In my “What I Think About” series I am laying out many theses I have argued for extensively on this blog. I have already covered some of my key views on objective values, faith and religion, science and faith, religious moderates and liberals, and why I call myself a gnostic theist/agnostic adeist. In this post I overview my position that it is okay to try to change people’s minds about their religious beliefs and that atheists should not be embarrassed about trying to do this just because religious people have historically used obnoxious and irrationalistic techniques which have tarnished the reputation of an actually good thing: vigorous debate.
We atheists just need to avoid their tactics:
I am an evangelical atheist.
I do not think it is in bad form or rude to proselytize or to have an evangelical passion for one’s views—be they religious or otherwise. I do not resent the strong desire to convert others which one finds among Christians and Muslims. What I reject in faith-based evangelism is shameless “get them at all costs” approaches they use.
I loathe the way they actively distort science, present sophistries in lieu of philosophical arguments, insist on dogmatic acceptance of their authorities and refuse to engage in an actual open ended debate, shamelessly try to manipulate people’s emotions using fear and insecurity to their advantage, harass strangers on the street, bully relatives and friends with threats to disown them lest they convert to (or not leave) their faith,use the coercive power of their stations as people’s teachers or military officers or legislators to indoctrinate, propagandize, manipulate, or force people into deferring to and converting to their beliefs, etc.
Such tactics as these give all discussions about philosophical matters a bad name in the public and it is a disgrace. But I think that atheists (and theists, etc.) can all have civil private and public debates that eschew all these negatives and yet which are unashamedly about trying to rationally persuade others to their side.
I also don’t mind being called an “evangelical” atheist (though I know other atheists understandably don’t want the slimy goo of the negative connotations of “evangelicalism” all over them. In my case, my passionate temperament to correct people’s minds in matters of gods was forged for 15 years in evangelical training.
I still am, behaviorally, in some ways “evangelical”–and even want to be insofar as that means wanting people to think the best they can about the ultimate questions of meaning, ethics, and reality so that they flourish most in life. I just need to (and think I have) avoid their failures to do this in ways that actually respect others’ autonomy and intelligence and do not reduce people to “projects” and notches on a belt.
We should reach out civilly but not cowardly to people of faith.
When debating the defenders of faith, be they actual people of faith or their apologists, we should not resort to name-calling–it is abusive, bullying, childish, disrespectful, corrosive to the dialogue—and probably counter-productive most of the time anyway. It distracts from your argument, it gives your opponent a moral complaint against you, it makes potential allies try to disassociate themselves from you, and it projects the impression you have no argument so you’re resorting to abuse.
We need to respect people and argue respectfully.
This is entirely consistent with being intellectually and personally confrontational in appropriate ways. We must call spades spades. We can use harsh words that are accurate and not just putdowns. We can call people liars when they lie, we can expose them as fraudulent, dissembling, unfair, irrational, authoritarian, theocratic, misogynistic, racist, chauvinistic, stubborn, rude, or any of dozens and dozens of other awful things for which we provide evidence. We do not have to always be nice or conciliatory. Some people deserve to be denounced vigorously.
But there is no need for words that go beyond denunciations of specific, documented behaviors, to outright dismissals of their worth as people.
We should also actively work not to let our principled opposition and vigorous willingness to debate and debunk turn into emotional hatred of our intellectual and cultural enemies. We must remember that it is bogus when the fundamentalists claim to hate what gay people do and yet love them as people, and find ways to not take a comparable attitude towards the religious lest we become haters. We need to conscientiously figure out ways to affirm the virtues of the religious which are separably valuable and laudable apart from their own faith-based interpretations of their worth.
We should learn patience. People do change their minds, just often not right in front of our faces. We should debate optimistically, with the knowledge that you can never even predict or measure afterwards how many ways you can slightly or significantly affect the way others think. Some words echo in people’s minds long after we even remember saying (or even thinking) them and predicting which ones will do that to which people is impossible. But it happens, either consciously or subconsciously, we all get into each other’s heads. And we should want to get into people’s heads for the positive.
And, finally, we should feel free to (judiciously) mock religion. This is a vital part of breaking its spell of holiness, untouchability, and default reverence in the culture. And absurdities and sophistries are most directly and clearly exposed with humor and dismissed with laughter. Sometimes (though of course not always) a witty rejoinder that exposes a position’s stupidity is worth more than the 1,000 words it sometimes takes to carefully disentangle all its myriad confusions.
More on all these topics: