This past Sunday I stumbled upon a speech by a fellow named Phil Plait from a 2010 conference called “The Amaz!ng Meeting 8” (that’s not a typo, by the way—that’s how they write it). I had never heard of Plait or TAM before, but I found a lot of value in what he had to say.
Turns out Plait is a noted skeptic and atheist. An astronomer by training (he worked on the Hubble Space Telescope), he writes the popular science blog, Bad Astronomy (I don’t know where he stands on abortion, but I’m willing to bet he’s pro-choice). TAM is an annual meeting that focuses on science, skepticism and atheism.
It may seem strange for a Catholic pro-life activist like me to be taking advice from a world-famous atheist, but Plait offers some keen insight on how people think and how we can reach them.
A Hard Sell
Plait admits that the human brain is “wired for faith” and that therefore skepticism is a “hard sell”—and that’s where what he has to say becomes so relevant for us pro-lifers.
The pro-life message is similarly a hard sell. We’re calling on people to make tremendous sacrifices, to radically alter the way they live their lives, to exercise a degree of self-control that many of them can scarcely even imagine.
Plait is talking to fellow skeptics—who for the most part are also, like him, atheists—about how they can effectively convince people give up their faith in everything from UFOs to homeopathy to the existence of God. He’s deeply troubled by the tone of discourse between skeptics and believers, which he calls “appalling”:
Instead of relying on the merits of the arguments, which is what critical thinking and evidence-based reasoning is about, it seems that vitriol and venom are on the rise.
He asks his audience if they’ve ever changed their minds about something they used to believe in, and then asks them if they did so “because somebody got in your face, screaming, and called you an idiot, brain-damaged, and a retard?”
This was a question that I thought we pro-lifers should be asking ourselves. Too often, I see (and hear about) pro-lifers trying to advance our cause in a way that is disrespectful of others—an “in your face” approach. But it doesn’t work.
Plait argues that taking the “high road” in conversations with those who we disagree with us on issues we’re passionate about isn’t a sign of weakness, but on the contrary a sign of strength—advice we pro-lifers should heed, too.
Wanted: Diplomats, Not Warriors
Here’s the “money quote” of Plait’s talk:
In times of war, we need warriors. But this isn’t a war. You might try to say it is, but it’s not a war. We aren’t trying to kill an enemy. We’re trying to persuade other humans. And at times like that, we don’t need warriors, what we need are diplomats.
I’ll admit that I often use martial language in talking about the abortion issue and our struggle to restore the right to life of unborn children—talk of “prayer warriors” and our “battle to end abortion.”
But Plait’s exhortation reminds me that these are only metaphors. Our “battles” are spiritual; here on the ground we need to be diplomats, and to always keep in mind that our purpose isn’t to “score points” but to persuade people to agree with us about the value of life in the womb.
What Is Your Goal?
Always ask yourself what your goal is. Is this argument necessary? What is your goal? What are you trying to accomplish? Before you talk, before you leave a comment, . . . before you raise your hand, before you sign that email, ask yourself: is this going to help? Is this going to allow me to achieve my goal? And you also need to ask yourself: will this impede me from achieving my goal? Is this just to make me feel better, or am I trying to change the world?
This is great advice for anyone who wants to change the world.
Plait’s talk at TAM 8 is entitled at Vimeo—where it has earned 60,000 views—with an unfortunate vulgarism that he uses at one point, so I link to it with some reluctance. But he has so much great advice about how to dialog with one’s ideological opponents that, with that warning, here it is.
Much of what Plait has to say resonates with the advice I give in the Pro-Life Action League’s Sharing the Pro-Life Message handbook, with my “10 guidelines for sharing the pro-life message”—advice like “always be respectful,” “seek common ground” and “pick your battles.”
It seems that both sides of the ideological divide are recognizing a need for greater civility. That’s an encouraging development, and I hope that skeptics and believers alike will heed what Phil Plait (and I) have to say.