Want to have a conversation about worldviews? Maybe touching on religion, philosophy, or politics? It can be done, despite these topics being taboo for polite company. In fact, it can be done in a way that is respectful and without anyone raising their voice. There are three foundational items that you (not your conversation partner, you) can do to ensure a smooth conversation that leaves everyone wanting to come back to the topic!
Starting Realization: No one is converted with a single conversation
We must first realize a fundamental truth. It’s not what Hollywood or many pastors will tell you and it isn’t exactly a fun fact, but understanding it allows us to make progress.
Each person has years—decades!—of prior life experience, thinking, conversations, and indoctrination (both the good and bad kinds). You simply are not going to turn their world upside down and have a come-to-Jesus moment with a single conversation.
Sure, we love hearing about those kinds of stories, but those are a rarity. I think each of these kinds of stories actually were many small stories that went unnoticed and we simply see the big moment. In all of my years of conversations with people about philosophy and theology, none of them have changed their minds about anything significant with one conversation. Some have made very large changes after years of combined efforts from me and other sources, so change is possible, but not quickly.
Since you can’t change someone’s mind with a single conversation, we need to use tactics that target much smaller goals for each conversation.
1 – Ensure you can continue the conversation later
You do this by being friendly and by not pushing too hard for your point of view. No one likes someone who is unfriendly: unfriendliness leads to unfriending! Don’t impose your view! Invite them to explore your view with you and you can point out all the awesome things about it. Be open to criticism. Let them push back on your own view.
The entire point is to continue the conversation. If they drop a big, juicy fallacy that you can tear to shreds, it does nothing to change their minds if you do it in a disrespectful or unfriendly manner. In fact, it does more damage to you and your cause because you contribute to the stereotype that people who believe the way you do are unreasonable, intolerant, and are best left alone in their insanity.
Part of having a friendly conversation is to remember you might be wrong. Express that you might be wrong and emphasize that you want to try to find truth together. Do bring your best arguments for what you believe, but always express that you could be wrong. After all, you think your friend is wrong about whatever you are arguing about and you want him to change his mind (which is the same as admitting he’s wrong); he is expecting you to extend the same open-mindedness that you are expecting!
If you can show your friend that you aren’t going to go full-tilt hyper-fundamentalist on them by not shoving your view down their throats, you dramatically increase the likelihood they want to continue the conversation.
Be sure the conversation topic is something they are interested in, or tailor your examples so it is relevant to their circumstances. If your friend is bored by religion, either make religion interesting, or only bring it up interspaced with several other conversations (over the course of days, weeks, or even months) of other topics. Convincing people is a hard thing to do and it doesn’t happen overnight, so you’ll need to be in it for the long haul.
2 – Learn your friend’s actual beliefs
Ask many open-ended questions and allow your friend to express their own beliefs in their own words. Don’t assume they believe everything that is typically associated with a label.
If you don’t learn about your friend’s actual beliefs, you will talk past them. Your friend will realize you aren’t engaging with them; rather, you are engaging a figment of your imagination and doing a victory dance because you disproved an opinion they don’t hold.
For instance, if your friend says she is an atheist, don’t immediately assume she is philosophically certain a god does not exist. Ask how certain she is about the non-existence of a god and whether she thinks we could ever know for certain. Ask how she came to the conclusion of atheism. Don’t interrupt! Don’t assume she believes the same things as that one book on atheism you read. She doesn’t.
You must understand your friend’s beliefs before you can change their mind, so question and clarify without trying to change their mind. Acknowledge her good points—yes, atheists have good points.
Do not assume you know their motivations for their beliefs. If your friend is a Christian and you think that’s ridiculous, don’t assume your friend only believes because they are “scared of death”. Maybe they have good reasons for thinking Christianity is true. Maybe they are wrong, maybe they are correct. You will never know unless you listen to them and learn how they came to their conclusion.
Do not try to disprove or refute everything your friend says about their belief. Instead of trying to move the entire mountain in one conversation, here’s a better way.
3 – Have a small goal for each conversation
People don’t change their worldviews in a single conversation, but you can poke small holes in each conversation. Instead of trying to chop down the tree in one fell swoop, chip away at it. Find a small thing you can provide good arguments for and try to convince your friend of this small point. If your friend leaves the conversation having changed from “I believe pantheism is true” to “I believe pantheism is true, but there are some problems with it”, you have made a very small, but very significant victory.
You can always pick up the conversation later after you and your friend have had time to think and research. Perhaps they come back with good rebuttals and you can engage with those. Perhaps you find a good article that enables you to show other, similar problems that lead to a more general issue with pantheism.
Don’t forget that learning about their actual beliefs can be the entire goal of the conversation. Worldviews can be big and take time to explain. Wouldn’t you feel amazing if someone listened to you talk about your worldview?
To recap, here’s the strategy to change someone’s worldview with small steps:
- Being friendly enables more small steps through more conversations
- Learning your friend’s actual beliefs enables you to engage with them at a more real level
- Target some small goal to make small but significant progress in each conversation
Want to learn more about this approach?
I’ve learned this approach from the two books below, my mentors, and through talking with many people over the years. It takes practice, but it is really easy to do!
- Carnegie, Dale. “How to Win Friends & Influence People”. Originally published 1936, revised 1981.
- Koukl, Gregory. “Tactics; A Game Plan for Discussing Your Christian Convictions”. 2009.
- Jacobs, Alan. “How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds”. 2017.
Minor revisions on 30 June 2020.