Are Pastors Better Speakers Than Atheists?

Here’s something worth debating, courtesy of an interview with atheist director Matthew Chapman (The Ledge):

Interviewer: You were convinced that a movie would be more powerful in representing atheists than any number of books and speakers.

Chapman: You were at the national convention in Iowa. Some of the atheist speakers were pretty good, but you can’t compare any of them to a good preacher. I think atheism leaves out a whole emotional component from the argument.

That’s only a small excerpt from a larger interview but it stood out to me because I think Chapman has a point worth discussing: Are preachers really better speakers than atheists?

Pastors — at least the ones with large congregations — grew their flock in large part due to their speaking skills.

Some are passionate, funny, and relatable. (Think Joel Osteen.)

Others are passionate and loud. (Think no-longer-pastoring Damon Thompson)

Others are so passionate they sweat while they talk. (Not searching for that one.)

When I visited churches, I knew exactly which ones I would want to go back to (if I ever lost my senses) — the ones with the better speakers. They knew how to put on a show. They knew how to effectively communicate their message. (Sometimes, when you’re that good, you might even get offers to “move up” to a bigger church.) You want to hear a great speaker? Walk into any megachurch.

(Obviously, I’m only talking about the presentation. When it comes to content, they’re almost always lacking in substance and truth.)

So is it the emotion that makes them stand out? I don’t think so. Atheists are equally as passionate… just about different things. At every atheist conference I’ve ever been to, there are always a few speakers who stand out. They tend to be good because they follow a few basic tips:

They speak from the heart. You can tell this is personal for them.

They’re not reading off of notecards or a crude Powerpoint. They know exactly what they want to say and they don’t need any prompting.

They’re speaking to the audience and not at the audience. They want to get through to you somehow.

(JT Eberhard‘s talk about mental illness at Skepticon 4 is a perfect example of all of this. Watch that and try not to be moved.)

But in my experience, those speakers are few and far between at our conferences. Many of the speakers (to me, anyway) are dull, even if I agree with them or like the content. At the larger churches, though, you see great speakers all the time.

So why are pastors so good at honing these skills?

For starters, they perform weekly. And practice makes you better. Most atheists don’t get a chance to talk about our beliefs to a large group of people on a regular basis.

Christians also see good speakers weekly. (More than that if they’re really involved with their church.) When you watch enough people who know how to do it well, you’re going to pick up a few ideas on what works and what doesn’t.

Pastors also know that people will stop attending their churches if they’re boring/inarticulate/ineffective — basically, their job is on the line if they can’t speak well. So they better be good at it.

Most of the atheists I know don’t have that sort of pressure to do well. (What are you gonna do? Not pay us our $0 honorarium?) But inevitably, a handful of people are just so captivating to watch that you don’t care what their topic is, you just want to hear them. (Think Neil deGrasse Tyson.)

What can we learn from this?

Atheists would be well-served to learn how to speak publicly. Especially if they’re lucky enough to get those opportunities on a regular basis.

That also means we need to create more opportunities for atheists to speak publicly. (Local SkeptiCamps are one way to make that happen.)

And while a lot of atheists like to think religion offers nothing of value to the world, it would be worthwhile to listen to some sermons and pick up on what Christians are doing right. There’s a lot we can learn from them when it comes to getting your message across effectively.

You can do the same sort of thing with TED Talks and other lectures online, but when it comes to talking about religion/faith, it’s hard to find people who communicate their beliefs more powerfully than pastors.

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