After spending nearly two decades trying to change the minds of Christian believers—my focus in what follows—I still don’t fully know how to do it. Regardless, I’ll share ten helpful tips for readers who, like me, want to bang their heads against a wall. I think that it’s worth doing despite the low odds of success, for any success helps rid the world of the harms of religion. Besides, one of the greatest challenges is to change minds, and I like challenges. Plus, I’ve learned a great deal by attempting this important underappreciated task.
If you choose to follow in my footsteps, begin where you are. You may not feel qualified. But you can question. If you do that, you’ll do well. Nonbelievers are first and foremost questioners, doubters, skeptics. We are nonbelievers because we are more willing than most to question everything. You can’t go wrong in doing that. There are plenty of beliefs that are not just wrong, but palpably wrong. Question them. As you get better at asking questions, learn to use the Socratic method. Use leading questions to help believers begin to doubt their certainties.
I understand the cognitive bias known as the backfire effect. It shows that challenging believers with facts makes most of them dig in deeper, causing them to double down in defense of their faith. If their faith survives, their faith is strengthened. While ridicule and satire have an effect on groups of people, keeping personal encounters friendly will be more effective with people that you talk to. We never know if the seed sown might eventually blossom into a changed mind. Most believers cannot be reasoned out of their faith because they were never reasoned into it, but this is still the best that we can do. With enough encounters it might have a cumulative effect, especially if the believer experiences a crisis in his/her life.
Belief is a product of ignorance in varying degrees. So there’s much to inform them about. As you proceed, inform them about what you know, whatever that is. You will learn as you go. Study as you go, too. The more that you know, the better that you’ll do.
(1) I would start in some cases by informing believers of the role cultural indoctrination plays in the adoption of Christianity, and why it’s an unreliable guide for adopting the correct religious faith, if there is one. Given the accidents of when and where we were born, and how we were raised, our religious faith was unthinkingly adopted just as surely as was our nationality and preferred cuisine. So at least once in their lives, believers should seriously question what they believe. Consider it a rite of passage to adulthood if nothing else.
(2) I would inform believers how hard it is to break free from one’s cultural indoctrination, like quitting smoking but much harder. Research professor of psychology Jonas Kaplan did a study of the human brain and concluded: “The brain can be thought of as a very sophisticated self-defense machine.” He added: “If there is a belief that the brain considers part of who we are, it turns on its self-defense mode to protect that belief.” Accordingly, “the brain reacts to belief challenges in the same way that it reacts to perceived physical threats.” To honestly seek the truth we must determine to disarm the brain. Analogous to Alcoholics Anonymous, the first step to recovery is to recognize that we have a brain problem. It won’t allow us to entertain facts that disrupt our comfort zone, our tribalistic beliefs. It will do everything it can to reject them.
(3) I would inform believers about the cognitive biases that act like viruses on our brains. They adversely affect the ability of our brains to honestly evaluate our religious cultural indoctrination. Just knowing this is significant. Knowledge serves as a vaccine. It helps disarm the brain.
Confirmation bias is the mother of all cognitive biases. We are in constant search of confirmation; hardly ever do we seek disconfirmation. We reject and dismiss out of hand what does not comport to existing beliefs, and easily embrace that which does. There are other relevant biases, like anchoring bias, in-group bias, belief blind spot bias, belief bias effect, illusory truth effect, agent detection bias, objectivity illusion bias, the ostrich effect, hindsight bias, and so on.
These biases lead us to reason fallaciously. Believers are susceptible to fallacies like tu quoque (“You too!”—an appeal to hypocrisy/whataboutism), possibiliter ergo probabiliter (“possibly, therefore probably”), straw man/person, argument from ignorance, appeal to popularity (ad populum), equivocation, false analogy, post hoc ergo propter hoc (Latin for “after this, therefore because of this”), cherry picking, hasty generalization, circular reasoning, red herring, non sequitur, and especially special pleading.
(4) I would inform believers that the only way to disarm the brain (yes, basically the only way) is to adopt the perspective of a nonbeliever, an outsider to our indoctrinated religious beliefs. More than anything else, this can help the brain avoid cognitive biases in the honest search for truth. It will help force the believer’s brain to follow the objective evidence wherever it leads. Treat your own religion the way that you treat all other religions, with no double standards and no special pleadings. Assume that your own religion has the burden of proof. See if your faith survives.
(5) At this point inform believers about their holy book and the theologies built on it. Most believers don’t read their Scriptures, or understand the doctrines of their sect-specific faiths. So encourage Christians to read the Bible. Have them read Judges 19-21 to see what the god of the Old Testament instructed the Hebrews to do. Then ask why anyone should trust anything that these bloodthirsty barbarians wrote down. Also ask them why that god commanded genocide and child sacrifice.
The Bible debunks itself. It contains forgeries and borrowed pagan myths, and is inconsistent within itself. It tells a plethora of ancient superstitious tales that don’t make any sense at all. It has a god that evolved from a polytheistic one who lives in the sky above the Earth, who does both good and bad, who makes room for both angels and demons, and who thinks that a god/human blood sacrifice can magically ransom us from the grip of the Devil (the first widely accepted atonement theory).
(6) Inform believers about the Church. The history of the Church, and of the people claiming to have the alleged Holy Spirit inside of them, reveals a continuous spectacle of atrocities such that its history is a damning indictment upon the god that they profess to believe in.
(7) Inform believers about science and how it works. It’s answering the very mysteries that produce religious belief in the first place. The fewer mysteries that we have in the world, then the less we feel the need to believe. The crowning discovery of science is evolution. On this issue, as with everything that I’m saying, it helps to provoke believers to do further research. Ask them what would make Richard Dawkins say:
Evolution is a fact. Beyond reasonable doubt, beyond serious doubt, beyond sane, informed, intelligent doubt, beyond doubt evolution is a fact…. It is the plain truth that we are cousins of chimpanzees, somewhat more distant cousins of monkeys, more distant cousins still of aardvarks and manatees, yet more distant cousins of bananas and turnips … continue the list as long as desired…. It didn’t have to be true, but it is. We know this because a rising flood of evidence supports it. Evolution is a fact…. No reputable scientist disputes it.
Be sure to point out the implications of evolution: that there was no Adam & Eve, no original sin, and no need for a savior.
(8) Inform believers about the need for objective evidence in support of the miracle claims in the Bible. There is no objective evidence for any of them, just a few ancient testimonies that we cannot verify.
The way to honestly evaluate miracle claims is to focus on clearly obvious concrete test cases like a virgin-birthed deity. It’s not to construct hypothetical miracle scenarios, to wrestle with questions over what we consider to be objective evidence, or to specify the exact demarcation point between ordinary claims and extraordinary ones.
For instance, believers will claim that nonbelievers have no objective criteria for what counts as extraordinary evidence. To cut to the chase, I respond that I know what does not count as extraordinary evidence. Second-, third-, or fourth-hand hearsay testimonial evidence doesn’t count, nor does circumstantial evidence or anecdotal evidence as reported in documents that are centuries later than the supposed events, which were copied by scribes and theologians who had no qualms about including forgeries. I also know that subjective feelings or experiences or inner voices don’t count as extraordinary evidence; nor do tales told by someone who tells others that his writings are inspired; nor does putative divine communication through dreams or visions. Once these facts are acknowledged, call on believers to do the math. Just subtract and see what’s left.
(9) Inform believers about statistics. Statistician David Hand shows us that “extraordinarily rare events are anything but. In fact, they’re commonplace. Not only that, we should all expect to experience a miracle roughly once every month.” He is not a believer in supernatural miracles, though. “No mystical or supernatural explanation is necessary to understand why someone is lucky enough to win the lottery twice, or is destined to be hit by lightning three times and still survive. All we need is a firm grounding in a powerful set of laws: the laws of inevitability, of truly large numbers, of selection, of the probability lever, and of near enough.” There is a growing list of books making this same point. Extremely rare events are not miracles. Period. We should expect extremely rare events in our lives many times over. No gods made these events happen.
(10) Inform believers about the problem of horrendous suffering. This evidence is as close to a refutation of an omnipotent, omniscience, omnibenevolent God as is possible. The way to honestly evaluate the compatibility of God and horrific suffering is not to specify the exact demarcation point when the suffering in our world is too much to coexist with a perfect deity. Nor is it to fuss much about whether God and horrendous suffering are logically impossible. Those questions are interesting, but in order to honestly evaluate this difficulty, the best arguments are evidential ones about clearly obvious concrete test cases like the Holocaust, or the massive numbers of children who suffer from malnutrition and die every year, or the kill or be killed law of predation in the animal world.
 See John W. Loftus, “On Justifying the Use of Ridicule and Mockery” (January 17, 2013). Debunking Christianity blog. <https://www.debunking-christianity.com/2013/01/on-justifying-use-of-ridicule-and.html>.
 This is one of five factors that can change minds. See Loftus, “Five Factors that Cause Christians to Lose Their Faith” (December 9, 2010). Debunking Christianity blog. <https://www.debunking-christianity.com/2010/12/five-factors-that-cause-christians-to.html>.
 See Loftus, “The Brain Treats Questions about Beliefs like Physical Threats. Can We Learn to Disarm It?” (January 14, 2018). Debunking Christianity blog. <https://www.debunking-christianity.com/2018/01/the-brain-treats-questions-about.html>.
 See Loftus, “The Hebrew Bible’s Disturbing Attitude Towards Human Sacrifice” (April 16, 2015). Debunking Christianity blog. <https://www.debunking-christianity.com/2015/04/the-hebrew-bibles-disturbing-attitude.html>.
 See Loftus, “The Bible Debunks Itself” (March 5, 2008). Debunking Christianity blog. <https://www.debunking-christianity.com/2008/03/bible-debunks-itself-part-1.html>.
 See Loftus, “What’s Wrong with Using Bayes’ Theorem on Miracles?” (January 25, 2022). The Secular Web. <https://infidels.org/kiosk/article/whats-wrong-with-bayes-theorem/>.
 See Loftus, “The Gateway to Doubting the Gospel Narratives is the Virgin Birth Myth” (March 5, 2008). Debunking Christianity blog. <https://www.debunking-christianity.com/2020/06/the-gateway-to-doubting-gospel.html>.