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Oct 10 2011

Who am I talking to?

So this morning I took a pretty strong stance, despite the pseudo-reversal of my previous stance, when it comes to reaching out to religious believers. While I had previously stated that I don’t see the value in breaking my neck to find language that won’t bruise the feelings of religious folks, I realize that this is simply because I don’t care, not because it isn’t a worthwhile thing to do. It comes down to that issue – do I care about reaching out to religious people?

The answer to that question, it turns out, is ‘no’. I personally do not care. Where the retraction comes in is that I am forced to recognize that simply because I do not care doesn’t mean that nobody else should. While I do think highly of my opinion, I am not so conceited that I would presume to dictate what is and isn’t a fair topic for discussion for every other atheist in the world. Some day, maybe. But not today.

What I will do today is explain, as best I can, why I don’t care. Why it is that I think the most effective use of my time includes things like ridicule and insult and the word ‘stupid’. Why my feet are wearing smooth the top of a soapbox, rather than treading a path to a mosque, synagogue or meeting hall to marshal allies of the god-besotted kind. The answer to that question isn’t so much who I’m not talking to; it’s who I am talking to.

In a series of posts I wrote this past summer, I defended the use of aggressive rhetoric. Specifically, I pointed out that the audience watching the fight between religion and atheism is made up of a variety of perspectives on a continuum between total belief and total disbelief. Speaking to those who are ‘on the fence’ is certainly helpful in creating new atheists. There is, however, also a great deal of merit in speaking to people who are already ‘one of us’.

Every person, be they blogger, professional writer, public speaker, or simple lay debater on the public platform of their Facebook wall, has their own style, their own voice. Along with that comes a particular target group for their message. For some, this might be fence-sitters. For others, this might be religious people. And for some, among whom I count myself, it is those who have already lost their belief and are looking for something better.

I am not persuaded that any single* argument, no matter how friendly or accommodating, can persuade a person away from faith. Faith is not a position that is found by reason; it is one that is found through indoctrination and reliance on heuristics and flawed cognitive processes. It is well-insulated against emotional appeals, and uniquely protected against reasoned counterargument, by virtue of the fact that it claims to be ‘beyond mere human reason’.

In my estimation, based on experience as being an argumentative cuss for pretty much my entire life, is that outside a few specific circumstances, people are not in the habit of changing their minds on a dime. Regardless of how well-argued a position is, people don’t discard closely-held beliefs within a single moment. Instead, it takes time and repeated, overlapping lines of reasoning to help guide a person to a new position. They may waver a bit, but not totally reverse their beliefs. An expectation of anything else is more than a little naive.

It is for this reason, and because of the ludicrously low threshold for offense that I regularly observe from religious people (not all, to be sure), that I am uninterested in speaking to believers. While I do not go out of my way to exclude them, the intended audience of my writing is those from whom the veil of faith has already been lifted. That is, at least, when I talk about religious matters. When I write about other things (say, race or feminism), my focus shifts. Then again, I care about bringing people who are naive on these topics into the conversation.

I am not particularly concerned about ‘losing’ atheists to the oh-so-persuasive arguments of theistic belief. Atheism, at least reasoned atheism (as opposed to atheism borne of indifference) is a decent innoculation against the kinds of persuasion that believers point to as ‘proof’ of the existence of a god. What I am concerned about, however, is that atheists may sit on the sidelines and spectate instead of participating in the conversation. I am concerned with the number of people who proudly declare how little the religion discussion means to them personally. I am concerned with anyone who is an atheist simply for counterculture purposes. I am concerned with atheists who simply do not believe, and for whom that is enough.

Atheists can and should rally to speak out strongly against the dangers of religion. The more voices we have speaking, the more political clout we wield. The more political clout we command, the less dangerous religion becomes. Part of getting those of us who agree about the whole ‘gods not existing’ thing to join us in the ‘this is important for humanity’ aspect of the argument is speaking directly to them. Not harranguing them for not doing enough, but inspiring them to want to do more.

This is where I feel most comfortable, and where I choose to devote my efforts. My error was in forgetting that people have different levels of not only comfort, but interest in specific audiences. While I have always been a supporter of a pluralistic approach to persuasive writing, I neglected to recognize that this translates to the values of the speaker, and the makeup of the audience.

That being said, while I do recognize the appeal of attempting to reach out and ‘deconvert’, my efforts will continue to be spent speaking to those who are already with us in philosophy, but not with us in action.

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* – this word was missing from the original draft

8 comments

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  1. 1
    Worldtraveller

    I’m firmly in the camp of ‘don’t bother arguing with believers’, myself, but that’s because I spent a long time doing so, IRL and online. I find poking myself repeatedly in the eye with a fork (metaphorically) more pleasing.

    I have been active in various activist groups though (primarily the state ‘citizens for science’ type groups). I don’t really care much about changing believers minds, as I do 1) keeping their beliefs out of politics, and 2) rallying more secular supporters for political causes.

    Having said that, I’ve seen some deconverts, either from very fundy to at least socially tolerable and the occasional all the way to outspoken atheist, so I don’t begrudge those who want to keep at it from the ‘other side’.

    Just don’t let the accomodationists get in my way….

  2. 2
    Enkidum

    I like arguing with believers – I have a tame Jehovah’s Witness who I actually got to google the fossil history of the evolution of whales. But I take your point, I think.

    I just started thinking about the parallels between atheism and the development of political liberalism (which was, of course, closely tied to the development of atheism). If you look at the people who were responsible for moving it forward, you’ll find all types: those who were arguing that we should chop of the heads of anyone vaguely related to a king, people writing viciously insulting screeds, but also people suggesting very small tweaks to the existing monarchies, “just allow the people to meet freely and this fad for revolutions will pass”, etc etc etc. The point is that all rhetorical styles were employed, depending on the intended audience.

    I think the point has been made ad nauseam on Pharyngula when talking about the dreaded accomodationists: no one on the “mean atheist” side ever says that there shouldn’t be accomodationists. Of course there should – but that doesn’t mean that there shouldn’t be people who are less sensitive to the false beliefs of others.

  3. 3
    PSG

    Nice piece. It says a lot, and it made me think. I’m one of those quiet atheists: not going to deny it but not going to bring it up either. Definitely going to need to chew on my reasons for that some now…

  4. 4
    thelatinone

    I’m in the camp of not arguing with believers but I oftentimes think that this is a matter of social networks. Maybe people who argue against religion have come out of a more fanatically religious family than I did. My social network is comprised mainly of lapsed Catholics and Jews. These are not the kind of people most likely to piss you off if you’re an atheist for they don’t care much about it. And they love my Pope-jokes anyway. But I do understand if people have a need to constantly defend themselves from believers.

  5. 5
    thaismcrc

    I agree that actively trying to deconvert people is mostly futile, but I’m glad someone has the patience to try to that. I do, however, think it’s worthwhile to come out as an atheist, even if you don’t engage with theists in discussions of religion. I think it is important, both politically and socially. It helps dispel certain misconceptions about atheism and atheists and raises awareness of the issues we care about.

  6. 6
    M. D.

    “I am not persuaded that any argument, no matter how friendly or accommodating, can persuade a person away from faith. Faith is not a position that is found by reason; it is one that is found through indoctrination and reliance on heuristics and flawed cognitive processes. It is well-insulated against emotional appeals, and uniquely protected against reasoned counterargument, by virtue of the fact that it claims to be ‘beyond mere human reason’.”

    Personal pet peeve but I really hate this argument….

    People do change their minds all the time may not do to one magic silver bullet argument but many over time. Many true believers turned atheists started with faith and they were all argued and persuaded out of it.

    If you don’t want to do that or anything that’s fine I’m not argueing against that. I just hate this pithy “you weren’t persuaded into religion you can’t be persuaded out of it” kind of sentiment.

  7. 7
    Crommunist

    That should have said “any single argument”. People don’t change their minds after hearing a dynamite refutation – as you say it happens over time. The assumption that a reasoned argument, if cloaked in gentle enough language, will be persuasive is a fantasy. People have to be opened up to the idea of examining and critiquing their own beliefs, and no outside argument is going to do that for them.

  8. 8
    jacobfromlost

    “People have to be opened up to the idea of examining and critiquing their own beliefs, and no outside argument is going to do that for them.”

    Does this mean that outside arguments cannot be the lever by which people are “opened up” to “examining and critiquing their own beliefs”? Even those who are not initially open MIGHT be softened up through skillful argumentation (there are never any guarantees). We do have examples of such people, so we know it is possible. Indeed, if it were not possible, it is hard to see how human history could make room for any rational discourse, discovery, or learning.

    The mistake, I think, is in having the goal (in debate) of changing the other person’s mind. That should never be the goal. The goal should be to better your own understanding of what is true, and the understanding of those listening to the debate. If you make THAT the goal…then you have a greater chance of changing minds simply by skillfully illustrating reality. (Reality is doing the heavy lifting, and neither you nor your potential debating opponent can change it.)

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