Resistance Is Not Futile: Why Arguing About Religion Is Not A Waste of Time – The Outline


SsaI gave a brand new talk at the Secular Student Alliance conference last weekend, one I’d never given before: “Resistance Is Not Futile: Why Arguing About Religion Is Not A Waste of Time.” The SSA asked me to provide an outline for the talk to include in their proceedings handbook, but it didn’t make it in (for space reasons, I’m guessing). And I’m kind of sorry to have it go to waste, since I had a fair amount of fun putting it together. So I’m posting it here. (Sorry about the dumb formatting — Typepad won’t let me do tabs or indentations, so I’m having to improvise with asterisks.) Enjoy!

Resistance Is Not Futile: Why Arguing About Religion Is Not A Waste of Time

I: Is arguing about religion a waste of time?
* A: No.

II: Commonly held idea: Arguing against religion never works. Religious beliefs are too deeply ingrained, are held for emotional reasons and not rational ones.
* A: Bullshit.
* B: It does so work. Ask any atheist writer/ blogger/ debater/ speaker. People are persuaded by our arguments. Frequently.
* C: Why do people think it never works?
* * 1: It rarely works right away, in the course of a single argument. Leaving religion is usually a process, one that takes time. You won’t persuade someone out of religion in one conversation — but you can plant the seeds of doubt.
* * 2: Many people are conflict-averse. They convince themselves that arguing against religion doesn’t work because they don’t want to do it.
* * * a: So don’t do it. Do whatever kind of atheist activism works for you. But don’t get in the way of other atheists who do want to do it.

III: How to go about it.
* A: Don’t waste your time with private debates. Have your debates in public forums: blogs, Facebook, videotape your conversations and put them on YouTube, etc.
* B: Seriously consider whether you want to debate people you’re very close to — family members, friends, etc.
* C: Don’t look for a magic bullet — there is no one perfect argument that will persuade everyone to become an atheist.
* * 1: Again, leaving religion is usually a long process, an emotional one as well as an intellectual one.
* * 2: Different arguments work with different people.
* * 3: Many people need multiple arguments to convince them.
* D: Be patient. Your ideas are old to you, but they’re new to the folks you’re talking with.

IV: Which goals of the atheist movement are helped by trying to argue people out of religion?
* A: All of them.
* B: Seriously.
* C: If you’re doing alliance or interfaith work with believers, it makes sense to table these arguments temporarily — but coalition work should never come at the cost of atheists shutting up permanently about our objections to religion.
* * 1: Arguing about religion does work to persuade people out of religion. (See above.)
* * 2: Arguing about religion strips religion of its special privileged status as the one idea that can never be questioned. And that helps all the goals we’re working towards — ending anti-atheist bigotry, separation of church and state, special legal exemptions for religious organizations, etc.
* * 3: Arguing about religion helps re-frame religion as an idea rather than an identity — which makes believers more open to listening to our ideas.
* D: So consider engaging in it.
* E: And if you choose not to — don’t get in the way of other people who do.

Comments

  1. Stonyground says

    I am slightly embarrassed that it took me to my very late teens before I realised that religion was bunk. Had I been able to access sceptical ideas I would have acheived enlightenement much sooner. I take the point about there being no magic bullet but I think that the essay ‘Examination of the prophesies’ by Thomas Paine comes pretty damn close with regard to Christianity. Sit down with that and a Bible and it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that the New Testament writers were either outright frauds or at best gravely mistaken. The hard part, I think, would be persuading Christians to actually read it.

  2. vel says

    very nicely said, Greta. I’ve always wondered why people insist that it “never works” when it does. I used to be very conflict adverse and discussing religion certainly helped me get over that. It’s too important just to let lies go on with no counter.

  3. says

    - “Don’t waste your time with private debates.”
    Respectfully, I disagree. One on one, face to face contact can be very compelling. Otherwise I agree with your points, especially pointing out that change takes time. Atheists should be mindful about getting disappointed or frustrated while engaging with believers.

  4. Azkyroth says

    * * 2: Many people are conflict-averse. They convince themselves that arguing against religion doesn’t work because they don’t want to do it.

    This may explain some people who insist that arguing against religion doesn’t work, but it’s hard to envision some of the fratricidal maniacs we Atheists have attracted as “conflict-averse.” O.o

  5. Jeanette says

    Totally agree. Although I do think private debates have their place. I’ve talked people out of believing in creationism in a one-on-one face to face situation.

  6. Rieux says

    Very important points indeed, but I think they deserve the full Another Awesome Greta Blog Post treatment rather than just an outline.

  7. says

    I thought this presentation was one of the highlights of the conference. I appreciated the systematic debunking of many of the objections to arguing against religion — when what you are arguing is true, debate and ferment and controversy and planting questions and stirring the settled waters can only be a good thing. Only if you rely on ignorance and lies are you afraid of debate. And, there is not something innate in religious people that makes them adverse to science and atheism — most of them just have never encountered it. I never met an atheist till my first year in college!
    At the same time, I thought it was damaging that you (Greta) called people to step forward if they are porn-watchers (this was during the first night’s ice-breaker). I wrote about both of these impressions (as well as the conference overall) here:
    http://sunsara.blogspot.com/2011/08/my-thoughts-on-secular-student-alliance.html
    Perhaps we can have a good atheist debate over porn some day.

  8. Eclectic says

    There are two kinds of persuasive speaking. One is when you’re trying to persuade the person you’re speaking to.
    I find it useful in such discussions to avoid challenging someone’s ego and to offer a face-saving way to abandon their position.
    People are more likely to surrender if they know they will be treated well afterward.
    The second, which is more associated with the word “debate” is when you recognize there is no possibility of persuading the person you’re directing your comments toward, and you are actually trying to persuade the audience.
    As Upton Sinclair said, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.” The only possible reason to present arguments to a professional apologist, is for the benefit of an audience.
    In this second “debate” type of discussion, I agree with Greta: if there’s no audience, it’s not worth the bother.

  9. says

    Sunsara: I agree that my “who here watches porn” thing in the ice-breaker was a mis-step. Not everyone is as comfortable as I am with publicly acknowledging their enjoyment (or lack thereof) of porn/ erotica, and I shouldn’t have put the students on the spot. I haven’t heard any complaints about it other than yours, either first- hand or second- hand, so I’m not sure if this was a big problem for anyone else; but I do think it was a mis-step on my part.
    As for your general analysis of porn and your invitation to debate it: I’m sorry, but I simply don’t have the time. My schedule is extremely busy, and it’s too full to accommodate debate requests from everyone who would like one. Thank you for your interest.

  10. says

    I’ve planted seeds of doubt in many of my co-workers through my in-your-face atheism. One cultural Christian has completely abandoned belief in the nonsense and joins me in spearing religious idiocy as we discuss current events. I’ve also helped create an environment where many silent atheists have come “out of the closet”. This was in a Canadian military setting…I was heartened to discover that, contrary to what I hear about the US military, atheists are everywhere in our forces and fundamental christian nonsense is barely noticeable. Being a gnu atheist dick was easy for me… maybe because I’m a dick.

  11. says

    Well, arguing against religion does work. However, it’s pretty clear that it works very slowly and disproportionately affects those on the sidelines and the fences of religious belief. Indeed, I think the greatest impact of atheists public speech is that it reaches people, including children, who did not previously understand that there were any fundamentally different viewpoints in the debate. If you’ve never met an atheist, you probably think of religious beliefs as a matter of choice between religions, not choice about religion.

  12. says

    When a discussion (exchange of ideas) becomes a debate (arguments pro and con, with or without an audience) things usually get heated and participants dig in their heels.

  13. says

    I’m willing to discuss my atheism with anyone because I believe that when we present ourselves authentically in the world we allow others to feel physically and psychologically safe to present themselves authentically as well. Sometimes that’s all people need to begin feeling comfortable to explore their doubts more fully, without feeling the suffocating pressure to conform.

  14. C.K.F. says

    I normally find your writing pretty compelling, Greta, but I actually find this outline pretty repugnant. What you’re talking about isn’t maintaining equal rights, or enjoying respect, or anything aside from evangelical atheism.
    I didn’t know the purpose was to eliminate religion, I thought most of this activism was about defending the first amendment. On the latter of those I’m interested in participating in.
    But the worst part about this is the hammering home of conformity, the repeated phrase: “don’t get in the way of other people.” Should I not get in the way of atheist proselytizing no matter what tasteless methods people may resort to?
    I didn’t sit silently while American Atheists launched their petulant Fourth of July campaign with messages that sounded more like jabs at the religious majority than talking or thinking points. I don’t sit silently by when atheists in Facebook posts express the opinion they’d like Christians to die, or so many things similarly tasteless.
    I am, in general, not down for the promotion of atheism at all costs and by all means and my only goal is to live in peace, not to ram my interpretation of the universe down somebody else’s throat.
    This atheist myth that religion is a plague upon the earth and has only ever brought negative consequences and that religion is inherently contrary to human progress is just as misguided as other blind preaching about, say, all atheists being immoral.

  15. Robert B says

    @ C.K.F.
    Why don’t the equal rights of atheists include the equal right to state our beliefs in public? To be hostile to ideas (not people, ideas) that we believe are harmful? Bringing up people who wish death on strangers on the internet is a strawman attack (though I don’t doubt they exist and I think “tasteless” is too mild a term.) Greta’s outline presents a framework for discussion. For talking to people. It does not say “at all costs” “by all means” or even “at all times” or “to all audiences.”
    Of course atheists should like other people to be convinced of atheism. Whether you personally choose to argue for it or be an activist is a different question, but obviously it’s better when people believe the truth. There are limits on what is ethical to do when trying to convince people, but Greta didn’t describe anything anywhere near those limits.
    If just saying “religion is bad and wrong” is “repugnant” to you, you’re giving religion a privileged place in the discourse, and reinforcing one of its biggest defenses.
    @ Kevin Saldanha
    Yes, I imagine that things are more likely to “get heated” when you present arguments why people are wrong. But how else should we change people’s minds?

  16. Margo K. says

    I agree with the people who say that private debates are (sometimes) worthwhile.
    For example, I am currently in the midst of a heated debate with my mother (and to a lesser extent my father) about politics. I think this is worthwhile because –
    1) I might change her mind. Her vote won’t make a difference, but if I can persuade her, she might persuade other people, and they might persuade other people, etc. etc.
    2) She can’t be reached by a debate in a public forum. When she encounters a political viewpoint which differs from her own in the media or even when aired by casual acquaintances, 99% of the time she dismisses without serious consideration. She can’t dismiss me so easily.
    3) While it is making things more tense between us in the short run, in the long run it will be better for our relationship if we air our political differences now. Even if we don’t change each others minds, she won’t be shocked if I vote differently from her, and she’ll even have a reasonably good idea why I’m voting the way I am. If it suddenly came up later that I voted in a very different way than her (and I don’t think I could keep my political differences under wraps forever), she might regard that as a betrayal.
    4) It is possible that she has a better case than I do, so I should listen to her (I too give more consideration to political view different from my own when it comes from my mother than when it comes from a newspaper or a blog). However, she’s not going to change my mind if she doesn’t back her claims up with facts and sources, which so far she has failed to do. I, on the other hand, have tried to cite facts and sources because I know I have no hope of persuading her if I don’t have them to back me up.
    I don’t want to post on a blog, or elsewhere in a public forum, what I’m saying to my mom about politics, because I would say things in a very different way if anyone other than my family were involved.
    While my example is about politics, I think the same would apply to religion (my mother, like me, is an atheist, so the differences in our opinion on religious matters are too insignificant to debate).

  17. says

    I love the title!
    My #1 response to people who make the claim that it’s futile to try to change peoples minds about religion would be to point out that it works all the time in the opposite direction. Many religions and denominations wouldn’t have as many members as they do now if it wasn’t for the fact that people changed their minds.

  18. says

    To continue to echo support for private discussions, I do agree that in general it’s better to converse in public.
    Yet I’ve found private discussions useful for one specific purpose: eroding misunderstandings about particular areas of atheism. The most common misconception I can usually overturn is that agnosticism demands all postulations about that existence of God are equally probable. A small first step but I’m successful more often than not.

  19. says

    I forwarded this to my ‘posse’ of atheist facebook friends. We engage the discussion fairly often and I do see it doing good. I have had people come to me privately and thank me for saying what they can’t. Yet.

  20. says

    While this is covered under the idea of denying religion its privileged status, I’ll state it the way it most affected me. I was a generally skeptical person throughout most of my life. The reason I never considered atheism in my first 3 decades is that I had never been presented with it as an actual option, while any word associated with atheism or secularism was paralleled with immorality, sadism and communism. Once the option of subjecting religious precepts to skepticism presented itself, it took very little time to declare myself an atheist.

  21. Eclectic says

    Margo K: There’s actually another excellent reason to argue with your parents, or someone else with strong fixed views.
    They have, as your mother had, gone through life ignoring things they don’t like. Even if you don’t make an iota of progress convincing her that your point is correct, you’ve made a lot of progress convincing her that the opposing viewpoint exists.
    The fact that you do exist, and are not going away, is most of the work required to convince someone of your right to exist.
    And that is an accomplishment in itself.
    I think a lot of the reflexive reaction against same-sex marriage is because the word “marriage” makes people think about their own intimacy, and causes a leak in the compartment that they had been storing their own disgust about the practicalities of homosexual activity.
    Just by raising the issue, you’ve elevated same-sex couple from a demonized anathema to real people with a right to exist.
    And although it doesn’t look like anything, and in the short term generates a stronger reaction, that’s real progress.

  22. Merry says

    You can most definitely talk people out of religion. I was talked out of it myself (it actually happened really fast – I had one conversation with a good friend and literally the next day I realized she had good points and stopped identifying as a Muslim (it took me a while longer to stop believing in god all together)).
    Most of my friends are atheists, agnostics, or at least pantheists or deists who were previously religious. They were all talked out of it.
    In fact, I’m studying philosophy and I remember when I was a freshman, a professor asked how many of us believed in god and about a third of the students raised their hands. He said that by the third year they won’t be (he was kind of a smug dick).
    We’re not even at the third year yet, but most of them aren’t believers anymore.

  23. Margo K. says

    @Eclectic
    While I am sure there are people to whom your comment applies, my mother is not one of them. She has not always held her current political views – her views were quite different when I was a young child, for example. What has happened is that, in the past 10 years or so, is that her views have become frozen – she is a lot less receptive to alternative views.
    Some people may say that older people always become inflexible and it’s not worth expecting anything else of them. I, however, have more respect for my mother than that (and my Gerontology professor in university also debunked the ‘old people are too rigid to think anything new’ meme).
    Ironically, this is another reason that to keep the debate private – a lot of the things we’re saying to each other would not make sense or be misinterpreted outside of context, and publicly sharing the context would violate my mother’s privacy.

  24. Aquaria says

    I have to weigh in on the “private discussion” thing as well. Private discussion works. It may not be as flashy. It may not have the numbers. But it can work.
    I have converts to atheism, and they all came from one-on-one conversion.

  25. Robert B says

    Soccernut,
    I felt very surprised when I read your question. It’s not something that I would have thought might be unclear. My first impulse was to stare stupidly and say “Uh, because it’s false?” On reflection, I know a better way to say it:
    “If God exists, I desire to believe that God exists.
    If God does not exist, I desire to believe that God does not exist.
    Let me not become attached to beliefs I may not want.”
    There are also practical arguments against religion, but they all stem from the factual error. People should leave their religion – at least the part of religion where they believe things – because religion is incorrect.

  26. Eclectic says

    @Margo K.
    Ah, I’m sorry for attributing a history to your mother that doesn’t apply. Thanks for correcting me.

  27. DSimon says

    @Robert. Everybody loves the Litany of Tarski. :-)
    @Soccernut: Another reason why it would be important that people leave religion is that religious systems of thinking are not very good at generating true beliefs even in non-religious areas of life.
    For example, many claims about health care practices are justified with religious or spiritual meaning, even when (or perhaps especially when) the objective data shows that those practices don’t work.

  28. Robert B says

    @ DSimon:
    Heh, it looks like I edited out the part where I explicitly mentioned that was a quote. Thanks for pitch-attributing for me.

  29. says

    Greta,
    I agree that not all discussions with believers are futile and it is possible to plant seeds that might germinate days, months or years after an exchange. For me it is a question of the odds. What can I do to advance the cause that is the best use of my time.
    Devoting time to growing SSA is a better use. Advocating for them, rounding up financial support, or writing letters to the editor. There are so many things one can do. Diverting children from the maw of grasping religion is a far better use of our time. Plant the meme, “god is pretend”. Put it on buses, billboards, plaster it all over the internet. Why wait until the infection has taken hold to do anything about it? Let’s inoculate kids against the virus rather than try to cure adults.
    Children as young as six years that are forced into faith begin to smell a rat. Encourage that doubt. The religious institutions flagrantly advocate proselyting children. Well we should fight fire with fire.
    The Supreme Court gave parents the right to teach their children their faith. The decision was 5/4 hardly a big win. The court never set out any rules about this, they studiously avoid getting entangled in religious matters. Who could have envisioned the unintended consequences? One million children sequestered at home with despotic parents 24/7 teaching them their debauched religion, lies about their country and that they should hate the government. Time for new rules.
    Focus on the child abusers. The so called moderates will also get the message and maybe realize they are a big part of the problem because they approve of child religious grooming. We have strong ethical arguments against destroying children’s ability to think logically about religion, because that is what happens with early childhood religious indoctrination.
    http://www.endhereditaryreligion.com

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