Communicating Skepticism To Your Spouse

This is the first of a five-part series on the most effective ways to communicate skepticism to people within your social spheres. This was originally part of the “Raising Skeptics” workshop at The Amaz!ng Meeting 9 in Las Vegas.

I felt compelled to bring this message to TAM because I felt the arguments over tone (such as DBAD) were not directly helpful to skeptics who want better relationships with their family and community. Most previous arguments have focused on the best ways to communicate to the public, but have avoided more personal levels of communication. Within that context, it would be detrimental to take an aggressive approach to communicating skepticism because losing your audience would mean losing a loved one.

With that in mind, please take a look and consider these suggestions. For each category, I’ve solicited the help of an expert within that category. My first expert is an anonymous friend from Atlanta, GA. She is a skeptical activist, but her husband does not share her love of science and critical thinking. Her advice…

When we married, I was agnostic and he claimed to be an atheist, though I don’t know how he arrived at that conclusion – I don’t think it was by extensive reading or deep consideration.

I did much reading, thinking, and research to figure out my position. I was raised Methodist, and though I paid lip service to it, I always had doubts. I did a lot of reading in the Bible, and found that it didn’t seem to say what people claimed. In my youth, I had attended a college prep boarding school and had been required to attend some religious services each week, though they permitted you to choose which. I had many friends who were wiccans, and I went to some of their circles, but the whole thing seemed rather silly and self-conscious.

My husband and I even joined a church and I liked the social aspect, but though I felt like we fit in from a social standpoint, my hackles raised when we got an email urging us not to go see “The Golden Compass” because it didn’t agree with church teachings. I thought, “I’ll decide what movies I will and won’t see, as well as what to think about them, thank you very much.” I tried to believe. I really did. My rational mind kept getting in the way.

I read Francis Collins’ book and still didn’t understand how he could be a theist, and his argument went something like, “I believe because I believe.” Once I read “The God Delusion”, I decided that being an atheist was the only way to reconcile my science training and critical thinking with what I understood about reality. I had never met anyone (to my knowledge) who was an atheist, or at least had never really talked to one, but Dawkins’ logic was compelling.

My husband did not have science training, and sometime during all of this, he began meditating. I don’t really know when he graduated from just meditating to believing in contrails, UFOs, chakras, and most conspiracy theories. Honestly, I don’t even know what he believes, because he won’t tell me. I question, but he shuts down quickly. When alt med or fundamental misunderstandings of medicine are involved, I don’t let these go. Everything else I just quit bothering. Mostly. Having a rational discussion with someone who is not using reason is nearly impossible.

1)Conditional Compromises: Pick your battles wisely (altmed BS is going to require some education).

2) Put the Relationship First: Decide if you would rather have harmony or if you would rather be right.

3) Be crafty: Sometimes I explain principles of critical thinking to the kids within earshot of my husband, hoping he will hear. If he gets mad, I can point out that I wasn’t actually talking to him.

4) Take a gradual approach: Start with less threatening topics then perhaps build parallels with more sensitive topics- you can hope that the believer will extrapolate.

5) Be understanding and respectful: Confront differences frankly, but respectfully. Senses of humor REALLY help.

Thank you, Anonymous! I must say that I completely understand and relate to her experience because my wife was once a student of acupuncture, a type of medicine that lacks plausibility and evidence. One thing that I would add to the above recommendations by my friend would be that we should take care to avoid making fanboy references to every SGU podcast or Mr. Deity episode, and we should refrain from using debate rhetoric (“straw man”) when arguing with a spouse. It can be easy to forget that the rest of the world is not as excited about skepticism as we are. Unfortunately, skeptics live in an insular world that feeds upon it’s own internal drama.

What would you add? Let me know in the comments section.

2 Responses to Communicating Skepticism To Your Spouse

  1. Andrew Hall says:

    I agree about communicating skeptical principles in simplistic fashion. My 9 year old boy was grappling in his karate class and he was just turning his back to his opponent (a big no – no). In between matches I mentioned this to him and he did much better. In the car on the way home I mentioned that the need to means test ideas: Observe (I keep getting pinned by the other kid) – Hypothesis (The reason is thatI keep turning my back to the other kid) – Test (Don’t turn my back to my opponent) – Results (I win more).

  2. Julia says:

    My husband and I have somehow managed to find harmony despite that he is agnostic/anti-religion and I am (loosely) Christian. It’s probably because neither of us are sure we’re “right” that helps. He says (for him) that since God can neither be proven to exist or not exist that it gives both concepts a 50/50 chance and he will not take either stance until shown actual evidence of one or the other. I actually agree with that on a rational level but have chosen to believe in God on a philosophical level. My husband thinks that’s weird but it makes me happy and he likes that. So, I’m not sure how that works. Friends of both religious and atheist persuasions have marveled that it works and I don’t have the answer except that both of us admit we don’t have enough concrete evidence for an answer.

    We both believe the possibility of UFO’s is real, but most “evidence” is bunk. (hey sounds a lot like God!) but thankfully we agree on the stuff with really hard evidence like medicine and how so many alternatives are bunk.

    We explain things that way to our 7 year old daughter when she asks why Daddy won’t go to church with us – that it is a choice to believe in God because there is no evidence to support existence or not and that Daddy does not waste time on anything that can not be supported by scientific evidence. It is important to us that she question philosophical concepts like religion and remember that’s all they are – not empirical fact.

    So, we’re pretty lucky I guess that we are able to get along despite our extreme difference in the God area. And it helps we agree on all the other stuff that drive so many of us skeptics crazy. Although we don’t agree on politics either but that’s a different blog :)

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