So this morning I took a pretty strong stance, despite the pseudo-reversal of my previous stance, when it comes to reaching out to religious believers. While I had previously stated that I don’t see the value in breaking my neck to find language that won’t bruise the feelings of religious folks, I realize that this is simply because I don’t care, not because it isn’t a worthwhile thing to do. It comes down to that issue – do I care about reaching out to religious people?
The answer to that question, it turns out, is ‘no’. I personally do not care. Where the retraction comes in is that I am forced to recognize that simply because I do not care doesn’t mean that nobody else should. While I do think highly of my opinion, I am not so conceited that I would presume to dictate what is and isn’t a fair topic for discussion for every other atheist in the world. Some day, maybe. But not today.
What I will do today is explain, as best I can, why I don’t care. Why it is that I think the most effective use of my time includes things like ridicule and insult and the word ‘stupid’. Why my feet are wearing smooth the top of a soapbox, rather than treading a path to a mosque, synagogue or meeting hall to marshal allies of the god-besotted kind. The answer to that question isn’t so much who I’m not talking to; it’s who I am talking to.
In a series of posts I wrote this past summer, I defended the use of aggressive rhetoric. Specifically, I pointed out that the audience watching the fight between religion and atheism is made up of a variety of perspectives on a continuum between total belief and total disbelief. Speaking to those who are ‘on the fence’ is certainly helpful in creating new atheists. There is, however, also a great deal of merit in speaking to people who are already ‘one of us’.
Every person, be they blogger, professional writer, public speaker, or simple lay debater on the public platform of their Facebook wall, has their own style, their own voice. Along with that comes a particular target group for their message. For some, this might be fence-sitters. For others, this might be religious people. And for some, among whom I count myself, it is those who have already lost their belief and are looking for something better.
I am not persuaded that any single* argument, no matter how friendly or accommodating, can persuade a person away from faith. Faith is not a position that is found by reason; it is one that is found through indoctrination and reliance on heuristics and flawed cognitive processes. It is well-insulated against emotional appeals, and uniquely protected against reasoned counterargument, by virtue of the fact that it claims to be ‘beyond mere human reason’.
In my estimation, based on experience as being an argumentative cuss for pretty much my entire life, is that outside a few specific circumstances, people are not in the habit of changing their minds on a dime. Regardless of how well-argued a position is, people don’t discard closely-held beliefs within a single moment. Instead, it takes time and repeated, overlapping lines of reasoning to help guide a person to a new position. They may waver a bit, but not totally reverse their beliefs. An expectation of anything else is more than a little naive.
It is for this reason, and because of the ludicrously low threshold for offense that I regularly observe from religious people (not all, to be sure), that I am uninterested in speaking to believers. While I do not go out of my way to exclude them, the intended audience of my writing is those from whom the veil of faith has already been lifted. That is, at least, when I talk about religious matters. When I write about other things (say, race or feminism), my focus shifts. Then again, I care about bringing people who are naive on these topics into the conversation.
I am not particularly concerned about ‘losing’ atheists to the oh-so-persuasive arguments of theistic belief. Atheism, at least reasoned atheism (as opposed to atheism borne of indifference) is a decent innoculation against the kinds of persuasion that believers point to as ‘proof’ of the existence of a god. What I am concerned about, however, is that atheists may sit on the sidelines and spectate instead of participating in the conversation. I am concerned with the number of people who proudly declare how little the religion discussion means to them personally. I am concerned with anyone who is an atheist simply for counterculture purposes. I am concerned with atheists who simply do not believe, and for whom that is enough.
Atheists can and should rally to speak out strongly against the dangers of religion. The more voices we have speaking, the more political clout we wield. The more political clout we command, the less dangerous religion becomes. Part of getting those of us who agree about the whole ‘gods not existing’ thing to join us in the ‘this is important for humanity’ aspect of the argument is speaking directly to them. Not harranguing them for not doing enough, but inspiring them to want to do more.
This is where I feel most comfortable, and where I choose to devote my efforts. My error was in forgetting that people have different levels of not only comfort, but interest in specific audiences. While I have always been a supporter of a pluralistic approach to persuasive writing, I neglected to recognize that this translates to the values of the speaker, and the makeup of the audience.
That being said, while I do recognize the appeal of attempting to reach out and ‘deconvert’, my efforts will continue to be spent speaking to those who are already with us in philosophy, but not with us in action.
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* – this word was missing from the original draft