Using Street Epistemology with Loved Ones

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People who have become familiar with SE-related content contact me frequently over social media and ask if I have any advice before they use this method with a loved one: their spouse, kids, parents, co-worker, dear friend, etc. I usually pass along a few pointers, but always think to myself, "I really need to write a detailed article about this so I can just send them a link."

Well, this is that blog post.

I’ve had a few SE-inspired talks with close family and friends, and I wish we had agreed in advance to record it. The discussions were just as profound, revealing, and emotional as the ones you can find on my YouTube channel.

To date, every Street Epistemology-based conversation I have filmed and uploaded has been with strangers, usually someone that I have just met for the very first time. The talks are also what I call "interview style." That is, they are less a back-and-forth conversation and are carried out more like an inquisitive researcher interviewing an energetic subject.

Throw in a clipboard, a timer, and perhaps a video recorder, and you get the idea.

Personally, I absolutely enjoy conducting “street” Epistemology where the talks are initiated. I never know what belief a person will choose to discuss or which direction the talk will go. I also get to hone my skills, and it’s incredibly rewarding when your interlocutor later exclaims, “That was the best talk I’ve had with someone in a very long while!”

Situational Awareness

While the approach of SE with family and friends is the same as strangers—focus on the "how" and less on the "what" and "why"—the dynamics are drastically different. Strangers (particularly if they are being recorded) will often be more wary of your objectives. After all, you probably just met and have only spent a few minutes getting to know each other, if that.

For some, speaking with family members is advantageous; you’ve built rapport over countless hours, can easily read each others’ body language, and the chance of meeting again to resume the discussion at a later time is high.

People who are close to you will also have a much better idea of who you are: your history, what you believe, and perhaps even what you think of their beliefs. This can get further complicated if you attempted to discuss their beliefs in the past and things became heated. Even if your previous discussions didn't go well, I still think most people can recover from that by shifting gears and employing a little "off-street" epistemology.

Sometimes, simply acknowledging your past difficulties and offering to revisit the subject from another approach could be all it takes to re-engage with your mom who thinks the Bible is true because it is without error. Giving it another try using SE could possibly begin to repair a relationship that may have been damaged by more confrontational approaches.

For example, how would your loved one react if you said, “I realize things got a little difficult the last time we chatted about this, but if you’re okay with it, I’d like to have a more respectful dialogue. Essentially, ask questions to better understand your position. Would that be acceptable?" If they demur, feel free to explain that you’d like to try using Street Epistemology. Don’t hesitate to tell them all they want to learn about the method; there is nothing to hide.

Remember that SE works best when you are being neutral. Of course, with family members and friends, they'll probably know your position on the topic at hand so it may be difficult to assure them that you will try your best to be open to their views. Acknowledge your biases (we all have them) and clarify your goals. For example, “While I don’t believe in any Gods, I really want to understand how you concluded that your belief is true. I’m willing to set aside my views as best I can in order to sincerely hear you out.”

A good way to demonstrate your commitment to being impartial is to share a time when you believed something, but later learned that you were mistaken. For example, explain how uneasy you felt when you were incorrect about something, and later, how great it felt when you no longer held that mistaken belief. By framing the discussion as a joint effort to discover truth, you may find that the resulting conversation brought everyone involved closer together.

Another factor to consider is the venue where you plan to have your discussion. Would a coffee shop be better than a long-distance car ride? What kind of noisy distractions might disrupt your talk? Will other people be around to interject and possibly throw things off-track?

In my experience, a one-on-one talk in a quiet location without tight time constraints will yield the best results. This allows you both to set the pace, take breaks, and let the discussion unfold naturally. If possible, turn off the electronics and dedicate yourselves to a leisurely, uninterrupted conversation.

While a quiet place is ideal, you may not have this luxury and will just have to work with your environment. Perhaps Mom’s phone rings just as you were about to ask your most thought-provoking question, or Sister’s baby wakes up and is ready for his feeding. Your friend’s car alarm starts to go off. When/if these things happen, jot down where you left off and try to resume the dialogue or schedule another time to meet again.

Keep in mind that Street Epistemology works best when people take time to think about the talk on their own, so don’t get discouraged if you have to wrap things up unexpectedly.

Raised Stakes

A botched conversation with a stranger, while awkward, can be easily forgotten. It can be merely a blip on the radar, or an experience that helps you improve for the next talk, becoming something you can laugh about later.

However, when it comes to the people you know, love, and/or care about, the stakes are much, much higher. Your marriage, your relationship with kids, your job—everything that you have surrounded yourself with over the years could be at risk by deciding to have a talk about your loved one's deeply-held belief, be it about a God, law of attraction, karma, conspiracy theories, politics, etc.

So first, before proceeding, you need to be honest with yourself about your objectives: What am I hoping to accomplish here? Why do I care what they believe? What’s the worst-case scenario? What is my definition of a successful talk? Is the potential fallout worth the effort? Can I be true to myself if we don’t conduct this much-needed conversation? Is their belief a deal-breaker in our relationship? Can I learn to accept their belief and move on?

These are just a few of the many questions one must honestly ponder before deciding to engage a loved one on their cherished belief using Street Epistemology.

And remember that this conversation is not just about you. The discussion includes a person you likely care very deeply about. While identifying your personal goals beforehand is wise, continue to cater the discussion to the needs of your interlocutor. This is an effort to understand their methodology and discover together if it is as sturdy as they have come to believe.

Another option to consider before talking with the important people in your life is to practice beforehand. There are a ton of Street Epistemology training resources available today.

Familiarize yourself with the growing number of video examples of SE on YouTube. Read the Street Epistemology Guide. Install the Atheos app on your mobile device. Having co-facilitated more than 10 group sessions over video chat, I have found that role-play is a great way to prepare yourself for a discussion with a loved one. I suspect you could easily find somebody in the Private Street Epistemology Facebook Group who is willing to conduct a mock SE session while you pretend to be your spouse, or vice-versa.

Too Hot to Handle

Sometimes the belief in question is just too sensitive to bring up, even after cautiously considering all of the suggestions listed above. This is completely understandable, so don’t be too hard on yourself if you are in this predicament. It’s very common.

I’ve been told of situations where the mere idea of suggesting a conversation about a loved one’s God belief resulted in tears and nights on the couch. Beliefs in a deity are particularly tricky because they are so closely tied to one’s own self-identity. Questioning your husband’s belief in Jesus can be perceived as a direct attack on who he is as a person. This is not limited to him; others who share his belief may see your inquiry as a direct threat to who they are as people.

When the circumstances are this delicate, I suggest setting aside the sensitive topics for the time being and have a Socratic discussion about safer claims: Why do you think red cars get more speeding tickets than other ones? What made you think this pizza place has faster service than their other location? How did you conclude this lucky rabbit’s foot would help sell our car? Could bringing sand home from Hawaii really put a curse on our family?

Starting with benign, everyday beliefs will not only help your loved one begin to become accustomed to examining the beliefs they hold, but you will also become more proficient with your questions. Your best friend is far less likely to close down in a conversation about why she believes paper bags are better for the environment than plastic ones, because her identity is probably not tied to the belief. These exchanges will likely help her become more comfortable with your method of inquiry, particularly if you have several discussions on a variety of safer topics.

If selecting beliefs to examine that your interlocutor holds cuts too close to the bone, still try to have a discussion together, but make it about someone else: What are your thoughts about the new signage they put up at the store? Do you think Jim’s claim that he can cut his lawn faster with his new lawn mower is true? Why do you think our new neighbors decided to become Wiccans?

After a few talks like this, encourage your interlocutor to “turn the tables” and respectfully challenge you on a belief. You could even agree to pick a belief that you once had, and role-play what that conversation might have looked like. Model the openness and curiosity you would like to see in your friend, and ask her afterwards what she thought about the exchange. Over time, your loved ones may begin to start performing “self-interventions” when they are alone with their thoughts, and may become more open to the idea of examining their sensitive core beliefs.

Resist the temptation to fast-track this process. It could take years to encourage your spouse or friend—particularly if they have been discouraged to question things in the past—to value and use Socratic inquiry. Always be on the lookout for opportunities in your everyday activities to re-introduce critical thinking and introspective inquiry.

It’s also important to reward your partner’s skepticism when you notice it. But don’t go overboard; you don’t want to come across as condescending. Try to find that perfect response that acknowledges when they expressed doubt on a claim, but don’t make too big a deal out of it. Something simple might be all you need. For example: “Hmm. That’s a great question, honey. I also wonder how they determined that this toothpaste reduced cavities by 30 percent!”

If you have children, you can easily turn their inquisitiveness into a fun learning experience. Something as simple as, “Hey kids! I just saw a flying saucer land in the park across the street!” could lead to an hour of fun dialogue where you encourage them to question your claim.

Leverage Community

Finally, take advantage of the growing secular community that is getting behind Street Epistemology. Support groups like Recovering from Religion (RFR) have offered SE resources to people looking for ways to have more productive talks with believers. RFR has a wonderful phone and chat service where you can talk with a trained volunteer who will listen and be a sounding board for your concerns.

Many atheists familiar with SE are married to believers, they work with believers, and have friends and family who are believers. In an effort to bring people who have more experience with these sensitive situations together with folks who are just starting to get into it, a “secret” Facebook Group has been created. This group is a wonderful community for non-believers looking to have more effective talks with the loved ones in their lives, and I urge you to consider joining by emailing to start the application process.

Please contact me directly if you found this article lacking in any way. Going forward, this post is where I will direct people who contact me when they are are looking for ways to talk to their loved one about their deeply-held beliefs. I am completely open to adding comments below as an addendum every so often as new suggestions come up. Helping me to identify any gaps here will likely benefit many people who read this post in the years to come.

Anthony Magnabosco is an agnostic atheist and a regular practitioner of Street Epistemology.