Should atheists engage in proselytization? I solicited questions about my philosophy of atheism on Facebook and that’s the topic of the first question:
Do you think trying to “convert” people to atheism is a good idea generally or at least sometimes?
I don’t think atheism is something you “convert” to. Atheism is just one philosophical position, not an entire system of beliefs or anything like the complex set of beliefs and practices and communities that religions involve. There are religions that are atheistic and there are people with a (metaphorically) religious zeal about their atheism. There can also be atheist philosophies and communities that are not exactly religions but to one degree or another developed and organized and defined alternatives to religions.
But the real question being asked in the prompt question is whether it’s a good idea to try to get people to become atheists.
I am all for trying to persuade people of atheism, but not at all for trying to proselytize for atheism. I write articles making the case for atheism and in suitable forums where people are willingly up for debate I will argue for atheism directly to individuals.
But I would never approach my relationships with individuals with the attitude that it’s my job to change their thinking and change their lives. I do not target new people I meet and make it my mission to change them. I abhor the idea of forming relationships with people with the ulterior motive of just trying to get them to join my club. I also do not accost strangers or try to rope acquaintances into discussions about religion. It is wrong to approach relationships with others with a manipulative agenda to change them. If I cannot accept you as you are, then I am going to avoid having anything to do with you, not take it upon myself to change you. I don’t want to have the necessary self-satisfaction and self-righteousness to approach people in an asymmetric way where I see myself as the one in possession of the key knowledge of what is true and good and the other person is an ignorant person in need of my intervention. I want reciprocal encounters. I don’t want to engage in conversations with the attitude that I’m certainly right and I know what is best for the person I’m talking to and the other person is someone to be corrected. I don’t want to disrespect other people that way.
Essentially, if you want my opinions on your philosophical or religious views, you are going to have to follow me on social media, read my blog, take my online philosophy classes, start the religious debate on social media that ropes me in anymore, or directly solicit my opinions face to face (and overcome my reticence with sufficient cajoling and gestures of good faith interest). In my interpersonal interactions with people I can tell are theists, I try to skirt the topic of religion as much as possible and if it comes up I try to tread as sensitively as I can. Only if someone is a philosopher by temperament or if I can tell someone is really curious about what I think might I open up about my views. If someone in the real world is looking for a debate about atheism or religion, I will weigh carefully whether they want to debate in good faith or not. And if I have an important relationship with them and I cannot trust them to take the disagreement impersonally, I will try to avoid the debate at all costs.
That said, I have described myself in the past as an “evangelical” atheist because I really do want to persuade people of atheism. I am unusually passionate about atheism becoming more common. I prefer to argue for atheism through the impersonal medium of writing because it allows people to process what I say in their own way and on their own schedule. My ultimate goal in advancing atheism is increasing people’s autonomy and rational understanding. Writing articles that people can privately read and digest without any social pressure from me is a great way for people to be truly free to engage the arguments on their own terms.
The other way I love engaging people about these matters is in real, open-ended philosophical conversations. But these take a lot of time and a lot of patience. Outside of my philosophy classes or conversations with other philosophers, close friends, and my wife, I am not going to have a lot of time to put into the painstaking work of really listening to other people enough to understand them and patiently formulate arguments that take seriously the nuances of their thinking as individuals. That’s what’s necessary for a mutual philosophical pursuit of the truth. We need to treat each other not as just representatives for fixed, standard positions known in advance. We need to really understand the complicated and idiosyncratic ways that the unique individual we are actually talking to makes sense of a whole range of different issues. We need to put in the hard work of adapting the ideas we want to advance so that they can account for what this interlocutor has to offer that we are not used to dealing with. And we need to be genuinely open-minded to learning from them.
There is too much pessimism in our culture that people’s minds are impervious to being changed. It’s simply not true. Each of us is changing all the time. Think about what you thought 5, 10, and 20 years ago and how it compares to what you think now. If you’ve been thinking at all, you’ve been changing. And the idea that what other people argue to us has no effect on us and is not at all a part of all that changing is laughable on its face.
The problem is not that people are too hardheaded to change their minds. The problem is that we want it to be super easy to change people’s minds. We wish we could just speak our ideas, maybe even lay out a few arguments for them if absolutely necessary, and others would just bask in their obvious truth and come over to our side. But people have minds of their own. And for both good and bad reasons, they have lots of paradigms in their minds that make what looks so obvious to us not obvious to them. And if we really care about them as autonomous, rational moral agents, we are going to have to take the time to understand them on their own terms as individuals with an individual way of thinking. We need to demonstrate that we both respect and care about them and engage the peculiarities of how they sift the world. And if we do not respect or care about them, they are probably not going to care about our opinions. If we treat them with outright contempt they’re usually just going to harden all the more against us.
Now it will be very few people whose thinking we can massively influence through a long relationship with many deep conversations. With most people we need to accept the much more modest and achievable goal of just being a small part of the other person’s someone’s much larger personal process through just one conversation (or a few of them). We need to accept that we only play a small role in most people’s lives and minds and that’s okay. It’s not a waste of time to play that role if it’s a positive one. Whether they wind up where you think they should is out of your hands. All you can do is offer what you have and leave it to them to make of it what they will. That’s got to be enough for you. And for that to happen, typically the same rules apply as trying to persuade someone through a long relationship–you have to respect them and engage them as an individual.
Finally, there is at least one other important thing the prompt question might be read as answering: Is atheism something worth convincing people of?
I say “yes” for the following reason. Theism is too frequently bound up with religions that have some significant degree of authoritarian belief structure. Put simply, in conservative forms of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam you are required to believe a number of things about the world, about God’s will, and about morality based on the dubious authority attributed to allegedly sacred texts, individuals, or institutions. I think authoritarianism is detrimental in all its forms. It’s a dangerous affront to proper authority. I think personal autonomy is too important for the authoritarian elements of many common variety religious belief structures to be a matter of indifference.
I do not think that only atheists can be good people or live good or meaningful lives. I do not think that only atheists are smart or rational people. And I certainly cannot guarantee that becoming an atheist would make this or that individual a better person or that everyone being an atheist would make the world better.
What I can say is this: because belief in God has so regularly involved a significant faction of theists surrendering important aspects of their free reasoning to wrongly supposed spokespeople for God, theism is regularly an impediment to unencumbered rational, openminded, autonomous engagement with very important philosophical questions with significant practical import. That’s not to say theists cannot reason well about any number of issues where their authority-based religious beliefs are irrelevant. It’s also not to say that there are no truths about how to live conveyed through religious stories or that there is no wisdom in any religious injunctions. What I’m saying is that insofar as religious traditions are vessels for truths those truths should prove themselves to our critical reasoning skills and we should feel completely uncoerced in our ability to reject aspects of our religious inheritance that fly in the face of our best reasoning. In the actual lived theistic religions of the world, countless people do not feel this freedom. They defer too much to unqualified authorities that they wrongly think speak for God.
I also want to persuade people of atheism because I think it’s the best philosophical position on the question of interventionist personal deities and I think people ideally should believe what is true. So, even where a given individual’s theism does not link up to any undue deference to religious authorities, I would theoretically hope to persuade them of the better philosophical position (assuming I am right about what that is—and of course I’m happy to keep listening to my interlocutors and to be the one to change my mind if I am the one who is indeed wrong) since that’s a good in its own right. I don’t think there is anything wrong with having philosophical opinions or arguing for them because you think they’re correct and you think it’s, all things equal, better that people hold more correct philosophical views. This does not turn into proselytization as soon as the topic you have philosophical views about is theism or religion. Just because conflicts over religious ideas and practices have been nasty and oppressive does not mean that everyone who wants to advance a philosophical position about theism or religion is an authoritarian looking to impose a religion on others against their will.
I have said much more about these topics in past posts. Perhaps most notably I wrote a post called Top 10 Tips For Christian Evangelism (From An Atheist) that was very well received by Evangelical readers.