Religion is an extremely touchy topic. Church members often become angry if anyone questions their supernatural dogmas - Bertrand Russell said this is because they subconsciously sense that their beliefs are irrational - so I try to avoid confrontations that can hurt feelings. Nearly everyone wants to be courteous.
But sometimes disputes can't be avoided. If you think the spirit realm is imaginary, and if honesty makes you say so, you may find yourself under attack. It has happened to many doubters: Thomas Jefferson was called a "howling atheist." Leo Tolstoy was labeled an "impious infidel."
Well, if you wind up in a debate, my advice is: Try to be polite. Don't let tempers flare, if you can help it. Appeal to your accuser's intelligence.
I've hatched some questions you may find useful. They're designed to show that church members, even the most ardent worshipers, are skeptics, too because they doubt every magical system except their own. If a churchman berates you, perhaps you could reply like this:
You're an unbeliever, just like me. You doubt many sacred dogmas. Let me show you:
Millions of Hindus pray over statues of Shiva's penis. Do you think there's an invisible Shiva who wants his penis prayed over or are you a skeptic?
Mormons say that Jesus came to America after his resurrection. Do you agree or are you a doubter?
Santerķa worshipers sacrifice dogs, goats, chickens, etc., and toss their bodies into waterways. Do you think Santerķa gods want animals killed or are you skeptical?
Muslim suicide bombers who blow themselves up are taught that "martyrs" instantly go to a paradise full of lovely female houri nymphs. Do you think the bombers now are in heaven with houri or are you a doubter?
Unification Church members think that Jesus visited Rev. Sun Myung Moon and told him to convert all people as "Moonies." Do you believe this sacred tenet of the Unification Church?
Jehovah's Witnesses say that, any day now, exactly 144,000 of them will be physically lifted to heaven, where they will reign with Jesus Christ. Do you believe this solemn teaching of their church?
Aztecs skinned maidens and cut out human hearts for a feathered serpent-god. What's your stand on invisible, feathered serpents? Aha! just as I suspected, you don't believe.
Catholics are taught that the Communion wafer and wine magically become the actual, literal body and blood of Jesus during chants and bell-ringing. Do you believe in the "real presence" or are you a disbeliever?
Faith-healer Ernest Angley says he has the power, described in the Bible, to "discern spirits," which enables him to see demons inside sick people and to see angels hovering at his revivals. Do you believe this religious assertion?
The Bible says that people who work on the Sabbath must be killed: "Whosoever doeth any work in the sabbath day, he shall surely be put to death" (Exodus 31:15). Should we execute Sunday-workers or do you doubt this scripture?
At a golden temple in West Virginia, saffron-robed worshipers think they'll become one with Lord Krishna if they chant "Hare Krishna" enough. Do you agree or do you doubt it?
Members of the Heaven's Gate commune said they could "shed their containers" (i.e., their bodies) and be transported to a UFO behind the Hale-Bopp comet. Do you think they're now on that UFO or are you a skeptic?
During the witch hunts, inquisitor priests tortured thousands of women into confessing that they blighted crops, had sex with Satan, etc. then executed them for it. Do you think the Church was right to enforce the Bible's command, "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live" (Exodus 22:18) or do you doubt this scripture?
Members of Spiritualist churches say they talk with the dead during their worship services. Do you think they actually communicate with spirits of deceased people?
Millions of American Pentecostals spout "the unknown tongue," a spontaneous outpouring of sounds. They say it's the Holy Ghost, the third part of the Trinity, speaking through them. Do you believe this sacred tenet of many Americans?
Scientologists say each human has something akin to a soul, which is a "Thetan" that came from another planet. Do you believe their doctrine or doubt it?
Ancient Greeks thought a multitude of gods lived on Mt. Olympus and some of today's New Agers think invisible Lemurians live inside Mt. Shasta. What's your position on mountain gods belief or disbelief?
In the mountains of West Virginia, some people obey Christ's farewell command that true believers "shall take up serpents" (Mark 16:18). They pick up rattlesnakes at church services. Do you believe this scripture, or not?
India's Thugs thought the many-armed goddess Kali wanted them to strangle human sacrifices. Do you think there's an invisible goddess who wants people strangled or are you a disbeliever?
Tibet's Buddhists say that when an old Lama dies, his spirit enters a baby boy who's just being born somewhere. So they remain leaderless for a dozen years or more, then they find a boy who seems to have knowledge of the old Lama's private life, and they anoint the boy as the new Lama (actually the old Lama in a new body). Do you think that dying Lamas fly into new babies, or not?
In China in the mid-1800s, a Christian convert said God appeared to him, told him he was Jesus' younger brother, and commanded him to "destroy demons." He raised an army of believers who waged the Taiping Rebellion that killed as many as 20 million people. Do you think he was Christ's brother or do you doubt it?
Etc., etc. You get the picture.
I'll bet there isn't a church member anywhere who doesn't think that all those supernatural beliefs are goofy except for the one he believes.
You see, by going through a laundry list of theologies, I think you can establish that the average Christian doubts 99 percent of the world's holy dogmas. Of course the 1 percent he believes is really no different than the rest. It's all a system of miraculous claims without any reliable evidence to support it.
So, if we can show people that some sacred "truths" are nutty, maybe subconscious logic will seep through, and they'll realize that if some magical beliefs are irrational, all may be.
This progression is rather like a scene in the poignant Peter de Vries novel The Blood of the Lamb. A gushy woman compliments a Jew because "your people" reduced the many gods of polytheism to just one god. The man dourly replies: "Which is just a step from the truth."
Meanwhile, it's encouraging to realize that almost everyone in the world is a skeptic at least about other people's religion.
"We are each free to believe what we want, and it's my view that the simplest explanation is: There is no god. No one created the Universe, and no one directs our fate. This leads me to a profound realization; there is probably no heaven and no afterlife, either. We have this one life to appreciate the grand design of the Universe. And for that, I am extremely grateful." -- Professor Stephen Hawking, cosmologist