How do I Question a Religious Fanatic and Open Their Mind?

A Whackadoodle discussion in which my student and I attempt to answer our first Dear Navigator question. How does one open the mind of a religious fanatic who has been radicalized?

By Lynn Marie Sager

“We finally got one,” she informed me as soon as I opened my door for our tutoring session.

“Got one what?” I asked as she pushed past my arm and headed excitedly to the dining room table where we held our lessons.

“We got a question from one of our blog followers. It means people are starting to pay attention.”

“Cool,” I offered following her. “What’s the question?” I asked to the back of her head. “How can I get along with my boyfriend?”

“No, it’s actually pretty cool,” she informed me pulling out her cell phone. “I was reading it on my way here. The guy with the question sent a link along with his question. The link was for an article from this Medium writer named…ugh, I forget.” She looked down at her cell phone and punched a few links. “His name is Walter Rhein, and he wrote this article about the right to privacy and needing to fight back against something he calls the politics of cruelty.”

“And the actual question from our questioner?” I prompted.

“Well the guy asking the question writes,” and she began to read me the question.

I remember little old ladies from my folk’s church coming up to me and saying that they were praying for me. Although I did not realize it at the time, they were obviously referring to my refusal to get baptized. Even then, I’ve never allowed anyone to tell me what to think. They ended up driving me out of my folk’s church (thank you). So my question is this. How do you question a religious fanatic in a way that opens their minds? I am so naïve in thinking what I say, based on science, can change anyone. I think the author of the article that I have included is spot on. I think the core cause of hatred is religious indoctrination. I’ve got the cause. How do I influence the effect? I look forward to your post.

A Dear Navigator question

“Wow,” I said dryly. “That question won’t be hard to answer.” I sat down, and prepared to be there for a while. “What was the name of Walter Rhein’s article?” I asked.

Restoring the Right to Abortion Is Not Enough, We Must Fight the Politics of Cruelty,” she recited promptly.

“Can you summarize it for me?” I requested, closing my eyes.

“It was actually really interesting,” she informed me. “But if I was to summarize it, I suppose I would say,” her brows came together as they did whenever she was thinking deeply. “I would say that the author was really sick and tired of, as he says, ‘Getting lectured by hypocrites and liars who claim they speak for God.’ He blames what he calls white Christianity for causing what he thinks is a tipping point for our country. He says…” She made a few more clicks on her cell phone and read, “‘It could go either way. Either sanity could be restored, our rights could be returned, and powerful criminals might be sent to jail, or, we will be stuck living the rest of our lives under theocratic oppression.’ He goes on to add that he is tired of being oppressed by religious fanatics, and that, ‘Obedience to religious authority is so deeply ingrained into all Americans that you don’t even recognize how effectively you’ve been brainwashed.’”

“That should get him some feedback,” I commented.

“He spends a lot of time citing examples about how white Christianity doesn’t really teach us to love our neighbors. He says that white Christianity as practiced today is close minded and cruel. Making children have the babies of their rapists. Making LGBTQ kids go back into a closet. Forcing their beliefs on everybody else. He finishes by writing, ‘White Christianity isn’t about love and tolerance; it’s about obedience and punishment. We have to give ourselves permission to discuss the crimes of white Christianity. We have to take action to protect our children from the politics of cruelty that white Christianity is working to make the law of the land.’”

She put down her phone and looked at me expectantly.

“So let me make sure I have this clear,” I said slowly. “Our actual questioner thinks that this article is spot on, that the core of hatred is religious indoctrination, and he wants to know, ‘How do you question a religious fanatic in a way that opens their minds?’ because as he also says, ‘I’ve got the cause. How do I influence the effect?’ Have I got that about right?”

“I think so,” she said, sounding not so sure.

“Yeah, right,” I reached back to massage my own neck. “Like I said before. Shouldn’t be a hard question to answer.”

“But you do have an answer, right?” she asked hopefully.

“Yeah,” I kept rubbing. “But I’m not sure you’re gonna like it.”

She pulled a pen and note pad out of her backpack, place the pen in her hand ready to write, then stared at me. “I’m ready,” she said, once again expectant.

“You do know that I am going back to my rules, right?”

“Yeah, I know because you always go back to your rules.”

“So which rule do you think that I am going back to?”

“I don’t know,” she grimaced. “Probably the Power of Persuasion.”

“Nope,” I said, straitening my back. “I think that I will start with the Power of Indirect Effort, maybe with a little Power of Reflection and Power of Contribution kicked in.”

“Huh?” she seemed surprised.

“Our questioner wants to know how he can, ‘Question a religious fanatic in a way that opens their minds,’” I quoted. “Well, I am pretty sure that you can’t do that if you go around thinking of them as religious fanatics. If you want to open anyone’s mind, you have to help them see themselves in context, and you can’t do that if you have already labeled them as a religious fanatic. If you want to open anyone’s mind, your mind had better be open as well.”

“So that’s where the Powers of Reflection and Contribution kick in, right?” she asked, beginning to scribble notes. “I mean, Reflections says that if you are getting a closed mind, it might be because your mind is also closed, right?”


“And Contribution has to do with getting what you give,” she rushed on. “So if you want someone to listen to you, you have to listen to them, right?”

“Again right.”

“Okay,” she said looking up from her pad. “So where does Indirect Effort come in?”

“Indirect Effort asks that you, ‘Treat people to a vision of themselves. That you apparently overrate them. You know, when we treat people as they are, we make them worse. But when when we treat people as they can and should be, we make them capable of becoming what they can and should be.’”

“I remember that quote from your book,” she nodded. “William James, right?”

“No, William James said, among other things, ‘The are of wisdom is the art of knowing what to overlook.’ He was an American essayist and philosopher. No, I was quoting the Austrian psychologist Victor Frankl, a famous holocaust survivor and best selling writer.”

“I remember now,” she nodded. “And I think that I remember how you talked about treating people to a vision of themselves by helping them see themselves in a new context. Instead of victims, they are survivors. Instead of dead soldiers, they are fallen heroes. Instead of patriots, they are insurrectionist.”

“And instead of insurrectionists, they are human beings who got caught up in something they didn’t fully understand,” I added gently. “Labels are great when you want to motivate like minded people. Labels help get people who already agree with you worked up to take action. ‘We are Patriots! Let’s head to the capitol!’ However, if you want to persuade someone to think differently, labels just become walls that people hide behind. I am a good Christian, so I have God on my side. But Christians, within the context of Walter Rhein’s article, are nothing more than people who for whatever reason believe that they, and only they, have God on their side. So the question becomes, why does our questioner want to open up their minds?”

“I think it’s because he doesn’t like how they want to impose their laws on the country. Laws he doesn’t agree with.”

“I think you are probably right,” I agreed. “So, do you think he wants to motivate like minded people to take action against the new laws being passed, or do you think he wants to change the minds of the people who are passing those laws?”

“Probably both,” she concluded.

“Then he has a problem,” I told her. “Because motivating a mind that already accepts a belief is one process, while expanding a mind to think differently is a whole other process. You can’t do both at the same time.”

“Right,” she nodded thoughtfully. “So in a way, we have to place his question into context before we can even answer it.”

“In a way,” I agreed. “He does seem to be focused on influencing minds, rather than motivating like minds. So I suppose we should focus on that process.”

“Okay,” she said, pen ready to take more notes. “So how do we place religious fanatics, as he calls them, into context?”

“First, we have to consider what makes any person, be they left, right, center, Christian, atheist, Shia, Sunni, or whatever, become radicalized.”

“What does it mean to be radicalized?”

“Well, the words radical, extreme, fanatical; they all basically refer to a worldview that goes beyond what others would consider moderate, or normal.”

“So it’s basically a label?”

“No,” I considered. “It’s more than that. People who have been radicalized do begin to see their way as the only way. Often, they become afraid, angry, even violent, towards people who express a different worldview. They start to feel as though their way is under attack. And in a strange way, they are right.”

“What do you mean, they’re right?”

“Well the very act of placing someone into context threatens their worldview. When you treat people to a vision of themselves, they don’t always like the view.”

“So how do they become radicalized?”

“Well, let’s consider our Christian friends. They are taught from childhood that the Bible is the Holy word of God, and that if they are good Christians who follow that word, they will gain eternal life in heaven; or at least they are often taught some version of that. Now, how our good Christian friends define good Christian often depends on the church they attend. For example, I was raised a Unitarian Christian. I was taught that a good Christian does not judge, turns the other cheek, and keeps an open mind towards other faiths because all faiths hold a grain of truth. My job as a good Christian was to ferret out those truth whenever I could so that we could stop fighting over words and create a heaven on earth together.”

“Cool,” she smiled. “That’s not what I was taught. My family was more, ‘Are we going to Church this Sunday, or not?’”

“But consider what might have happen to you if you had attended a Church that radicalizes it’s parishioners.”

“Hang on,” she interrupted. “You think it’s the Churches who do the radicalization.”

“Absolutely,” I said. “Nobody radicalizes themselves in a vacuum. Even lone shooters have Internet fans.”

“So how does it work?”

“Well, first you join a church that insists you must attend every meeting. You join a church that pays a great deal of attention to building a community for its parishioners that can shield them from outside influences. Your pastor begins to tell his parishioners about the dangers outside of their faith. He begins to tell them that the devil is everywhere, and they must be ready to defend themselves against the antichrist. He begins to teach them that the radicals out there are attacking their faith. He teaches them how to fight back through the ballot box, through protests, through donations to the cause. How do you think that hearing those lessons every day from someone you admire, and having those lessons reinforced at every gathering of your community, might influence your worldview?”

“I suppose,” she paused to think. “I suppose I might become radical,” she finally concluded.

“And that is the community of influence that you will be up against if you want to even attempt to influence a radical’s mind.”

“So, you’re saying it’s impossible.”

“No, I am not saying that. I am saying that you should know what you might be up against should you even attempt the challenge of expanding a mind, and you had better begin the process by considering the situation within its context.”

“Okay, I think I get it,” she said, jotting down a few notes. “So what if I did want to proceed? What if I did want to attempt to change a person’s mind? How would I move forward?”

“First, get over the idea of changing a mind. Usually, the best you can hope for is expanding a mind.”

She wrote something on her pad. “Got it,” she said, then looked up waiting.

“Okay,” I took a deep breath before proceeding. “You have two possible options for moving forward. You either show them something that makes them question their worldview, or you ask them questions that require them to question their worldview. Either way, the less you say regarding your own worldview the better.”

“Show them things,” she repeated. “You mean like if they don’t like Jews, you ask them to meet with a Rabbi, to show them they have nothing to fear?”

“I mean, you have got to expand their community. You need to connect them to new communities, new friends, new movies, new songs, new stories, and a new way of thinking. A way of thinking that exposes their fear for what it is. A fear that for some reason, their way of thinking is losing influence. That their children are being beguiled by the devil. A devil who wants to take them out of their safe communities, and introduce them to a dangerous world.”

“But won’t that make a lot of them just retreat back into their communities?”

“Some of them will, some of them won’t,” I admitted. “Some of them will begin to question why they have been so afraid. Some of them will appreciate their new friends. Some of them will continue to reach out to new ideas. Some of them will begin to feel safe questioning why they believe what they do.” I took another deep breath and went on. “If you really want to expand a mind, you have to get that mind outside of the community that keeps reinforcing that mind. Expanding a mind that does not want to expand is a full time job, and does not happen over night. It happens one friendship at a time. ”

“Hum,” she said as if a lightbulb had gone off in her head. “So if I don’t want to be their friend, I shouldn’t even bother. I should just stick to motivating like minds into action.”

“I couldn’t have said it better myself,” I told her.

She wrote on her pad furiously for a few minutes, then asked, “So how do the questions work?”

“Well first,” I sighed. “If you want to question anyone in order to expand a mind, you had better know your subject. If you want to question someone about the recent Supreme Court rulings, you had better have read those supreme court rulings. If you are going to question someone who believes that the Bible is the perfect Word of God, you had better know your Bible because Biblical scripture might be the only evidence they accept.”

“Okay,” she jotted a few more notes, “But how do the questions work?”

“You ask questions designed to get you both thinking. You ask questions that challenge both of your beliefs. You ask questions that help you solve common problems. You ask questions that show your friendship. I can’t tell you what those questions are because each situation is unique. I do know that questions get people thinking, while lecturing people who already don’t agree with you, will either make them fall asleep, or start building new walls.”

“So it all comes down to the Power of Persuasion and Influence,” she concluded at last. “We are ending where I thought we would begin. With the power of asking questions.”

“Except we don’t,” I admitted at last. “We end with the Power of Cause and Effect.”

“But that is the first rule,” she mumbled confused. “How do we end with that?”

“If you really want to influence, you must influence the influencers. You need to understand why they have chosen to radicalize their parishioners. You must expose them to those they influence. You must understand the cause, and expose the effect.” I paused for quite a while to be sure of my words. “You see our questioner came to us already sure of his cause. He told us that he believes, ‘The core cause of hatred is religious indoctrination.’ And it doesn’t really matter if I agree or disagree. What matters for him is to discover, for himself, the causes of what he calls religious indoctrination, and then to look for ways that he might actually influence those causes, should he choose to do so.”

“Dang,” she said, shaking her head. “That’s a whole other answer isn’t it?”

“Yes it is,” I agreed. “And perhaps something for another day.”

She made a few more notes before placing her writing pad back into her backpack. “I hope the next question is more like ‘How to get along with my boyfriend?’ because this question was exhausting.”

“But was it worthwhile?” I couldn’t help but ask.

“Always worthwhile,” she confirmed, pulling a book out of her back pack. “And now, I have a few questions about geometry.”


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  • Navigating Life in a Whackadoodle World
  • Finding Sense in a Whackadoodle World
  • Teaching Logic in a Whackadoodle World
  • Navigating Life Through Turbulent Tides
  • A River Worth Riding: Fourteen Rules for Navigating Life

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2 thoughts on “How do I Question a Religious Fanatic and Open Their Mind?”

  1. thanks for this comprehensive answer to my question. The art of persuasion is complex. I think you opened my mind just a bit. I need to learn more about effective persuasion. i’m going to study your books and see what I can learn especially since you are offering them free in the Kindle format for the next three Fridays.


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