Approaching religious belief from an NVC perspective

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.

7 thoughts on “Approaching religious belief from an NVC perspective”

  1. As a former full-time religious evangelizer, I can attest that a need that was met by my preaching was that of the “pay-off” of doing what I believed to be the right thing. I tried to convert others because it was “the right thing to do.”
    We reasoned that if we had something as valuable as the road to eternal life, what kind of person would we be to only keep it to ourselves?
    It also felt good to believe that we were obeying someone higher up than us, someone who knew better than us what was good for us. It is human to want to please others. Obedience was one way to accomplish that.
    People are religious for multitudes of reasons, emotional pay-off being one of them. You mentioned quite a few others. All these combined help make humans flourish. Granted, religiosity can bring bad values as well.
    But then again, what belief system can claim a monopoly on good results? I’ve yet to see one, including non-belief or secularism. Thus I am stuck with a form of agnosticism – I believe in things beyond me, or at least I think I do. I have many doubts and always will. I believe but I don’t. At least I am comfortable with the fact I may never find a completely satisfying answer. Some things are ok to be unknowable.

    1. Thanks for your input Beth, it is well-appreciated. I have settled on a kind of agnostic atheism in which I generally lack belief in the supernatural but agree that some answers (especially depending on how you phrase the question) are either inherently unknowable or at least unknowable with our current level of technology or enlightenment. And that’s okay, the universe would not be anywhere near as exciting a place if we knew all of its secrets, right?

      Looking at the list of universal human needs in my NVC book, under the category of interdependence is “contribution to the enrichment of life”, which I’m guessing is the need you were satisfying by helping others find a way to eternal life?

      Re: good results, I think a belief system or philosophy revolving around the non-aggression principle would have pretty good results, and in many ways most people already believe on a fundamental level that theft, rape, murder, etc., is wrong, but apply it inconsistently in their personal lives and political viewpoints. Although this isn’t really a religious belief so much as a core set of ethical principles.

      1. There is no such thing as agnostic atheism. You are either an atheist who makes an assertion that only the material world exists or you are not making an assertion either way.

        I’m shocked by your uneducated and illogical writings. You don’t even understand the terms you are using..
        English a second language for you , perhaps?

        1. There is no such thing as agnostic atheism.

          Yes, there is.

          You are either an atheist who makes an assertion that only the material world exists

          That’s not what “atheist” means. An atheists does not believe gods exist. That’s it — it does NOT necessarily require materialism.

          I’m shocked by your uneducated and illogical writings.

          Says the idiot currently trolling friendlyatheist

  2. To have true understanding of religion one would understand that if the earth and this universe is the only thing, then there is nothing to live for. If there’s no higher power why are we on this earth? What is the point of this organism known as humanity, it would be survival. If the purpose of being a human is survival then why don’t we betray one another and be selfish. This is because of our empathy. The forgiveness in human heart, collective consciousness, empathy and infinite intelligence which are some things that make us human. At the very beginning of programming the mind and at the very first humans how would this empathy and human qualities be developed. It couldn’t have been developed on accident it had to be programmed by a higher power. If there truly was no higher power, humanity wouldn’t exist due to no empathy being created. If there was no empathy we would all be dead and everyone would be betrayed. I’m not forcing an opinion on anyone I’m simply displaying my thought pattern. There has to be a higher power otherwise humanity as we know it today wouldn’t exist. P.S. I really liked the open mindedness during your process.

  3. I am a believer & it’s not due to fear of death. I just disagree with your assertion on that. To me I see that as your projection onto the believer. You can think whatever you like about if there is a God or not. I personally see more evidence of the existence of God than not. I have in the past had my doubts, & it made me do a lot of research & looking at my own thought process. I still ended my search with belief. Having said that, I appreciate your attitude not to engage in ridicule. I wish people would reason together more.

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