So we activist atheist types who like to be outspoken about our atheism and network with other atheists are often derisively called “evangelical” or “proselytizers”. In all cases, the irony is clear and in some cases there are allegations of hypocrisy attached to the claim that we aim to “convert” people. Is it right to call us “evangelical”? And if so, does this mean that we are guilty of some sort of bad behavior which we do not approve of from religious people?
The first thing to note, right off, is that efforts by major atheist organizations to advertise is as much about reaching out to existing atheists who feel isolated and alienated in a predominantly religious world as it is about challenging believers. Atheists deserve opportunities to have the kind of ethical community and discussion of matters of metaphysical and personal importance which others receive through their religious communities. These sorts of goods should not be conditioned on one’s being superstitious.
Secondly, we do not promise “good news”. Evangelism is literally the spreading of “good news”. Atheists do not promise exorbitant, unrealistic things to people if only they would come to accept the truth of atheism. There are benefits to reasoning well in matters of belief and practice, but we are not offering to “save” anyone through group membership with us. In short, we’re not conning anyone with false promises. We are just asking them to respect their reason more and not let faithfulness to illogical traditions of belief and practice undermine it.
Unlike many religious evangelists, we are not so deathly concerned that if we do not bring you over to our side you will perish forever in hell, and for this and other reasons, we have far less incentive or inclination to resort to shameless manipulation and deception in trying to make our case. In all my experiences with my fellow activist atheists, I have seen nothing but attempts to win arguments with reason and not with emotional abuse, hidden agendas, friendships forged with ulterior motives of conversion, or any other illogical attempts to subvert people’s reason.
We argue aggressively and some of us will use some callous mockery in order to highlight absurdities whose ridiculousness people have been otherwise innoculated to by a lifetime of pro-religious propaganda that makes the outright stupid and illogical seem deep and respectable when it is not. But in my experience, we do not hit below the belt and manipulate people.
Rational persuasion is not a religious activity. Beliefs, even religious beliefs, are matters for rational scrutiny. And questioning any beliefs, including religious beliefs, can take the form of philosophical and scientific reasoning that has nothing to do with “saving souls” or trying to judge or alter anyone’s way of life. The evangelically religious, aimed as they are at conversion, make it seem like every discussion about ideas must be an attempt to change someone’s religion, but that’s not true.
Activist atheists are concerned with getting people to be rationally consistent and to acknowledge the clear findings of science and philosophy, and to reject badly formed, fallacious, long ago refuted arguments for God’s existence. We are interested in a philosophical/scientific argument about a philosophical/scientific point for its own sake. Everything else about how you want to live your life is not really our concern. In fact, on the exact nature of the philosophical grounds of ethics or how to settle a particular ethical dispute, we are likely as divided as anyone else. So we are hardly trying to persuade you that there’s no God just so you will join us in some (non-existent) unilateral agreement on any other beliefs or practices.
After you acknowledge that there is probably no God (or, at least no good reason for belief in one or worship of one), if you’d like to discuss metaphysics, ethics, your personal problems, or how to raise your kids in a godless universe, and if you’d like to develop rituals, meditative practices, community, etc. which meet your fundamental, deeply human “religious” needs without all the superstition; then we atheists really are obliged to develop resources for you (and each other) so that these human needs can be met in a way that does not subvert anyone’s reason or autonomy the way institutional religions do.
But these programs we develop for fellow atheists are not the real, secret, underhanded reason we try to persuade you there’s probably no God. We’re not out to fill pews, save souls, demonize, or pity as “lost” all those who aren’t like us. We just think there’s probably no God and that there’s definitely no authority in immoral irrational religious institutions and think people shouldn’t belong to them. That we are slowly forming an infrastructure of alternative means for people to meet their needs without traditional, dogmatic religions is a consequence, not a cause of our motivation to see people be more rational.
It is not inherently rude, pushy, or ethically intrusive to try to change someone’s mind using reason. Unlike the religious, we do not obnoxiously throw at you the arbitrary assertions of a book or cleric or alleged prophet whom you have no good reason to believe in and insist with no legitimate justification that you accept such baseless claims as authoritative. We offer philosophical and scientific reasons for disbelief which you are open to challenge on their intellectual merits.
We claim no spiritual, moral, or intellectual authority for either ourselves or those we cite beyond what good reason itself can prove and we expect you to use your own reason to understand our arguments. We do not depend on you accepting anything on baseless authority (let alone demand you do so, as the preachers do).
I admit that my temperament was partially and significantly forged in the furnace of an evangelical Christian church and that in some ways my zeal to dissuade people of their false religious beliefs and practices is partially and significantly due to some of the same psychological dispositions I had in my Christian days. And I’ll note that even some of those atheists who were never religious at all have a zeal comparable to the religious for changing people’s minds.
But I see nothing objectionable about this attitude even in religious people. I do not hypocritically mind that they want to change my opinions while I want to do the same thing. I welcome their challenges and their debate. What I do not welcome and do not approve of are their insistence we take their assertions on faith in the Bible, the Koran or any other arbitrary religious authorities, their attempts to shout people into conversion on street corners and subways, their encouragement of fallacious modes of reasoning, or their emotional bullying and manipulations.
And there is nothing about what we do in simply arguing seriously and vigorously for philosophical points about what proper reasoning requires that sinks to such condemnable levels of contemptible discourse.
In sum, I don’t care whether or not you call me or other activist atheists “evangelical”. The word is elastic. It could legitimately apply to anyone who is zealous about trying to persuade others about something they take to be important, be they environmentalists, feminists, education reform advocates, libertarians—whomever. Anyone who is willing to be confrontational in public forums for debate or insistently raise a topic with the specific goals of persuading friends and family or even mere acquaintances of her positions on that topic is, broadly speaking, being “evangelical”.
Yet, there is nothing inherently wrong with this challenging behavior that forces people to account for their moral and epistemological rights to the beliefs they hold. It’s entirely legitimate that people be asked to give reasons for what they think and to be asked to listen to contrary points of view. It’s perfectly acceptable that they be made uncomfortable sometimes by this. Important issues require important, sometimes difficult, sometimes even painful, discussions.
What they do not require are authoritarian assertions that others accept arbitrary authorities, what they do not require are emotional manipulation, what they do not require are street harassment, what they do not require are coercion by governments or employers, what they do not require are personal attacks and threats (including ones of eternal torment), what they do not require are disownment of family members who disagree and what they do not require are people being forced to continue debates after they ask for them to end.
Religious evangelists (and not to mention political pundits) have so poisoned debates about ideas with these irrationalistic, abusive, coercive, and downright rude tactics that they have ruined the good reputation of rational debate. They have created the false general impression that all vigorous disagreement about ideas is a form of emotional, illogical bullying or mutual shouting that involves no listening or thoughtful consideration.
In faith-based religion there are no rational reasons that can adjudicate differences over fundamental propositions and so debates are in principle rationally irresolvable and non-cognitive tactics of persuasion become an inherent necessity. In politics, power interests palpably corrupt people’s motives in reasoning in obscene ways.
Outside such contexts though, there really are such things as rational, fair-minded disagreements and debates. And those are the debates that we “evangelical” atheists aim to have. We really want to win your intellectual assent to our propositions, not to get you to call yourself an atheist by whatever means, however disingenuous or exploitative, that we can manage.
And when we treat the religious roughly our targets are precisely those whose primary tactics in debate and winning sheep are fallacious, emotionalistic reasoning and those who strawman us and try to silence us. And the ideas we mock are those which are beneath debate, those which would be laughed out of academic fields of inquiry like biology, political science, psychology, etc., and which no less deserve to be laughed out of philosophy (be it ethics, metaphysics, epistemology, philosophy of religion, or any other field of speculative inquiry).
The ideas we mock are those which are beneath serious rational consideration given the 21st Century’s state of knowledge and which must be (and are) cleared away before any serious, substantive intellectual debate can happen in any field of inquiry.
Follow up posts in response to readers: