Wanted: Atheist Orators

Bruce Gerencser is a former preacher turned atheist who writes the worthwhile Fallen From Grace blog. In a post this week, he explores the issues I raised when I wondered about the pros and cons of atheist and former preacher Jerry DeWitt coopting the stylistics of his Southern Pentecostal preaching background for advancing the cause of atheism:

Dan waves the red flag of warning and rightly so. Preaching, particularly certain styles of preaching, can be used to manipulate and control. Dan wisely warns about making an end-run around reason. Far too often preaching is nothing more than the reinforcing of “this we believe” and “we shall not be moved from this we believe.”

People are not taught to reason or to think for themselves. They are taught to believe. They are taught when reason suggests something that runs contrary to the received truth that it is to be rejected. Just have faith, people are told.

As a preacher turned atheist I can not turn off the speaking skills I used to ply my trade for 32 years. They are very much a part of who I am.  The best I can do is be mindful of the power of the skills I have and make sure I use them in such a way that people are not only moved but instructed. I need to be aware of the power I have to manipulate people with my words. Self-awareness of this will keep me from falling back into using the tricks of the preaching trade to elicit the desired response from those listening to me.

That said, I want to put a plug in for passionate, pointed, challenging public speaking. Quite frankly, the atheist/humanist movement needs a bit of life pumped into it. I have listened to many speeches/lectures/seminars/debates that people told me were wonderful. Well-known atheists and humanists, aren’t they great? Uh, no. B-o-r-i-n-g. Dry. Monotonous.

Some speakers are better off sticking to what they do best………writing books and magazine articles. Leave the public speaking to those who do it well. (or go back to school and get some public speaking training)

What was the power of movement for racial equality in the 1960’s? Baptist preachers who had powerful, moving public speaking skills. Yes, their words were packed with meaning but it was the delivery of those words that moved a nation.

The atheist/humanist movement in America needs people who have the ability to passionately move people to action. I would rather suffer a bit with Jerry Dewitt’s preaching style (and I am not a fan of the Pentecostal style of preaching) than listen to well-educated, boring men WOW me right into an afternoon nap. We are in a battle against religious zealots and theocrats and we need speakers who can stir and motivate people to action.

Some atheists and humanists naively believe that knowledge is all that matters. Like Joe Friday, they think if they just give people the facts they will see the error of their way. Don’t get me wrong, knowledge is important. Way too many people become an atheist out of anger or disappointment with the Christian church. Just like the Christian zealot, the atheist should KNOW why he believes what he believes. Or as the Bible says, be ready to give an answer for the hope that lies within them. But, at the same time, we should not divorce our beliefs from our emotions. Some things matter…..and if they matter, our emotions should be stirred,motivating us to act accordingly.

Your Thoughts?


UPDATE: Bruce Gerencser has quit his blog. When you go there you simply get the following message now:

Welcome to fallenfromgrace.net This domain was recently registered at namecheap.com. Following is a message from the owner of this domain.THANK YOU!I have reached a point in life where it is time for me to stop blogging and move on to some other things I want to do in my life.I want to thank you for reading this blog over the past 3 years.I know my decision to stop blogging will upset some people and cause others to rejoice. I can’t please everyone and most days I can’t even please myself. This was a difficult decision for me to make and one I hope you will understand.Bruce Gerencser

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.

  • Grendels Dad

    Hard to say since he didn’t give any examples of who he finds dry, monotonous, and boring. But whenever I hear a description like that I can’t help think of the countless people I have heard say the same things about science education.

    I know that some people find things like science and philosophy or metaphysics boring, but I’m not one of them, so I guess the whole point of the article is a bit lost on me. I am more likely to be put off by someone I feel is putting on a show. If it is genuine I suppose it could work, but if there is even a hint of “used car salesman” or a “Hi, I’m Insincere Pitchman and I’m here to sell you atheism!” it would turn me off.

    I guess that whatever the approach, it will not work on everyone, we are all just too different. So sure, let some people “preach it”, while others diagram it in symbolic logic on a whiteboard, and still others can write poems about it. Do it however you are comfortable doing it, because a sincere delivery is more important than a polished delivery. And if people don’t like the way you are doing it they are welcome to find a delivery more suited to them, but we can’t reduce anyone to a lowest common delivery in the hopes of finding some magic bullet style that will appeal to everyone (or at least offend no one.)

  • http://Templeofthefuture.net James Croft

    He’s 100% right and all the evidence shows him to be so. While we must recognize and be responsive to the power of words to manipulate, we must also understand that Logos accounts for only a portion of the persuasive power of any appeal. We have to hit people in the gut again and again and again. Only then will they come to love truth.

  • http://Quarkscrew.com BT Murtagh

    A good project that could be started on local levels would be to train new public speakers and debaters (the skill sets overlap but are not the same) and provide a forum for practicing their skills at increasing challenging levels.

    • http://Templeofthefuture.net James Croft

      That’s a great idea! We are putting together a weekend workshop along similar lines at the Humanist Community Project, but I hadn’t thought of organizing a practice forum!

    • ‘Tis Himself

      Go for it, James. Show that you guys can actually do something that would be worthwhile doing.

    • http://Templeofthefuture.net James Croft

      How about you visit us one week and I’ll give you a tour of the place and show you what we do? I think you might be surprised. I’m happy to put you up if you need a place to stay.

  • http://heartheretic.blogspot.com Lance Armstrong

    The atheist movement can benefit from many approaches; I certainly welcome Bruce Gerencser’s, as well as those that he considers to be dry.

  • http://godlessandsouthern.wordpress.com MattyP!

    When atheists/humanists make question religious dogma and beliefs, are, in effect, challenging something that many consider to be inseparable from themselves. Basically, we’re taking their security blankets. Unfortunately, that will be a difficult obstacle to overcome, no matter how pleasing our rhetoric sounds.

  • machintelligence

    Could it be that giving informative, rather than entertaining talks is the atheist form of “preaching to the choir?”

  • GregFromCos

    I would hope that content would always win in the free thinking community. If we can find someone who has wonderful content along with great delivery, all the better.

    But I would guess for many of us that came out of Christianity, we see the style of Oration as a bit of distraction. That type of oration, reminds me of the amount of hypnotic techniques preachers use to communicate their message (albeit not intentionally). Darrel Ray has talked about this some.

    Either way I’d never take oration over substance. Part of leaving religion, was to avoid being manipulated by emotions into believing something that is not true. And that style of oration, definitely appeals to emotions, and can make it more difficult to assess the content of what is being said.

    • GregFromCos

      And just as a point. I watched this debate tonight between Dr Hector Avalos and some Christian apologist on whether the bible is a good source of morality for today. http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=7DIMWV1VSq8

      I would not characterize Dr. Avalos as a great Orator. But the thought of us not giving a stage to those like Dr Avalos (who absolutely destroyed his opponents argument) would be a tragedy. Especially if we gave it to someone who had less to say, but said it in a more emotional way. Personally I’d like to see more of Dr Avalos on the national stage. The talks I’ve seen of his are so enlightening.

    • Aliasalpha

      Content really can’t be divorced from delivery. You could write the finest piece of drama ever comitted to word document but unless you have decent actors its all going to go to waste.

      The problem is when actors overshadow the script and it becomes vapid and superficial, all about the moment with none of the content. Down that road you get michael bay films (of course that road would eventually explode for no reason).

  • Michael R

    Bruce is right. He is parroting Alain de Botton i.e. we need sermons as well as lectures. Emotion as well as reason.

    But Bruce’s website is no longer working.

  • Michael Moon

    It’s all too true.

    If we atheists have one problem, it’s that we think we’re Spock, unaffected by rhetoric and oratory, and motivated by content and logic alone. But it’s not the case; we’re still human, and we’re still affected by appeals to what we hold most dear. In our case, it’s a commitment to objective truth (or the realization that the first ten minutes of UP is the best thing ever filmed).

    The art is in the delivery. Sagan nailed it. Tyson is on the trail. I tried to get Jill Tarter into the zone at TED but she was uncomfortable about the idea. With few exceptions, we’re preaching to the choir. If we’re serious about change, we’re going to need to adopt the trappings of the target. Inspirational? Check. Fiery? Please. Promised Land? Yup, but save us the forty years.

    Satire has saved us for a decade (thanks, Jon and Steven), but we need to pick up the torch. Remember: only Nixon could go to China.

    • http://Templeofthefuture.net James Croft

      Well-put. And the identification of satire as a savior is insightful. We have to find ways of being earnest and passionate about our beliefs, frankly, or we will lose the culture. Funnily, people like Hitchens knew this – he had gut appeals down (although he combined them with less helpful approaches).

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      Hitchens’s entire contribution to atheism was really just oratory and (possibly) in his writing skills. He was not much of a philosopher and was impressively flawed and blind-sighted in a number of ways. But it was his manner with a phrase that made him so iconic. I never learned much of substance from him outside of clever narrow observations, but he made me viscerally happy on so many occasions on sheer strength of his precise delivery of sentiments and ideas I already had.

  • http://www.thegoodatheist.net Jacob Fortin

    I can’t say anyone has ever accused me of being boring while I give my “orations”, but maybe everyone is super polite :P

  • http://www.arkfrontier.com/ Alex Ryan

    Learning to speak is what Toastmasters is for – check out http://www.toastmasters.org to find clubs near you.

  • rapiddominance

    Dr. Fincke

    Your community outclasses mine, on average, in education level, problem solving ability, and in motivated curiosity. When folks from my side say crap about atheists being miserable, its usually because they don’t understand the joys of a curious, capable, and seeking mind.

    Yet, I’m not so sure that this particular type of joy translates well into rivetting oratory. Don’t get me wrong–a great science teacher (or any teacher for that matter) has the genuine life saving capabilities to empower and inspire; but often times, it ‘takes’ slowly and it has a lot to do with the prior knowledge and past history of each individual pupil.

    I suppose this is a weird (and potentially self-defeating) thing for a theists to say here, but I think that the key reason that our ‘charlatans’ whip up enthusiasm and cooperation so rapidly is that the appeals always go straight to the audience’s immediate wants.

    Your readers have well justified qualms with such oration; yet it might not be impossible or reckless to employ. I’m thinking that the key might be to stay vigilant and become concerned whenever you come across leaders and speakers who whip up ‘emotional cocktails’ without actually sorting anything out. Good and effective communication is about more than just the destination–its also about how you get there.

  • blindrobin

    We need many different voices for many different communities. Listen to this from rational warrior on ewe choob.