Atheist Meme of the Day: The Right To Make Our Case »« Atheist Meme of the Day: Personal Experience /= Data

“Their First Steps”: Atheism and Patience, Round 2

Why do religious believers visit atheist blogs?

And what should atheists’ response to them be?

Watchtower There was a recent piece on Daylight Atheism that’s got me thinking about this question: a compelling, fascinating, completely excellent guest post, Jehovah’s Witnesses Hate the Smurfs, by former Jehovah’s Witness Sarah Braasch. The main thrust of the piece was simply to describe the abusive craziness of her upbringing — some of it specific to the religion, some of it simply made worse by it — and to describe how she left it, and how it still affects her to this day.

But what’s got me thinking about today’s question is an almost tangential point that came up in the comment thread. I had asked Sarah what atheists could do to make things easier for people who are coming out of religion. I asked, “Is there anything this community could have done that would have made your transition easier? Is there anything we could be doing now that would make it easier on people who are leaving abusive religion?”

Sarah had a number of good answers to that question. But what really jumped out at me was this:

I want to suggest that those folks that like to argue here for the religious viewpoint are making their first steps towards leaving religion.

I know that it’s easy to get upset with them and to lose patience with them. But, I firmly believe that that is why many of them are here. They are testing the waters. They want to be argued out of their beliefs.

I know it’s easy to succumb to the temptation to ignore them or marginalize them as trolls or whatnot. But, one of the reasons that I really like Ebon and his site is because he does show them a little more care and concern and respect than the typical atheism site.

Not all of them, to be sure. But, it’s just something to think about the next time you react to one of them.

Instead of alienating them, we should probably be trying to embrace them. And, assist them along on their path towards complete deconversion.

And it got me thinking:

I think Sarah has a really good point.

I think a lot of religious visitors to atheist blogs (and forums, and Facebook pages, and so on) are making their first steps towards leaving religion.

Skeptical_inquirer When I was leaving my religious beliefs, there weren’t any atheist blogs. (As far as I know, anyway.) But I found the next best thing. I found Skeptical Inquirer magazine. I’m not quite sure why I picked it up in the first place: mostly I was interested in the science and anti-conspiracy thinking and so on. And also I thought Ingrid would like it.

But a big part of why I kept on reading it was that I was testing the waters of my religion, and of letting it go. I wanted to think more carefully about what I believed and why. I didn’t want to believe out of wishful thinking anymore: I wanted to know whether my beliefs were defensible, consistent, supported by evidence or at least not flatly contradicted by it. A lot of what the Skeptical Inquirer talked about — astrology, anti-vaccination hysteria, conspiracy theories, etc. — were issues I was already down with, and I shared their deep value for the willingness to face harsh truths, and for letting reality trump pretty much everything. Plus I had tremendous respect for their careful consideration and rigorous “benefit of the doubt” testing of ideas they clearly thought were bullshit. If my beliefs were going to be anything other than a rationalization of what I wanted to believe, I needed to run them through the Skeptical Inquirer gauntlet, and see where they came out on the other side.

And I think that’s true for a lot of religious visitors to atheist blogs and forums and Facebook pages and so on.

Now, I don’t think that’s the only reason theists visit atheist blogs and whatnot. Some are just hit-and-run evangelists, wanting to spread the word of Jesus or whoever: they’re not interested in what atheists think or say, and they don’t stick around long enough to find out. Some really are just trolls, spoiling for a fight, poking the beehive with a stick just for the fun of it. And some are reasonable believers — still mistaken, I obviously think, but reasonable — who are interested in understanding atheism now that it’s becoming more important, and who want to forge alliances with us on issues we have in common.

Julia_sweeney But I strongly suspect that Sarah is right. I strongly suspect that a lot of the believers visiting atheist blogs are having questions and doubts about their beliefs, and are wanting to test the waters. They’ve always thought their beliefs were reasonable — especially, in the case of progressive believers, compared to the beliefs of the more prominent and obnoxious organized religions. (I’m always surprised at how many believers say, “Oh, your problem isn’t with religion, it’s with organized religion” — and are genuinely surprised when I reply, “Actually, no — I have a problem with all religions, including yours.”) They’ve always thought their beliefs were reasonable — but now, they’re having some doubts. They don’t just want to accept what they’ve been taught/ what they want to believe, and move on with an unexamined life; they want to examine their beliefs and make sure they make sense. (Julia Sweeney leaps to mind.) They’ve heard about atheism — it’s hard not to these days — and this option they’d never seriously considered is now all up in their face, so they want to give it a fair shake.

In other words: They’re proto-atheists. Any formerly-religious atheist knows that these kinds of doubts and questions and investigations are the first cracks in the foundation of faith. These folks — some of them, anyway, maybe a lot of them — are taking their first steps to atheism.

So what does this mean for atheists?

I think it means we have to be patient.

Patience I’ve written before about the need for patience in the atheist movement. I’ve pointed out that, while the same old bad arguments are very old indeed to any atheist who’s been around the atheosphere for more than six weeks, they’re not old to the believers who are making them. They are brand new to them. So yes, we have to keep on pointing out the flaws in the “You can’t prove atheism with 100% certainty” argument, and the “Life and the universe are just too complex to have happened by chance, therefore God did it” argument, and the “Atheism is a faith just as much as religion” argument. Even [deep sigh] Pascal’s Wager. Just like teachers have to keep explaining the same concepts to each new crop of students, we have to keep explaining Atheism 101 to each new crop of visiting believers. (And a lot of the time, there’s a “water on rock” phenomenon: we almost certainly won’t persuade anyone out of religion in just one debate, but that debate plus twenty others with other atheists may wear the rock down.)

Feet So we have to be patient for that reason. But we also have to be patient for the reason Sarah brought up. We have to be patient because many of the believers visiting our blogs and such are taking their first steps out of religion. In fact, the very arguments they’re making are their first steps. The argument are their first steps to thinking of religion, not as a basic axiom that’s assumed to be true, but as just another hypothesis about the world, one that deserves to be treated like any other hypothesis, with the same criticism and questioning and expectation that it support itself with evidence. (Which, as we all know, is the beginning of the end.) Today’s defenders of the faith are tomorrow’s die-hard atheists. Some of them, anyway.

So we have to be patient with them.

Brick Wall Now, to be clear, I don’t think “patience” means “continuing to beat your head against a brick wall indefinitely.” There comes a point in many discussions and debates when you have to be willing to just drop it. (A lesson I have a hard time taking to heart…) If someone just keep repeating the same points over and over; if they deal with your responses to their points by ignoring you and just repeating themselves again; if they keep bringing up red herrings; if they keep changing the subject every time they get backed into a corner; if they seem uninterested in basic rules of logic and evidence; if they keep turning a discussion of actual issues into a meta-discussion of whether atheists even have a right to make our case… it’s okay to bail. All of these gambits are part of religion’s massive armor against legitimate questions and criticism, and it generally takes more than one Internet argument to penetrate it. Part of being patient is knowing when to back off for the moment. Maybe the seeds of doubt will have been planted, and someone else will pick up where you left off. Maybe not. Either way, there’s no law that says we have to pursue every argument to the bitter end. (I’m writing this to remind myself of that as much as anyone else…)

Not a doormat And of course, I don’t think that “patience” means “letting ourselves be doormats.” I think we can and should make our case, and make it firmly. When we get accused of being intolerant, disrespectful, mean bad people just for making our case, we can and should point out why that’s absurd, unfair, and just another way of armoring religion and shutting us up. And I don’t think “patience” means we have to let ourselves be treated with genuinely insulting contempt. I am generally in favor of taking the high road when this happens: if a believer starts hurling personal insults and calling me ugly names, I will usually respond with cold manners rather than sinking to their level. (If for no other reason, so that anyone else reading the thread will see the difference.) But we can take the high road and still stand our ground.

Patience doesn’t mean letting ourselves be kicked around. What it means is remembering that we’re talking to human beings, and treating them as such. It means being rigorously careful about critiquing ideas and beliefs without insulting people. (A lot of believers won’t make that distinction, and will take it very personally when we critique their religion — but we need to be rigorous about it anyway.) It means remembering that it’s not fair to treat people like they’re stupid just because they’re not familiar with the ideas we’re so intimately familiar with. It means keeping in mind how hard it can be to let go of religion. It means remembering that we’re asking people to abandon a form of comfort they’ve relied on for years… and are asking them to make themselves into one of the most hated groups in the world, and quite possibly to alienate their family and friends, while they’re at it.

Open_doorPatience means remembering that the reason many of these folks are here arguing with us is that they’re curious about us — and it means doing our best to keep the door open, instead of slamming it in their face. It means we have to do more than make good arguments for atheism. We have to show why atheism is a safe place to land. And we have to make it a safe place to land, as much as we can.

We have to treat the people we’re arguing with as people who might soon be our side.

Because that’s exactly what they are.

*

And now I want to throw this one out to my readers.

If you are now an atheist and once were not — and if you spent time in atheist blogs and forums and so on before you deconverted — why did you do that? What made you think, “I want to go check out an atheist blog”? And when you did, what did you find helpful or not helpful in your process of deconverting? What (if anything) did you find inviting, and what (if anything) did you find off-putting?

And if you’re a believer reading this blog — why are you here? What makes you interested in reading atheist ideas, and what do you get out of it? I’m genuinely curious about this, and I want to know.

Comments

  1. Sarah TX says

    Damn, I never thought of it that way…
    …which is sort of silly because looking back, I did the exact same thing, although not on atheist blogs per se.

  2. says

    I too am an ex-Witness. In my case, it was religious discussions on h2g2 (the site founded by Douglas Adams) which, along with other stuff, forced me to reevaluate my beliefs.
    TRiG.

  3. David D.G. says

    Patience doesn’t mean letting ourselves be kicked around. What it means is remembering that we’re talking to human beings, and treating them as such. It means being rigorously careful about critiquing ideas and beliefs without insulting people. (A lot of believers won’t make that distinction, and will take it very personally when we critique their religion — but we need to be rigorous about it anyway.) It means remembering that it’s not fair to treat people like they’re stupid just because they’re not familiar with the ideas we’re so intimately familiar with.

    Great post, Greta! I especially liked this part, because it’s what I have tried to live by when encountering argumentative theists online at FSTDT and elsewhere.
    ~David D.G.

  4. says

    I found atheist blogs sort of by accident, having been exposed to the blogosphere by a completely different route (teacher blogs, interestingly–I did a high school research paper on education policy, and I wanted to get a sense of what real teachers thought). When I started seriously thinking about being an atheist, returning to some atheist blogs I had stumbled upon seemed natural.
    Some of the earliest atheist blogs I read were of the more confrontational and scientifically oriented variety (Pharyngula being the most obvious example). I think I was ready for that confrontational stance, as I was already somewhat jaded with regard to organized religion, and the unapolegetic tone such sites take with regard to their atheism shook me up and made me really think about whether I could justify my beliefs.
    Aside from that, I was also really helped by posts that made me realize that atheists were real people, many with defensible and compassionate belief systems. Blog carnivals were great for introducing me to the atheist blogosphere as a community. I saw that there were lots of different kinds of atheists… most importantly, I suppose, that they didn’t all fit the angry intellectual teenage boy model, the only one I knew closely in real life.
    I guess what I’m saying is… lots of different things helped me, and needs will in some regard be different for different people. Which is why it is amazing that there are so many different atheist bloggers out there, many of them with complimentary commenter communities. There should be a way for ex-believers of all kinds to find what they need. And if readers hang out on the internet much, they learn about the characteristics of those communities. For instance, the Pharyngula commmenters can be vicious, while people will be easier on you at Ebon’s place, provided you aren’t being deliberately obnoxious.
    That said, we can’t assume that everyone understands such things the first time they stumble in. So you’re right… before we respond to believers, we should take a second to think “what if this is their first step?” It may or may not change our response, but it may in some cases make us gentler when it counts.

  5. says

    I was once a believer. Not a member of a church per se, but a devout follower of my own, idiosyncratic faith system. Definitely believed in God, that’s for sure. Saw Him everywhere. Ideas of reference almost.
    Anyway, I didn’t go to atheist blogs or read magazines on critical thinking. On the contrary, I went to college and majored in religious studies. It was during those years of academic inquiry–into religion, yes, but also into science and philosophy–that I gradually realized the error of my ways. Upon graduation I was testing out the word atheist as applied to myself. Today I’m an ardent and open one.

  6. says

    I never visited atheist blogs before my deconversion from religion, but I did have several friends who were skeptical of religion.
    When I was in high school, I overheard some of my friends mocking the more overtly fundamentalist forms of religion. Feeling that the criticisms were too broad and unfair, I started trying to explain my personal Christianity to my friends.
    Even after I had been talking to them for several months, I still had the same beliefs, but eventually some of what they had said started to sink in once I did have my first doubts, and when I began doubting the main benefit of that previous interaction was that I already knew other people who were out there and who were already skeptical of religion.
    So even if you don’t change anyone’s beliefs, at least you can hope that by letting people know it’s okay to be a skeptic, and that skeptics are out there and exist and are decent people, it will help give people the confidence to doubt their ideas freely.

  7. says

    (first of all, sorry for my bad english, I’m still learning it at school)
    Greta (can I call you this way?), don’t know if here is the best place to ask this, but anyway, could I use part of your text about the “top one reason religion is harmful” on my personal blog? (obviously linking to your blog and to alternet)
    About the topic, for me it was a little bit different. I didn’t start to question my beliefs reading about atheism, but reading more and more about my religion. When I was eleven, I had to go to the church every week for a whole year (this period actually has a name, but I have no idea of how to call it in english). There, I was suposed to learn more about Jesus and God, so I would confirm my faith on them. But for me it didn’t confirmed anything. Instead, it made me start to ask questions about things that weren’t explained very well. And I noticed that the answers didn’t explained much more. After some evasive answers I started to search another religion, that could give me better answers. As I didn’t found anything, I found out I was an atheist. Just 1 or 2 years later I had my first contact with an atheist site.
    (I hope it’s possible to understand what I tried to say… Again, sorry for my bad English).

  8. says

    I read an atheist book – which prompted my deconversion – before encountering the atheosphere. I read the book because I wasn’t sure whether believing in god made sense. Having been persuaded by the book that it didn’t, I started reading atheist blogs to get some idea of how ordinary people live their lives without god-beliefs. Atheist blogs didn’t lead me to unbelief, but they played a huge role in confirming it.

  9. says

    Regarding Madness_dreams’ comment: My commenters are easy on visitors? Tsk, we’re slipping! I’m going to have to encourage them to be more vicious. ;)
    My story may not be the most typical, because when I first encountered atheist websites (we didn’t have blogs back then!), my immediate reaction was, “Yes, that’s what I am.” I left deism behind without a backward glance. It felt less as if I was leaving behind something I believed, more as if I had known all along and was only just realizing it.
    But I think it is true that many people who seek out atheist blogs are doing it because they want to be convinced, even if they themselves don’t realize that that’s their intent. I especially liked your point, Greta, that even acknowledging that God’s existence can be debated is the first step toward treating religion as just one more hypothesis about the world. That’s a really excellent observation.
    And as you said, it’s a crucial step in the path to deconversion. When religion loses its metaphysically privileged status in the believer’s mind – when they cease thinking of it as The Way Things Are and start thinking of it as just one possible explanation, among many, of why things are that way – that’s when the comparisons to other belief systems naturally begin to invite questions. And once they start asking those questions, a seed has been planted…

  10. says

    I’m a de-convert from Evangelical Christianity. I’d received a pretty thorough indoctrination at a private Christian high school, and not long after graduation, I sought out my own niche in a Neopentecostal church that would have had Sarah Palin feeling right at home. I was insecure, and liked the belonging, and the certainty, and the sense of significance that came with being a warrior for Jesus.
    I actually came to start questioning my assumptions—if not about my faith yet, then at least about atheism—whilst lurking about the blog of a fellow Christian. (Although, I must admit, Fred Clark of Slacktivist would receive only the most grudging, half-assed acceptance as a Christian from many of my former co-religionists. I felt like a bit of a betrayer of the faith for even hanging out there at first, and created a brand new pseudonym lest I be recognized in a Google search under my usual nom de Internet. Paranoid? Oh, yes, perhaps a smidge.) It wasn’t just Fred’s posts that caused me to re-evaluate my assumptions, but the discussions in the comments as well. Well-reasoned, insightful debate amongst all different types of Christians, pagans, agnostics, atheists, feminists, liberals, conservatives, about topics ranging from theology to science, from politics to pie. They were (and still are) a fun, remarkably civil bunch.
    At the time, I wasn’t looking to deconvert. I was just burned out, looking for a saner faith and some assurances that God wasn’t the asshole I’d come to know. And while I wasn’t ready to agree with the atheists at that time, I saw that they were nothing, NOTHING like the strawmen that I’d been taught about in my high school classes. (Seriously, Greta, all those stupid arguments you listed? We had an entire semester my senior year dedicated to learning and absorbing those arguments. For years, I believed them to be airtight.) These atheists weren’t joyless and bitter. They weren’t “people who had been hurt by the church and just needed a real encounter with the love of Jesus”. They also weren’t people who knew the truth of God, but chose to deny it out of sheer bloody-mindedness. They were kind, reasonable people with well thought out arguments and valid points.
    And so I listened. For the first time in my goddamned life, I think, I listened.
    Some people leave their faith because they realize they don’t believe anymore. Mine was the other way around. I stopped following God first, even though I still figured he existed, because I realized the God I served was an abusive fuck and I didn’t want my daughter growing up thinking that this sort of thing was normal and right. And then, when my life went on about the same—smitings mysteriously absent—I finally was ready to examine the evidence for God himself. (About which time I started combing right the hell through your blog archives. Can I thank you enough?) I guess I just couldn’t do that while I was still emotionally attached to the guy.
    All I know is, when I was ready to let go, I found—like you’ve described—a safe place to land.
    However, mine was a slow, gradual landing through moderate Christianity. That’s why when Richard Dawkins criticizes moderate religion for enabling the crazies, I…well, I can see his point, but I think he’s missing how vital it can be for some people to have that gentle slope down which they can take their baby steps out of religious extremism, and eventually, out of religion altogether. Yes, that ramp goes both ways, but…well, that ramp goes both ways. I don’t think I could have made the leap from one side to the other. Or I don’t think I would have, at any rate.

  11. says

    If someone just keep repeating the same points over and over; if they deal with your responses to their points by ignoring you and just repeating themselves again; if they keep bringing up red herrings; if they keep changing the subject every time they get backed into a corner; if they seem uninterested in basic rules of logic and evidence; if they keep turning a discussion of actual issues into a meta-discussion of whether atheists even have a right to make our case
    I think you just described 99% of my conversations with theists on the internet… Well, conversation is too strong a word – it mostly consisted of getting shouted at in 14 point purple comic sans, or some equivalent.

  12. Maria says

    Reading this post I guess I have a reason to look at myself with some self criticism.
    I am not the patient kind. I often do get incredibly impatient and annoyed – even pissed off, at the same old arguments, and I can sometimes get a bit snarky, somtimes more than a bit. Usually I try to not engage in discussions with believers at all, because I know myself. I usually prefer to sit back to watch people that are better at it, do it.
    Partly this is a thing in my personality. I’m often rather impatient with many things, not just believers. In another post Greta mentioned that we have to be patient the way teachers are, repeating the same things every year to new students, well, that wold drive me crazy :-) I could never work as a teacher, and I was never good at teaching what I know. On the whole I’m not very good with kids and endless questions and things like that :-)
    Also, having never been a believer myself, and so never having to let go of a deeply held belief that I considered a great part of my life, never having to come out, never having to risk the rejection of friends and relatives, or risk facing discrimination because of it… I naturally can’t share such experiences and can’t understand them on a deep level. That doesn’t mean that I can’t be deeply touched by conversion stories, or understand the how and why of things, or sympathize with people. After all, humans have this capacity to engage in other people’s lives even when we don’t share the exact same experiences. But it could also be one factor that sometimes makes me less patient with the believers that come on atheist blogs with the same old.
    Yes, I did hold a lot of woo-beliefs in my youth that I have since discarded, but this was never a very painful process. It was just things that I was corrected about as I grew older and learned more. I feel a bit embarrassed that I ever thought this and that, but no more than with other factoids I once believed but put aside when I learned otherwise.
    It has also something to do with why I started to read atheist blogs. As I said, I believed in a lot of woo when I was much younger, or was in any case very interested in much of it. It was not so much a faith or a belief as a really fun game and a hobby that I shared with ALL my friends. They were all interested in tarot cards and wanted to go see a psychic or a fortune teller, and was interested in PSI-phenomena and ghosts and so on… It was something we shared and had fun with at parties and sleep-overs. I was interested enough to want to learn more and started to read a lot about it. It started a long process of discarding woo after woo as I learned more how such things could not work and how much nonsense it was. Eventually I realized it was ALL nonsense and I just grew out of it. My friends and relatives did not go that route. I did not just reject the Christian god (that most of them also did) I rejected all gods, the whole supernatural-thing, and started to become more and more interested in science, critical thinking and atheism as an actual subject. (We weren’t very aware atheists, not believing in the Christian god was just the norm when I grew up, of course it was just fairy-tales and stale old traditions that only grandma insisted on – we didn’t really need to be outspoken atheists in opposistion to a very watered down Christianity that was mostly reduced to nice traditions.)
    Well, so it wasn’t anywhere close to a painful coming out process, but suddenly I realized that I was thinking vastly different than most of the people around me, and that we had much less to talk about. I felt a bit lonely in my thinking, that was all. So I came on-line, looked around and realized there are many people like me, and that they have thought and learned a LOT more about this than I had managed on my own. So for me reading, commenting and discussing on atheist/skeptic blogs and forums was a way to meet like-minded, vent my frustrations about not quite reaching my friends and relatives anymore, and learn A LOT about how to develop my thinking. I learned how to formulate and gather all those bits and ends of thoughts in my head, how to know myself better, and I learned a lot of facts.
    I’ve never come from the atheist movement angle. I’m not a movement-person, I was never a group person. I was never in any movements and always engaged in things on my own. It was never my intention to win people over to a cause, or try “evangelize an atheistic message” or to “make my case”. I didn’t much care what people believed as long as they kept it to themselves and didn’t bother me with it. So I never sought out religious people to discuss with them. When I did end up in discussions, and when I did read other atheist’s discussions with believers (with great interest) it was as a tool for me to get ever better understanding of my own thoughts, and increase my knowledge.
    However, my initial opinions and feelings about this have changed. I have realized more and more what a threat religion are to us all, and that an atheist movement is needed. I have completely different views on these things now than I had when I first started to look after atheist and skeptic blogs. BUT that doesn’t mean that I as a person are any better suited than I was before to aid in this cause. Greta Christina is such a person, I am not.
    That said, I also agree with Madness_dreams above, many different approaches can be good, and I don’t think that the more snarky or hard-ball approaches are always to be considered bad. I think it can sure have its place! Even so, personally I try to tone it down a bit, and not reply at all when I feel that I want to bite the head off a commenter. I don’t always succeed, but I try.
    This is getting too long as it is, but as a final note I guess I am also a bit blasé (I hesitate to use the word cynic) because I don’t really buy that quite so many religious people who come to atheist blogs are really on their first step. Many sure are, I’m not saying none of them are, of course. But I think many of them are just so incredibly arrogant in their beliefs that they really do believe it’s as easy to correct us in our sinful ways as by just telling us that Jesus thinks we are bad, and all the variations thereof. They’re not curious or in doubt, they just want to correct us as unruly children who doesn’t know our own good. And many are here on a mission, to earn browny points with their god – the more stubborn the godless/satanist the more points in heaven when they manage to get us “on the right path again”. I once ran into a religious proselytozer in real life who literally used that word “more points in heaven if I turn an atheist”.
    But I admit that I can be biased by my own crankiness :-) and that I probably often see these types of people in commenters who are really of the honest curious and doubting type. I’ve just seen so many cases where atheist/skeptics engaged fully in a discussion investing patience and sympathy and lots of time with people who claimed they were honestly open – only to turn out to be nothing of the kind. Well, I don’t think their efforts were wasted, as others can read it too, who maybe are more open.
    I admire the people who have the patience to do this over and over again. Me, I don’t have it…

  13. says

    I’m one of those pesky believers, though I don’t subscribe to organized religion. I know to some, that means something, and to others it doesn’t.
    I didn’t actually come here looking to read about atheist ideas. It was the liberal blog carnival that brought me in originally, and I was expecting more of a generally political site as a result. Of course, with how religion has become intertwined with our politics (even though it shouldn’t be), I guess that means it still is, just not quite in the sense I was thinking.
    I don’t spend a lot of time seeking out atheist sites, but when I do come across one, I like to read up on the viewpoints different atheists have. They haven’t really changed my position on the big idea that God exists, but they have cleared up some misconceptions I’ve held in some cases about atheists. That’s not to say I ever felt atheists were wrong to believe as they do, but I think I have a better picture of how they see themselves now than I did before. Which itself is probably an overbroad generalization.
    Reading about atheist ideas has also forced me to refine my own ideas, which is good. While I know some might respond that refining my spiritual beliefs in light of new knowledge is using an approach similar to “the god of the gaps”, I view it a little differently. I like to look at it as changing my beliefs as my understanding of reality changes, in much the same way science refines it’s model of reality as it’s gains new evidence.
    Obviously, it’s not the same, since beliefs are formed before there’s evidence for them. But I think you can still see the parallel, even if you disagree with it.
    At this point, I’ve made a more clear distinction in my mind, though I felt this way before, about how to deal with science and faith. Science deals with those things that are testable and falsifiable. Faith deals with those things that are not testable or falsifiable. Science, of course, is growing, so in time, it may turn out more things become testable, in which case faith may end up covering a smaller area. Reading and debating with people with a lot of different beliefs is what brought me to making this distinction, because I got tired of people trying to equate faith with science, because I know they’re different.
    At the same time, I also needed a way to explain to atheists that my goal isn’t to hijack science with faith, but rather to reconcile them, at least for myself. This also helped me make that distinction between faith and science in terms of defining it a bit for my sake and that of those I talk to.

  14. says

    Great post! This may be unrelated to the topic, but I really want to thank you. I’ve been an atheist for much of my life, but I always thought it was something that you just didn’t talk about – but people like you, who write frankly about atheism in a public forum have helped me find my voice. It’s a good feeling.
    So, I guess, I can’t really remember if I sought out atheist blogs/writing when I was having doubts about religion. But, now that I am an atheist, the fact that people are out there writing about atheism for others to read has really helped me find pride in being an atheist.

  15. Sarah Braasch says

    What an amazing discussion. Thanks for writing this thoughtful piece, Greta Christina. I always love your stuff and your input on Daylight Atheism too. I will write something more thoughtful later. I just wanted to express my gratitude.

  16. Michael Keenan says

    I have been a serious doubter since high school in the ’60s(and that’s after being raised a good Catholic and being an alter boy). The hard part was going public w/ my whole family remaining very religious, becoming even more fundamental than Catholic in many cases. They knew I wasn’t religious but they didn’t know I was a closet “athiest” (that dreaded label). And at times I had doubts about my doubts and even thought maybe I was wrong and there is a being in the sky running things (this usually didn’t last too long) and maybe my kids should have some kind of religious background taught to them.
    So finally when getting more public about my lack of belief it was certainly reassuring to find websites, blogs, books, and other people that are without belief, too. So, yes, treat the doubters and the inquirers gently. We all need support.
    And refer those interested to Greta’s writings. So clear and so logical. Thanks for the good work, Greta.

  17. jemand says

    Right after graduating an Adventist high school and starting an Adventist affiliated University, I spent most of the entire class of a particular religious/philosophy/history mishmash which drove me insane in it’s inanity and religious whakyness even *when* I was religious, online, and debating on the former IIDB (now FRDB).
    It was really awesome, getting in there among posting giants, debating giants, I felt kinda small, trying basically just to explain the adventist veiwpoint, I guess I wasn’t sure why I was there. But I loved the debate, I wasn’t really sure whether I was trying to convert someone or wanting to be deconverted… but I loved it there as a believer. (now that I’m an atheist, the site is a bit more boring, lol. I go debate on a very fundamentalist one now. I guess I just loved debating in the minority.)
    I remember especially when one atheist stood up for me to another, said in fact, morally I was fine, ‘cuz at that point I was more live and let live (I was abandoning my gays is evil upbringing. Yeah, I probably wasn’t as far along as I should have been– talking about “sins” lol, but I had completely separated “sin” from any form of “harm” or “evil” and said it was irrelevant outside of a religious perspective, and “sin” had no relevance to any moral standpoint.)
    The other poster I remember pretty much mocked me for saying that god’s law in leviticus was the best he could do for the time, “oh, poor little god! can’t deal with those little bronze age terrors so he gets his name mixed up in unethical horror laws.”
    yup, it was mocking, and YUP I needed it lol. It made me think, and eventually I abandoned my faith. It took all types, and I’m pretty sure I would have left my religion regardless of IIDB, but it might have taken a bit longer.

  18. says

    Depending on the day of the week and the exact context I generally identify as either agnostic or atheist. I used to be an Orthodox Jew.
    My own history is a bit complicated and I’d say that the atheist blogs played some part in my change but not a large part.

  19. says

    It might be better to expand on that slightly in a way that is more useful: I was already reading a fair bit of material in the skeptical community when I was still Orthodox. That involved also reading a bit of atheism related material as sort of spill over. For the last two or three years of my Orthodoxy I would have readily agreed that there wasn’t any strong evidence for God and that my beliefs were essentially out of mainly emotional reasons.
    When I did change my position it was due to a variety of issues. The most prominent was simply finding the problem of theodicy to be too severe. The second was seeing how many of my coreligionists and religious people in general didn’t accept very basic science especially in biology. This made me see religion as a serious blinder to seeing reality.
    During all this, pro-evolution sites such as TalkOrigins Archive as well as very usenet groups (such as talk.origins ok. big surprise there) and such had much more impact on me than material in the blogosphere. I stopped being Orthodox in 2005-2006 (the tsunami in East Asia in 2004 had a lot to do with my increasing problems with theodicy) at which point the atheist end of the blogosphere was still young and still much more connected to the general skeptical end of the blogosphere which was more developed. But the skeptics still had a lot of material on theodicy and related issues incidental to their skepticism. And that certainly pushed me further in that direction.
    I don’t think the issue of politeness to theists ever impacted me very much since I already knew that people could have a wide variety of views and still be either polite or be jerks.
    Hmm, I guess all that rambling says more or less that I’m not a very useful data point.

  20. says

    I grew up in a Jewish family and started calling myself an atheist about a year ago. However when I did believe in God the God I believed in was more of a Deistic God than a Theistic God. I didn’t know what the word Deist meant at the time so I didn’t use it to describe myself by it is an accurate description of what my theological views were before I became an atheist. I know there was a time in which I believed in a traditional concept of God but I think it was when I was fairly young. When I was in high school I remember telling my mother that created the universe and then left. At some point I might have also believed that God seeded life on this planet, but it is hard to hold to supernatural explanations to things when the natural explanations are so much more interesting.
    I actually discovered the atheist community online before I was an atheist myself. My brother showed me a website called fundies say the darndest things. It was basically a collection of quotes from fundamentalists that people thought were so stupid they were funny. I found the quotes amusing at first until I realized that people actually believed them. I was there for the same reason the atheists were there to make fun of the religious nut jobs. The fact that I believed in God didn’t make fundamentalists and creationists look any less stupid.
    Then I discovered YouTube. The video’s were generally directed at creationists so it was trivial for me to say that their religious beliefs were irrational but mine weren’t. My reason for believing in God was something resembling the cosmological argument and the finely tuned argument. I didn’t encounter many formal apologists before I became an atheist so my reasons for believing in the existence of God were more nebulous consents in my mind than logical arguments.
    I don’t remember what tipped me over the edge but once I fell I was unable to get back up. I have told some people that I became an atheist when I realized had redefined God out of existence, and others that I became an atheist after my last argument for God fell apart. They are both true to some extent.
    There was a short time after I became an atheist that searched out theistic apologetic material hoping to be convinced, but it didn’t last long for two reason. The first was I knew it would be crap to begin with, and the second was I wasn’t in an emotional state that would allow me to dig trough a pile of dung to find a gold nugget.

  21. says

    Excellent post! I’ve just recently been thinking about this also. If you know of any denomination-specific communities for on-the-fence theists, please comment at luckyatheist.blogspot.com – I’m collecting them. There are many people losing their faith who are programmed to run for the exits when they see the word “atheist”, and there aren’t a lot of middle-of-the-road sites on the internet. It’s easier to get them to take a couple more steps if they find a community that’s using language they’re comfortable with and making them feel welcome and supported.

  22. says

    Its interesting that you bring up Skeptical Inquirer, because that was my entre into nonbelief and skepticism as well. I was never really religious, but there was a point in my life where I believed in a lot of woo – tarot cards, i-ching, magick, shamanism, non-specific “spirituality”, and the like. I was a *huge* fan of Robert Anton Wilson. At the same time, I knew that this was an area that was absolutely rife with bullshit, and I figured reading the skeptical literature would be an excellent way of putting a check on the obvious bullshit. However, as I held more and more of what I believe in up to the light of skeptical inquiry, and at the same time, as my own science education progressed (I am a now a biologist, specializing in mycology), I found more and more that practically none of the woo I had believed in held any empirical evidence. I do still maintain some interest and openness toward herbal and alternative medicine, because, I do think that a small percentage of it actually can be incorporated usefully into scientific medicine (examples: Lorenzo’s oil, medical marijuana, and psilocybin treatment of OCD). But in well over 99 times out of 100, serious rational inquiry into the paranormal, conspiracies, and the rest finds those ideas utterly bereft and yielding no interesting new areas of inquiry even beyond their simple debunking. On the other hand, empirical scientific research is constantly uncovering new truths about ourselves, our world, and our universe.

  23. says

    I know a number of people in the ex-Mormon community who spent time arguing for the church on apologetics websites — and cite it as an important step towards unbelief.

  24. says

    I am a believer who loves your blog. I started reading it when it was referenced by a fellow churchgoer. (being a UU, half my friends are atheists) I continue reading because you state your case better than any other atheist writer I know, and I learn a lot- one doesn’t learn a thing listening only to people who agree with you.

  25. Puzzled says

    Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately) one hears, at times, the same thoughts from religious people about converting people – the atheist who argues with you is taking the first steps towards belief. You know what? They’re right, and you’re right.

  26. Joey Fox says

    To answer your questions Greta:
    I was raised a Christian and continued it for 17 years. I began looking at the personality of the biblical god and realized I wanted to worship no such person. Then I began reading and studying science- so much that I switched college degrees and can’t get enough of it. I realized that my beliefs, though no longer “religious” (yet still “spiritual” heh) were based on wishful thinking. Like the soul. That one’s a bit of a struggle, but I can’t deny logic and evidence.
    I checked out this blog because an athiest friend posted it on her facebook. I kept coming back because I saw questions were being addressed, about Jesus’ teaching, about the soul, new age stuff, etc. That, your liberal views on life, and how you take joy in the temporary were all things I needed to explore.
    Patience is good for those of us who are letting go of fantasies. And we DO want to be argued out of our beliefs! At least I do. I need the debate, the evidence, the logic, the science, otherwise I can’t believe anything. Floating along isn’t that bad… but realizing that this life is all I have actually motivates me to get off my ass instead of waiting around. That’s what religion did to me: allowed me to wait around comfortably for something “better.” What a waste.
    Thanks, Greta, for your blogs of awesomeness. I continue reading! :D

  27. says

    I think your piece is missing something pretty major. There’s a second half of your thesis that you not only don’t include, but don’t make allowance for.

    So what does this mean for atheists? I think it means we have to be patient…

    …IF, and only if, our goal is to persuade religious people out of their belief. Not every conversation in atheist spaces is for the purpose of addressing the questions of religious people. In spaces that aren’t about them, patience is not required. People may or may not choose to be patient, but that’s a ‘style’ issue rather than a ‘tactics’ one.

    A lot of conversations about how we ‘should’ or ‘must’ behave get pulled into the gravitational vortex of this idea that the goal of every conversation is to rationally persuade those who disagree with us (which I happen to believe is largely based on a myth of the “golden logical bullet”, but that’s beside the point). Persuasion is most certainly one valid goal of conversation, but it is not an exhaustive list of all goals.

    I don’t think this piece is intended to be prescriptive – “all atheists must behave this way” – but it does omit a point that is often omitted by prescriptivists.

Leave a Reply