“Why do you waste your time making arguments against religion?”
A surprisingly large number of atheists say things like this. “Arguing against religion never works. Religious beliefs are too irrational, they’re held for emotional reasons, not intellectual ones. So there’s no point making rational arguments against them.”
I would like, respectfully, to disagree. Emails like the one I got today are why. From Laura, reprinted with her permission:
I am going to endeavor to make this email not brown-nosey or starry-eyed, but I have a feeling that I’m going to fail miserably, so bear with me.
Your blog has helped me grow, and given me comfort, and made me a better person.
I’m dating an atheist, and he is the main reason I started reading things on the internet. I have been, for most of my life, fairly lacking in self confidence. I had philosophies, but I couldn’t bring myself to air them- because my friends ripped on me for being ditzy, or because I didn’t actually have the capacity for debate (generally caused by temper issues). For this reason, those philosophies were neglected, and atrophied throughout my high school career. I finally met someone who challenged me to be smart last year, and it’s his fault that you helped me so much.
He reads a ton of atheist blogs, and initially, all I ever caught him reading was P.Z. Myers. Not the best introduction to atheist blogging. For this reason, I was generally averse to being around him while he was reading stuff online. Finally, one of P.Z.’s more inflammatory posts just broke me, and I got entirely righteous anger (mostly in retort to his righteous anger, which was slightly more righteous, but difficult to accept). My partner then proceeded to huff at me angrily and argue with me all upset like, which got both of us nowhere, until he threw up his hands, grabbed his computer, and linked me to “Atheists and Anger”.
That post made me realize how much of a dick I was. My interest piqued, I read several more, on atheism and sexuality. I think you helped me grow up about as much as anything I’ve learned in college. I’ve grown more intellectually and sexually through reading your advice than I could possibly hope to alone.
The reason I’m writing this is because I had one of the worst existential crises of my life tonight. My partner was very much at a loss for how to help, so he dutifully grabbed his computer and brought up a few posts relating to death, hope, and meaning. I felt, during the course of my crisis, that I was losing every part of me. Every bit of the essence that makes up my personality was leaking out through the cracks of my broken perceptions, and I was all dried up and empty. Reading “Atheist Meaning in a Small, Brief Life”, “A Skeptical View of Love” and “Comforting Thoughts About Death That Have Nothing To Do With God” brought me back from the brink. I felt like I had been put back together, and all the cracks were krazy glued up, and I was all water tight and happy and silly again, much to the relief of my silly boy who cannot speak properly in times of panic.
You are an amazing woman. You care about the people who read your blog- you care about everyone. You are good in a simple way that makes you approachable, and your advice, reasonable. When I read your blog, I don’t feel like I’m reading something somebody across the country wrote. I feel like I’m reading something my best friend wrote. You gave me an understanding of how to have real thoughts, and how to be angry, and how to cope with injustice, and do my part to take it down. What you write gives me such hope and pure joy, and I can’t convey my gratitude in a non-sappy, dignified way so screw it. I straight up love you and everything you write.
I just want to say a couple of things to Laura. Mostly, thank you so much for writing. This is exactly why I do the work that I do. When I left behind my religious and spiritual beliefs, I didn’t know that there even was an atheist and skeptical community, and I wasn’t familiar with a lot of atheist and skeptical writing and philosophy. So when I went through my own assorted existential crises, I had to do it essentially alone. It sucked. It was really, really painful and scary. I don’t want anyone else to have to do that. That is a huge part of why I do the work that I do — not just trying to persuade people out of religion, but offering positive, non-religious philosophies that people can apply to their lives. I want to help make atheism and skepticism a safer place to land. It means the world to me to know that I’ve done that with you.
The only thing I have to disagree about is this: I didn’t put you back together. You put yourself back together. I am delighted and honored that my writing was part of the process — but you get to take the credit. (Oh, and I’m going to defend PZ while I’m at it: he clearly wasn’t the best introduction to atheist blogging for you, and he isn’t for a lot of people, but a lot of folks find his no-holds-barred approach to be just what they need to wake them up. But I appreciate that he’s not for everybody, and I’m delighted that I was able to fill in the gap.)
And to anyone out there who still thinks atheist writing and atheist activism is a waste of time, and that nobody ever changes their minds about religion: This is just simply and flatly not true. This can work. It does work. You don’t have to do it if you don’t want to — but take responsibility for your choice, and don’t try to convince yourself that it’s futile and there’s no point in trying. Thanks.