“Being nice does not make you correct.” This statement was recently lobbed at me and is one I absolutely agree with. Niceness has little to no real bearing on whether an assertion is actually correct. Now that I’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s try the following: “Being a jerk does not make you correct.” Asking which is a better approach is the wrong question. There isn’t a specific propriety of conversational behavior that is a panacea to all our conversational woes. Each conversation—indeed, every person you have ever conversed with—is different. Certainly there will be plenty of topical similarities between various people, especially when discussing issues of religion, atheism, skepticism, et cetera. What varies in this scenario are the participants. Different people with differing perspectives, approaches and personalities. So why is it that suddenly the concept of being nice is viewed poorly as you approach a discussion right out of the conversational gate? I don’t have to respect or agree with their belief/idea in order to be nice to someone. So, what gives?
The reciprocal “golden rule” is something that might immediately come to mind. “One should treat others as one would like others to treat oneself.” This idea translates in the the conversational sphere between two people of differing views—treat people with a modicum of humanity and respect, and you may get it in return. It is also noteworthy to realize that words have the ability to cause as much psychological sway as a fist has physical sway to dislocating a jaw. But, that’s not always the biggest issue at play. The problem many of us face is framing the dialogue in such a way that can strip the humanity from someone because they don’t agree with you. Again, this isn’t about whether you are correct or not, because you very well could be. It simply is a reminder to think back to the golden rule – a reminder of how you initially present yourself and your argument. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you won’t/can’t change the framing of your argument later, however. I’m simply arguing for leading with a modicum of courtesy when you begin a discussion. I would even go so far to say that framing your position and yourself in a jerk-ish manner from the start won’t bode well with providing as much information to others with whom you are attempting open dialogue. It also won’t do well for those who are your target audience either. This is completely different than accommodating a person’s position. Let’s also get this out of the way now and cement this before it gets carried away: being nice does not mean that you accommodate an idea to which you disagree. One can disagree with someone, yet remain respectful to them or at least attempt to do so. Being nice or respectful has nothing to do with giving preferential treatment to someone either, especially when one treats others, regardless of belief, in a respectful manner equally. The difficulty is when so many personally identify their idea/belief as themselves. The best option, I’ve found, is to remind them that attacking their idea or belief does not mean that you are attacking them as a person. For all you know, they could be swell and nice people, but just do good things for the wrong reasons.
No two arguments are ever quite the same. My method of framing is to remain malleable based on the intent, content, and nature of the argument. However, I will always initially strive to be nice with others, and attempt to keep the dialogue as open as possible. Which leads me to the final stretch of this article and part of the title, skepticism to cynicism. Skepticism is not cynicism. A skeptic strives to question the veracity of claims without evidence. A cynic leads with distrust and contempt. A skeptic consistently examines the value of information they have. A cynic habitually looks on the dark side of things. Being skeptical of religious claims, pseudoscientific claims, or any manner of superstition, is not being cynical. I am not necessarily leading with distrust or disparaging the motives of a person before they are even given. I know what you are thinking, that my knowledge of a topic influences my decision. Of course, why wouldn’t it? I have acquired knowledge, and I can utilize that knowledge to the benefit of the discussion. But, this is a far cry from contempt or distrust of someone who thinks they mean well, even if they are wrong. I just prefer to not act like a jerk about it.
I’m going to be nice, because that’s who I am. Being nice to someone with whom I disagree does not mean I am accommodating their belief. Being nice to someone with whom I disagree does not mean I am giving preferential treatment. One of the biggest struggles we atheists face is gaining acceptance and understanding. What happens when atheists remove the stigma and misconceptions surrounding them? What happens when I can start demonstrating that I am good without the belief in a god? Well, I think that’s when people will start questioning their own beliefs independently. That all starts with a simple smile, hopefully a hug, and the words “Hello, I’m an atheist.”