My usual reaction when confronted by a religious person who tries to convert me so as to “save my soul” is one of disgust and perhaps even contempt. I think the reaction of most irreligious people is similar. I mean, is the religious person insulting my intelligence with his fairy tales? What business is it of theirs anyway?!
Well, reading a little about nonviolent communication is making me reconsider this stance, as one thing is for sure – while it is easy to feel insulted and become frustrated with someone, it definitely achieves no good for anyone. The other person remains religious, you remain irreligious, and the relationship between the two of you is now mired by misunderstanding, tension, and maybe even hate.
How would I approach this from an NVC perspective? I can’t speak for anyone else, or for what the “proper” way is, but here’s how I would try to react.
First, I would thank the person. Clearly they are concerned for my well-being enough that they wish to save me from eternal damnation or whatever else is in store for nonbelievers. Even though I don’t believe the religious person’s stories, they do, and regardless of how ridiculous I may feel they are, they’ve very real to the other person.
Second, I would ask the religious person what need they are satisfying by believing in life after death. I assume that most people believe in fairy tales promising them eternal life because of a fear of death. Death is scary – so rather than face the reality of an end to our existence, some people choose to bury their heads in mythology. I’m not sure what the underlying need is – perhaps safety? Security?
Either way, by acknowledging and empathizing with the other person’s fear of death, we’re now almost on the same page. The religious person has a fear of death (who doesn’t?), and because in his experience religious belief has allayed that fear to some degree, he is trying to help me out by bringing this curative balm to my attention.
The religious person, assuming they honestly believe in what they’re preaching, is not trying to brainwash me – they’re trying to help me satisfy my need for security. Now that I’ve understood this and communicated my understanding to the other person, I can tell him that I too am afraid of death, but I choose to deal with it in another way.
First, I recognize that while our bodies are indeed mortal, the memories and impressions we leave upon other people and this world are far less so. Even after death, we can live on in the memories of our friends and relatives, and perhaps random strangers. If we write a particularly good book or commit some act of heroism, we may very well be remembered generations after our death. Aristotle has been dead for over two millennia, and yet his contributions to philosophy continue to influence our world today. Of course, not everyone is remembered in a positive light – some people are hated almost universally for their deeds. I suppose that in a way this is our reward or punishment after death, a heaven or a hell. Try to do good by people and you may live on for decades after your material body has sent it’s last electrical impulse.
Lastly, I also have a need for truth in my life, and I know that no amount of convincing will stop me from being skeptical of any religious beliefs I were to adopt. This means that my fear of death would not be fully allayed because I would doubt the religious cure I have chosen. Moreover, the further I adopt religious beliefs, the less my need for truth would be satisfied. I would essentially be putting myself into a situation of heavy cognitive dissonance, believing things I know not to be true in an attempt to feel better about my mortality.
It’s not just a fear of death
Having said all of this, fear of death is by far not the only reason people turn to religion. Community and a sense of belonging stemming from a need to be respected, appreciated, and listened to, as well as a need for interconnectedness, can all be satisfied by religious communities. This is especially true for people who come from abusive backgrounds in which they never received the love or nurturing care that they should have as a child, and perhaps their new-found religious community is the first time they have managed to meet that need.
I imagine there are many things religious people are uncomfortable discussing with others around them, but which they have no problem talking to god about. This is just their way of meeting their need to be heard.
Having also a need to help others meet their needs, it is not surprising that they wish to share their religious solution with us.
But there is a difference between interconnectedness and religion, and the need for the former does not require the latter. Perhaps theological discussions between theists and atheists would fare much better if the focus on science and facts were replaced with a focus on meeting people’s needs in healthier ways – ways that don’t require belief in unproven and unprovable entities.