What Radical Atheists Can Teach Us About Talking With Trump Voters
Three strategies nonbelievers use to dissuade the faithful.
Street epistemologists are cracking the code on sowing doubt in folks whose beliefs are grounded in faith, not fact. You can too.
A few months ago I was contacted by Anthony Magnabosco, a self-identified atheist and “street epistemologist” who noticed we both use a lot of the same persuasive strategies. He invited me to check out his YouTube channel. I did and was immediately impressed and enthralled by his dialogues with college students about their belief in God. Here’s one of his favorites (and mine).
Since then, I’ve learned a lot more about street epistemology and the work of people like Anthony. Street epistemology is a movement started by the philosopher Peter Boghossian, a professor at Portland State University and perpetual thorn-in-the-side of left-leaning academics everywhere. (If you’ve heard of him, it’s probably for his involvement in the “Grievance Studies Affair”.) The goal of the movement is “to apply the tools of philosophy in everyday conversations in order to encourage people to use reliable ways of forming beliefs.” Participants often focus on religion specifically because they view faith as a particularly corrosive and contagious epistemology (way of knowing).
Three great tips from street epistemologists
1. Don’t talk about what folks know — talk about how they know it.
Street epistemologists have a sophisticated understanding of the way religious beliefs are intertwined with a person’s sense of self and their social identity. They know when you take on someone’s belief in God, they are primed to experience the challenge as an attack on them, their friends, their families, and their communities.
For this reason, they’ve learned to avoid confrontation by going meta. Instead of talking about whether God exists, they talk about how they know God exists. It’s a subtle but profound shift in dialogue that allows people to lower their defenses enough to really reflect on their belief system.
When talking with Trump supporters, a similar shift can work wonders. Instead of discussing whether Trump is a good president, discuss how they know Trump is a good president. Like the faithful, the president’s supporters become less defensive when the conversation is framed around the foundations of their knowledge rather than the knowledge itself.
2. Ask people to rate their confidence in their beliefs.
Street epistemologists use scales to determine which tactics to deploy in any given conversation and to assess the effectiveness of their interventions. This is very similar to the motivational interviewing method I described in Flip Trump Voters the Easy Way. Since street epistemologists are atheists talking about religious faith, they often use the Dawkins Scale (shown below) or a more generic question like, how would you rate your faith in God on a scale from 0 to 10 where 0 is you are 100% certain God does not exist and 10 is you are 100% certain God does exist?
Common adaptations for Trump voters include:
- On a scale from 0 to 10, how certain are you that Trump is an honest man?
- On a scale from 0 to 100, how certain are you that Trump isn’t abusing his presidential power?
- On a scale from 0 to 10, how sure are you that Trump hasn’t committed any crimes while president?
- On a scale from 0 to 100, how certain are you that Trump’s campaign didn’t collude with Russia?
- On a scale from 1 to 7, how certain are you that Trump is doing everything he can to save people from the pandemic?
Once someone ranks their confidence on the scale, ask them, “Why didn’t you choose a higher number?” This puts them in the position of making arguments against supporting Trump so you don’t have to.
It’s also useful to ask this question again at the end of your conversation to see if there’s been any movement in a positive direction. If there was, you know you did something right and it will give you confidence to talk with more Trump voters in the future. And if there wasn’t, you can review the conversation to get ideas for how to do better next time.
3. Ask, “Under what conditions could your belief be false?”
Instead of telling folks their beliefs are wrong, street epistemologists ask them how they would know if their beliefs were wrong. This approach is advantageous because it:
- Reduces friction and negativity in the conversation by avoiding reactance, the natural human tendency to resist being controlled by others.
- Enlists the other person’s assistance in the search for truth so you don’t have to do all the work.
- Elicits standards for evaluating belief statements that you can circle back to during the conversation.
- Sows doubt by showing the foundations of their beliefs aren’t as solid as they thought.
In conversations with Trump voters, this question can take many forms:
- Under what conditions would you say you were wrong and Trump isn’t a good president?
- Under what conditions would you say you were wrong and Trump really is a liar?
- Under what conditions would you say Trump mishandled the pandemic?
- Under what conditions would you say you were wrong and Trump’s campaign really did collude with Russia?
- Under what conditions would you say you were wrong and Trump really should have been removed from office by the Senate?
Once the other person has articulated their standards, you can then begin looking for a source they trust to provide valid information to determine whether those standards are met.
Much more to learn
This article just brushes the surface of the street epistemology method. My favorite part of their approach is actually what comes after you do the three steps above, but it’s too much to address here. Hopefully I’ll cover that in an upcoming article. In the meantime, I recommend checking out Boghossian’s A Manual for Creating Atheists and downloading The Complete Street Epistemology Guide for free.
As always, let me know how your conversations are going. And, if you’re not having these conversations yet, ask yourself this: What’s worse, another four years of Donald Trump or an uncomfortable dialogue with someone who supports him? I think we all know the answer.
About the Author
Dr. Karin Tamerius is the founder of Smart Politics, a former psychiatrist, and an expert in political psychology who specializes in teaching progressives how to communicate more productively and persuasively with people across the political spectrum. Email her at: firstname.lastname@example.org.