Uninvited Challenges

Your neighbor is religious.

Do you consider it your obligation to confront and challenge them on their beliefs (even in a “friendly” way)?

Dale McGowan say no:

I am opposed to aggressive evangelism of ALL kinds. And not because it isn’t “nice.” The reason is that uninvited personal critiques of belief, especially of irrational ones, are almost never effective. Of the scores of people I know who have given up religious beliefs, approximately zero did so as the result of an uninvited challenge by another person.

There are all sorts of things we can and should do to make it more likely that they challenge themselves, but you can’t force another person to think. You can help another person become curious enough to invite the discussion, in part by being a visibly contented nonbeliever yourself. Once you have an invitation from the other side, a lot is possible. Otherwise, forget it.

I have to agree. It’s the same reason I almost never bring up religion around close friends and classmates. If they don’t bring it up, odds are they don’t want to talk about faith.

I know a lot of atheists have been on the receiving end of uninvited conversion attempts by Christians. It’s annoying as hell and they never have anything intelligent to say. It’d be laughable if it didn’t make you so angry.

Has anyone actually succeeded at changing someone’s mind about religion when the person wasn’t asking for it?


[tags]atheist, atheism[/tags]

  • Darryl

    Hemant, I love this blog, but I think we’re running out of new ideas. This topic has been dealt with previously under a different heading, and I think the consensus was that we don’t want to do to others as they often do to us. McGowan knows what any atheist who used to be an evangelical knows, and by this I mean a true evangelical–one who proselytizes, that direct, unsolicited assaults are as effective as cold calling someone to sell them something. It is better to wait for someone who is searching or doubting to bring up the subject and solicit your opinion.

  • TolgaK

    I have, but it was by accident. The kid was born to a heavily devout Christian family. The topic of religion came up a lot (and still does) and throughout regular conversations I’ve changed his mind.

    I’m not exactly proud of it, but I don’t see any harm done either. He thinks a lot about what goes on in life, and I’m sure he would have “deconverted” himself without my influence.

  • http://www.saintgasoline.com Saint Gasoline

    You have to think about it like this, though:

    Suppose you ran into someone who thought two and two made 5. This may present a problem when they are demanding money be paid to them, or paying money back, etc. You may feel obligated to correct this belief to prevent them from going through this, even though it is not invited. I don’t think there is anything “mean” or “wrong” about that, given the intent.

    In the case of religious people, they have the same sort of intention. They think you will suffer torment and want to “save” you from this, so they try to “correct” your belief. (The problem, of course, is that they aren’t actually saving you and, for all their good intentions, their belief is utter nonsense.)

    With that in mind, I wouldn’t say it is mean or wrong to try to spread beliefs or change people’s minds unasked. It would be mean if you think changing people’s minds wouldn’t somehow benefit their lives in some way, and in the end, most people who try to change other’s minds ARE trying to help the other person in some small way.

    So no, I have no problem with it because I think it is “mean”. I just don’t like it if it is obviously wrong and foolish AND on top of that they woke me up at ten in the morning to share something wrong and foolish. If they woke me up at ten in the morning to tell me something useful and true, on the other hand, I’d be appreciative!

  • Mythprogrammer

    I had a friend once that tried to ‘save’ me from being an atheist (I assume it was because I might burn in hell) because she had felt god told her to do it (anyone else hear the alarms in the distance?). Well she didn’t really like my counter arguments to why the sky was so beautiful, evolution, or other religions being just as creditable as her own (we did agree on politics though). We eventually stopped talking after I showed her link after link of evidence for my beliefs while she still referred to god and the bible…

  • weemaryanne

    Do I consider it an obligation to challenge belief? No. But if believers spread lies and misinformation then I think I have an obligation to defend the truth, and not allow my silence to be interpreted as agreement. I think that anyone who knows the truth shares that obligation.

    Have I ever been successful in “de-converting” a believer? No, not that I’m aware of, at least not directly. But I do know of at least two young men who went away from arguments with me and others, gave the matter some more thought, and deconverted shortly afterward. I think that neither of them was a genuinely hardcore believer to begin with, but the point is that they did believe and wished to continue believing, but they ceased believing precisely because they were persuaded by argument. I can’t think that they’re the only such people out there.

    So, the argument is worth having both for the sake of the truth and for the sake of those who may be open to hearing it.

  • Wes

    I don’t make unsolicited attempts to challenge people’s religious beliefs, and for exactly the reasons you bring up. I find it incredibly annoying when people come up to me out of nowhere and try to get me to join their cult. I would bet that religious people would find an atheist doing that to be very obnoxious as well. As Confuscius said (long before Jesus), “Don’t do to others what you would not want them to do to you.” Even the annoying bastards who try to convert me don’t get a lecture on atheism from me. I just tell them, “No thanks. I’m not interested” and walk away.

    However, in a conversation in which religious ideas are being debated, I don’t hold back on my atheism, and I don’t pretend to “respect” beliefs which I think are patently ridiculous. I have no problem with offending somebody. I just don’t like it when people impose on others. I think that’s an important distinction to recognize.

  • http://ohthethinksyoucanthink.blogspot.com Linda

    I don’t pretend to “respect” beliefs which I think are patently ridiculous.

    “Respecting” beliefs that we think are ridiculous… hmmm… I wonder if that’s where the solution lies…(?)

    I respect atheist beliefs. I understand why atheists hold the views and opinions they have about religion.

    I truly think open and honest conversations are important to reach an understanding between differing views.

    Is respect so hard to offer to those we don’t agree with? Must there always be that line drawn in the sand? As long as the unspoken superiority complex and the elitist attitude remain in the minds of those on either side, I see no hope of mutual respect and understanding.

  • http://blargen.com/blog/ postsimian

    “Has anyone actually succeeded at changing someone’s mind about religion when the person wasn’t asking for it?”

    EXCELLENT POINT! I’ve said this countless times.

    I’ve written about this topic at length on my blog during “Fundie Week 2008″. The neighbors are hardcore fundies–Baptists, yeesh–who have Jesused me twice so far.

    The first time was within days of moving into my new house. My wife answered the door and got the ol’ “If you die tonight, do you know where your soul is going?” speech. She told him we were Methodists and said goodbye.

    Is it just me, or do most introductions start out with “Hi, my name is…” then maybe saying “welcome to the neighborhood.” I don’t think we fooled them though. The last time my car was out of the driveway on a Sunday morning was to stock up on cigarettes and coffee (IT analyst, guys; they’re survival tools).

    I knew we didn’t fool them when they sent their daughter over to hand me some you’re-going-to-hell literature (which my wife and I had a good laugh over while reading it). I still don’t know what the parents look like.

    To me, this approach will always have the opposite effect of what they intend. First off, the whole point of Christian conversion is to set a good example by living a positive and benevolent lifestyle (the New Testament backs this up), which is to influence others to join you.

    Second, these people have tried Jesusing me twice now, and I don’t even know their god damn names. It’s pretty bold to assume that you can convince people to do something as significant as adopt a new lifestyle by converting to your religion when you won’t even take the time to get to know them. From my first experience with them, I knew what to expect from then on and have since seen them as frauds. I can’t ever face them without thinking that there’s some ulterior motive for the encounter.

    It’s disingenuous at best. I’ve made sure to put a Darwin fish on my car since then. Maybe during the holidays I’ll put up a sign which says,”Axial Tilt is the Reason for the Season.” That ought to get the message across.

  • andrew

    I love having my beliefs challenged. Why not? Its liberating. So I like to bring up religion whenever I can. I think its a huge issue that needs to be dealt with! The great part of bringing up religion is that people may not have thought about it before. It may not necessarily have to do with not wanting to talk about it at all. If you bring it up and they say “no I dont want to talk about it” then its clear. As a society, the way we can keep each other sane is to keep challenging beliefs! I dont see a problem with initiating it, unless its made clear in the past.

  • Shane

    I have to disagree with Dale. While I also am no fan of agressive evangelism of any kind, he simply can’t argue that forced conversions aren’t efective. If it weren’t for people being coerced and agressivly persuaded to convert, Christianity and Islam would have few followers in the world today.

  • http://blargen.com/blog/ postsimian

    Shane — but you’d have to ignore factors such as naivety, gullibility, ignorance, fear and peer pressure. Then there’s the ability to use people’s prejudices to work in your favor. The fundies don’t have to do much convincing when they know these can be used as tools to further their cause. That, and they can brainwash their kids from an early age, who will brainwash their kids, and so on.

    Once there are enough of them–especially when they’re in power–then coercion works. Y’know, at the penalty of death over being charged for heresy. So no, I don’t think there would be only a few Christians, etc. if it didn’t work. I think that it started out with the previously listed factors and social and parental influence. Coercion only became effective once they had a realistic, tangible threat to back it up with.

    Now that they don’t have the kind of power they did during, say, the Inquisition, they don’t have the power to assert that kind of authority and thus, they end up looking self-parodical when they try at any level of severity, benign or otherwise.

    That being said, I wouldn’t be surprised if there are still communities in this country from which one could be driven away for being “different.”

  • shane

    postsimian: I don’t think you can ignore those factors you bring up. I think that’s an important part of why coersion and sort of agressivly targeting people with ones religion works.

  • http://amiable-atheist.blogspot.com amiable

    I would never try to talk about my reasons for disbelief in gods unless i was asked to. i would never even bring the topic of my atheism up unless someone else brought it up first.

    so far, none of my family has, which is why i have managed to stay “under the radar” so to speak.

    but i really, really hope that my younger brothers will ask me. they are smart guys, and i really would like to have a discussion with them.

  • andrew

    then do it and grow some balls amiable

  • Maria

    I agree Hemant. I’ve never seen aggressive tactics like that work.

  • weemaryanne

    Linda wondered, “Is respect so hard to offer to those we don’t agree with? Must there always be that line drawn in the sand?”

    Respect is never to be withheld from persons. As for a line in the sand, there’s a good reason for drawing it — after all, that’s what delinates the two sides of the argument.

    Linda may be trying to make the point that “compromise” is a reasonable goal. I wonder whether she thinks there’s a compromise to be found between food and poison, or where is the compromise between those who claim the Holocaust ocurred and those who claim it didn’t.

    Sometimes one side is simply wrong and it does no good to mince words about that. If people dislike being in the wrong, they can always attempt to be right instead.

  • http://uncrediblehallq.net/blog/ The Uncredible Hallq

    >Has anyone actually succeeded at changing someone’s mind about religion when the person wasn’t asking for it?

    The Mormons apparently keep statistics on the effectiveness of their door-to-door evangelism, and claim some successes–something like 1% success rate. Which is something, especially considering how many house calls their young evangelists make.

  • http://merkdorp.blogspot.com J. J. Ramsey

    Shane: “I have to disagree with Dale. While I also am no fan of agressive evangelism of any kind, he simply can’t argue that forced conversions aren’t efective.”

    Dale wasn’t talking about forced conversions. He was talking about conversion as a result of uninvited evangelism.

  • Xeonicus

    I think evangelism is a terrible idea, no matter what the viewpoint. If I talk about religion to someone I know, it’s never with a secret agenda to change them, but a curiosity about their beliefs that allows us to find common philosophical ground. A lot of times it helps me strengthen my own views and on rare occasion, perhaps change them. I guess I talk about stuff like that for myself, and I am a firm believer that only you can make the ultimate choice about what to believe; therefore, dialogue about religion should be initiated by you with the intent to learn more about your own beliefs. Trying to change others just smacks of control.

  • http://www.xanga.com/take_the_red_pill Trent

    I unconverted from Christianity after my friend asked me (uninvited) to read some books and share my thoughts. It started with Ishmael and a book by Nhat Hanh. I initially started reading to understand where he was coming from. About 20 books later, I just couldn’t believe Christianity any longer. So, I guess I was open to it. But it started with somebody asking me to question my beliefs. It was easier for me because it was a good friend of mine.

  • Wes

    “Respecting” beliefs that we think are ridiculous… hmmm… I wonder if that’s where the solution lies…(?)

    I respect atheist beliefs. I understand why atheists hold the views and opinions they have about religion.

    I truly think open and honest conversations are important to reach an understanding between differing views.

    Is respect so hard to offer to those we don’t agree with? Must there always be that line drawn in the sand? As long as the unspoken superiority complex and the elitist attitude remain in the minds of those on either side, I see no hope of mutual respect and understanding.

    Really?

    So am I “elitist” for thinking that racism is a preposterous and vile belief, and for showing no respect for racism as a belief? Do I have a “superiority complex” when I point out that Joseph Smith was clearly a con artist, and that the stories in the Book of Mormon are beyond absurd, contradicted by all the evidence and supported by no evidence at all? Is it “elitist” to point out that astrology is pure nonsense? Is it “elitist” to claim that beliefs which are self-contradictory, supported by no evidence at all, and believed only because of wishful thinking or sloppy thinking are ridiculous?

    No. It is not. Some beliefs are nonsense, and completely at odds with the evidence and with reason. There is no reason to respect these beliefs.

    As I said, I respect the person, and I will not impose or force anything on them. I won’t be rude; I won’t be insulting; I won’t seek to suppress or harm them in any way. I don’t want to attack people or interfere with their lives. I respect their right to believe whatever they want and say whatever they want, no matter how ridiculous it is. But I would be a liar if I showed respect for the beliefs themselves when they are so obviously contradicted by evidence and logic.

    I find your faux outrage at my comment to be itself ridiculous. I bet I could easily come up with a very long list of beliefs for which you yourself do not have any respect at all. People who pretend that they never evaluate beliefs and show all beliefs equal respect no matter how blatantly illogical or unreasonable are being intellectually dishonest. Nobody does this.

    People are deserving of respect and understanding, and I show them this. But beliefs themselves are not deserving of this. Illogical, harmful, or idiotic beliefs should not be treated as equals to actual knowledge and logic. That’s why we can’t put creationism and holocaust denial in schools. That’s why the government should only rely on the most up-to-date scientific information, and not on bogus propaganda coming from ideological think-tanks. That’s why anyone who cares about making the world a better place should take an interest in counteracting bigoted, ignorant, superstitious, false, or just plain ridiculous ideas.

    I would hate to live in a world where we fear criticizing ideas because it’s considered “elitist”.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X