GreenGeekGirl advises the atheist community (and she has a nice defense of the existence of an atheist community against those who do not believe one exists) that we should no longer bother arguing with theists, since this is supposedly futile, but should rather accept we have it pretty good in America and focus on protecting the separation of religion from state, school, and science. She implies the debate over God is a counter-productive distraction from these more desirable goals.
First of all, theists can definitely be dissuaded. In her post GreenGeekGirl asks us to ask how we came to be atheists and describes her own awakening to atheism which involved only engagement with science and no antagonistic confrontation from atheists. But there are a good many atheists who were formerly believers (myself included) and who were indeed argued out of our former beliefs. We count too and many of us are the most optimistic about the potential for reason to make a big difference in persuading people.
Of course people will not fall down and renounce their faith at the end of any argument. That’s for sure. But that’s not the point. Let’s get some perspective and have some patience. And let’s come to understand that over time many, many people are either moderated in their beliefs, forced to develop more sophisticated and less insane understandings of the meaning of their beliefs, or even over time come to abandon their religious beliefs altogether as a result of innumerable accumulated rational challenges from more liberal religious people and from atheists alike. It’s a long, long tug of war, in which even if we do not pull people over the line and make them fall down, we can still pull them further towards the middle and keep them from going all the way in the other direction.
But, more importantly, when we argue with the more vociferous and entrenched believers publicly, there are the silent watchers who we persuade. The majority of people are neither passionately religious nor passionately irreligious. The intellectual pressure we put on theism helps to inoculate the people in the middle against one day being swayed into fallacious beliefs by getting ideas into their heads about the deep problems of religious belief and practice. Giving religion a bad name is a good step for preventing future religious revivals.And while seemingly every argumentative atheist gets fatigued with the redundant task of rebutting theism, our work is far from done. There is a long way to go before we persuade a majority of people to our side and there are plenty of theists for whom our arguments will be new, for whom the whole question is live, and for whom our efforts can be decisive in making them reject radical fundamentalism or their faith altogether. This is a long moral, cultural struggle that has been going on for centuries. As GreenGeekGirl indicates, atheists who came before us had it much harder. It would be a shame if we did not speak out about the whole truth now that we have the opportunity and the opening to make significant progress.
But why should we care about any of this? Should we not just want to be “left alone” and have science be left alone, as GreenGeekGirl suggests? No, we should care about the truth and dissuading mass opinion away from falsehoods, fallacious habits of reasoning cultivated by religions, damaging irrational ethical codes, and presumptuous, self-serving religious institutions which claim moral, spiritual, and intellectual authorities they do not deserve.
The problems of church incursion on politics and science are a symptom of the problem of culturally acceptable religious irrationalism, bullying, and moral authority. You will not stop the theocrats and know-nothings by meeting them only at the statehouse, the courthouse, and the schoolhouse. You need to first empty the church house.
The religious cannot be unchallenged in their claims to be the providers of meaning, value, and spiritual answers. We need to both vigorously impress people with the intellectual, spiritual, and moral deficiencies of what fundamentalist religions offer and to develop robust, coherent alternative ethics, spiritualities, and metaphysics which can meet people’s needs consistent with rationalism and empiricism.