What Do We Do When Some Theist We Don't Know Sends Us E-mail? (1997)
The Basic Guidelines
1) Always respond.
2) If the letter was abusive or childish, politely but curtly say so, and that you wish to have no further contact with such a rude and immoral person, or else you will report them to their service provider.
3) If the letter is polite but asks no questions (if it is just an assertion, a boast, advice, a prayer, etc.), then respond politely, succinctly state why you disagree or are already fine as you are, and thank them for behaving politely and bid them goodbye.
4) If the letter is polite and also asks a question, answer it. Your answer should always be polite and always stick to the point (never digress from answering the questions asked). If possible, you may even do better to pick what you deem to be the most important question, if several, and only answer that one. Remember to reread your answer before sending it, with the attitude that you are acting as an ambassador for all atheists and freethinkers. You may notice that you are too partisan, too dishonest, too rude or condescending, too certain (remember, there is always room for healthy doubt), or something else that does not reflect well on our community or is unfair to other freethinkers who disagree with us. Change it accordingly.
5) If you are too busy to respond, say so. You should politely direct them to the Secular Web or other places where they may find answers to all sorts of questions and perhaps others who have the time to talk about it.
Why Not Just Ignore Them?
I used to think that, too, until I began to better understand other people. You have to view it as a difference in psychology, not in propriety. I do not see their "intrusion" as rude, but desperate or curious. After all, if I had serious concerns and curiosities about some world view, lacking any better course, I would do the same thing they did.
Granted, I know better ways to go about it, but you have to expect many Christians to be ignorant of the means of independent research and inquiry--that's why they are Christians. If you don't want to give them the time, you should still respond, but politely say exactly that you haven't the time for it, and direct them to some other source of information (like the Secular Web, or a particular book like Losing Faith in Faith)--but you should not be rude. That only makes atheists look bad and feeds into their expectations--in short, it does more damage than has already been done. It also doesn't reflect well on your own sense of compassion.
We can do a great deal of good by creating and reinforcing a positive image for atheists--but we should always be involved in the creation of our own image, that is why we should always respond. Not responding allows them to think what they will--it does not challenge them to think differently. Enough of those challenges, and real changes can happen. I know--I've seen it. We are mere parts in a bigger picture--but only if we play a part will that picture unfold in a positive direction.
But We Don't Invade Others' Privacy to Help Them "See the Light"!
No, but that doesn't matter. We may think we are better than they are in certain aspects of propriety, morality, and good sense (and even spiritual contentment)--but we need not be arrogant and condescending about it, nor should we use that as an excuse to make the mistake that the science community has, and is openly regretting today: the mistake of thinking that if we ignore them, because they are "unworthy" of a reply, then they will go away. The opposite is the case, and Creation Science has made inroads again precisely because scientists didn't "deign" to enter the debate against them--in effect letting them win by default. Don't make the same mistake.
It helps to think about human psychology: using their own terminology, this person could be a "seeker," not a "believer," even if it seems otherwise at first glance. Or they may have doubts, but are unconsciously using the ego defense of boastful certainty. Or they may not have any doubts now, but our manner of reply may stick in their mind as not being the hostile bitterness, nor cowardly silence, that they expected. We cannot turn them, nor make them realize that atheists aren't all that bad, by being rude, ignoring them, or attacking them. Rather, teach by example: we must be more polite and considerate than they are--and polite people always respond, even if the response is only to bid them a kind farewell.
Aren't We Just Encouraging Them?
Good! The more Christians who begin dialoguing with atheists, the better the world will be. Because for every hundred who just turn rude and get nowhere and whom we have to dismiss, one will change their point of view. And believe me, that's worth a great deal--not only to us, but to them as well, as both converts to atheism and Christians who begin to not hate atheists so much have told me repeatedly.
Addendum: Debating Online
Since I wrote the above I was asked about a different situation. Many freethinkers engage in active online debates, on the Usenet or Bulletin Boards or elsewhere, and in that process encounter Christians who get excessively defensive and hurt. These freethinkers aren't going to leave on their account--the forum is specifically designed for public and open debate--so what can they do? Many freethinkers do not want to hurt people, and wonder how any progress can be made with such people, or if one should even try.
I have been in situations like that on and off for over eleven years now (and I am writing this in 1999). I've been hashing it out in debates online since 300 baud modems, when there was no such thing as e-mail or a world wide web, just local BBS's, and I continued through the rise of Prodigy and The People Network, then to AOL when that appeared, and the usenet, and so on. Now I see it all as feedback editor of the Secular Web. The one thing I can tell you from all my experience is that you have to make a separate judgement call based on your total, personal experience, with each person online. But I can also provide the following tried-and-tested advice:
[1.] Some people are insane. If you exchange mail with them long enough, you will know who they are--sometimes they exhibit frightening and fantastic misperceptions of reality, or forget important things that they said earlier (and deny it when confronted, even despite clear evidence), or repeat mantras over and over again, like a broken record, ignoring questions or challenges, or issue physical threats and inexplicable boasts, displaying an ignorance of the nature of the very medium they are communicating in. There are other signs (such as a constant use of bizarre religious language, etc.), but I think you can get the picture from these examples.
At UCLA in April of 2004, Mike Licona quoted one sentence out of the paragraph to the left during a public debate with me on the resurrection of Jesus. He mistook its meaning as declaring that all religion is a form of insanity. I had thought it was clear this referred only to the "some" who are insane (see paragraph above), not all religious persons (such as the other two groups below, the liars and the scared, and those who do not get upset in online debates). I do not believe, nor did I mean when I wrote the sentence Licona quoted, that all religion is a form of insanity, but that forms of insanity that fall under the category of religion (such as extreme religiosity, fanaticism, religious paranoia, etc.) are often socially acceptable and thus often not treated or recognized as a mental disorder (though sometimes they are). Indeed, I would include under this umbrella even extreme atheism. I have met a few nontheists whose nontheism had become a focus of their mental illness (thus rendering them as paranoid, hostile, fanatical, and scary as any comparably fanatical theist). That does not mean all atheists are insane or that atheism is a form of insanity. The same holds for religion.
These people are not to be reasoned with. They need professional help, but you will have to accept the fact that they will never get it--religion is a socially acceptable insanity [when it becomes the focus of madness--see box at right], and thus our culture throws out of nearly everyone's mind the very notion that a religious person can be sick. No one among their friends or family, not even their priest, will think of them as insane, just devoted. You must not converse with such people. Ignore them if you can, but if pressed (as you may often be), cut and paste the statements from past messages of theirs which you see as signs of dangerous insanity (per my examples above) and tell them, point blank, that these passages disturb you and make you fear for their sanity and happiness, and that you are not qualified to help them, so they should seek the help of an experienced psychologist or counsellor. They won't take the advice, but this is your way of washing your hands of the problem. If they keep pressing, keep sending the exact same mail. Eventually they will give up. Your insistence that they are not well will scare them, and their egos will drive them to escape the threat of facing the truth.
- [2.] Other people are liars. They like to pick fights and use any kind of emotional manipulation to win. Nothing, or very little, of what they say is sincere, but you can have no way to tell, unless they trip up, and you have been watching for a contradiction which suggests they are a "troll," net lingo for an argument hobbyist. Trolling is the act of seeding the net with provocative posts just to pick a fight, and a person who trolls is a troll--the term comes from the fishing term "trolling for fish" which in turn is connected with the mythical trolls who trapped children and ate them.
Generally, you have to treat a troll as a [1.] or a [3.] until you know they are a troll, in which case a private message calling their bluff is the first step to dealing with them. Note that spotting a troll can be difficult: for example, I once realized that two people (two different e-mail addresses) were the same person, pretending to be two. That was a clue. How I figured that out was not easy. It required scanning multiple debate locations, looking for all posts by the same two people in other, isolated places, which I had only done by accident. But I have seen it happen more than once. The other sorts of things that give trolls away are equally obscure and not immediately obvious, but if you keep your nose sharp you might catch one. Naturally, you need not worry about hurting them. They are having "fun." But once you have caught a troll, you can cease taking them seriously, so simply ignore them.
- [3.] Some people are indeed scared. Their fear gets translated in many ways. One common way is that they fear for the fate of the world--they see you as a demon, whose views are so monstrous and incomprehensible that they do not know what to do, hence their desperate reactions. Another way is that they fear for the security of their own worldview--lingering guilt or doubts, which they have regarded as shameful sins to shun and hide, play on them, and they seek to escape this torment by becoming self-righteous and defensive. There are other manifestations, as you may no doubt notice. No matter the nature of the fear, the treatment is the same:
This fear is answered by constantly being polite, level, and clear, and always requesting that the person point out what they don't understand in what you are saying, so you can try to explain the background which led up to a particular view, and always telling them, politely and sincerely, what you don't understand in what they say. If you engage them with an obvious compassion and show a clear desire to understand them (not just defeat them or change them), their fear will eventually move to confusion and finally to ambivalence or acceptance, either of which is better than fear. On rare occasions, you will achieve conversion (I know--I've done it myself), but that should not be your goal: acceptance should be. It is much easier to achieve.
The objective must always be to get deeper and deeper. Although it might start with, e.g., "I really want to try to understand your point of view about abortion," it should focus on some piece of their answer that you really don't understand, then ask about that, then do the same with that answer, and so on: each time you will be getting into a more and more fundamental question, and further and further from the main issue, but you may always return to the main point once you have bottomed a particular well of questions, perhaps to start over in a new direction. But by remaining polite and inquisitive and concerned, you will make yourself less of a threat, even though your views will remain frightening to them for one reason or another.
Remember, though, to always be honest--don't pretend that you don't want to change them, though you can admit that you don't always expect that to happen, and that what you really want most is understanding of your position. It helps to always re-read your mailings for a "politeness check" and rewriting anything that could be mistook as rude or self-righteous (it helps most of all to have someone else read them first--a spouse, friend, etc.). It helps, for instance, to use a lot of "Well, my opinion is..." sorts of things, instead of "The fact is...," at least when appropriate--identifying opinions as opinions is a part of being honest.
In the end, remember where you are: you are in a public debate forum, and you have the right to keep debating there as you wish. You should not let fear of offending or hurting someone scare you away from what is important to you and what you have a right to be doing, in a place where it is supposed to be done. For we must all endure pain to improve ourselves. Boot camp was damn painful, but it was an essential building phase of my life. When we get sick, we are in pain, but often not because the disease is hurting us, but because our own immune system has to do things that hurt in order to kill that disease (headaches, clogged noses, coughs, nausea, vomiting, fever are all immune responses--diseases do not cause these things themselves). Consider chemotherapy, weight training, child discipline, romance, etc. All involve learning or improvement through pain. If you read the stories of fanatics who converted to freethought, almost all of them tell of a period of pain and misery and confusion when they transited from one belief to another. Indeed, the same exact thing is reported of converts in the other direction.
So merely causing or maintaining pain is not necessarily an evil--so long as the aim is good and the effect is temporary, and you can be sure something good is happening (and so long as you are not violating anyone's freedom or privacy). If all else fails, they will break off contact with you long before any real harm comes to them. No matter how much they may appear hurt, they would not continue at all if that were really the case--no one keeps touching a hot stove if it is really burning them, unless they are insane, but then there is little you can do to help them except refusing to continue debating with them, and asking them to get help. Above all, remember that especially in such forums, where you maintain a regular presence, you are an important ambassador of freethought. Your behavior reflects on us all, but above all, it reflects upon your own ideals and the moral value of your world view. Never forget that.