Winning Hearts and Minds

In the post Should Atheists Evangelize?, back in March, I argued for the conclusion that nonbelievers should, in fact, seek to spread the good news of atheism under certain circumstances. Since then, I have built on this foundation by proposing a plan for how best to achieve that. In previous posts of this series, I have addressed how to respond to religious distortions (Shattering Stereotypes) and how to present atheism to an audience unacquainted with it (Atheism as a Positive Worldview). In this post, I will sum up the series by suggesting what effect we should seek to produce in our listeners and what our goals should be.

First and most important, I have this to say to any would-be atheist evangelists: have realistic expectations. The classic story of a great crowd of people listening to an eloquent speaker and being so inspired that they convert by the hundreds only happens in the Bible and other works of fiction. No matter how passionate your speech or forceful your arguments, the vast majority of religious people who hear them will go on believing exactly as before, and we should anticipate this and be prepared for it. (I do not mean to suggest that Christians or other religious proselytizers do any better at this: conversions of any type are vanishingly rare events.) At most, one should expect that a small handful of people may be sufficiently impressed to change their minds or deconvert, and often not even that.

But this is not a reason to despair, and my second point explains why: The point of evangelism is not to win converts, but to win understanding. If our grand plan as atheists was to win enough deconverts to command a majority in society, we would be in trouble; such a scheme could take a hundred years to come to fruition, if it ever did, and that assumes the existence of a large network of dedicated, persuasive atheist missionaries that does not come close to existing right now. Although our numbers are growing, we are still a minority, and will likely remain that way for the foreseeable future.

But, as I said, becoming a raw majority should not be our goal, at least not now. Instead, our goal should be to win hearts and minds – to show the good-hearted, honest and reasonable people among the religious that we are not the bad people we have been made out to be by the fundamentalists and zealots, that we are ordinary people like everyone else with honest opinions of our own that are worth listening to and considering. The greatest achievement of religious extremists over the past several decades has been to successfully camouflage themselves among the more reasonable moderates – to pass themselves off as part of that larger group, so that they can freely spread their poisonous message within it. We must work to undo that, and part of the way in which we can achieve that is to show principled, moral religious people the truth: that they actually have more in common with us than with the dangerous fanatics among their number. If we can show this to be true, we can forge a powerful coalition of religious and non-religious people. Though we may never agree on matters of belief, we can work together on issues of ethics and social justice on which we agree in order to defeat the evils of religious extremism and achieve goals for the betterment of humanity.

This goal is eminently achievable. Winning converts is hard, but winning hearts and minds is much easier. It takes a great deal of effort and is often impossible to convince people to give up their most deeply held religious beliefs, but persuading them to adjust their views on atheists is far simpler. However, to do this we must avoid playing into fundamentalist stereotypes, and I have some advice on how to do that.

First, do not deal harshly with religious people who approach you in good faith. As I have stressed before, calling all religious people “insane” or their beliefs “lies”, or using similar terms of insult and abuse, accomplishes nothing except to set people’s minds against us and foster a polarized atmosphere in which a productive exchange of ideas can never take place. I recommend treating people with civility even if they become angry or hostile – not because they have earned such treatment, but because it will help our image in the eyes of onlookers. Becoming abusive is a sure way, in public debates, to lose the crowd.

Second, when engaging a religious person in a public setting, take pains to point out to the audience what common ground you share. Especially when an opponent brings up some obnoxious stereotype, it is important to emphasize strongly that atheists are ordinary, decent people who want the same things everyone wants – peace, security, the company of friends and family and loved ones, a stable and free society, and the right to direct our own lives free of interference by meddlesome outsiders. Make it clear that you do not want to demolish churches or persecute believers, but that you are part of the same society as they are and that you insist on equal treatment free of discrimination by the government or anyone else. Express clearly your lament that you cannot have a fair discussion without being attacked with these ridiculous distortions, and set your opponent firmly straight that he has no right to speak for atheists or define for everyone what they “really” want. Make it clear that the many atheists you know are nothing like the religious stereotypes. I have used this technique myself on several occasions, and it is often very effective in forcing an obnoxious fundamentalist to back down.

In the same vein, another effective tactic is to contrast your moral beliefs with those of the fundamentalists. Most ordinary religious people are unaware of the atrocities the Bible contains and the other cruelties of religious doctrine, and react with shock when those evils are made known to them. Strike hard at your opponent’s weak points; bring up these verses and others and demand that he defend them. Point out to the audience that you know they are decent people and know better than to call these evils good, and point out that your opponent believes these horrors are what God wants. If your opponent tries to divert attention by setting up a false equivalence with atheists who have committed misdeeds, offer to unequivocally condemn all evils committed by atheists, and demand that he similarly disavow the evils of the Bible. (On the other hand, do not let them get away with blatant falsehoods such as calling the Nazis atheists. The Nazis were not atheists; their language was explicitly Christian, and they wore belt buckles that said “God With Us”. Hitler made reference to stamping out atheism in public speeches.) If your opponent has actually endorsed such evils in the past, so much the better; bring that up and do not let him dodge it. Your intent should be to drive a wedge between the majority of ordinary, reasonable religious people and the evils and cruelties of their own tradition.

Fourth, when practical, use humor to convey your message. There is probably no better way to break the tension of a debate and win your audience over. Humor should only be used when appropriate, of course, and I recommend against overly subtle satire or any other joke whose point is easy to miss; but people almost universally react favorably to someone who makes them laugh, and few things drive home the message more strongly or effectively that we are ordinary, likable people just like everyone else. Conversely, if we bore or depress people, it is much likelier that they will turn against us.

Finally, I urge atheists to speak with fire and passion. People respond favorably to sincerity and conviction. Making it clear that you hold the beliefs you do because your conscience permits you to do nothing else, and that you will not back down or apologize for speaking up, can be a surprisingly potent tactic in gaining the approval of people who would otherwise strongly disagree with you. Do not accept or internalize opponents’ stereotypes, and make your anger clear and plain – again, with force but without undue abuse or hostility – when they resort to tactics that are particularly outrageous. When your opponents are plainly being motivated for self-serving reasons, say so. In particular, point out that as an atheist, you stand to gain nothing personally from speaking an unpopular message, but rather are compelled to do so because it is the truth. Point out that it takes little courage to stand with the crowd, but much to depart from it, and that you would not be here before them if you did not truly believe in the merits of your message.

Other posts in this series:

The Atheist Community Is Diversifying
Thoughts on the Chapel Hill Shooting
Why Atheism Is a Force for Good
Why People Are Flocking to a New Wave of Secular Communities: Atheist Churches
About Adam Lee

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


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