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Dan Barker: How to Talk to a Fundamentalist

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Dan Barker and his PianoI know how to talk to a fundamentalist. Well, I know how to talk to the kind of fundamentalist I used to be, so I guess I know how to talk to myself. But that is something.

I started preaching in high school, and by college I was really good at it. I would walk up to you on campus, convinced that you were inwardly seeking exactly what I had to offer, and ask if you were saved, knowing that you would be so happy to finally meet someone so interesting, someone whose life was together, unlike yours. I was breath of fresh air.

It would be your lucky day when God directed you to sit next to me on a bus.

Maybe you didn't consciously admit that you wanted the truth I was offering, but after sensing the Spirit of God in my words, you would realize that, "Yes, this is what I have been yearning for!" You were merely living in "the world," and I was handing you the privilege to leave that sad, lowly, hopeless, empty domain and move into God's fraternity. What a blessing that there were people like me on campus who had the goodness and courage to make you such a wonderful invitation.

It was more than that, of course, but you get the idea. You probably thought I was a kook, but I knew I was a humble servant of the creator of the universe, so laugh all you want. The bible predicts that we obedient messengers of Jesus would be misunderstood and persecuted. If you called me names, that proved the bible is true! It also raised my status in His eyes, which were more important than your eyes.

It was exciting to get doors slammed in my face. It was affirming to hear ignorant college students arguing with me, trying to use the flawed and misconstrued "facts" of mere science, which are always changing, to combat the transcendent truth of the bible, which never changes.

Not all fundamentalists are the same. They often fight among themselves about various doctrines. They also differ in their style. Some are peaceful, loving, gentle believers who are genuinely good people trusting that their joyful and meaningful lives will be attractive to you. They figure it is God who is the judge. Others are intrusive proselytizers who sense a duty and a right to confront you in order to change your sinful ways and bring you into heaven. Fundamentalists fall across the bell curve of personality types like the rest of us. Some are intelligent and informed. Some are more emotional. Some are more empathetic and compassionate, more kind and respectful than others. The one thing that unites them is their commitment to the authority of the bible, regardless of how they interpret the "truth" of that book.

Fundamentalists pretend to love you sinners while hating your sin, and fancy themselves as doctors (or agents of the doctor) who can fix what is wrong with you. Like many doctors, fundamentalists rarely imagine they can learn anything from the patient. They walk through life diagnosing what is wrong with everyone else, smiling with the certainty (some might say smugness) that they have the secret to life, and if you challenge the reality of their so-called relationship with Jesus, they will simply say "you don't know." (And that may be true. Most of you nonbelievers don't know what it is like to "talk with God." But I do know, which is why I can write about this. It's quite a powerful experience, which I can reproduce today, with all the attendant feelings of being in the presence of a superior being-but as an atheist I now know that "talking with God" is purely psychological and points to nothing outside of the brain.)

It would seem that a true two-way dialogue between fundamentalists and nonbelievers, with radically different approaches to epistemology, is difficult, maybe impossible. But I am going to tell you exactly what you could have said to me that would have made a difference, things that I now wish someone had told me years ago.

Before you jump in with arguments swinging, I want to caution you to back up. Ask yourself what your agenda is and how it relates to their agenda.

Their goal is to convert you. Therefore, by not converting, you have already won. If you are not the arguing type, don't worry. You can just say, "No thanks, I don't believe that. I am happy. I don't need what you offer." Then walk away. That might be more effective than squaring off for a prolonged one-way argument where they can show off how much they know, trying this and that (changing the topic), and feeling like a very important servant of God, going back to their church to boast, "I was unafraid to confront Satan face to face." If you simply walk away, you deny them the chance to feed their attention-seeking needs. They want to feel important and useful to God. They hate to be ignored.

And what is your goal? If your goal is to simply counter them and let them know there are happy, informed nonbelievers in the world, then that is easy. Just be yourself, say what you think, and don't worry if they change their minds. Be relaxed about it. You are not the one with the problem and you can't solve everyone else's problems. If you try too hard to change their mind, it can make you look uneasy, like you are "protesting too much," which they most certainly will take as a sign of insecurity. It can also validate their "war" (as the hymn says, "Onward, Christian Soldiers"), hardening their resolve. Many nonbelievers are happy to live and let live, and don't care what fundamentalists believe. Most of us nontheists will complain only about the harmful behavior (not ideas) of believers, because people should be judged by their actions, not their beliefs. If a religiously motivated action is causing unnecessary harm, then moral people will challenge such behavior. Otherwise, belief is a private matter. Tell them a little of your opinions, then leave it at that.

If your goal, however, is to convert them, then you have a lot of work to do. Well, actually, we can't "convert" anyone. We all have to come to our own conclusions. If you were raised religious, like me, you know that your de-conversion came from inside, not from an atheist evangelist. But still, some of us atheists and agnostics do feel a need, or responsibility, to champion reason, science, and kindness, and would like to improve the world by persuading others to abandon superstition and dogma.

There is one other thing you should realize before you start talking with a fundamentalist, and this might save you a lot of grief and wasted time. Regarding religious and moral matters, fundamentalists have binary brains. Their mindset is absolutistic. There is no gray area in their skulls when it comes to Jesus and the bible. (I didn't say "gray matter," but maybe sometimes it feels that way.) To a fundamentalist, everything is black or white, yes or no, right or wrong. Jesus is reported as saying, "Because you are lukewarm-neither hot nor cold-I am about to spit you out of my mouth." If you use gray talk-relativistic, situational, tentative, hypothetical-it will translate to black. They claim to have 100% certainty and they will demand it of you. For this reason, fundamentalists are just as dismissive of liberal Christians as they are of atheists. If you say anything that admits less than perfect truth or absolute moral values, they will pounce on it and say, "Aha! You don't know!" If you say, "You don't know either," they will smile and reply that they have a personal relationship with Jesus, the author of reality, so it is you who is in the dark.

I used to say those things. And I believed them. I know that you can't shake that mindset with a few arguments on a sidewalk. However, there are some things you could have said to me which would have made an impact when I was a fundamentalist preacher.


Dan Barker continues his article in the next issue of the Secular Student Alliance eMpirical, elaborating on those things you might say to have an impact. Be sure to check it out!

Dan BarkerDan Barker is co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, America's largest organization of atheists and agnostics. His newest book is Godless: How An Evangelical Preacher Became One of America's Leading Atheists (Ulysses Press, 2008). The Secular Student Alliance and the Freedom From Religion Foundation are partnering in sending Dan to SSA groups. If you are interested in having Dan speak or do a debate on your campus, contact the SSA or check out the Speakers Bureau.


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