Have you ever spent a long time debating someone and trying to persuade them, before ultimately realizing that it was all wasted breath and that they weren’t really listening to you at all?
This has happened to me more than once. I’ve had e-mail conversations with theists, some of which went on for weeks and involved numerous rounds of replies, before the realization dawned on me: they weren’t actually talking to me at all. They were talking to The Atheist, a rather vague and shadowy figure they know from Sunday sermons, apologist tracts, TV preachers, and Josh McDowell books. My efforts to communicate with them were futile, because they were rewriting my side of the conversation in their own head to correspond to what The Atheist would say. Any statement of mine that did not fit that rigid script was summarily edited out.
From these conversations, frustrating though they may be, I’ve gleaned a fair amount of information about The Atheist. Apparently he bears a strong animus toward Christianity, a degree of hostility which he does not feel towards any other religion, often as a result of some personal grievance or pain in his past. He does believe in God, but hates him and wants to do things his own way. He strikes me as a rather selfish and hedonistic fellow who values his own pleasure above all else. He knows that the Bible is a set of old stories and therefore is not true, even though he’s a relativist who doesn’t believe there’s any such thing as truth. He seems to be strongly in favor of banning all prayer from schools and punishing Christians who talk about their faith, and I’m pretty sure he wants to abolish marriage and force everyone to be gay.
All in all, The Atheist doesn’t seem to bear much resemblance at all to real atheists. Yet this false image has gained life thanks to religious leaders and spokesmen. The average believer reads and listens to little, if anything, said by real atheists, but much by his own religious leaders. When those leaders promote misleading ideas about what atheists are like, the average believer will be apt to believe them. As a result, when they meet a real atheist, most theists come with a completely inaccurate understanding of what we want and what we believe. How can we break down those barriers of misunderstanding and promote a more accurate picture of atheists among the public?
Though some believers are irretrievably mired in their false assumptions, I think there is a much larger number who can be reached, and here are some ways I suggest to do it:
Stress that you believe in the existence of absolute truth. This is one of the most common false stereotypes held about atheists, and also one of the easiest to knock down. Believers who come to debate equipped with this misconception will be knocked back on their heels to find out that we do believe in truth and falsehood that are objective, universal, independent of human desire, and discoverable through diligent investigation, and that we do not believe God’s existence is among the catalogue of true things. (Of course, this assumes that you do actually think this way – but if there are any atheists who truly conform to this stereotype, they must be keeping themselves well hidden indeed.)
Stress that you believe in the existence of objective moral facts. Again, if you actually are a moral relativist, this point will not help, but true moral relativists are far less common among atheists than most religious people probably think. Point out that what we share is a commitment to human welfare, and the only religious commands we reject are theological edicts that either bear no relation to the well-being of real people or, worse, increase the suffering of real people in the name of pleasing an alleged god. If they argue that atheism offers no guarantee of moral understanding that does not change, point out that morality based on religion has been changing for millennia, and that even today, religious believers argue furiously and unendingly about what God’s will is.
Don’t be an angry atheist. This is probably the most common stereotype about atheists, and if you jump into a debate with guns blazing, you will only reinforce it. It’s okay to offer strong criticism of dangerous and discriminatory beliefs and the actions that stem from them. What is not okay is to attack people personally. Except for a few truly reprehensible bigots, the majority of religious believers are ordinary people who can be communicated with and reasoned with, and we should not be going out of our way to offend or insult them. Make it clear that you do not share their beliefs, but also that this difference does not mean that you cannot be friendly, approachable and civil. A difference of opinion does not have to translate into personal animosity, and should not.
Come on strong and stay on the offensive. Religious fundamentalists in general, and Christian fundamentalists in particular, are used to standing in judgment of others’ beliefs; they are not used to having their own beliefs judged. If they persist in stirring up a debate, do not let them put you on the defensive. Be knowledgeable about their beliefs, particularly the unsavory parts of their holy book that most theists don’t know about themselves or would like to forget, and be ready to quote them on request. Challenge them to defend these terrible passages or admit that their scripture was not divinely inspired, and point out that any humane moral system would recognize them for the atrocities they are. If suitable, tell them you know that they’re better than their own holy book and shame them for trying to defend these savage words.
Suggest that they put themselves in your shoes. This tactic can be one of your most effective. Many religious people consider atheists the “other”, and steadfastly refuse any suggestion that we might be people just like them, which is the greatest single aid to demonization. Asking them to picture some issue from the perspective of an atheist can be a very powerful way to bridge this gap and make them view things in a new light. One particular example of this which I’ve used successfully many times: When Christians start complaining about alleged persecution, is to point out the vast wealth, power and influence held by Christian groups and then suggest to them, “If you think it’s hard being a Christian, you should try being an atheist sometime.”