From the Mailbag: A Less Acerbic Approach

From the Mailbag: A Less Acerbic Approach March 28, 2018

It’s always a good feeling to get a letter like this one, from a correspondent who asked to remain anonymous for now. Hearing that I played a part in someone’s deconversion brightens my whole day. I don’t get letters like this every day, but I do get them from time to time, and I treasure every one!

I’m sure people contact you with stories like this all the time, but about six years ago I deconverted from Christianity after being raised in a super-conservative evangelical Christian environment, and your essays on Daylight Atheism were central to my deconversion. Dawkins, Harris, and the rest were too acerbic for me, so I’d always tuned their arguments out, but a friend linked me to your essays, which I found piercing, but not mean-spirited like so many other atheist arguments. They were enormously influential on me during my year-long process of leaving Christianity, and I’d probably still be a conservative Christian if not for those essays.

I recently remembered them and went back to re-read some of them. I’m glad to see they’re still up online! They’re an invaluable resource for people who are starting to question their faith, and I’ve shared them with several friends over the years.

Your work completely changed my life for the better. Thank you so much.

This is what I wrote back:

I’m enormously flattered to hear that my writing played a role in your deconversion. I like to think I can be just as acerbic as Dawkins and the rest when the occasion demands it, but I do try to cultivate a lighter touch. As you said, the highly aggressive style of argument they’re known for isn’t very good at winning over people who are already religious. I’ve come to notice and regret that more and more, these past few years. I wish the atheist community would go in a different direction, or at least emphasize a greater diversity of voices. We have too much hero worship.

To be clear, I think that pointed, scornful argument does have a role. It can be effective at jolting people out of their complacency, at highlighting the often-overlooked moral dimensions of an atheist argument against a cruel or violent religious teaching, or puncturing the pretensions of a preacher or theologian who thinks his beliefs are obvious truth beyond any question.

But it can’t be the only component of an atheist rhetorical strategy, which is something those big-name white guys usually neglect. If we want to persuade people out of religion, we have to recognize and sympathize with the reasons they became religious in the first place. We have to reach out in a way that offers understanding and not just condemnation. I don’t claim to be perfect at this, I get frustrated like everyone else sometimes. But as this letter shows, we in the atheist community need to try more consciously to practice it. It pays dividends.

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