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

As part of an ongoing dialogue with Greg about the legitimacy of the term “evangelical atheism”, I wrote two posts in which I argued that despite some serious principled differences in methods that we should always stress distinguish us from faith-based proselytizers, some activist atheists should not bother defensively, or with offense, trying to deny charges that they are being broadly “evangelical” in some broad senses of the word, if in fact they actually are.

My argument was that we should instead focus the debate on good vs. bad ways to enthusiastically and confrontationally press the question of people’s religious beliefs in the public square, rather than deny whatever obvious formal similarities exist between us and our faith-based opponents.

Then, exhibiting the Nietzschean, perspectivalist dimension of my views on effective inquiry, I went on to defend zealousness in advancing our atheist, rationalist, tentativeness-championing side of the debate, arguing that such emotional and personally invested engagement had rational benefits that detachment does not always have.  I also explored other ways in which provisional willingness to hold propositions passionately could be part of an effective pursuit of the truth.  Along the way, I also pushed back against Greg’s assertion that by saying atheists had some “evangelical” traits I was somehow implying our philosophical positions or methods of inquiry were as flimsy and faith-based as our fideistic opponents’ (something I’ve never said anywhere).

Essentially replying to both of these posts at once, Greg offered the following rejoinder (occasionally quoting me, as will be indicated by the blockquotes within blockquotes).  Starting just a couple lines into his reply:

Dan then proceeds to offer examples of religious words being applied to non-religious examples. Fair enough. He has some examples. I have some examples to the contrary. What this would seem to suggest is that the word’s meaning is in the process of being negotiated. Dan embraces religious words and applies them to himself. I do not. I suspect there is content to these words that influences the discussion (against us) and I suspect the use of these words is an attempt to confuse careful distinctions we need to make.

Nowhere have I ever said anywhere on this blog that this is a matter of just “equal and competing ideologies”.

Perhaps – I have not read every entry (of course, you haven’t read all I’ve written either. Otherwise, your straw man from earlier would not have happened), However, I think Dan, myself, and the reader will be aware that this claim is used, even if without the word ideology by the religious on a regular basis.

The attempt is to suggest that, given an environment of epistemic nihilism (or thoroughgoing skepticism, if you like) that all options are equally substantiated and thus equally valid. with nothing to choose between them. The religious person will then imply that they are then justified in affirming/choosing their dogma by means of a contrived mental/emotional function they call faith. Now, what faith really represents, it seems to me, is the distinction between an affirmation and a positing, a justification (albeit a poor one) for affirming truths instead of tentatively positing. I suspect this is the ultimate source of the, “well you can’t prove me wrong” conceit. Essentially, this attempts to turn all discussions about epistemology into “it’s my word against yours” disputes, with the faithful having a trump card (faith) that those not afflicted wth faith, and actually taking the matter seriously, are too honest to play. This puts the faithless at a seeming, albeit only illusory, disadvantage. Nevertheless, it is an illusory disadvantage that is persuasive.

I bring this up because it is an argument I am attempting to answer, and because whether Dan does or does not claim that “this is just ‘equal and competing ideologies,’” the religious often do in argument, with the intent of confusing matters by dropping the convesration into a epistemically nihilistic hole and then offering faith as a means of escape. This argument, despite its errors, is nevertheless persuasive/influential because most are terrified of the abyss (a colloquial way of saying people are unwilling to confront much less embrace uncertainty/not knowing/fallibility). Even the much-discussed Nietzsche blinked…

And this is where the use of the word “evangelizing” comes into play. When we speak of evangelicals we think of religious persons and with respect to religious content. Now, by “religious content” I do not (just) mean the symbolic cannibalism of christianity or the Mecca-centricity of islam or the “we are the chosen” mentality of judaism. I mean the approach to matters epistemological. To call the atheist or skeptic “evangelical” is to imply that the atheist/skeptic is playing the same epistemic game of affirming without substantiation that the thiest/dogmatist is – making unsubstantiated, indeed unsubstantiatable, truth claims. I put it to you that we are not (at least not in better thought out cases) doing this. I put it to you that the use of the word “evangelical” is an attempt to frame the conversation within a realm that we then have to go to great pains to fight our way out of to get to the real point. When an atheist adopts the weaker version of “evangelical,” applying it as if mere passion of advocacy is all that is being referred to, we are allowing the theist/dogmatist to frame and control the context of the discussion in a way that is stacked against us. We then find ourselves attempting to assert truth claims, and we lose by default.

Rather than just getting roped into their quagmire of “yours is an expression of faith, too” drivel, I offer another way. That other way is the recognition that we are tentatively positing, rather than affirming. I recommend that we adopt tentative positing as our engine of exploration, I recommend that we adopt a mentality of tentative positing in order to allow room for growth and change, and I recommend that we talk the talk (as well as walk the walk) of tentative positing as well. That means stepping outside the context designed so that we lose the rhetorical fray. Now, this is not a trivial or semantic distinction – it is a distinction of basic mindset with respect to knowledge, certainty and how we approach our inquiries, be they empirical or metaphysical. The religious make wild claims about Truth and knowledge and certainty and they do so with a persona of absolute confidence. We have been trained to think this is a rhetorical strength and people are actually moved by it, so we try to do the same thing – decimating our own position in the process and playing a game stacked against us.

In a way Dan and I are disagreeing to agree. He seems, at times (correct me if I’m wrong) to be sharing similar epistemic views to mine (or vice versa) on a sub-rhetorical level. We seem to be parting company when it comes to rhetoric. Now, that doesn’t mean we are merely disagreeing on semantics. While it is true that we humans stipulate stiulations at will, the stipulations are also how we understand things. Now, the language is under constant negotiation and that includes our stipulations.

Dan approaches the word “evangelize” entirely from the perspective of enthusiasm. I approach it from a content basis. We have both presented natural language examples in support of our differing approaches. Which is right? Well, neither, of course. They are stipulations. However, we can ask which is useful for a given purpose and get a coherent answer. Just as distinctions between terms leads to precision in other inquiries, so too it can here. To treat evangelism as mere passion allows faith-promoters to control the rhetorical battlefield and obfuscates the critical difference between affirming as true and positing tentatively. To treat the content as interesting, as I do, is to promote further inquiry (what about the content is different?) and defence against the theistic claim that atheism is just another faith, which most of us recongize as the mere rhetorical ploy it is. I put it to you that Dan is playing the faith-purveyor’s rhetorical game and is destined to lose becasue of that. Worse, he is, perhaps unknowingly, presenting passionate presentation as valid argument (or at least legitimate rhetoric).

So, when looking at this discussion between Dan and I, I think we have to ask ourselves a question and ask it seriously. Is there a difference between an athiest and a theist? Is there a difference between someone who argues from faith and someone who doesn’t? Or is it just a matter of louder and louder talking heads? If there is a difference, what is it? I offer a difference – the difference between a mindset of tentative positings and the mindset of faithful affirmation. I answer the claim that skepticism and science is just another faith.

For some folks, recognizing the potential for fallibility is something you do only when driven into a corner and pressured. For me, it is up front and open. My language reflects that.

I just think conversations about the word “evangelical” are easier if we do not pointlessly try to restrict an understandable analogy or deny that at least part of our goal mirrors our enemies’ (we, like they, do want to confront people about their fundamental beliefs—an endeavor which many people automatically assume must be impolite). I think the conversations would be better spent articulating how our approach and our views vindicate our adoption of the goal and how our methods of pursuing it and their approaches and their views do not.

I hope the reader will see from what I wrote above that I do not see the distinction as pointless. And I would hope, given something Dan writes in another post about (to paraphrase) “adopting a position to test it out” that he would be willing to hold (tentatively) the possibility that it might not be pointless. The difficulty with Dan’s paragraph here is that he is assuming a context of inquiry and honest consideration of alternative views. Interestingly enough, it is my view (of tentative positings rather that faithful affirmations) that promotes the context that Dan seeks to exploit, while Dan’s view results in endles arrays of screaming heads, all trying to be more fervent than the other. Before we can learn we must have a context in which we can learn, don’tcha think?

If you can find ANYWHERE on this blog that I have said that we atheists “just have faith” too, I’ll have to hunt down whoever stole my password and started posting under my name!

My point is NOT, a thousand times NOT, that in terms of how we form beliefs it is the same thing as our opponents. I have qualified over and over and over again that what I want to distinguish is that the only way an “evangelical” atheist is like an evangelical religious believer is in terms of matters like enthusiasm, in terms of willingness to make matters most of America considers too private for public consumption a matter of public confrontation, a willingness to organize people into productive ethical communities around their common views about religious matters.

And from the first post on this topic and in seemingly everything I write I always always always am at great pains to distinguish that what separates the rationalist from the irrationalist is the stance on faith. I have never equivocated for a second on this point and so it is just a distortion for you to tar me as saying anything remotely like that.

Did I say that passion was itself a valid argument? No, I did not. What I said was that passion is not the enemy of reason insofar as it focuses the mind and gives it access to various aspects of the things otherwise inaccessible. But, entirely contrary to faith-based reasoning, I explained numerous ways in which properly passionate thinking and arguing corrects against prejudice, and that is by deliberately alternating one’s perspectives to try to see and feel what things are like from outside of any given passion.

This is not a point about valid argumentation. Ultimately, propositions are true or false, regardless of how we feel about them and propositions have both logical relationships to each other and have grounding in the real world (or not) and these are the ultimately decisive things with respect to validity and soundness of arguments.

What I am talking about is how real live human beings can themselves investigate things most sensitively and how arguments can sometimes advance through paying sensitive attention to all parts of reality. I gave examples of how this imaginative kind of reasoning works and how it enhances our goal of avoiding prejudice, not by feeling things from no side whatsoever, but by being able to feel things from all sides and assess what comes to light from all those various perspectives having seen through them all thoroughly, understood them in their best and worst, most and least illuminating vantage points on the world.

In light of that, we can have a stronger sense of how propositions relate to the world, whether they are true or false, having investigated them from as many possibly insightful angles as possible, so that we may then logically assess them with a surer sense of their truth as premises.

Most of the rest of what you have to say is debate over strategy, which is fine. I am not an evangelist and I have not owned that word, even though I have said that if people want to call me evangelical about my atheism, I am not going to waste the effort fighting that. That statement is not formally identical to saying I am a faith-based thinker. And, seriously, read the dozens of installments of my “Disambiguating Faith” series (all available on the left hand side of the website) or just search the site for the word Faith and you will see I do not give a quarter to faith (except for one special sense of the word that has nothing to do with religion at all).

I DO think that there are other things people call “religious” or “spiritual” that could possibly be salvaged from faith-based/authoritarian/traditionalistic/regressive/superstitious belief-structures and practices and my goal is to separate out those things and admit their genuine value and try to constructively think about how to meet people’s cravings for these things in ways that have nothing to do with all the abusive, irrationalistic stuff that goes with faith, authoritarian beliefs and morals, traditionalism, regressivism, and superstition.

Your primary worry is that if we adopt or are tarred with any connotations associated with the religious we’ll be dragged down to being thought of as no different than they are in the most important senses in which we absolutely need to distinguish ourselves.

But my primary worry is that if we do not stop trying to disassociate ourselves with whatever might ever possibly confused with the religious or spiritual, we will be misconstrued as abandoning many things that are good and which have been exploited by faith and superstition rather than put to the service of truthful, rationalistic, empirical approaches to life and knowledge.  We will reinforce the impression in the public mind that we cannot offer those things because they are incompatible with our cold rationalism and so we can only address part of life and human psychology and not all this other stuff that people find really, really valuable.

I see the charge that we “have faith too” as a last ditch projection on their part that they few people genuinely believe in any enduring way.  It’s an “I know you are but what am I” attack.  I don’t think it sticks when we are simultaneously getting accused of being too cold-bloodedly rational.  That’s what people really understand and that’s why their more persistent and fundamental objection to us is that we are elitists trying to rob the poor masses of their precious, life-sustaining superstitions.

And I think the charge that really does stick to us (whether or not it has any basis in fact) is that we are insufficiently attuned to questions of value or meaning or that we offer nothing positive and constructive to meet human needs for these things, for rituals, for community, etc.  (Amazingly, the rotten, counter-productive job authoritarian religions do at meeting these needs is not held against them since they at least publicize so well their intentions to do them!)

So, my concern is this: to make clear that what I am against is faith (defined clearly as belief against preponderance of counter-evidence or on insufficient evidence), superstition, emotional manipulation, closed-mindedness, traditionalism, regressiveness, and authoritarianism of thought, practice, and institution.

Those are my targets. Insofar as the existing religions are steeped in these awful things, I vituperatively attack them. But when it comes to any other things associated with religion, if they can be disentangled from their associations with those things then I am interested in proving we can have secular forms of them that can retain what people find genuine value in. There are many good things improperly thought to be the proper provenance of the existing institutional religions and I think we should fight against that just as much as we should distinguish that we are not faith-based believers.

I have no problem with your adamant desire not to be tarred as “just as faith-based” as the religious are. But I don’t want to be tarred as inherently less spiritually deep than the religious are because that redounds to our disadvantage just as much (and it is, or should be, false).

So, to me, the issue is saying, “here is a truth-conducive way to utilize your passions most effectively in reasoning (since you are not a robot) and here is the way not to utilize your passions in reasoning (in a faith-based way)”. And “here is the way best to engage in public debate about fundamental identity-forming beliefs and values and here is the wrong way to do it”. The words “tentative” and “zealous” and “evangelical” are not the point. It is how properly to be tentative, how properly to be zealous, how properly to be “evangelical” that interests me.

You may be right that I will be misunderstood. My hope instead is to take away from our enemies the ability to put us on a needlessly defensive back foot by calling us something others will think makes sense. I don’t want to fight over the words, but the methods. Now, in other areas, I agree with you. I cringe when Dawkins or other prominent atheists admit to having a kind of “faith” but try and define it as not the bad kind. I want to carefully distinguish faith beliefs from rationally proportioned beliefs and hold the line on the language there. That’s the real fight to me, not whether or not I am temperamentally “evangelical” in some flexible sense of the word.

Finally, Greg ended his post by quoting without permission from a private message I sent to him and drawing implications I certainly did not intend:

However, I must say that I found something Dan wrote in a PM to me distressing, and it actually accounts for my delay in responding:

I am reiterating a point I already made but which you don’t seem to be grasping so I may not reply again if you do not acknowledge the distinctions but send us down the same rabbit hole.

I must admit, this took me aback. Did a philosopher just say that? So, if I don’t accept his point (whatever it may be) Dan will end the discussion. That’s an … unfortunate … stance. I may have just written a lot of words to no effect, but at least I didn’t threaten to end the conversation because Dan disagrees with me…

I am not sure what “rabbit hole” he is referring to, but I guess I don’t really need to. What matters is the threat.

Because, you know, screaming from soapboxes *is* ending conversation…

This whole notion that my position on zealousness amounts to advocating “screaming from soapboxes” is such an absurd strawman of my position that just ignores numerous careful distinctions in my previous post and disregards all the nearly equal platform I have given Greg on my own blog, in the body of blog posts. As a representation of either my theory or my practice it is flat out unfair and false.

But as to the other charge of behavior unbecoming a philosopher, I do feel pressed to defend myself. Professional philosophers pick battles that they either think has value for their own thinking or for some educative purposes. While if you and I were merely discussing as friends, I might have an easy openness to an interminable, redundant discussion, I was talking to you about the prospects of continuing our debate on my blog. I carry out unusually long running dialectics with particular commentators on my blog.

I am as open to prominently highlighting and seriously engaging my commentators’ thoughts as any blogger I know of outside of Andrew Sullivan.  Doing things this way risks me losing readers who feel like they’re coming in on the middle of a conversation and get disoriented, but I love doing this because I think best in conversation, not in monologue. And I am sharpened by the endless challenges of my many provocative interlocutors who I am daily grateful give their time and energy to offering their thoughts on my blog.

But in this context, I have some limits. I cannot adequately address everybody who comments on the blog and who writes me in private–not while also fulfilling my three jobs teaching six sections of philosophy across three schools in three states. I am engaged in philosophical debate day and night. I do not stifle any conversation from fear of challenge or refusal to come to deeper understanding.

But, I have to choose what to post about and when comments do not advance discussions by adequately addressing distinctions I have made (either by acknowledging or refuting them or properly accounting for them in the next challenge), then it becomes less worth the precious little available time I have to make a substantive post or two per day.

I have given plenty of vent to your thoughts and as long as you continue to provide worthy stimulation, I will continue to do so. I apologize for badly wording a warning that I might move on from our particular discussion if I was not finding it fruitful anymore such that it was misconstrued as a sign of refusal to continue to talk to you simply for disagreeing with me. Seriously, I am not so petty.

Again, the record should make that clear. But I do move on from disputes where I feel like we are both just spinning our wheels. I move on when distinctions I make are not being accounted for (whether in refutations or modifications of positions, etc.) and that is becoming a stumbling block to any further ability to persuade me. And on my blog, I move on when to reply to someone again may just mean repeating myself and boring my readers.

I expect that we have probably explored the major sides of this topic of “evangelical atheists” enough for now that for the sake of avoiding redundancy for readers, I will confine future replies to you on this topic to the comments section of this or the earlier posts unless a distinct point that deserves its own post becomes central.

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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.

  • http://nojesusnopeas.blogspot.com James Sweet

    I’ve been avoiding commenting on this, since I’ve already been comment spamming too many threads in your excellent blog :) But what the hell…

    I’m not exactly ready to embrace the term “evangelical” for reasons that are related to, but distinctly different from Greg’s. Namely, my primary objections (if you can call them that; wait for the end) to the term stem from certainty and stakes.

    In regards to “certainty”, I am not referring to certainty of the position. I am as certain about the non-existence of god(s) as I am about the fact that the Earth orbits the Sun. Once you have a few basic principles pointed out to you, the reality of the proposition seems so freaking obvious, and the types of evidence that would be required to refute it would be so convoluted as to be safely ruled out as impossible.

    Rather, I am referring to certainty that everyone should adopt my position. Now, as a matter of principal, I believe the default presumption should be that nobody is better off believing a lie, unless very strong evidence is shown to the contrary. And I am reasonable confident that the statement “The world would be better with less religion” — which indubitably holds true now! — will continue to hold true all the way to 0%, or whatever the practical minimum amount of superstition is in a civilization composed of H. sapiens. But there are reasonable arguments to the contrary (even if I feel those making them often come off as elitist and condescending) and as such my zeal to convert people “all the way” is somewhat diminished. I’m quite happy to just get a person to accept that they’d be okay if they were an atheist, and that their is no evidential grounding for their faith-based beliefs. If a person still wants to continue to embrace theism at that point, I’m somewhat ambivalent — in contrast, I think, to Evangelicals, for whom getting someone to accept that it might be okay to embrace Jesus is woefully insufficient.

    I will be much briefer in regards to “stakes”: Evangelicals believe that if you don’t adopt their position, your immortal soul is in jeopardy; “evangelical atheists” believe that if you don’t adopt their position, you might do some stupid stuff, or, at worst, compel other people to do some stupid stuff. Well, or crash a plane into a building, but in practice when we are doing the “evangelizing” part of what we do as outspoken atheists, I don’t think we’re stopping any suicide bombers :) And even then, “you might murder 1000 people” is bad, but it’s leagues away from “you might burn in eternal hellfire FOREVER.” To put the (fictional) stakes so high is almost insulting.

    I think both of those are features that are not just shared by Evangelical Christians, but are generally implied by the word “evangelical”. Maybe the stakes are not portrayed as being so high in all cases, but certainly there is a connotation in the word along the lines of “I am 100% certain you will be better off with my way of thinking, and if you don’t come around then you are necessarily in deep shit.”

    With all of that out of the way — I think I broadly agree with you that “if people want to call me evangelical about my atheism, I am not going to waste the effort fighting that.” The terms “fundamentalist atheist” and “militant atheist” are offensive in the extreme, because there is no remotely valid definition of either of those words which could be fairly applied to my position, or that of virtually all “Gnus”. (On a side note, I think the figurative definition of “militant” should be abandoned altogether, because it is almost exclusively used as a code word to implicitly command someone with an alternative point of view to STFU. In any case, there is no valid analogy between holding a position strongly and holding a position with the threat of violence behind it, and we shouldn’t let people get away with a dirty trick like that, even if they are our allies)

    But “evangelical”? Yeah, okay. The reasons why I think the word is a poor description are mostly subtle, and there are valid definitions of the word which fit like a glove: After all, I do feel rather confidently that quite a lot of people would be happier and better off becoming atheists, and I’d like to help people to do so if ever I can. When given an opportunity, I’m always happy to talk about atheism with someone who is interested (am I “witnessing” my atheism? Hmmm…) and I advocate strongly for the position when appropriate.

    That’s enough like evangelism that the term doesn’t really bother me. I wouldn’t use it myself, but I don’t really object to it either. In fact, doesn’t Greta Christina self-identify that way? Or am I misremembering?

    Well, the soul of wit was never my strong suit, and this is much longer than I intended. I just want to end with an aside, that it must be rather frustrating for you, Daniel, with Greg on one side accusing you of claiming that atheism is faith-based, and then me on the other side asserting that you have not claimed enough of a role for faith in your worldview ;D

    (though I still maintain that my assertion that the Problem of Induction requires a faith-based solution is completely compatible with an outright rejection of the epistemic value of faith in every other circumstance — I would bristle just as much as you at the suggestion that atheism was “just another faith”. Yagh, when do I ever shut up?! Okay, comment over.)

    • Daniel Fincke

      No worries about writing so much, I for one enjoy all the comments and I don’t see how any of your remarks would crowd out other people. Thanks for contributing so much.

      I know exactly what you mean about the stakes being lower for us since we do not have the ludicrous notion that “heaven and hell” hinge on people agreeing with us. I tried to indicate some of that in the original post http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers/2011/02/19/evangelical-atheism/

      I also know what you mean about being squeamish about having the thought “Everyone must be and think like I am!” When push comes to shove and I contemplate that possibility, I don’t like that either.

      This goes back to perspectivism. From the perspective of the truth, I want to advance what I grasp to be the most rational and life-enhancing viewpoints and practices I can. That matters to me and I think it is a good thing that I get excited about advancing whatever I take those ideas and ideals to be at the given moment (as long as those ideas and ideals are responsibly formed).

      What is decidedly non-evangelical about what I do when I zealously open up debates about my ideas and ideals is that I do see them as debates, not as matters of me bringing light, absolute truth, and necessary salvation to those in utter darkness. And even though I advocate for what I believe today, I really do listen and modify what I passionately believe after the argument.

      I embrace the fact that I am going to deeply care about the truth as I have worked it out at any given point and that other people are going to push back against it and that that’s a good thing. I don’t get angry and frustrated (usually) when people challenge me. I get worked up but I am civil, charitable, and collaborative and don’t begrudge people their disagreement. I embrace the conflict itself as good and argue in a spirit of making agreement possible by being willing to really hear the other person and reason with them. It’s not “accept my Gospel or else you’re going to hell and that’s that”.

      So there are two perspectives at all times. There’s the one perspective in which I am enthusiastically behind my views of the moment and yet I can constantly oscillate my perspective to the bigger picture and realize that the issue is bigger than my current point of view. I can emotionally be engaged on two levels, one on which I am interested in defending an idea the best and most passionately that I can from within its logic, and another on which I recognize that my interlocutor is not truly my enemy in need of “conversion” but someone who might just win some points (or the whole argument!) and persuade me entirely.

      This is how we actually reason, I think. We have to think from within perspectives. The goal is not the impossible one of abandoning advocating positions zealously.

      And we should not be so zealous about just anything, either—there are some issues that we really know little about, and I often recommend just being extraordinarily tentative and measured about them when engaging publicly. That’s why I barely ever talk publicly about economics, for example, and only do so with massive qualifications offered. We should be moderated in proportion to our limited knowledge in such cases.

      But in matters on which we have informed opinions, we do and should take up positions and really advance them against others who take up the other sides and advance them in reply.

      This is exactly what Greg has been doing in practice too. He’s been no less zealous in this debate than I have. He’s been as open and as stubborn as I have been. And that’s why an interesting debate emerged. Because we have both been willing to dig in our heels and give our respective positions the best showing they could get.

      And hopefully the result is not that we are each further dug into our prejudices the opposite, that when all is said and done, we’ve both had our thought broadened and our own positions sharpened for the exercise.

      So, yes, this is in most cases ultimately about a debate. In most of my endeavors I am not an evangelical so much as a philosopher, constantly changing my views in light of new arguments despite advocating hard for the compelling perspectives of the moment.

      And ultimately in the mode of arguing for the propositions I feel most convinced of and which I feel have the greatest support of reason, of course I think and feel like I want everyone to be persuaded and agree with me. That’s not incompatible with also, from a larger perspective thinking and feeling that it is highly valuable to have people who grasp things from other perspectives and who will therefore be able to help me see and incorporate those other perspectives into my overall picture as well.

      So it is less often that I am going to demonize or condescend to my opponent as just “lost” and not worthy of listening to than if I were an absolutist, fundamentalist sort of evangelical who thought I had just been handed perfect truth from the sky and everyone outside was in darkness no matter how persuasive or thoughtful they may be. That sort of impenetrability of the mind of the fundamentalist is what makes their motives in “evangelizing” and their resultant methods for doing it so incredibly anti-rational and ethically appalling.

      And I am more interested in people thinking for themselves than that they agree with me. Even when I was an Evangelical Christian, I could never “seal the deal” and convert anyone, hard as I tried. And the reason was that I almost always appealed to reason rather than attacked their emotions. I kept things on an abstract enough level that there was always room for their free abstract thought too. And that is not conducive to twisting people’s arms into giving total capitulation to your position, “total surrender to Jesus”. I could never quite push people that hard or that far, feeling it would compromise their reason and the authenticity of their affirmation to do so.

      And I still am that way. Do I want in theory to persuade people to abandon their faiths? Yes, absolutely. I aim at this goal. Do I want this to happen quickly, rashly, or in front of my very eyes. Not necessarily. In the heat of a debate, of course I will be concentrated on the end goal of getting them to agree (just as they will be focused on the same towards me). But I am much more comfortable with their actual changes of mind coming the way they usually do, when they’re alone, unpressured by the presence of another person, contemplating the arguments.

      I would rather that than that I had such power over someone through the combination of social and psychological personal pressure that they were able to undergo a major change of mind right before my eyes. They can capitulate points of course, as is also part of a debate. But if I am ever successful in dissuading people of their faiths, I want to only have been one of many who offered reasons which over an adequate length of time they absorb and contemplate for themselves and which they accept in private, where they have no one to please but their own conscience.

  • http://nojesusnopeas.blogspot.com James Sweet

    Facepalm. s/principal/principle. I just got done reading a story over at The Meming of Life that involved meeting with the school principal, so I guess I had that spelling in my head. D’oh…

  • Colin Hutton

    Dan – I second James Sweet’s “excellent blog”, I have been enjoying it for some time. I’ll write you an email in due course.

    On the topic of this post : how about ‘an atheist of the proselytising kind’, which is a description I have applied to myself? In my opinion it avoids the negative connotations of ‘evangelical’ and of ‘militant’.


  • Daniel Fincke

    Thanks Colin!

    What do you see as the specific benefits of “proselytizing” over “evangelical”. Strangely, I don’t like the words “evangelist” or “proselytize” because they connote to me more than just enthusiasm for pressing the issue of an evangelical but an emphasis on a one-way communication of ideas. Even though evangelical derives from evangalism, it’s a broader word now that encompasses an entire enthusiastic sharing and confronting way of approaching one’s views on religion. And I know plenty of activist atheists who are this enthusiastic and confrontational, just like any of my Evangelical Christian friends.

    But I don’t think of these atheist friends as evangelists or proselytizers because they are inviting to debates, not just preaching, and they rarely offer some big belief system but rather only advocate evangelically for reason itself.

    This may be totally idiosyncratic to me but I find evangelical flexible enough to describe what they do, whereas I hear “proselytize” and “evangelize” as misrepresenting what they do in the same ways that Greg does.

    • Colin Hutton

      I followed your debate with Greg and allow that you make a convincing case. However, to my (Australian) ear the words evangelist and evangelical are confined to those advocating in favour of religion.

      Proselytize, less so. (Perhaps because I adopted/adapted the phrase after reading and liking it in an obituary, 15 years ago, for the ballet dancer Robert Helpman, which described him as “a homosexual of the proselytizing kind” !)

      Checking dictionaries now (a bit late) my old (1956) SOED would support my position and a more recent 1999 Oxford would (just) allow yours.

      So, perhaps we can put our differing perspectives down to age (I’m twice yours), Aus cf USA cultures, and personal idiosyncracies.

      I like the word ‘activist’ in your response!


  • http://thenewhumanism.org James Croft

    Daniel -

    I’m so glad I found your blog via this post! It seems like you and I have some similar goals. You say:

    “I DO think that there are other things people call “religious” or “spiritual” that could possibly be salvaged from faith-based/authoritarian/traditionalistic/regressive/superstitious belief-structures and practices and my goal is to separate out those things and admit their genuine value and try to constructively think about how to meet people’s cravings for these things in ways that have nothing to do with all the abusive, irrationalistic stuff that goes with faith, authoritarian beliefs and morals, traditionalism, regressivism, and superstition.”

    That is precisely the goal of some of us over at TheNewHumanism.org. If you haven’t seen us yet you may be interested in these articles:




    In addition, I am embarking on a targeted project which will be looking to create precisely the sort of secular alternatives to religious practices, structures, services etc. you describe. We launch in a couple of weeks. One of the explicit purposes of the new site will be to revive and disseminate the proud tradition of freethinking that has mostly been ignored by modern atheists / Humanists, and which frequently uses “religious” language and terminology to frame its arguments and present its ideals.

    I’ll be looking to draw boundaries around this language and engage in reflective dialog around which aspects are “salvageable” and which aspects are not. It would be very interesting to get your take when we “open our doors”!

  • Greg Teed

    Actually, if I may, I’d like to clarify something.

    I do not claim that Dan is making the claim that atheism is faith-based. I am claiming that the religious make that claim and that by allowing terms like “evangelize” into the atheist lexicon, Dan is permitting them to control the discussion such that that claim sounds true when it isn’t. This is permitting, in my view, equivocation.I suggest that there is a very real difference *in kind* between assertions (a deliberately neutral term) made by those who affirm and those who tentatively posit. And I suggest that it is very important to not let this happen, lest we lose the argument by default.

    Now, whether terms are salvageable or not is an interesting and hotly-contested issue, and we see it reflected just about everywhere, from “faith” to “christmas.” Can we divest “evangelize” of its religious roots sufficiently so that it no longer implies religious content? Is it sufficiently divested of this meaning now such that we can use them now without all parties in the debate assuming the hidden dogmatic content? I put it to you that it has not, and that is, I think, evidenced by the claim made by the religious that atheism is just another “faith.”

    Now, let us view Dan making the argument we hear all the time from the religious all the time, “You are doing the same thing I am”:

    “This is exactly what Greg has been doing in practice too. He’s been no less zealous in this debate than I have. He’s been as open and as stubborn as I have been. And that’s why an interesting debate emerged. Because we have both been willing to dig in our heels and give our respective positions the best showing they could get.”

    Now, I would like to deal with this, because I think it gets to my point. While I have been presenting my point forcefully, the point itself is that all points (including my own) are tentative positing. Those closely reading will notice a lot of tentative words in my postings. Things like “suspect,” “think,” “it seems,” even the use of the word “I” all of which are there to provide warning that what I am saying is not evangelical truth. It’s not even truth, let alone evangelical truth (and that that sentence even makes sense is an indication that”evangelical” means something other than what Dan suggests). My tentative word usages are public recognitions that I am not making certain knowledge claims, and that is precisely the point. Even if I didn’t use these “tentative” words, the reader knows that my basic point is “tentative positing” because that is the content, so trying to shoehorn my statements as presentations of truth is an effort doomed to failure, disingenuous at worst.

    Worse, one consequence of what Dan is suggesting is that any presentation of any ideas is “evangelical.” Clearly, this is not the case, so why is it not the case? My answer, is its content. Dan’s answer seems to be the forcefulness of its presentation” although Dan uses the word “zeal” instead (which is, itself, interesting). There is a realm of words, a context, that represents the (a) religious story of reality and our lives, indeed of who we are. The religious have absconded with our human qualities like love and charity and the like and shoehorned god into them. Part of our business today is to try to get god out of our bedrooms (a way of saying get god out of our social context – take back our human qualities). Nevertheless, this building a context is what religion does, and the terms of the context are designed to maintain that context. “Evangelize” is one such word, as is “zeal.” I must admit, that when I read this: “Even when I was an Evangelical Christian…” I went, “Oh” in my mind because I am a from the cradle atheist. Is it possible that Dan’s thinking (and the context in which he thinks) is still influenced by his evangelical roots?

    Dan is either trying to maintain the context or redefine it. I discard it and start over again with a foundation radically different than what has come before. This is why it was necessary to delve into nihilistic metaphysics to get to the point. The radical difference in kind I refer to starts there. Do we affirm or do we posit. There is a radical mindset difference between these, and it changes everything.

    So, no, Dan, I am not doing the same thing you are doing.

    When Dan tries to depict me as evangelizing he is simply mistaken, and he is mistaken precisely because he isn’t taking into account the content of what is being presented. Once that content is taken into account, my forcefulness is necessarily diminished. There is a whole host of errors of this type that we make on a daily basis, from the idea that teaching children to question is brainwashing or indoctrination (which it isn’t because of the content), to the idea that skepticism contradicts itself (which it doesn’t because of the content (doubt is not denial)). Espousing or presenting something is not evangelizing because what is being presented is not evangelical, and that’s a content consideration. Dan is trying to keep the content from mattering in this discussion, but it does (at least according to dictionaries and natural discourse). What I am doing is recognizing that the content does matter and am trying to figure out how. In the process, I am attempting to answer the questions, “What do we teach our kids?” and “Doesn’t skepticism contradict itself?”

    We can, if we so desire, stipulate that “evangelize” refers only to the force of persuasion and then apply the word to ourselves. I think we run the risks of actually becoming something like evangelical in the process and tentative words, and the mindset that accompanies tentative words, will be lost in the process, which is precisely what the religious want and what I suspect is the problem…