Evangelical atheists, like me, are interested in debating religious people with the intent of dissuading them of their religious beliefs. In my case, I think that the greatest good humans can strive for is to maximize the total aggregate of excellently functioning human powers. Put more simply, we should aim to aid our fellow humans to flourish in their abilities as much as possible. I think that it is both instrumentally and intrinsically good for people to reason as well as possible as part of realizing their full human potential—not only their potential as rational beings, but as social, creative, political, artistic, sexual, emotional, familial, athletic, and humorous beings. Rationality usually contributes to and constitutes each of our powers.
And unfortunately dogmatic, faith-based religions actively inculcate and explicitly encourage numerous intellectually inhibiting irrational and anti-rational habits of thought and practice. They deliberately teach people to believe transparent falsehoods on irrational grounds and to embrace numerous normal cognitive errors as truth-conducive and virtuous. Some people of course learn to think with a fair degree of creativity and logical consistency within the ultimately stifling boundaries of their faith. And of course outside of matters deliberately distorted for them by their faith, many believers are fine thinkers. But the effects of faith traditions on too many people’s abilities to think clearly about philosophy, ethics, politics, or science is too much for me to take passively. I want to argue on behalf of better understandings of science, philosophy, and critical thinking. I especially want people’s philosophies, ethics, and politics to be shaped by reason rather than unwarranted deference to the frequently childish, outdated, regressive, heteronomous and/or stagnant traditionalism of religious faiths.
Now, in reply to this desire of mine alone (and not to any specific failures to be civil or fair to believers) people accuse me (I think almost offensively falsely) of being self-righteous, rude, presumptuous, intrusive, moralistic, illiberal, pushy, imposing, and/or arrogant. In short, evangelical atheists like me are accused of being just as bad as religious proselytizers who try to shove their religious beliefs down people’s throats. No discriminations are made between we evangelical atheists who try to reason with others based on philosophy and science on the one hand and those religious proselytizers who try to emotionally harangue and manipulate people into believing things that reason alone could never persuade them of.
But it is different to seek to have rational debate with someone than to restort to threats of eternal torment, emotionally frenzied worship services, programs that exploit the vulnerabilities of the poor, addicted, or otherwise disenfranchised, arbitrary appeals to authorities that unwarrantedly claim absoluteness, disingenuously formed friendships, and the concentrated brainwashing of children (sometimes even other people’s children whose parents are of a different religion) all in order to win converts at whatever cost.
Now some religious proselytizers, of course, may be more committed to rational restraint and try to only win converts in ways that respect autonomy and reason. And some atheists on at least some occasions can be excessively obnoxious and rude and otherwise intemperate when dealing with believers. But at least in principle, evangelical atheists are explicitly committed to rationalism and science, whereas, in principle religious proselytizers are typically concerned with winning converts at nearly any cost, PERIOD Even if they won’t confess to this, their behaviors bear out that uniquely amazing shamelessness that the illusion of God’s
permission commandment to save anyone they can gives them.
But, I digress. On to my question. The other major reasons we are told not to try to dissuade others of their beliefs (besides the concern trolling lament that it would just be futile anyway) is that if religious people are happy as they are, then that’s simply their business and it’s rude and presumptuous to try to change them. And since people’s religions are often deeply incorporated into their sense of identity, it is seen as disrespectful, even to the point of being a violation of their core being to treat their beliefs as needing changing. It’s tantamount to saying that their whole identity, their whole being as they are at their core must be destroyed and replaced. So, the argument goes, just as it is morally offensive and demeaning to ask gay people to change their sexuality, so it is also morally offensive and demeaning to ask religious people to abandon their beliefs.
Finally, in liberal countries it is common to think of politics as the only area where we should be concerned about others’ actions or beliefs. So there is a reflexive aversion to any thing that could be remotely perceived as meddling in people’s private moral lives against their will. I appreciate the sentiment behind that suspiciousness. We indeed need to be conscientiously cautious to avoid being pushy, harmful, judgmental moralists, but I also think that abdicating all rights and responsibilities to discuss and debate values with others is an irresponsibly dangerous form of cultural neglect that takes too little interest in our fellow humans’ well-being, evinces too little community solidarity, and eventually even risks costly political effects down the road. In short, political values are too steeped in social, cultural, and moral values for us to be complacent about all of the latter.
This is why I am not ashamed of the atheist movement’s interest in subjecting matters of belief and religious practice to critical moral scrutiny. And while I respect the fact that people’s identities are indeed often religiously constructed in ways that need to be partially respected, I do not think that it is rational for anyone (theist, atheist, or otherwise) to stop reexamining their beliefs or to demand their beliefs be put off limits from criticism simply because one is attached to those beliefs as a matter of identity or because those beliefs make one happy.
But what I want to do now is ask only a specific type of person a specific set of questions. I don’t want to hear from those who loathe or mistrust nearly all attempts to change others’ religious beliefs. I have tried to adequately represent your objections above, please listen to what the deconverted themselves have to say. I don’t want to hear from lifelong atheists or deconverts who were only ever nominally believers for whom leaving faith behind was a fairly painless or, even, imperceptible process. I don’t want to hear from current religious believers. I appreciate all of you as readers and hope you’ll read the comments below and provide Your Thoughts on all my other posts.
But I want to use this comments section specifically to survey you atheists who really did experience your religious beliefs as very important to your identities and/or your happiness. You were the very people that evangelical atheists are being told to leave alone. In very many cases you were at least partially influenced to deconvert by the explicit efforts of atheists to dissuade you of your beliefs. You are the “victims” of evangelical atheism.
So tell us all how devout you were. What are your bona fides as a true formerly devout believer? How did any anti-religious atheist media or friends actively influence your deconversion? How long ago did you convert? How do you feel about it now? Do you resent what they “did to you” or are you grateful? Is being an atheist better or worse than you expected? Are you happier or unhappier or equally happy as an atheist than you were as a believer? And to what extent do you attribute your increase, decrease, or stasis of happiness to your deconversion? Do you think you are a better, worse, or equally flourishing with respect to your virtues and other excellences, now that you have deconverted? Has any increased unhappiness caused by deconversion been compensated for with feelings of being stronger in virtues or with counterbalancing new happinesses?
And what do you think of evangelical atheism? And, as a former devout believer, if you are, by chance, yourself the type of evangelical atheist who wants to dissuade others, how do you feel about being chastised by non-believers for challenging religious beliefs and practices? What do you think evangelical atheists can learn about both respecting and dissuading believers from your own successful deconversion? What do you think lifelong atheists need to understand in particular about what it is like to be a believer having their beliefs challenged? What do you think is more important when a choice needs to be made, truth or happiness? If you are an evangelical atheist, what motivates you to want others to deconvert—concern that they have truth, happiness, or both? Would you think it worth it for someone to deconvert even if they were less happy afterwards? Are there any people you know (or types of people) whom you wish not to see deconvert because you fear it would be overall worse for them if they did?
For my own thoughts about how I feel as a deconvert when I am scolded for attacking religious beliefs, read Apostasy As A Religious Act (Or “Why A Camel Hammers The Idols Of Faith”).
Your Deconverted Thoughts?