Should Atheists Evangelize?

It is a perennial question, among atheists, of whether we should evangelize in favor of atheism the way the religious do. It is not hard to see why this question has been so hotly debated, since there are good arguments on both sides.

Since atheism is a positive worldview, there would seem to be a reason we should bring it to others. Deconversion is almost always described, by those who have gone through it, as an ultimately joyous experience. There is true happiness in throwing off the burden of religion and waking up to a world that is bright and beautiful, a vast and awe-inspiring place through which we are free to chart our own course. Since our goal as atheists should be to increase human happiness, we should spread this message as widely as possible and work to persuade people to join us.

On the other hand, unsolicited evangelizing is almost never appreciated by its targets, and almost always perceived as rude and intrusive. The Jehovah’s Witnesses, who go door-to-door to preach to complete strangers, are a byword for unwanted religious annoyance. The born-again Christians who scream about hellfire on streetcorners and subways are usually dismissed as lunatics or fanatics, and the ones who “merely” find some excuse to insert god-talk into every conversation are often dreaded by others. Clearly, this is behavior we should not strive to emulate – it does not accomplish anything positive, and if anything, is likely to turn people against us.

On a first pass, my sympathy is primarily with the latter argument. People who have the predisposition – the innate curiosity, skepticism, independence of mind, or whatever other quality it takes – to become atheists will probably end up becoming atheists anyway, and the others probably will not deconvert no matter what we do, so why bother? More importantly, I do not want to contribute to a culture where everything is an ad. The ceaseless drive of some theists to turn every interaction into an opportunity for witnessing is a thing incomprehensible to me. So long as others are not infringing on anyone’s rights, I am fully content to live and let live. And besides, wouldn’t it be to our credit if people knew that their atheist friends and acquaintances would just leave them alone, would treat them as human beings with independent minds and not as prizes to be won? That perception, if it became widespread, would probably gain us more sympathy and good will than any amount of streetcorner evangelizing.

But wait. Concerns of politeness aside, if everyone else is evangelizing, can we afford not to? “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear” may be an inspiring platitude, but businesses that abide by it will probably go broke waiting for customers. And if our “business” is a good idea, should we not want that idea to survive and flourish, and take steps to see that it does? The marketplace of ideas is a crowded and noisy realm: those who are not willing to throw a few elbows are liable to be drowned out entirely, and participants that cannot be heard show a distressing tendency to die out. I would gladly leave others alone, but not if it meant consigning atheism to extinction. Too much is at stake. If humanity is to attain its full potential and put an end to suffering and injustice, rather than sinking back down into a new dark age of superstition, fear and religious warfare, it will in all probability need our help. Should we then evangelize?

There are, I must admit, grounds for doubting my earlier statement that some people will become atheists, others will not, and that these two groups will sort themselves out with or without help. That is too much of an oversimplification. Some people will deconvert even if they never meet another atheist, and some people never will regardless of the persuasion we bring to bear, but in between those two groups there is – there must be – a middle ground of people who could be influenced, persuaded, won over. As an analogy, consider the many forms of commercial evangelism: TV commercials, telemarketing, and e-mail spam, to name a few. All these things are widely unpopular, and yet, they seem to work. Someone must be buying the products marketed this way; telemarketing companies are not going out of business, and some e-mail spammers get very rich indeed. And though it is more difficult to measure, religious spam does also seem to work. Conversions one way or the other are rare, but they do happen.

Then again (and I realize how indecisive this post has sounded; I am working toward a definite conclusion, trust me), people hardly ever convert because of a flier they are handed on the street. When people do convert, in all but a tiny minority of circumstances, it is because of a close association with someone whom they find credible and whom they trust. A more comprehensive argument can be made this way, but more importantly, most people are willing to follow someone whom they believe would not lead them astray. Does this mean we should confine our evangelizing to friends and family, or if not, are we thereby committed to establishing schools and institutes to train and equip atheist missionaries? I trust I am not the only one who finds this idea absurd. Don’t we nonbelievers have more important things to do?

I have been oscillating between two sides, considering all the arguments each has to offer, and it is now time for me to take a firm stand and declare my position. I believe that atheists should evangelize, but not in the sense of bothering strangers on the street or going house-to-house and ringing doorbells. Instead, we should write letters to the editor and contribute guest editorials in newspapers and magazines. We should participate in public debates and maintain pro-atheism websites explaining ourselves to the world. We should, wherever possible, appear on TV and radio shows. We should regularly write to our elected representatives. And we should publicly take on theists practicing the more annoying forms of evangelism. By their actions, they have made themselves fair game for rebuttal; and many people no doubt would be glad to see a knowledgeable atheist confront an obnoxious streetcorner preacher. All these actions serve to spread our message and inform people of our existence without intruding directly into their lives, which is what I believe we should aim for.

Other posts in this series:

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Montu

    Athiests can’t evangelize, because it’s not a religion. Sure, it’s a world view, and a way of life, but by it’s nature, it is the exact oppisite of religion, it lacks any formal belief system (other then the disbelief in a diety), has no church, and no dogmas. If athiesm were to evangelize, it would no longer be athiesm in any true sense, because it would require the creation of dogma and riged beliefs. What those beliefs and dogmas are founded in is irrelevent, the fact remains that they are there, they exsist, and their exsistence would lead to a form of religion, even if it’s the “anti-religion.” Athiesm needs to stick to the other side of the system, to remain the oppisite of religion for it to survive. Isn’t part of what’s so appealing about athiesm the fact that it LACKS these rules, guidelines and dogmas that accompany religion?

  • Mike K

    Hmm, interesting! I think you may be trying to turn atheism into something it isn’t.

    Theists are only united by fear, fear of their god compels them to follow the dogma. Fortunately, atheists have no such fear to bind them into a united group and are free to explore every idea and embrace any philosophy.

    About the only thing that unites all atheists is an absence of god belief. Far better I think, to teach the skills of critical thinking and the scientific method. If these are adopted correctly, then atheism should follow automatically.

  • BlackWizardMagus

    I think what Adam meant was to “evangelize” in the sense of getting people to drop the belief in some god/s. That’s it. That would still be nothing more than the base definition of atheism. Once a person no longer believes in their diety, it would be most unusual for them to still act overtly religious, so that’s really the only step needed. Now, using science and certain arguments that atheists tend to use, that’s fine; it’s not a requirement to use them, just a tool. It would still not make it at all similar to religion.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    Athiests can’t evangelize, because it’s not a religion.

    I disagree! That is to say, I agree that atheism isn’t a religion, but I don’t agree that we can’t evangelize on behalf of it for that reason.

    If we shed all the religious connotations that have built up around it, the root word “evangel” simply means “good news”. This is a more than fitting description of atheism, which offers the good news that life can be lived free of superstition, fear, and religious guilt, not to mention the outdated immoral rules of religion. This is a positive message – all the more so if combined with the philosophy of humanism that I advocate – and so it should be brought to the attention of as many people as possible. Granted, atheism doesn’t have all the rigid dogmas of religion, but that doesn’t mean we can’t advocate on behalf of what all atheists do have in common, namely the lack of god belief. As Mike K said, a stronger advocacy on behalf of critical thinking would also be a welcome complement to that message.

  • EnigmaOfSteel

    I agree with the original post. I am not sure why an atheist can’t evangelize, if by the term it is meant to put forward the atheist view on the use of reason and the supernatural, in the hopes of getting others to consider the atheist position. How is that a non-atheist thing to do?

    Does “evangelizing” the atheist position require excessive dogma or rigid thought? As atheists, we do share some common positions. I would not consider putting these positions forward to the community in the same negative vein as religious dogma.

    Also if atheism is supposedly grounded in reason, then an atheist is not necessarily free to follow any philosophy. There are plenty of unreasonable philosophies. It seems like some are trying to equate atheism with an extreme relativism. If we come to atheism because science and reason tell us the supernatural doesn’t exist, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to dump science and reason at the doorstep – we carry it over to other aspects of our lives.

    When a person makes decisions based on irrational belief in the supernatural, those decisions can adversely impact ourselves, our families, and the entire culture. Considering that the religious are vigorously indoctrinating the young, and sending out missionaries to all parts of the globe, it makes sense to counter this effort by actively putting forward the atheist position on these matters.

  • Unbeliever

    Adam,

    I agree completely. And you’ve probably been more successful at evangelizing then you might think. My own deconversion began with Paine’s Age of Reason, but it took wing with sites like losingmyreligion.com and especially your own, ebonmusings. I am indebted to you and your site. This is the kind of evangelizing that’s needed. Offering information rather than shoving it down someone’s throat.

    One of the most common questions I see from theists about atheist websites is: why do you bother? Would they ask the same of a freed slave who still opposes slavery? Religions are manacles of the mind. Theism is just as defeating and tragic as slavery. All the more so because the slave seems unaware of his subjugation and actually seems grateful for it.

    Of course we should have something to say about it. But you can’t free a slave who is happy with their bondage. That is why we must continue to educate and offer reason as an alternative. That shouldn’t happen on a stranger’s doorstep, but instead in the public sphere.

  • Quath

    We should look at why people deconvert. I see a few common reasons:

    1. Anger at a god/religion. More of an emotional response. Comes from stuff like death of a loved one or abuse of authority.

    2. Being exposed to people with different ideas. Just meeting a pagan, atheist or whomever may shake someone up and it may start the person questioning their belief system to prove that person wrong. This may have the opposite effect.

    3. Education. Science and critical thinking types of classes help people learn to think logically and use evidence.

    We can’t control the first one. We can do the second either passively or actively. I think the third one is also a good one to support.

  • Montu

    “If we shed all the religious connotations that have built up around it, the root word “evangel” simply means “good news”. This is a more than fitting description of atheism, which offers the good news that life can be lived free of superstition, fear, and religious guilt, not to mention the outdated immoral rules of religion. This is a positive message – all the more so if combined with the philosophy of humanism that I advocate – and so it should be brought to the attention of as many people as possible. Granted, atheism doesn’t have all the rigid dogmas of religion, but that doesn’t mean we can’t advocate on behalf of what all atheists do have in common, namely the lack of god belief. As Mike K said, a stronger advocacy on behalf of critical thinking would also be a welcome complement to that message.”

    (Forgive my lack of internet blogging savy)
    I completely agree, being an atheist myself. I guess my fear is that by creating a move towards a more organized belief system with the goal of “deconverting” (which in this context I still read as “conversion”), it will create a breeding ground for certain dogmas. Perhaps not right away, but in the future. I do agree that atheism should be more prevalent in the public sphere so that some of the stigma around it begins to strip away, but I think the answer is less about trying to get people to “deconvert” as it is to get existing atheists to make their world views known publicly. To simply make the atheist world view more excepted – without a move to try to get others to join in artifically – would deconvert more people in a far less harmful way, then to make it a mission to “spread the good news.” I honestly think that deconversion should remain a personal event, not one brought on by what could amount to “guilt tripping.” If talking to other atheists spears it on, great, if it’s brought on through a person’s own exploration of the world, even better. But to have it brought on by a person attempting to “deconvert” another could leave lingering doubts about the person’s decision to renounce god.

  • Jim S.

    There are some good ideas here, but the real secret to success is ‘activisim’. Evangelizing, it its connotated form, is not the answer. Getting the word out in dignified, logical media, such as this web site, is very good. Persons questioning their belief systems need a place to turn to for information. Sources such as Daylight Athiesm and Ebon Musings are ideal for this. Hopefully your Google rankings will climb to the point that you show high on the search lists! But I digress, I was speaking of activism.

    Activism can take many forms. This web site is but one. The other, in broad terms, is social awareness. Many of us have no doubt read of the recent lawsuits that overturned the backwards turning ‘anti-evolution’ teaching policies enacted in several school districts and/or states in recent months. These educational corrections were accomplished by people within the local communities who recognized the shortsightedness and narrow goals of mis-directed religious zealots on their school boards. They should recieve an ovation. We must all do the same. Broad confrontation is not the answer, and open aggressive ‘athiestic evangelism’ would surely invite this. Success lies in education and a quiet, logical, dignified, but ever steady pressure in the form of awareness and vigilance on our part, and the willingness to stand up to any religious (or other) group who would enact a law or policy that would encrouch on our rights as athiests or give precedence to those with a particular religious belief set over others. These very acts will serve to get the word out to those who are ready and willing to hear it.

    Western society has a rather large advantage in this vein, particularly in the US, as our legal system is our best tool, if used wisely.

  • Josh C.

    If the news is good, then why be passive in the spreading of the news? In regards to “Evangelizing”, it seems as though the atheist faces the same dilemma as a Christian. Today’s man does not encounter ideas contrary to their own, unless they are confronted by the ideas of another. As a believer, I see it as crucial to share what is “Good News” in whatever non-manipulative method that is effective.

  • Wendy K.

    I’m not interested in evangelizing. I don’t want to go door to door to tell people to stop believing what they believe and believe what I believe instead. This is one huge reason I am atheist. However, I would like to see the day where I could be as comfortable talking about my non belief as others seem to be speaking about their beliefs. I have a more cooperative view on things. I want people to be free and comfortable to find what works for them. I’m only interested in deterring religion or religious activities if it puts other people in a position where they cannot choose. If someone opens a church I don’t have to go inside. But if they have prayer in school, my child cannot walk out. In the same spirit of cooperation, I am perfectly fine with talking about religion, or even knowing my child is going to school to hear about different religions. But for the sake of learning about people and their beliefs, not for the sake of conversion or favoring one belief over another. Maybe that is only possible in another world. I don’t know.

    I do see the point in trying to gain political representation though. Certain religious groups have a huge voice in politics yet their membership isn’t particularly huge. So I am in favor of making the presence of Atheists known for that purpose. I read somewhere that if secularist, Atheists, Agnostics, and Humanists were a religious denomination they would be larger than any other Christian denomination in the United States. Yet when we turn on the TV and watch some news stories, we get the impression that certain much smaller groups have more clout. Well because they jump up and down and make their presence felt. So maybe that is why Atheists need to do the same.

    And I know a lot of people say Atheism is not a religion. I am a little torn on that. There are some Atheists I have come across who spend a lot of time talking about their non belief to anyone who will listen or not. That doesn’t strike me as being much different than many religions. I always think of the scenario of the one sane guy being at the nut house (I am not trying to be offensive to people with mental health issues, I just want to get to the point quickly.). So being the one sane guy really makes him the “nut”. So his non affliction kind of makes him the one with the affliction. Being an Atheist isn’t really about being “nothing” when you are surrounded by a lot of religious people of various flavors. It may not be by choice that an Atheist is “something”, but to me it is the very nature of the circumstances that most Atheists are in.

  • OMGF

    And I know a lot of people say Atheism is not a religion. I am a little torn on that. There are some Atheists I have come across who spend a lot of time talking about their non belief to anyone who will listen or not. That doesn’t strike me as being much different than many religions.

    I know people who are really into their cats. They spend a lot of time talking about their cats to anyone who will listen or not. It’s not much different from religious people. I guess owning cats is a religion too right?

    Sorry to be facetious, but I have to disagree with your assessment. If the only thing that makes something a religion is talking about it, or being passionate about it, then “religion” doesn’t really mean much as a word. Anyone who likes to talk about a certain subject could be starting a new religion based on that.

  • I.

    I found a link to this site some days ago, and it’s become one of my favorite places to come to when I’m procrastinating. =D

    I really liked this article, and I think you make very good points. I would call what you suggested activism rather than evangelism (maybe there isn’t a real difference between those two words, but “evangelism” has a bad connotation for me, while “activism” has a positive one).

    Anyway, I love your site and I’m very happy and thankful that places like these exist.

  • Arch

    There is true happiness in throwing off the burden of religion and waking up to a world that is bright and beautiful, a vast and awe-inspiring place through which we are free to chart our own course. Since our goal as atheists should be to increase human happiness, we should spread this message as widely as possible and work to persuade people to join us.

    Is individualism what you are about then? Is an atheist possibly moved by the fear of authority, or of losing autonomy? Many theists find that when they embrace trust in God that they come to know true freedom, rather than a loss of autonomy. This ties in closely with being who we are created to be–people of love, who recognize that we are all loved by God. In your statement above, though you say atheism leads to happiness, it sounds like a fall from hope to me. What joy and hope is there in rejecting any meaning of life beyond ourselves and beyond our temporal flesh? On the contrary to being a limiting power, trust in and abandonment to God’s love leads one to fulfill the purpose for which we are created–to strive for a life of perfect charity. And if we fulfill that purpose, joy is a natural fruit… and not an emotional joy that fades or cannot handle difficulty, but a deep sense of peace due to one’s heart resting in God.

    Theists are only united by fear, fear of their god compels them to follow the dogma. Fortunately, atheists have no such fear to bind them into a united group and are free to explore every idea and embrace any philosophy.

    This is a false universal statement. Love, hope, and faith are often in the hearts of theists. Professing faith in dogma or doctrine is often a fearless, joyful act of the will–not something that one is coerced into believing.


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