Evangelical Atheism?

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.

Your Thoughts?

Follow up posts in response to readers:

The Flexibility of the Word “Evangelical”

On Zealously, Tentatively, and Perspectivally Holding Viewpoints

What’s Worse For Atheism: Being Confused For Being Too Much Like Bad Religion, Or Too Little Like Good Religion?

Before I Deconverted: Christmas Became A Christian Holiday To Me
Before and After I Deconverted: The Development of My Sexual Imagination
Why I Support American Atheists Reaching Out To Conservatives At CPAC
What to Make of our Natural Dispositions to Supernaturalism?
About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • Brian Carroll

    A good article. As an atheist who had a perio of searching within a few different Christian denominations, I can honestly say that I do remember some things fondly about Christian churches. They may not have truth, but they DO have fellowship, and lots of it. I jokingly think to myself of church as “churchitainment” because it does fulfill a primary need for human contact. Unless you live near a secular humanist chapter or other such organization this is often lacking. I do not have time to start one myself or I would. I think that, for the atheist worldview to grow and be more palatable, this needs to be explored much more than it is. I say this with the awareness that 90% of people go where the path is easiest. It is only the 10 percenters like us who stick to the truth, regardless of the road, and are happy with that alone. The utility of this approach is that it will win more people over to rationalism and really would fuel scientific and other rational pursuit in our society. More subjective pursuits are of value as well, such as art and music, but this is not a main anchor with which we can pull ourselves forward by in an ever challenging and changing world.

  • Roberto

    For the most part, I think your presentation is balanced, but I do think you’re working with generalizations that admit of plenty of exceptions. You say “we atheists” — which hardly acknowledges the different shades of atheism and the different attitudes adopted by atheists. I think in some atheists one can find the same psychological forces that actuate religious fundamentalists. I agree that abusive, coercive, and manipulative tactics should never be acceptable, and religious fundamentalists are notorious for employing these. But I think you need to acknowledge that some of your fellow atheists resort to lots of fallacious arguments and deceptive ploys as well. Some of the New Atheists don’t seem to realize that some of their arguments are outright ad hominem; some commit the genetic fallacy; some attack strawman versions of the opponents’ argument, and most importantly, many resort to a scientism that is hardly backed up by science — scientism, in principle a self-refuting “philosophy.” It amounts to an add-on or ideology which purports to have reason on its side, but which, at bottom, is not really reasonable. I am all for fairness, but your generalizations seek to exculpate those atheists who are irrational about their atheism. In general, I don’t think you fit this category, and I sense that you’re a fair human being; I just don’t think some of your generalizations are accurate.

    • Daniel Fincke

      Thank you, Roberto. Yes, some atheists are guilty of all the things you describe. Usually I think it’s more in the careless looseness and aggressiveness with which they present what could be restated as a valid argument than in a generally fallacious approach to thinking.

      Can you highlight more specifically what parts of my post you think overgeneralize the virtues of particular atheists/glossing of fallacious habits>

      A lot of the forms of fallacious reasoning I see take place in the rhetoric and not in the substance of the ideas. Usually I will think that most of the over the top atheists make good points too aggressively

  • Ryan

    Hey Dan,

    It seems to me that the general approach to the atheist/religious “debate” is one of arrogance on both sides, so the “fault” will lie with the one who started it. If a religious person is attacking and the atheist is defending, the religious person seems arrogant. The opposite is also true.

    Perhaps there is nothing wrong with this level of arrogance, but understanding that it’s central to the atheist position will help shed some light on public reaction to all sorts of atheist attempts to challenge religious thinking.

    On one level, having a conclusion of being ‘correct’ while others remain ‘incorrect’ on any issue gives any person some arrogance. However, when this ‘correctness’ extends itself to determining what is reasonable, logical and otherwise intellectually superior to a different position, the arrogance level increases in people’s eyes. If I state that Radiohead is a better band than Matchbox 20, I have a level of arrogance. If I state that fans of Matchbox 20 are not using their brains, and in fact their interest in Matchbox 20 altogether stems from an intellectual weakness inside of them… Matchbox 20 fans and I will probably not grow towards each other very much. :)

    In order to engage in healthy debate, both parties have to be willing to hold their positions with humility (or even, to an extent, somewhat loosely). Otherwise, it ends up being a picture like you described, of mutual shouting, no real growth is occuring.

    Danny Devito makes a great point in the Big Kahuna: “The moment you lay your hands on a conversation, to steer it… it’s not a conversation anymore, it’s a pitch. And you’re not a human being anymore, you’re a marketing rep.”

    I believe that the negative connotation and connection to “evangelist” given to the atheist position is only accurately placed whenever there is a lack of humility within their position, which is also similar theme in the Christian field.

    Thank you for the article — it is very thought provoking, as usual!

  • Marta

    This was a really interesting read, Dan.

    Would you mind if I did a response over at my own blog, linking to this post? I have a whole word document full of annotations and questions I want to follow up on (you brought everything from W.K. Clifford to Aristotelian conceptions of the good to John Wesley’s quadrilateral to mind). I would love to delve into what you say in more detail than seems appropriate for a comment.

    As a sort of promissory note, I’ll just say that there were many lines where you described atheism in a way that was exactly how I heard Christianity described growing up. For instance, at one point you say “We [atheists] 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.” But growing up as a fairly mainstream Protestant, I remember learning that Protestants (and Christians generally) didn’t just want people forced into certain practices toward domination. That was what we thought Muslims did, and to a lesser degree Jews and Catholics. For Christians, agreeing freely with the intellectual content of our theology was at the core of what it meant to be a Christian.

    Granted, so many Christians and religious people generally fall short of that goal, in entirely too many ways. And of course one could argue that belief built on something that can never be proven true nor false has no intellectual content to begin with.

    Anyway, a really thought-provoking piece.

  • Daniel Fincke

    Of course, I’d be delighted to read your reply, Marta. Send me the link when it’s written and I’ll address it.

    As for what Christians say about their methods—it’s rather irrelevant. Growing up an evangelical I know far better how shamelessly pushy and manipulative evangelizers are in practice. Granted, maybe some or many atheists are just as bad in practice or will become just as bad in practice, but I really don’t see it yet. I see frustration or condescension driven aggressiveness as the atheist evangelist’s vices, rather than an attempt to do an end-run around reason if that’s what it takes.

    For my part as hard a sell as I used to give when I used to evangelize as a Christian, I never could really convert anyone and I like to think it’s because I wouldn’t step over certain lines into emotionalism. I kept it rational and that left room for a “no” and that’s what I essentially always got. I’m proud of that.

  • Roberto

    Generalizations at some point become unavoidable as there are too many particulars to deal with. But the generalization I had in mind I have already hinted at: “We atheists.” And yes, I agree with you that most of it can be restated in more logical terms. I have seen debates where the atheists are philosophically trained and make powerful arguments, but I can’t say that for all atheists. For some of the New Atheists, for example, their expertise doesn’t seem to go beyond the particular field which they study, but they seem to think this qualifies them to make statements that go beyond their field of expertise. I’ve also seen a lack of care when it comes to treating the different arguments for God’s existence (the ontological, teleological, cosmological, etc), which often shows that “they” (note I’m generalizing as well) have not really thought through the philosophical issues involved in the arguments, and dismiss them without any real attempt to logically refute them. Their knowledge of ontology and epistemology is a travesty. I just don’t think you’re justified in suggesting that all atheists have it “right” and that it’s just a matter of their presentation that is the problem. I think the substance of the argument is also problematic in some case, especially when they presuppose rather than demonstrate their points. Many of them seem to believe that science presupposes atheism, which is hardly the case. I don’t think science has any special status in deciding the question of the existence of God, and from my own readings, many scientists, though they may be atheists, don’t think one can decide one way or the other. “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” Check out the following video, where William Craig Lane points out some fallacious moves in Peter Atkins’s argument; it’s just a sample. If you really want to have a more extended discussion, I could provide more specific examples:

    • Daniel Fincke

      I agree with everything you have to say here, Roberto. Yes, quite often atheists, including unfortunately our prominent debaters, are as philosophically ignorant as the average person and that leads sometimes to a comparable incoherence to the average theist’s philosophically ignorant and incoherent positions.

      But in the above I am not saying that atheists are as good at philosophy as they should be. I am saying that the content of modern “New” atheism puts a primary stress on rationalism (or, at least, various scientific virtues) and that generally has positive consequences for their intentions, their tactics, and their principles when they go about trying to change minds. Since they are usually about encouraging scrupulous thought, even if they actually make bad arguments out of ignorance and poor training, they still usually aim at people’s minds and less shamefully at people’s emotions than religious evangelists do. And I think this makes much of the difference in the justifiability of what they are doing.

      And to be clear, I think scrupulous religious evangelists who are rationalistic in nature are not offensive either when they are argue for their ideas in the public sphere or individually.

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