Many will say that discussion of religion with religious people is “pointless” and a waste of time. I strongly disagree.
I’ve had hundreds of face to face discussions with people of varying levels of belief, and I’ve found that the outcome is very much tied to the approach to the conversation.
If your child walks up to you with a question about sex, I certainly hope that you would not unload everything you know and have ever seen or done on that child… especially if she’s 4 years old! That wouldn’t make sense, and you’ll certainly cause that child to never want to ask you about sex again. Yet this is often the method that atheists use when someone says they want to talk about God. As soon as the door is opened they unload like a dump truck with a 30 minute (or 5 page if online) sermon about everything that’s wrong with religion.
A productive discussion between two people should begin with an exploration of how much the other person knows about the subject, and what specific areas of interest they want to discuss. The 4 year old above may have only wanted to know if boys can have babies or if it’s just girls, but since you failed to ask what part of sex she was asking about, you never actually answered her question, you grossed her out, and you alienated her.
Likewise, a religious person having a discussion with an atheist often just wants to know if you’re a reasonable, respectable person with set of moral values, even if they already know that your values may be somewhat different. It’s not unusual at the Ask-An-Atheist booth for a religious person to walk up, look each of us in the eye, and say, “I don’t know what to ask. What do people usually ask you?”
In my opinion, this is a best-case scenario. A person ‘on the other side’ has opened their mind, at least for a few moments, to consider the thoughts of a group of people they’ve likely spent most of their lives opposing. Again, this is NOT the time to unload the dump truck of things you hate about religion. If they haven’t directly asked a question, start with the things you have in common, such as “I think we both are groups of generally good people who are looking to socialize and spend time with others who are also good people.” It’s good to emphasize early on that atheists generally strongly support separation of church and state, and that we do NOT seek to have religion banned.
Back to your child asking about sex, your answers should be more detailed as they get older, but still stay on topic. If they’ve asked about contraception or disease prevention, answer those questions specifically succinctly, and without drama or emotion. If a religious person asks for detail about something specific, your answer should be geared to their knowledge level as well. Evolution, for example is a tricky question because many people from the Bible Belt have never been taught what it means, so when they say “I don’t believe in evolution”, they are repeating a phrase they’ve heard from others and they have no clue what evolution means. I’ve even had grown adults tell me that “big bang and evolution are the same thing”.
So — when starting a religious discussion, ask questions up front that will gauge the depth of their knowledge of religion, and the area of interest that they want to discuss. You should be about to answer any of the usual questions in 3 minutes or less. If you ramble on, you’ll lose your listener and probably annoy them because you’re just preaching. A conversation is an interaction, not a sermon.