I 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.