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Jul 07 2008

“Evangelical” Atheism, Or, Is It Okay to Try to Change People’s Minds?

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Is it okay for atheists to try to change people’s minds? To try to convince people that their religion is mistaken, and that they should de-convert and become atheists instead?

And is there any difference between that and religious evangelicalism? Between that, and religious evangelicals/ missionaries trying to convince people that their religion (or lack thereof) is mistaken, and that they should convert and join their own religion instead?

I’ve been thinking about what I do here on this blog. (When I’m not talking about porn or politics or cute animals, that is.) And a big part of what I’m doing is trying to contribute, in my small way, to the eventual disappearance of religion from the human mindset. I’m trying to convince any believers who might be reading this blog that their beliefs are mistaken… or at least, plant the seeds of doubt in their minds. And I’m trying to help arm other atheists (as I have been armed by so many other atheist writers) with good arguments to use in their own debates with believers.

And I’ve been wondering: Given my strong negative feelings about religious evangelicalism, is what I do here ethical?

(Or, maybe more to the point: Given what I do here, are my strong negative feelings about religious evangelicalism consistent?)

Bullhorn
My usual response (you know, to my own voice that I argue with in my head) is to say, “I’m writing a blog. People are free to visit it or not as they like. I’m not knocking on people’s doors, or moving into their villages, or shouting at them through bullhorns on the streets. I’m not invading people’s lives or their privacy. Presumably nobody visits this blog — or stays in it for very long — if they don’t want to read arguments against religion. And outside the public sphere, I rarely offer my opinions on religion unless I’m asked.”

But I’m not sure that that, just by itself, is enough of a difference. After all, many atheists I admire do much more pro-active, in- your- face things — going on TV and radio, for instance, or writing in newspapers and magazines — to spread the good word about God’s non-existence. And I’d be doing all that too, given the opportunity. Of course, you can switch channels on the TV or turn the page of the newspaper, just like you can surf to another blog. But still. If the only difference between atheist writers and religious evangelicals/ missionaries is that we don’t knock on doors and shout at people on the street, then I’m not sure that’s enough of a difference to maintain my sense of moral outrage at evangelicalism.

So I’ve been thinking about this.

Cormeilles_Market_3_Artlibre_jnl
And I’ve realized that my problem with religious evangelicalism isn’t that they’re trying to change people’s minds. Trying to change people’s minds is a grand tradition. The marketplace of ideas, and all that. If you really think you’re right about something important, of course you should try to share it. That’s how good ideas get out into the world. And being exposed to lots of different ideas is good for you. It exercises the brain. It’s how good ideas get strengthened and clarified, and bad ideas get winnowed out. As Ursula Le Guin said in The Dispossessed, “The idea is like grass. It craves light, likes crowds, thrives on crossbreeding, grows better for being stepped on.”

Which leads me, not coincidentally, to what my real problem is with religious evangelicalism… and what I see as the real difference between it and my small efforts towards atheist de-conversion.

My efforts towards atheist de-conversion are based in — here comes the broken record — reason and evidence. I offer arguments and reasons for why atheism makes more sense, is more consistent, is more likely to be accurate, than religion. And that’s true of most other atheist writers I know. (Most of the time, anyway.)

HansMemlingHell
Religious evangelicalism does nothing of the kind. It bases its persuasion on fear: the normal fear of death, and the trumped-up fear of hell and eternal torture. It bases its persuasion on false hope: a hope for immortality that the persuaders have no good reason to believe is true. It bases its persuasion on falsehoods: flat-out inaccuracies about the realities of history and science.

And it bases its persuasion on the suppression of other ideas.

The suppression of other religious ideas is one of the most widespread elements of religion. It’s not universal, but it’s depressingly common. It’s codified in the texts and tenets of religions: the concepts of the heathen and the heretic, rules against interfaith marriage, the very concept of religious orthodoxy, etc. It’s often codified in law: not just in blatant theocracies, but for decades and centuries in supposedly more enlightened societies. (Example: It took until 1961 for atheists to be guaranteed the right to serve on juries, testify in court, or hold public office in every state in the United States.)

Double_Visored_Sallet_by_Wendelin_BoeheimAnd it’s codified in dozens of forms of social pressure. The idea that it’s rude to question or criticize people’s religion. The idea that religious faith by itself makes you a good person. The social deference given to ministers and rabbis and other religious leaders. The idea that being tolerant of religion requires that you not criticize it. Religion has built up an impressive array of armor: not intellectual weapons to defend its ideas, but armor to protect it against the very notion that its ideas require defending.

Limousine
So yes to the marketplace of ideas. But in the marketplace of ideas, religion gets a free ride. In the marketplace of ideas, religion gets a free round- trip ride in a luxury limousine, with a police escort and a climate- controlled armored truck to transport its merchandise. All at public expense. And religious evangelicalism relies on that.

And that, I think, is the difference. The problem with religious evangelicalism isn’t that it tries to persuade other people that it’s right. The problem is that it tries to persuade using fear, and false hope, and falsehood. And it tries to persuade by shutting up any other ideas that might contradict it. It tries to win, not by playing fair, but by rewriting the rules of the game.

But I’m curious as to what you all think. Regular readers of this blog: Do you think there’s a difference between religious evangelicalism and what I do in this blog? If so, what do you think that difference is? If not, why not? And I especially want to hear from other atheist bloggers. How do you parse this question? Do you see what you do do as different from what religious evangelicals and missionaries do? (Apart from the issue of you being right and them being wrong, of course.) And if so — why? This is actually a complicated question for me, and I really want to get some different perspectives on it.

45 comments

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  1. 1
    Paul Crowley

    I sometimes get into arguments a little like this:
    “Gosh, I’m glad they caught that murderer and sent him to jail!”
    “Oh, you think it’s OK to send people to jail because you don’t like what they do? The South Africans sent Nelson Mandela to jail because they didn’t like what he did – you think that’s OK too then?”
    Obviously I satirize but the core argument is the same. You can give very complex counter-arguments, but sometimes the counter is very simple: the thing we do is good while the thing they do is bad, despite the superficial similarity you note between the two, because we are right and they are wrong.
    “Oh, but they think *they’re* right and *you’re* wrong, don’t they?”
    Yes, and they’re wrong about that too. Really, it’s not just a matter of who thinks who’s right – it matters who’s actually right.
    This isn’t all there is to the evangelism thing by any means, but this point certainly comes up.

  2. 2
    Riz

    Evangelism is not wrong (be it religious, atheistic, or anything else) – we evangelise our views every day, in our kids, when we vote based on what we think is right, whenever we express any opinion or any argument not based on a double-blind peer-reviewed scientific study.
    So let the religious poeple evangelise, and the atheists can evangelise too – in the end, may the best arguments win.

  3. 3
    Riz

    Oh, and as for your “religion suppresses other ideas” stuff you mentioned about – that used to be very true, but in the past decade or so, that grip has been lost due to the internet and information-tech taking off in a huge way.
    Which is one big reason I think that the atheist movement snowballed in earnest too – FSM, atheosphere, all the youtubes etc. As soon as the marketplace of ideas became suppress-free, the atheistic arguments have gained tremendous ground.

  4. 4
    Mike Haubrich, FCD

    I look at it from the “Dire eternal consequences” perspective. I try to blog on godlessness to show people who have even the tiniest shred of doubt in their faith that there are other ways to look at religion, especially atheism. Even with the internet and the mass media available there are people who have doubts but aren’t aware of the possibility that god is created by man.
    What we offer is a way out from the idea that we are all by our nature “bad” and that there is no escape without capricious Mercy.
    When we explain atheism we are offering a way out, but we leave people the option of choosing this way for themselves, and what we offer is not based on fear or false hope but on their own self-determination.
    Essentially, we are not forcing ourselves on people and that is the difference that makes me feel okay about blogging, being on the radio, marching in parades, writing letters and talking to friends who ask about my beliefs.
    Take a deep breath, you are not a missionary.

  5. 5
    amiable

    that is a really good point.
    atheists do not demand respect for atheism or total obedience.
    we don’t expect you to adhere only to our point of views.
    this is what religion does. it does not encourage you to think freely, but to think like they want you to.
    this is where i have a problem.
    religion commands everyone, even non believers, to respect it. and why? just because. they don’t have to give any other reasons.

  6. 6
    ErinM

    While we should never rest too much on the certainty that we’re right, I think you underestimate the value of the media atheists generally use. Blogging about atheism is absolutely nothing like the typical bullying tactics of religious evangelism, and it makes all the difference in the world.
    Having the freedom to turn away from the imposition of someone else’s beliefs is key. I don’t think it’s wrong for evangelists to knock on my door. After all, people knock on my door to promote their political candidates, and while I might find it bothersome, I don’t really think they shouldn’t be doing it. As long as I can say, “no, thanks,” and go on with my life, there’s no harm and no foul.
    Blogging, books, broadcast media, are all completely open to the “no, thanks” response, and that’s what sets us apart.

  7. 7
    Ephemeriis

    I really don’t have a problem with Evangelism… As long as it is kept relatively polite and civilized. I don’t mind people offering to share their views with me. I don’t even mind when they show up on my doorstep as long as they’re willing to take “no” for an answer.
    And I don’t see evangelical atheism any differently. I don’t have a problem with atheists sharing their viewpoints, writing books, going on TV, even going door-to-door… So long as it is kept somewhat civil and polite, and they’re willing to take “no” for an answer.
    These days you almost universally have a choice in the ideas you consume. As you point out – you can change the channel, flip the page of the paper, surf to another blog, put down the book, whatever… We don’t generally tie people up and subject them to our beliefs. And as long as someone has the option to tune you out, I really don’t have a problem with evangelism at all – religious or atheist.

  8. 8
    Eric

    What irritated me the other day when a pastor came to my door handing out fliers (and we ended up talking for an hour or so) is that he kept telling me to be open-minded – as if he was the open-minded one. But then he’d give me arguments like Pascal’s wager and “Well, could all those people really be wrong? [smirk]” It was obvious he had never even considered the possibility of Christianity being wrong, yet he was continually telling me to be open-minded.
    That’s my thing – I’m not trying to get people to believe what I believe – I just want them to look at both sides of the issue before making the decision. Whereas I’ve found most Christians are trying to get people to only look at things only from the Christian perspective.

  9. 9
    Ainuvande

    Not a blogger, but this is something I’ve discussed on more than one occasion. My boyfriend is bothered by all the atheist blogs I read, because he doesn’t like the anger, and I sort of think he just doesn’t like hearing people speak out about it. He was raised in Texas, so he’s constantly afraid that someone will find out we’re elitist godless snobs living in sin and burn a cross on our front steps or something. We live in Boston.
    Personally,I like that more and more atheists are speaking out, offering up their viewpoint in public and possibly even de-converting people. If nothing else, it gets believers to think about what they believe. But I do think we have to be careful how we go about it. I think politeness is key here, because otherwise we come off as just as crazy and annoying as the other side. I think this is much more important in face-to-face conversation than it is online. Here, I can click away, IRL you have to disengage from the conversation. So I guess there’s a place for everything, the key is just making sure you’re not that asshole trying to shove (X) down the throats of anyone who will listen.
    X here being just about anything. I’ve seen people be like that about sports idols, so it’s not just religion that gets obnoxious.

  10. 10
    TheNerd

    In my life, I invite people to talk with me about atheism, but I don’t go around preaching it. Honestly, I don’t have time to waste on someone who isn’t that interested in what I have to say. Since the flames of hell are not licking at my heels, I don’t have to worry about the number of people I convert.

  11. 11
    aztecknight

    I am a Christian. I love your work. It makes perfect sense. It might be correct. And if it is I have lost nothing by my faith.
    In the end what matters is how we treat each other, not why we choose to treat each other that way. If your religion teaches you to love one another or your way of life does it, I do not think it matters. As long as it is real.
    I personally am not religious because religion tends to hurt others that do not follow them. I can not accept that, nor can I accept the the person/god/sprirt/dream/whatever that was called Jesus by the time the words that would be the New Testament were written accepts that either.

  12. 12
    absent sway

    What a thought-provoking question–it says something good about you that you are willing to entertain the thought of having something important in common with those you so strongly disagree with. I was trained to evangelize when I was young, and what was awkward and against my first inclination became in some ways a rewarding experience as my assumptions were challenged and I tried to share something I thought was important in a way that would still be respectful (without taking forever to go into the details, suffice it to say I’m conflicted about the experience). My perspective is that evangelical-like sharing is determined almost as much by personality as by the strength of someone’s convictions, and those holding especially strong convictions have a see-saw between the passion of proclaiming something that will presumably make the world a better place and the humility to assume it’s not their place to say for certain and to trust others to figure it out themselves. That is to say, in a person with strong convictions, passion, and humility, I suspect personality determines the ultimate expression. Or obligation–in evangelical believers, someone otherwise content to keep spiritual thoughts to herself is easily convinced her religion requires her to share. I suppose that is where reason comes in as an important factor.

  13. 13
    Seth Manapio

    Did I miss a memo? When did evangelism become the problem?
    I was pretty sure that the problems were the twin evils of FUNDAMENTALISM and STATISM, that is, unthinking observance of insane rules and the use of police power to enforce those insane rules.
    Just talking about crazy ideas is okay, isn’t it?

  14. 14
    anonymous

    Writing your opinions in your blog is your right – you are pushing your ideas down NOBODY’s throat. I enjoy reading your level-headed and, erudite and well thought out essays, by the way.
    Going door to door ‘evangelizing’ atheism would, to me (an atheist, not an Atheist), is as repugnant as a Jehoshaphat’s Bystander coming to my door and droning on about their ‘way of life’.
    I am always polite to these people who drag their children along as shields, because you never know what a child may take away from an encounter with a stranger. They do not deserve to hear my vitriol.
    I am bothered by Dawkin’s trolling for a fight, in your face, Atheism. However, I completely understand his need to do this. Particularly in light of such public figures as George Bush (sr), who has, as we all know, stated in public that atheists should be denied citizenship.
    Dawkins is going to get himself killed, and I believe he may know this. Is he trying to set himself up as some atheist martyr? He may well be doing that…
    Somewhat off topic, but if you have not read Stephen Pinker’s Blank Slate, you should. You will enjoy it immensely and you will learn things about this ‘God Delusion’ that we all (well, OK, not us, but most folks) share.
    I have my own theory, to wit: Religion allows us to get on with life and quit looking at the stars and trying to figure out what they are for. “Stars? Huh? Oh yeah, God made those and the little green apples. Now let’s go kill us a wildebeest and have a BBQ”.
    What I’m saying here, is you can’t have a whole primitive society full of serious thinkers questioning everything, else we’d have died out, staring at the stars, slowly starving while the wolves ate our young.
    But some of us are absolutely unable to live with ambiguity. The ones who push civilization forward? Possibly… (Well, it IS my theory…)
    Most of ‘us’ are involved in hard sciences and in engineering. But even some of US maintain religious affiliations (although beliefs? I doubt that, at least in those that I know.)

  15. 15
    Raging Bee

    My advice to atheistic evangelists is the same as my advice to theist evengelists: just make sure you know what you’re talking about, and can prove it, otherwise you won’t have any credibility. Pretending you know my belief is wrong, when you clearly don’t know what, exactly, I believe, doesn’t work for me. It’ll work for a directionless sheep, but that lot will be more swayed by the threat of hellfire anyway.
    Also, at least act like you give a shit about me as a person and are doing what you do because you acctually think — rightly or wrongly — it’s best for me and for people in general.
    Another mistake you can avoid (and Dawkins and Harris don’t) is the assumption that the most extreme and simpleminded version of a belief is the “true face” of that belief, and anyone who moderates his belief to accomodate reality is somehow dishonest. That just reinforces the fundies’ lie that your only choices are their way or the godless way. I, for one, have no trust or respect for extremists who pretend to oppose each other and gang up on the (more sensible and compassionate) moderates.

  16. 16
    mandrellian

    Good post – and good questions Greta. Thanks.
    In short, I think your post itself is a perfect illustration of the ethical differences between what you (and other atheist bloggers) do and what evangelists do.
    The very fact that you’ve posted and asked for others’ opinions and perspectives & that you’ve actually stopped to think and ask the question “is what I’m doing RIGHT?” shows up the evangelical mindset for what it is: a rigid, inflexible, unthinking and unquestionable dogma. Evangelism is immune to criticism from without and impervious to examination from within. You would never find the equivalent to your post on an evangelical website, or even forming in a true believers’ head. Even if it was asked, you would be sure to hear a chorus of true believers re-affirming the dogma and imploring the questioner to stay on the path of righteousness.
    The fact that you’ve sought answers from outside your own head and outside your own experience speaks volumes about the difference between honest intellectual endeavour and slavery (and the attempted enslavement of others) to dogma.
    All the best
    .m.

  17. 17
    Blue Linchpin

    It’s always alright to try and debate and change people’s minds, as long as you’re respectful and it isn’t harassment. It’s called free speech.

  18. 18
    Ezekiah

    I suppose you said something on similar lines (what with “fear”) but I think really that’s the part that most sticks out to me.
    Threats.
    When I go to a gay pride parade and an evangelical is trying to “save” us, what I perceive is that I am being threatened: with hellfire, damnation, emotional violence etc…
    I have trouble thinking of “Evangelical” Atheism as threatening anyone. “Repent from your god ways or….. ummm, rot just like everyone else!!!” Just doesn’t carry the same weight, you know?
    Oh sure, there are people who would say that being told: “if you don’t start acknowledging global warming/climate change, (of which we have pretty conclusive data in support), and you refuse to do anything, then you very well may be part of a giant climatic catastrophe real soon” is very threatening.
    But that’s the difference (as my father used to say) between a threat and a promise. They may *believe*, but their only supporting evidence is a book, whereas, “evangelical” atheism has, oh, the whole natural world.

  19. 19
    Sarah

    It seems to me that unless you are going door-to-door or are in another person’s face about it, then you are not being evangelical. Even Dawkins doesn’t strike me that way because no one forces you to read his books and he is invited to speak to give his views. In my mind it’s only a problem if it’s forced upon someone else. I don’t blog often about atheism and not everyone who reads my blog is a non-believer but they don’t complain. I assume they just skip what they don’t want to read.

  20. 20
    Indigo

    The only places I’ll insist on shoving my way into people’s awareness is if they’re saying something about atheism that’s flat-out wrong. I don’t think people have a right to believe lies like “atheists eat babies”. (Admittedly, I’ve never come across that one, but I’ve been told I should count myself as an agnostic or that I must be a very confused, lost person more than once.)
    Usually, I am happy to keep things to myself as long as other people do. As soon as someone starts telling me about their religious beliefs, that’s fair game for me to start telling them about my thoughts on the matter, and that I find is what is largely annoying about evangelism. It’s not a dialogue, or an exchange of ideas. Only the evangelists’ beliefs count, and they are just not going to listen to yours.
    I believe that as long as an atheist making their point is open to hearing counterpoints (and let’s be fair here, some of us are and some of us aren’t), they’re in no way guilty of the same obnoxiousness as the more frustrating type of theist.

  21. 21
    Alexis Kauffmann

    Hi, Greta!
    I think the problem is somewhere else.
    The question is not “Is evangelism good or bad?” in general or universal terms.
    The questions are:
    “Can religious people prove that atheism does not do any Good to anyone under any circumstance?” – No, they cannot. Most of you people who comment here will have your own personal stories to testify. And, also, religious people don’t really care about proving anything, so let’s move on to the next question.
    “Can atheists prove that religion does not do any Good to anyone under any circumstance?” – No, you can’t. If you examine this matter close enough, you will verify that thousands of people find in religion solution for a variety problems they could not handle outside religion. Just check it out, don’t take my word for that!
    Now, we must move on to a more intriguing set of questions:
    “Can atheists prove that religion frequently does more harm than Good?” – Yes, sure, but…
    “Can atheists prove that atheism never does any harm to anyone?” – No, you can’t. Take a look at the History of the socialist countries and you will see what happens when atheism become the State’s official religion!
    So, the true question that derives from the previous few demands a 100% scientific approach:
    “Under which circumstances atheist or religious evangelism could do more Good than harm?”
    And that is not “social relativism” as someone implied in a previous comment.
    This is plain simple Science.
    Science tells us that all you can do is to prove that an assertion is true or false under a given set of conditions. If you change that set, you have to check it out again.
    Be happy!
    AK.

  22. 22
    CASE

    I have a regular debate with Christian fundies in Australia. I usually get told that I am no better than they are because I am also trying to get people to think one way. Fact is, I am very negative and only want people “not to think like fundies”.
    In any event, I do not see any problem with trying to persuade someone to look at things in a certain way. The problem is when you force them to look at things in a certain way – Fundies use some obscene psychological tactics from time to time. I consider that force. On the other hand, I don’t think that this website falls into that category at all – so don’t worry.

  23. 23
    Anonymous

    The real gap in ethics isn’t whether you are pleasant or not.
    You can be as blunt as you like and if nobody believes you for it, that doesn’t mean your argument is wrong or unethical, it just means that your style wasn’t optimal.
    Where the gap lies, is in whether we are willing to intentionally lie in order to win a convert.
    Fundementalists will lie to their kids, to protect them from the possibility of them converting.
    It is about teaching kids religion as science in order to decieve them into believing in the theist’s religion.
    We will not, if the evidence goes against us on an argument over fact, say that the truth is relative. Something either is, or isn’t true.

  24. 24
    Joreth

    Oh, and as for your “religion suppresses other ideas” stuff you mentioned about – that used to be very true, but in the past decade or so, that grip has been lost
    Well, actually, many of the current materials that support religious viewpoints include the admonishment “If anything Science says contradicts the Bible, then Science is wrong” and other such gems as ignoring evidence is a virtue, believing without evidence is a virtue, refusing to listen to any other viewpoint at all is a virtue.
    You and I might have access to the internet and a web of ideas, but children growing up and being refused access to the internet, cable television, public schools do not have that same access. People are actively denied that exposure as if mere exposure will weaken their position.
    Which, of course, it could.
    And if your position is so tenuous that simply being exposed to an opposing viewpoint can lose members, I suspect it’s your position that is the bad one, not the opposition.
    When a scientific principle is made into “law”, you can wish and hope all you want, but it doesn’t stop gravity from pulling you towards the earth. If you are convinced that you can fly, mere exposure to the ground can quickly disabuse you of that notion.
    Therefore, I’m likely to believe the notion that will be discarded by simple exposure to a contradictory viewpoint is a notion not worth holding onto.

  25. 25
    Titus Pullover

    Have you considered some of the advanages of biochemistry? Without biochemistry you would collapse into a pile of bones and goo? And you’d die in unspeakable pain. Let me sell you this gospel by White, Handler and Smith.
    Do you want to be saved?

  26. 26
    Greta Christina

    In case you haven’t all read Pharyngula today, he has a link to a very funny cartoon on this very subject. “Have you accepted the scientific method into your heart and given your life over to empiricism and reason?

  27. 27
    IsaacJ

    I am a former Jehovah’s Witness who became an atheist. So I’ve been on both sides of this one. I agree with your conclusions … and your article. The hard thing is that – for the most part – it’s tough to get non-atheists to “get” the difference between the two camps.
    I can’t really blame them. It tends to look like the same thing from the outside. Both believers and atheists are putting our version out there for everyone to consider. We both offer reasons for others to see the world our way. So we atheists tend to get lumped in with the evangelists by people who aren’t looking that closely. They aren’t REALLY considering our facts or our evidence or our reasoning. It tends to just sort of wash right over them. So in the end, it all sounds like pretty the same thing because they aren’t paying THAT much attention. But there is a difference between us. Here’s another way to explain it to someone.
    If we as people have a real interest in the truth, then we have to go find it. We can’t have it – can’t KNOW it – 100% guaranteed. But that doesn’t mean we should give up and assume everyone’s guesses are equally likely. We would look for the best, most likely answer. We would use the very best information we have available and apply reason to determine what the truth is, not the carefully cherry-picked stuff that conveniently caters to what we HOPE the truth might be.
    That means we go with the experts. We certainly want to go with the evidence. We set our emotions aside as best we can and brace ourselves for wherever the information takes us. Atheists, generally, are trying to do that. Most believers seem more interested in finding a personal version of the truth that “works” for them somehow. Something that feels good or that fills their needs. Even if that view is self contradictory, they’ll take it if it “works” and satisfies them emotionally. Many of them don’t want to look at it that closely anyway. Our brains make this suprisingly easy to do. But it’s the lazy way, the easy way. It doesn’t provide you with the most accurate answer. It isn’t the path for someone who really wants the truth of things.
    That is a fundamental difference between atheists and believers. We aren’t trying to sell our version of the truth so much as we’re pushing our method of obtaining it. Some of us our pushing both at the same time. Nevertheless, we are offering a very different package for someone who’s really interested and paying attention. That’s all any of us can do.

  28. 28
    Ebonmuse

    Although there are many specific differences in tactics, tone and method between atheist and religious persuasion – we, I hope, rely more on evidence and reason, while religious proselytism relies mainly on appealing to the emotions – I think that, in the big picture, they can both be fairly described as evangelism. After all, we’re both out there presenting our respective cases, trying to win people over, to convince them.
    And I’m absolutely fine with that.
    Granted, I would never go knocking on doors or handing out fliers for atheism in parking lots. I don’t like it when I’m subjected to that sort of hassle, and I assume most other people would also find it obnoxious. But I most certainly do believe that atheists should be making every effort to publish books, to write websites and editorials, to appear on TV and the radio. I think society should be an open marketplace of ideas – everyone should be heard, and if there’s any group that’s not being heard, then all of society is impoverished thereby. Of course, there’s the specific, urgent problem that religious beliefs can sometimes drive people or groups of people to violent and destructive actions, and the more progress we can make in defeating that sort of belief, the better off all of society will be. But even beyond that, we have every right in the world to speak our minds, just as everyone else does. There’s nothing wrong with presenting your own beliefs. The only wrong comes when you try to force other people to abide by them even if they haven’t been persuaded.

  29. 29
    Eclectic

    I think the difference is between a general announcement of “religion is a pile of rubbish” and “You! Yes, you, walking down the street. Don’t turn your back on me! I see you’re wearing a cross. That means you are WASTING YOUR LIFE supporting an evil religion and hanging on to outdated imperialist dogma which perpetuates the economic and social differences in our society! Is that the kind of world you want to leave for your children?”
    There’s making an opinion known, and grabbing random strangers on the street and trying to make them swallow it.

  30. 30
    Robert Haroldson

    All humans bear the capacity for good and evil. You can have a terribly oppressive regime that outlaws religion and rules by brute force and causes the death of millions like Stalin’s Soviet Union. You can similarly have a brutal theocracy that outlaws atheism and other competing religions and causes the death of millions. While the outer trappings are different they are both rooted in humans just being human. It’s an ugly reality that many aren’t willing to face.
    Religion does indeed provide something useful to humans or it wouldn’t exist. Humans do have emotional/psychological needs that atheism can’t deliver. You can place a physics text next to a religious text and state that the physics text is more valuable because it’s based on facts
but is it really? The cold book of facts brings no emotional comfort to people which the religious text certainly has the capacity to do. So which is better? I think it depends on the need.
    As far as evangelism goes, I don’t much like it. I consider it a form of spam. I get annoyed when Jehovah Witnesses come knocking on my door and I’d feel similarly if it was an atheist knocking on my door trying to convert me. I do indeed enjoy discussing different ideas but I don’t want the discussion brought to me, I want to go to it. Set up a meeting and feel free to invite me. I might or might not show up but I’ll feel better about it if I do because I chose to come to the meeting/discussion. I don’t consider this web site a form of evangelism because I came here to join the discussion and it wasn’t brought to me.
    I’m a closet atheist/agnostic. I’m not sure of the exact definitions. I can’t categorically say there isn’t a God but I’m not satisfied that any of the current religions accurately describe this God. I’m in the closet for the most part because my wife is a fundamentalist Christian and I don’t want this to become a source of strife. I value her as a person, enjoy her company and indeed love her so I’m willing to humor her and occasionally go to church with her. She knows I don’t share her fundamentalism and I also know she wishes I could share that part of her life with her. I don’t look upon organized religion as necessarily evil. I see many positive things from the fellowship it brings. In my view, the evilness often associated with organized religion really lies not with the religion itself but with the inherent evil capacity of humans in general.

  31. 31
    efrique

    Don’t confuse atheism with faith.
    There’s a very strong difference between “don’t take as unassailable truth that for which there’s no independent evidence” (which is a very powerful heuristic with demonstrable benefits) and “you better believe this specific set of things, or else”.
    “Evangelizing” (if you want to call it that) useful ways to treat ideas is positive.
    Look at it this way:
    Would a skeptic cease to be a skeptic because some things the skeptic had taken to be true turned out not to be? Unlikely.
    Consequently, arguing for a skeptical mindset (atheism is basically just skepticism applied to religious ideas) is of an entirely different character to evangelizing for a specific set of “it happened just so” stories.

  32. 32
    Eshu

    I can’t say that evangelism is unethical per se. As almost everyone has agreed, trying to convince people of your opinion is quite reasonable.
    Surely the right to tell people about your beliefs should be curtailed only when you start infringing on other people’s rights. Like say, their right to a bit of peace and quiet when they want to sleep.
    I think a lot of atheists (the majority of whom don’t feel the need to talk about atheism online), dislike the idea of evangelising atheism because they know only too well that religious evangelism is incredibly annoying!
    It can be annoying, aggressive, confrontational and time-consuming; I don’t think any of those make it unethical. It might make it ineffectual, but that’s not the issue here.
    I am sometimes tempted to start an ironic atheistic shouting rant at the guy in our town who does the same while waving a bible around. Most people seem to roll their eyes at him so I might get a few laughs!
    Perhaps a set of evangelism guidelines is needed, which could apply to anyone, whether they’re evangelising Christianity, Atheism, a political party or Open Source Software. It could include things like, “Taking NO for an answer” and “Listening as well as talking”.
    Thanks Greta, you’ve once again hit upon an important issue that will no doubt inspire many other blog posts – I know I’m planning one.

  33. 33
    ssjessiechan

    Whoo! I’m sure I’m going to love reading through these comments when I have time later!
    Well, I guess for ME at least, there is one big difference. When I talk to religious believers, which I enjoy immensely as long as they enjoy it too and don’t get pissey because I disagree (which happens sometimes), I do not aim to convert them. I just want to hear what they think, and then challenge that belief. I want them to learn. And I want to learn. Whether they keep their belief is secondary to me, though it would be gratifying for them to say “you’re right, I’m coming around to your way of thinking”. It would be a good think if they did, to be sure, and a good thing if I COULD convince large numbers of people to vote with their brains, but as an idea itself I see no compunction to force people around to my way.
    On the other hand, they do. They always answer my “I’m not trying to convert you,” with “well I am.” They see the fact that I disagree with them as being more than that, that there is something special about belief and nonbelief that they must change my mind BY ANY MEANS NECESSARY, including falsehood, threat of hell, what ifs, and all sorts of emotional manipulation (not because they’re trying to, but because those are the arguments the community accepts as proper and repeats among themselves). All else is secondary to the conversion.
    I think that’s the main difference between us. I for instance, and I’m sure you agree, think there are WRONG reasons to be an atheist. Like “I’m mad at God”. Or “Because Mao says so.” But the religious don’t care. “I’m about to die and I’m playing the Pascal wager” is a fabulous reason for them, even though if I were God I’d completely disagree. All they care about is making you the same is them, and they don’t care about your reasons for agreeing OR disagreeing.
    So yeah, truth and evidence and all that. But I think we intellectual types of atheists are more concerned about the discussion itself, and the REASONING than in the actual stance. Just like we see Christians in the liberal who-cares types and the fundamentalist types, and they’re very different, but they themselves see only Christians and Non.
    So, no. I don’t think you’re being evangelical. You’re telling people what you think and WHY.

  34. 34
    Chris

    Well, I just blogged about being anti-telephone and I feel bad about possibly offending people. So, I’m not the most qualified to offer an opinion about whether you ‘should’ be blogging about atheism, but the fact is, if someone doesn’t want to read it, they can stop.
    I think you provide a fabulous service, and I proselytize to people about your blog.
    Rock on!

  35. 35
    Buffy

    I dislike proselytizing, but if you’re not taking it to the streets, people’s doorsteps, their in-boxes or in any other way invading their personal space then I don’t see a problem with it. Readers are coming to you, after all, and that makes it a choice on their part to read your message. With evangelists it’s the opposite, and that’s where the problem lies–particularly when they can’t seem to take “no” for an answer.

  36. 36
    Heidi

    I see the difference kind of like the difference between terrorists and revolutionaries. They sort of look the same on the surface. They sort of have the same goals. But the tactics and the intellectual honesty are completely different.
    Revolutionaries attack military targets for strategic reasons. Terrorists attack civilian targets as a scare tactic. See where I’m going with this?
    Atheists ask questions about why on earth someone would believe ridiculous claims with no evidence. Atheists want to open a dialog. Believers use the carrot and stick of Santa Claus and the Boogey Man. If you’re good, you’ll get a reward; if you’re not, you’re in trouble. And their only rationale is that you just have to believe that some god will get you if you don’t watch out.
    That, to me, is a lot like telling a little kid that he’d better go to sleep quickly, or the monster under the bed is going to come out and eat him. The atheist version is more like telling that same kid that if he stays up too late, he’ll be tired the next day. And that you know this for observable, provable reasons.

  37. 37
    sexposfemme

    There’s definitely a difference! Atheists actually respect ideas that are not their own. Fundamentalists shout you down, especially if you are young, they inflict authority and fear. All Christians impose their religions on others in every sphere. My boss wears a cross and others at work have praised God or talked about church–at the office! I could never wear a baphomet and talk about the Satanic Bible or something. But if worked for an atheist, they would either say no religion for anyone in the workplace at all (which would be fair across the board) or everyone including Wicca and Satanists and Buddhists and whoever else can be open about it (which would be fair across the board).
    I feel safe around atheists in a way that I don’t feel safe around fundamentalist Christians.
    If anything, atheists are not in your face enough! They may be too open-minded for their own good. Satanists are narrow-minded. Atheists want the moral highground in order to gain social acceptance. Atheists should know that they ALREADY have the moral highground and say “if you don’t accept me, fuck off!” Sometimes to get respect you have to say screw the whole meeting of the minds thing, because the oppressor is too big for his britches, the oppressor is a human animal and doesn’t always care about reason and logic, but rather cares about control and power, and therefore he should feel offended and threatened. Atheists are like blacks now. They should learn from some other struggles.

  38. 38
    Kelly

    Religious evangelicalism isn’t just about spreading “the word” through fear–religious leaders want more converts because that means more money for their coffers.
    Some atheists have books to sell, but what atheists don’t have is a system in which people constantly give up a certain percentage of their earnings for a cause. Religious groups essentially operate as tax-free businesses–money is why these organizations are so influential. Religious leaders use this cash to lobby for restrictive social change through politics.
    I’m not aware of any atheists lobbying to limit the rights of people with whom they don’t agree.
    Great blog, by the way.

  39. 39
    "rolls eyes"

    You could always try minding your own business and getting on with your life … how is pushing your views any better than someone pushing theirs onto you? You lot are no more willing to consider that you might be wrong, than any religious fundamentalist.

  40. 40
    Maria

    @ “rolls eyes”. Most of “this lot” have held unsubstantiated beliefs before. We were theists or dabbled in all sorts of woo. To get to where we are today we had to be willing to consider that we might be wrong. We also did discover that we were wrong about the religious or wooish beliefs many of us had. So your claim that the whole lot of us are no more willing to consider that we might be wrong than any other religious fundamentalist is simply incorrect.

  41. 41
    Greta Christina

    Re “rolls eyes”: I love it when people comment on a piece simply by re-stating their position, without responding to any of the actual ideas or arguments made in the post. This entire post is a response to “rolls eyes”‘s comment. But I’ll try again.
    (a) Trying to persuade people of something is not the same as pushing your ideas on them.
    (b) We are, in fact, willing to consider the idea that we might be wrong. Most atheists say, “Give me some better evidence or some better arguments, and I’ll change my mind.” Here’s a wonderful example. As Maria pointed out: Most of us had to change our minds and accept that we were wrong in order to become atheists in the first place.

  42. 42
    Squishalot

    Greta, I’ve been introduced to your blog in a discussion with an atheist (I’m agnostic, personally) on Christianity.
    Just in relation to your blog post – I’m not sure that I entirely agree with you, but mostly because I have a different view on Evangelical Christianity. Not all of it is presented as doom-and-gloom, hellfire and brimstone, at least, not in Australia, and it’s primarily marketed in the Hillsong sense – the uplifting, ‘God welcomes everybody’ attitude. From discussions with others, I’m understanding it’s a very different case in America.
    On the flip side, if you can imagine how the religious people you’re deconverting feel, you’re essentially telling them that their life has no greater purpose than to exist – that we’re born, we live and we die, and that’s all, we’re just atoms going through the universe in a deterministic pattern with no will to change our path. That in itself is a fairly depressing sort of thought, especially if you’re used to thinking that there’s a loving God who cares for you.
    Anyway, just my two cents. I agree with you generally that ignorance should be gotten rid of, but by the same token, evangelical atheism isn’t any better than evangelical Christianity, in the sense that you’re still forcefully trying to change people’s minds. I try to ‘deconvert’ people from religion (not theism, mind you, just religion), but I do so from their perspective, rather than challenging their fundamental belief in a God, because simply put, I can’t demonstrate that there isn’t a God, so how can I question it? And most importantly, only when they welcome it.
    For what it’s worth, I think that blogging isn’t ‘evangelical’ atheism, in the TV evangelist sense. Call it ‘passive evangelism’ if you like. Because you’re happy to have your views seen and impressed on people, but only if they’re happy to be here to read it.

  43. 43
    Larry Wood

    Your Blog tackles a difficult problem, one which I have been addressing for some time. A couple of years ago, I wrote a book “Evolution and the Future of Mankind.” I think is still avail on Amazon. I am giving a PP presentation at the June AAAS meeting in Boise entitled Creationism – why is it so persistent?” In parallel, I’m writing a book entitled “What your Science Textbooks never told you” Theme is the existence of two descriptions of ourselves and our surroundings – Religion which I demonstrate to be about 30,000 years old and Science which developed when astute observers realized that religious explanations, such as the sun orbiting the earth, were obviously incorrect.
    In your latest posting you do not mention the principal flaw in religion, the belief in an undetectable supernatural magician that ha created everything and controls everything which is the basis of all religions. Also, religion is tenacious since children are inculcated in religion from their earliest years and the inculcation is continually reinforced – difficult combating that

    Larry

    Larry

  44. 44
    christophernicholas

    I’ve sometimes been accused of “pushing my ideas on others” by religious people who initiate a religious debate, then get angry when I’m not persuaded.
    The usual template goes something like:

    – I tell them I’m an atheist in response to a question about my beliefs or invitation to their church, or some other tactic they use to broach the subject.

    – they say “Oh really? Well what about (X)” – and launch into some argument for faith, or against atheism. It’s invariably an argument that most atheists have encountered over and over again, but the faithful usually have less experience debating with atheists than atheists do with the faithful, so they believe they are launching a novel or compelling argument.

    - When I attempt refute that argument, or simply remain unsurprised or unpersuaded by it, I am suddenly accused of attacking their beliefs or trying to “destroy” their faith, or their values. They then tell me I am “just like” the evangelical believers I supposedly mock.

    I sometimes find religious debates tiresome, but I’ve never felt threatened by a debate or discussion. The faithful, on the other hand, get very frightened and defensive if their arguments aren’t immediately accepted. They also tend to confuse refutation with disparagement, but that may be some fault with my presentation or demeanor.

  45. 45
    christophernicholas

    There’s a difference between persuasion or debate and imposition. Few atheists in the US try to impose or mandate atheism, whereas there’s a strong coercive impulse in many religious evangelicals. So I think the main difference between most atheists stating their positions, and many of the faithful, is that the faithful often have much less tolerance for real discussion or debate – Greta has written about the “just shut up” response – and are more intellectually dishonest than the typical atheist. They also conflate our objection to state mandated religious observances with censorship or prohibition of religion, ie an atheist objects to mandatory prayers at public school functions, the religious person interprets that as a suppression of their religious beliefs. Disparaging an atheist blogger as being “just like religious evangelicals” is a variation of the “shut up, that’s why” argument.

    Maybe, when discussing “evangelism,” the question should not be which side of the faith/skeptic debate you stake out, but whether you debate honestly and fairly, or use deceptive fallacious arguments, or apply double standards. The question then isn’t “am I being like those evangelicals” but rather ” am I being fair, honest and consistent in my arguments.”

    In my experience/IMO the percentage of atheists who can say “yes” to that question is much higher than the percentage of evangelical Christians.

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