Talking about religious beliefs can be a sensitive topic, especially when speaking with someone who doesn’t believe in God. However, by approaching the conversation with empathy, asking thoughtful questions, and focusing on shared values, you can have a meaningful dialogue.
If you’re short on time, here’s a quick answer to your question: Focus on finding common ground through shared values and ethics rather than trying to convince them of your beliefs. Ask open-ended questions to understand their perspective better.
Listen More Than You Speak
Ask Open-Ended Questions
When discussing beliefs with someone who doesn’t believe in God, it’s important to listen more than speak. Asking open-ended questions shows that you are interested in understanding the other person’s perspective. Here are some examples of open-ended questions to ask:
- What led you to develop your current beliefs about God?
- Have you always held these beliefs or did your perspective change over time? What caused that change?
- What do you find most convincing about your position on God’s existence?
- Are there any experiences, evidence, or arguments that could potentially modify your beliefs about God? If so, what?
Asking open and non-judgmental questions demonstrates respect for the other person’s views. It also gives you valuable insight into how they developed their perspective. Listening carefully shows that you genuinely want to understand, not just argue.
Find Areas of Common Ground
Even if you strongly disagree about core beliefs, you likely share some common values and desires with the other person. Finding areas of agreement helps establish mutual understanding and respect.
For example, you may both value:
- Compassion for those who suffer
- Social justice and taking care of the poor
- Intellectual humility and curiosity
- Human rights and dignity
Think about shared hopes or struggles as well. Most people want to lessen suffering in the world, connect with others, find meaning and purpose, and become the best versions of themselves. Focusing on common ground highlights our shared humanity despite different beliefs.
You could say: “Regardless of our beliefs about God, I think we both hope to make the world a little better in the ways we can.” This reminds the other person that you ultimately want similar things in life.
Finding common values builds bridges. You can have a thoughtful discussion despite profound disagreements on God’s existence.
Avoid Judgmental Language
Don’t Assume They’re Amoral
When discussing beliefs with a non-believer, it’s important not to make assumptions about their moral code. According to a 2022 Pew Research study, over 29% of U.S. adults consider themselves religiously unaffiliated.
Just because someone doesn’t ascribe to a particular faith doesn’t mean they lack principles or values. Assuming non-believers are amoral can come across as self-righteous and closed-minded, damaging open and thoughtful dialogue.
Rather than make character judgements, try asking thoughtful questions to understand their perspective. An open and curious attitude goes much further in building mutual understanding between people of differing beliefs.
Watch Your Tone and Word Choice
It’s important to be conscientious of how you phrase things when discussing complicated topics like faith and morality. Using accusatory or inflammatory language like “godless,” “heathen,” or “sinner” is more likely to put someone on the defensive rather shut down productive dialogue.
Instead, use neutral terms like “non-believer” or “secular person” which don’t carry judgmental connotations. Speaking respectfully and without condemnation or moral superiority makes for more open and thoughtful discussion of differing viewpoints.
It also helps to use “I” statements rather than definitive pronouncements. For example, “I believe in God because my faith brings me comfort and community” comes across less abrasively than “Anyone who doesn’t believe in God must lead empty, meaningless lives.”
Stating your personal experience avoids speaking in absolutes that can feel invalidating or disrespectful to others.
With sensitive topics, a little empathy, compassion, and conscientious word choice goes a long way. The goal should be to understand, not attack or condemn. This thoughtful approach makes for more constructive dialogue.
Focus on Ethics and Values
Discuss Shared Principles
When talking to someone who does not believe in God, it can be helpful to focus the discussion on shared ethics and values rather than theological differences. Most people, regardless of their beliefs about deities, care about being good, moral people.
Emphasizing our common humanity and desires to make the world better can create connection and understanding.
For example, almost everyone values traits like compassion, justice, honesty and courage. Highlighting that these virtues transcend any one religion can help find common ground. We can have thoughtful discussions about what living out such principles looks like in daily life without judging each other’s beliefs.
Seeking to understand the sources shaping another’s moral outlook, whether secular or religious, can breed insight and respect. We may discover overlap between the role of, say, reason and conscience in both atheist and faithful worldviews. This furthers dialogue about virtuous living.
Emphasize Doing Good Without Judgment
When engaging someone with different beliefs, focusing the dialogue on doing good works in the world can help avoid unproductive arguments. Rather than seeking to convince them of the “rightness” of your faith, talk about making a positive difference together.
Most secular and religious people aim in some way to reduce suffering and increase human flourishing. Instead of questioning each other’s motivations, we can discuss shared goals like feeding the hungry, healing the sick, pursuing justice for the oppressed.
Recognizing our common calling to love one another opens relationships centered on service rather judgment.
Highlight examples throughout history of interfaith cooperation addressing humanitarian crises. Suggest opportunities to volunteer together with local charities helping those in need. Making a tangible impact lets our shared values speak louder than our differences.
Be Honest But Gentle
Don’t Hide Your Beliefs
When talking to someone who doesn’t believe in God, it’s important to be honest about your own beliefs without being pushy or judgmental. Here are some tips:
- Don’t pretend to agree with the other person just to avoid conflict. Gently but firmly state your own perspective when relevant.
- Avoid speaking in absolutes. Phrase your beliefs as your personal opinions rather than facts everyone must accept. For example, “I believe God exists and loves us” rather than “God exists and you need to believe in Him.”
- Don’t feel like you need to win the argument or change the person’s mind. Your goal is to have a respectful dialogue where you can understand each other, not to convert them to your faith.
- If the other person asks you pointed questions about God or your beliefs, answer honestly but without getting defensive. Explain your beliefs matter-of-factly.
- Point out any common ground you share with the other person. For example, you may both value compassion, justice, or family. This can help highlight shared values despite different beliefs.
Being open about your faith doesn’t mean being pushy. Strive for mutual understanding and respect.
Phrase Opinions Gently
When talking to someone who doesn’t share your beliefs about God, it’s important to express your opinions in a gentle, thoughtful way to avoid causing unnecessary offense or tension.
- Avoid absolute language like “never” or “always.” Instead, use phrases like “In my experience…” or “From my perspective…”
- Talk about your own personal relationship with faith rather than making broad generalizations. Say “For me, faith in God is…” rather than “All Christians believe…”
- Use “I feel” statements rather than declarative statements. For example, “I feel God’s presence when I pray” rather than “God answers prayers.”
- Ask the other person questions about their beliefs and experiences. Don’t just talk about your own.
- If you must disagree, do so respectfully. You can politely say, “I have a different view on that…” rather than bluntly rejecting their opinion.
- Focus on areas of common ground and shared values. We all want purpose, compassion, peace in our lives.
Having dialogue with people of different beliefs expands our understanding. Be curious, not confrontational, and recognize that we all see the world through our own lens.
Know When to Change the Subject
Having a thoughtful discussion with someone who has different beliefs can be rewarding. However, if tensions start to rise or you sense the other person becoming offended, it’s best to politely change the subject (source). Here are some tips:
Look for Signs of Tension or Offense
Pay attention to the other person’s body language and tone of voice. If they start sounding irritated, folding their arms, avoiding eye contact, or shuffling restlessly, they may feel attacked. This is the time to gently steer the conversation elsewhere.
You could say something like “I appreciate you sharing your perspective. Anyway, have you seen any good movies lately?”
Redirect to a Neutral Topic
Bring up a neutral subject that you both can relate to, like sports, cooking, work, or the weather (avoid politics or other controversial issues). Talk about plans for the weekend, ask how their family is doing, or make an observational comment about something going on around you.
The key is to give the previous topic a respectful exit and move to safer ground.
With care and consideration on both sides, differences in belief don’t have to damage relationships. However, know when a productive discussion is turning unproductive and be ready to change course.
Having an open and thoughtful discussion about religious beliefs requires empathy, curiosity, and care on both sides. By listening more than speaking, finding common ground, and watching your tone, you can have a meaningful conversation with someone who doesn’t believe in God.
The goal isn’t to convince them of your position but rather to understand each other better.
With patience and understanding, you may just find you have more in common than you think when it comes to ethics and values.