me to the second point.
YOU ARE NO ONE’S MESSIAH: The truth is that rarely, if ever, does anyone’s worldview shift so radically by just one (or even a few) interactions with an opposing viewpoint. That just isn’t how our minds work. When I speak to theists my goal is not to convert anyone, it is just to expand their understanding of why I think their philosophical position is untenable. The goal of any one conversation is not to break down the wall but rather to crack open the window just a little bit more. I don’t care if you don’t adopt my position today, I merely hope to move you farther away from your position and out of your comfort zone. In the process I also open my own window, since adopting a rational approach implies that I should always be ready to assess my own beliefs. I do not after all advocate rigid faith positions.
UNDERSTAND SOME PEOPLE ARE ACTUALLY UNREACHABLE: The universe we live in is imperfect (relative to our desires) and human beings are also imperfect (relative to the ability to behave in a way that is in our collective best interest). At any point in time we can be a psychological, neurological, hormonal or emotional mess. We may live in or be connected to communities which reinforce our biases so strongly that no amount of evidence or reason can cut through to us, and no discrepancy in our own arguments or beliefs is immune to our own rationalization. We should recognize then, that there are times when people are just not susceptible to new ideas and it is often not only wise to acknowledge this but imperative to do so. To take an extreme (and I would hope obvious) example: The time to argue the failure of religious world views with regard to the problem of suffering is NOT when someone’s loved one has just passed away.
START WITH COMMON GROUND: I’ve found that it is highly unlikely that no common ground exists when engaged in a discussion with someone who holds a differing world view from mine. It’s important to establish this early on in your discussion, before sentiments get heated. A common point of agreement becomes a handy reset button when emotions begin to cloud reason. You can agree that all human beings deserve to be treated with respect or that gender equality is an inalienable right, then regardless of the direction of your debate these tenets become principles to which you both can return to launch new arguments or develop new areas of agreement. It is amazing that human beings though separated over thousands of years by continents and oceans have maintained their evolved sense of morality, in a way that allows us to reach agreements on some fundamental truths. We may differ on how to enact these morals but there is no doubt that even the recognition of our collective moral sense is a powerful tool for working through our differences.
JUDGEMENT IS MINE (Not Really): Any one person is a mélange of a rich tapestry of influences. Our personalities are all a result of our cultural origins, national origins, societal pressure, family influence, friends and personal experiences and so on. It is important to realize that beliefs are not chosen, they are arrived at through processes both within and out of our individual control. One of the most important things to avoid doing is judging others solely on the basis of their beliefs. If someone you know is vehemently against something (gay rights for instance) ask yourself if you might not have been the same as them had you been given their history and set of experiences. Not judging others is one of the most important parts of advancing one’s own cause, yet it is unarguably one of the most difficult things to do. It is difficult but imperative to keep this in minds, as I’ve said before rarely will you change someone’s mind from a single interaction and standing in judgment of their ignorance, or their inability to understand what seems clear to you, is almost a guarantee that you will only get a single interaction with them.
There is no magic formula for how to effectively get one’s message across to others. I would argue however that with some sensitivity and well thought out reasoning, one can do wonders in enlightening people (and indeed oneself) through healthy and even vigorous discussion. I hope you will find these guidelines as useful as I have in the past.