Communicating Atheism

Published by Minnesota Atheists on

By Grant Steves

Photo of Grant in suit and tie.

Atheists may have an intelligence that is above average. We may have more education than most groups, and we might conclude, we are better at communicating ideas. Not true!  Education and intelligence do not equal successful communication.

Successful communication is not a natural ability. It is not a gift, but it is a complex process that involves skills, knowledge, and empathy.

High school students are in many respects a good reflection of the audiences we must address. The best lesson plan, under the best conditions can still fail. Why? You may have been rational, but your audience was not. You thought your presentation had humor, visual aids, and appeal, but your audience rejected your humor, found your visuals boring, and did not understand your appeal. As the speaker, your message failed because you did not listen to or identify with your audience. If your message reflected your academic credentials and level of intelligence, you failed to consider that your audience has not attended college and are of average intelligence.

Your process of preparation failed because you did not reflect on who the audience was. In interpersonal communication, it is relatively easy to adjust quickly to the other person. However, a public speaking situations quick adjustment to the audience is more difficult.

Many new high school teachers start their career with great enthusiasm – only to become greatly discouraged because the students do not share their enthusiasm for mathematics or English literature. What this teacher must learn is that teaching is not about their enthusiasm for literature. It is about their enthusiasm for communicating to their audience. It was the Greeks who realized that it was a matter of ethos (character credibility) and not logos (logic of ideas presented). It is more a matter of pathos (emotional appeal) than logos.

The credibility of the person is more important to the audience than the apparent brilliance of their presentation. Students see through the arrogance of the presenter, and they want an authentic person who cares about them more than the message or self.

How does the speaker know if they communicate successfully?  You distribute a simple survey that requests information about your presentation. If you hand this survey out before you start speaking, you have informed your audience that you care about them as people and not just your message.

The credibility of the speaker is crucial to the acceptance of and understanding of your message. An audience may hear a thirty-minute presentation, but they listen to only ten minutes. As communicators we must realize that to keep the attention of the audience, we must refer to them. We must engage them. We must respond to their needs and agenda. It is better to speak for five minutes and answer thirty questions than to speak for thirty minutes and answer only one question.

As a communication teacher at the university and high school level for forty years, I quickly assess the problems of speakers and can analyze the speech difficulties. However, learning to speak well is not just giving many speeches, but it is knowing your audience.

Howard Gardener, in his book Frames of Mind, identified seven different types of intelligence. You may have experienced the mathematical intelligence at work. Solving complex math problems with ease but unable to communicate that process. A spatially intelligent person who can create or solve the question dealing with the use of space but cannot communicate it,

A linguistically intelligent person will understand the nature of language, and they may be fluent in several languages, but they may not succeed at communicating this to an audience.

Interpersonal communication is the ability to relate to other people, and it is also a form of intelligence.

Gardener’s point is that we have different areas of intelligence. We may have several, or we may have one. Successful communicators must recognize their strengths and weaknesses. We must learn to compensate for the areas of weakness. We must not assume that, because of our intellect, we will be successful at communicating complex ideas to high school students.

Being intelligent and well educated requires us to be humble enough to recognize that communication takes more than brilliance.

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Positive Atheism in Action Since 1991