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.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • Burrahobbit

    Perhaps the fact that most speakers at atheist conferences are holding down serious day jobs has something to do with it. Pastors are professional speakers. If they were not good at it they would get fired.

    • http://twitter.com/RantBot5000 RantBot Grikmeer

       Completely off-topic: Awesome screenname!

  • http://www.helensotiriadis.com/ helen sotiriadis

    what @5374dd686359dac0f983ea0c34a33fa8:disqus said.

    pastors’ talks are content-free other than emotional blackmail and manipulation.

    btw, no preacher could compare with either carl sagan or christopher hitchens in content, delivery and inspiration.

    incidentally, i’ve enjoyed sean faircloth’s talks lately.

    • http://stroppyrabbit.blogspot.com/ Yewtree

      Carl Sagan was awesome, and a major contributor to me becoming a pantheist :)

    • http://lizheywoodwriter.blogspot.com/ Liz Heywood

      Yes–Sean Faircloth is an amazing speaker (disclaimer: he interviewed me for the Richard Dawkins Foundation). He’s clear and passionate. Part of his punch is that he skips the God-on-money-or-in-the-pledge stuff and cut straight to the bone: Religious laws take YOUR money. Religious laws KILL kids. Powerful stuff.

  • http://stroppyrabbit.blogspot.com/ Yewtree

    If you want to hear good atheist / humanist speakers, go to a Unitarian Universalist church. Not all UU ministers are atheists, but plenty of them are. And even the ones that do believe in God believe in the freedom not to believe in Her. And they tend not to believe in God as a person, more as an experience. And the sermons are not about obeying dictates from on high, they are about reasoning things out based on oyur own experience.

  • Anonymous

    I can’t help thinking that a lot of their skill is just an example of style over substance. Maybe atheist speakers don’t need to be moving and emotive (of course, a lot of them are, but it’s not as important) because people are listening to what they’re saying for reasons other than to be moved and emotional – to be educated and informed, for instance.

    I mean, obviously there comes a point that if someone is just terrible then no one will listen to them but I really don’t think the audiences want the same thing out of talks by pastors or talks by atheists. Pastors have to have the bells and whistles as they haven’t got anything else to offer.

    TL;DR – Most atheists value the content, not the delivery.

  • Nicole Harris

    Just because someone uses that odd cadence in their voice that many religious speakers use, with awkward pauses and drawn out syllables does not make them any more effective.  I find that speech pattern nearly unlistenable. 

    Greta Christina’s “Why Are Atheists So Angry?” is a fantastic and engaging talk.  It gives me chills.  Extremely effective.   Another great speaker we have on the rise is Seth from The Thinking Atheist.    Of course, his background was in (Christian) broadcasting so he has a ton of experience, and he is very engaging.

    People who speak about what they truly believe are going to be the best speakers.

    • Lee Miller

      Nicole, yes–”odd cadence . . . awkward pauses . . . drawn out syllables”.  The “big name” preachers that you see on TV don’t talk like normal people.  If you took them out of their church environment and substituted another topic in place of the religio-babble, they would be obvious as the ridiculous clowns they are.  Even when I was a Christian I could barely stand to listen to most “preaching” because it’s generally language misuse for the purpose of control and manipulation.  I used to think that the ideal church would be one where there was NO preaching of any kind.  Now of course I think the ideal church is the one that isn’t there. 

  • Anonymous

    There are two other factors that I think are at play in why preachers are often more engaging:

    1. A lot of our speakers come from the sciences or academia generally (like all three of our surviving horsemen; Dawkins, Dennett, Harris). The language and style of that world is very specific. Language must be used very carefully. Whenever possible facts must speak for themselves. Any reliance on emotion is seen as intellectual weakness. Audiences in such settings are also academics and are expected to judge quality on its pure fact-based merits. This lends itself to very dry discourse. This is all very neccesary in academia of course, but it serves us less well when confronted with the general public, where whether we like it or not the packaging counts at least as much as the facts themselves.

    2. The (in my view) over-the-top phobia of anything that maybe could possibly be kinda like what the religious do in some sense leads a lot of people to decry the use of emotion and sentimal discourse within the community. Since the religious use emotional appeals as a big (and very effective) part of their strategy, if we use it we’re “being just like them”. I obviously don’t share that view. As long as we still keep a firm grip on the facts, I think we should be free to use soaring rhetoric, a recognizable narrative, and gobs of emotion if we need to. The Thinking Atheist is a master at this, and if you listen to his podcasts you’ll see that he gets a lot of “regular folks” who happen to be atheists enganged in the issue, because he is approachable and funny and knows how and when to use anecdotes and the pitch of his voice to make a point. It’s hardly a surprise to learn he used to be a Christian broadcaster.

    • Rebecca Sparks

      I think you’re right about the academic/public speaking divide.  I think you might be being overly generous to academic speaking, since it can also foster convoluted speaking and jargon that works as a barrier outside of the discipline to understand. 
      I believe it is a matter of outreach.  You speak to people in the style they enjoy and comprehend your message, and that style depends on your venue.   You can stay true to reason and logic and speak in a more public-friendly style.

    • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_RPPWVLMFKJ7QCHLEVQAR5GSL5M momma J

      Hmm….Claudia. I didn’t think about #2. Didn’t even cross my mind. Nice observation!

  • Michael

    If you’re not a good talker you’re unlikely to last as a pastor. It’s simple natural selection.

    • Rebecca Sparks

      My parents fall asleep nearly every week when they go to church.  I have met many boring pastors, but pastors do more than just preach-they visit the sick, the help handle a family crisis, they organize charity, they help develop leadership within their congregation.   If they’re strong leaders in other areas, most people will forgive a boring speaker.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_RPPWVLMFKJ7QCHLEVQAR5GSL5M momma J

    An interesting topic indeed. I would say that on a majority that pastors or more engaging speakers than atheists. With that said, of course there are exceptions. I’ve heard engaging atheists and I’ve heard un-engaging pastors. Why is this? I think some of the previous comments did a good job of this already. It’s their full-time job yes (but by no means does this mean that this is all that they do of course), practice of course, and maybe because the bad ones never make it to the pulpit. Also, consider this one in addition. Preachers go to school to be …preachers right? There is no “school” specific to teach atheism. 

    Whenever I watch a debate between the two sides, I feel like both sides make some interesting points, but the pastors always have a bunch of analogies to unpack things and the atheist side does not. They state their belief, give their rationale, state why the other side is wrong, and from then on they either just reference what was already said or site some awesome old testament law that does not apply at all anymore. The only emotion that comes out from them is anger. I don’t think this helps anyone who is not an atheist hear them or connect with them very well. Though, a believer, I still want to hear and understand both sides of the argument. I have a tough time doing that when I’m being yelled at. Probably similar to what many would think of as a hell-fire and brimstone preacher. (Don’t worry, the turn me off too).

    Hemant: You labeled Joel Osteen as funny, passionate and relatable. He is passionate. At least his voice is. I know passion though. That’s the one quality I look for when I try to find a new musical artist to listen to. They aren’t always the best musician, but just have a love for what they do. (think Ray Charles). I don’t see Osteen as any of these and I can’t think of him as a good speaker. I see him has plastic, fake and trying to appeal to people’s emotions. I’m not a fan. His theology isn’t very Biblical either for those who don’t know. The gospel of health and wealth makes me cringe every time I hear someone even hint at it. That’s not the Bible that I read. 

    The biggest thing that I have learned over the years (and Hemant has probably done too) as a teacher is that you have to know your audience. Bring some relevancy to it. If I was a traveling speaker before I gave a talk, I would eat lunch and/or dinner not at a fancy restaurant, but at the place where the city is known. NYC-would be a deli of some sort, Chicago- a pizza place, Baltimore-a place that sells crab cakes, KC-BBQ. What people do for a job, what they eat and how they play. Know these three things about your audience and the speaker will be apt to engage the audience I think. Thoughts?

    • http://inmyunbelief.wordpress.com/ TCC

      As the son of a preacher (and someone who has heard a fair number of different ones subsequently), I have to disagree with a number of your characterizations. For one, a lot of preachers, especially in smaller congregations, don’t have a college background at a seminary or other Christian institution. Although plenty of churches prefer it, it’s certainly possible to be ordained without the background, and I have seen plenty of people who are good preachers but lack formal education in either preaching directly or in a related field (like communications). Some people are just naturally good speakers, and I think that’s equally true of atheists; others benefit more from formal education in public speaking.

      I also disagree that good preachers only play off the emotion of fear: that’s a useful tool (and the most stereotypical), but it is by far not the only emotion used to persuade congregants. I mean, just think of what The Passion of the Christ was trying to do; that was more about grief and empathy (and also guilt) than about fear. Plenty of preachers use guilt, especially around Easter.

      • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_RPPWVLMFKJ7QCHLEVQAR5GSL5M momma J

        Good point on the smaller churches. My uncle is ordained and did not go to formal seminary. I know he took a few a classes but nothing hardcore. Maybe different denominations have their own “back door” loophole or something if the need is there?

        I didn’t mean to imply that all “good” pastors play off of fear. In contrast, I think it’s the bad ones that do this. From what I’ve seen any decision that is based on emotion alone is usually a short-lived commitment. Many people get married because they “love” the other person. Love is great, but two people also need to be compatible as well. I wouldn’t want to get married to someone who was against raising children if I wanted children. (just one example). Sure, the emotion based preachers get a good “response” at least in numbers, but how many of those people are still attending 1 year later? What about 10 years later? 

        Of course emotion-based decisions don’t have to end in failure. These are just my over-generalized observations :)

  • Gunstargreen

    The problem is that we relay facts more than emotions and people are more inclined to listen to emotions.

    • http://www.facebook.com/richard.tingley Richard Tingley

      I was thinking the exact same thing. Preachers do have a somewhat of an unfair advantage because they are telling people what they want to hear and are not bound by facts or reality. It is much easier to sell Disney World than it is to sell life insurance.

      • Johnk

        This is an unfair question, because what is an “atheist” speaker?
        But to comment on your point: In my opinion, preachers do have an advantage because (if they are good) they are preaching things that believers feel are universally true. In fact It’s often things that we don’t want to hear. Personally, I would rather hear that there is no such thing as intrinsic right and wrong, that evil is relative (based on what works best for society), that there is no such thing as heaven or hell, and that we don’t need to love our enemies but are free to stay mad at them. In my mind, the ONLY advantage they have is truth, because if I didn’t think it were true I would go to Disney World instaed of church! Another advantage that preachers have is that the Christian explanations for the problems with the world and within ourselves simply make more sense (to us) than the atheist point of view does. If atheist speakers found a compelling way to address issues that are important to people (life, death, love, pain, joy) instead of mainly speaking out (often angrily) against belief, they might have something. 

        • amyc

           “If atheist speakers found a compelling way to address issues that are important to people (life, death, love, pain, joy…”

          You haven’t listened to enough atheist speakers if you think they aren’t speaking about those things. You are also building a straw-man about what athiests actually believe when it comes to moralit, but I won’t get into that because it’s obvious you need to go listen to more atheist speakers.

    • http://inmyunbelief.wordpress.com/ TCC

      That’s not entirely true (nor is it entirely bad). For instance, the problem of evil, while it does contain a logical component (the incompatibility of evil, omniscience, omnipotence, and omnibenevolence), is largely an existential and thus emotional problem. And there are emotional components to other things that atheists deal with, such as larger acceptance (or a lack thereof) in certain places, that we can play off of. There are also things that atheists can be passionate about because we (at least in certain circles) value them highly, and those are the places where I think the emotional component of persuasion can go beyond logical argument.

  • Anonymous

    I think Mehta makes great points. It would be a great idea for us to take some pointers from preachers. 

  • http://twitter.com/0xabad1dea Melissa

    Pastors are *professional* speakers.  They go to Speaking School. Well, not all of them, as literally anyone can call themself a pastor, but pastor school is speaking school with a garish of literature studies.

    So it’s not really fair to compare the entirety of atheists with the subset of religious people who specifically train for demagoguery and get paid for it.

    But there are some pastors out there who are pretty lousy at speaking… ugh, I want my childhood back!

    • Annie

      True.  And there are also a bunch of books one can purchase that have “premade” sermons in them.  They can take a tried and true sermon, jazz it up with their own style and anecdotes, and viola!  An impressive speech can be given by just about anyone (add a dash of charisma, and you’re golden). 

      Not to mention, preachers are actually paid to spend their time writing sermons.

  • george.w

    “Speak from the heart” is rule number one in Dale Carnegie’s Quick and easy guide to effective public speaking if I remember correctly. Even if one is giving a technical talk, if you believe it matters, you have a good chance at helping your audience believe it matters too. My rule is to avoid speaking on topics I don’t care about. I suspect many of us would love an opportunity to speak about atheism. 

    I’d rather hear Neil DeGrasse Tyson than some religious preacher any day. He does one thing that none of them do: he is passionate about making sense. That may be the defining aspect of the Gnu Atheist movement – we’ve got something to offer and we’re not gonna take this anymore.

    • http://inmyunbelief.wordpress.com/ TCC

      I’m so glad that Neil DeGrasse Tyson has been mentioned. Seeing his recent interview on The Daily Show talking about the space program made me want to shout, “Preach it!” His passion is incredibly compelling.

    • Anonymous

      On the last Bill Maher show Tyson was on and after giving one of his magnificent rants on space exploration besides getting a roar of applause Maher said “It’s always nice to have the reverend Neil DeGrasse Tyson on the show”. Tyson is a great example of how you can be rigorous and yet sweep people away with a vision and the force of your own personality. Very few of us can be a Tyson of course, but we can take a lesson from them in what we should be trying to do more of.

    • Johnk

      I think the “proof will be in the pudding.” When enough people leave a talk by an atheist speaker with feelings of peace of mind, joy, and security you may have something.

      • Ndonnan

        Or have somthing to offer,like hope,be positive,supportive and up lifting.Speak truth,people do know it “in their hearts”,not wishful thinking to justify a lifestyle.Have somthing to benafit society,not just complaining and feeling offended and threataned by those who do.Why do athiest conventions usually have commedians there,to poke fun at other people! Sarcasm is the lowest form of wit. Churches have praise and worship instead, much more positive,its not nearly about the preacher as much as you think, it is the content,Oh and dont forget about the Holy Spirit,but i wont get into that till you get the God thing worked out

    • Demonhype

       He’s passionate  about making sense, and on top of that he makes that passion accessible to all the common people, which is a huge deal, and his passion is infectious.  His very behavior shatters that stereotype of some scary, amoral, unemotional mad scientist holed up in some Ivory Tower University lab.  He’s like a regular person you can relate to and he invites the audience to share in his passion rather than bestowing it as some revelation.  Rather than “here is some science wrapped up in a lot of scientistic sciencisms” he says “here is some science wrapped up in terminology that is accessible to non-scientists, and isn’t this the coolest thing you ever saw/heard/etc, and it’s something we can all share and enjoy, regardless of whether you have a PhD in this or not”.  You forget he’s a scientist as he starts coming off as more like another kid on the block who just found some incredibly cool bug or plant or whatever that he wants to show you, and that’s pretty engaging right there on an emotional level.

      Don’t know if that rambling made sense, but that’s what I make of it.  My mom loves Neil DeGrasse Tyson as much as she hates Carl Sagan, and from the things she has said that seems to be a motivator for those feelings, as she seems to see Carl Sagan as some kind of above-it-all jerk who thinks he knows everything and Neil Degrasse Tyson as a really smart cool funny guy who is one of us, who she’d listen to any day.

      I have never seen Carl Sagan myself, so I don’t actually know if he’s an above-it-all jerk or not.  I can only comment on how my Mom, who is about as common along these lines as you can get, seems to see it.  :)

  • LutherW

    Longing to hear Robert G. Ingersoll. Wishing there were recording devices back then.

    • Reginald Selkirk

       Have none of you younguns read Sinclair Lewis’ novel Elmer Gantry? There is a running joke in which pastors, hard up for speaking material on short notice, steal material from The Great Agnostic (Ingersoll) himself.

      • LutherW

         Any examples of his material they would steal. I agree its great speaking material anyone would be happy to deliver, but haven’t seen any that supported religion.

        • Reginald Selkirk

           Wikipedia sez

          n Sinclair Lewis’s 1927 novel Elmer Gantry,
          a burly college student named Elmer Gantry who is heavily under the
          influence of his agnostic friend Jim Lefferts undergoes a seeming
          miraculous conversion to Baptist Christianity and is immediately invited
          to speak before an audience. At Lefferts’ suggestion, Gantry uses as
          inspiration for his first sermon a speech by Robert Ingersoll which
          commences, “Love is the only bow on life’s dark cloud”. Gantry decides
          not to credit Ingersoll, who would be infamous to his audience, and
          reflects, “Rats! Chances are nobody there tonight has ever read
          Ingersoll. Agin him. Besides I’ll kind of change it around.”

          • LutherW

            Reginald – I don’t get your original point. Are you crediting or discrediting Ingersoll? Its been a handful of decades since someone called me a youngun (sounds fine if you don’t tell Medicare). I do plead guilty to not reading much fiction, and not using any fiction as a basis for argument.

            Seems to me that Gantry/Lewis is complementing Ingersoll and showing his own religious morals by stealing material. Politicians do this all the time some openly claiming they are like Lincoln or TR. Hardly a reason not to like Ingersoll since he says true things so will. No wonder preachers would like to adopt his words.

        • Reginald Selkirk
  • PegK

    Most of the pastors I know or have heard speak who are good speakers are just frustrated actors.  They seem to have a dramatic streak that needs to be filled and egos which need to be stroked.  I have a distinct feeling that many of them don’t believe half of what they are spewing and just love being “on stage.”

  • Sam Salerno

    Hemant, I have a feeling that you will be getting some crap for this post. I’ve seen J.T. He is awesome. Also Greta Christina is awesome. The difference between a church service and an Atheist conference is that we have variety.  Yes we have many matter of fact speakers. But we also have many passionate speakers as well. All the churches get is that one speaker that leads them straight to stupid land. Albeit passionately. But still stupid land.

  • John Small Berries

    The former pastors who are now atheists (for example, Rich Lyons), didn’t lose their speaking skills along with their faith.

    As others have pointed out, public speaking is something pastors are taught, something they practice on a regular basis, and something upon which their livelihoods depend. To ask if they’re better at it than atheists is like asking if professional athletes are better at sports than office workers.

    But another point is that atheists have to bother with pesky little things like “empirical evidence” and “sound arguments”, which can rob a good oration of its momentum when attempting to build a solid case for a point one is trying to make. Preachers can simply throw out a Bible verse and consider their cases already made for them: “God said it” – the ultimate appeal to authority – therefore no more effort need be devoted to demonstrating the truth of what they say.

    • amyc

       I <3 Rich Lyons

  • http://profiles.yahoo.com/u/FDGYHBEWVNGUG763L5X4TON3JQ Nazani14

    No emotion?  Have you forgotten Hitchens so soon?

    Personally, the  emotional displays I most enjoy in a speaker are wry wit, cynicism, disdain, and dark humor.  Like a good martini, atheist speechifying should be dry, dry, dry.

    We became atheists because of our reasoning abilities; we didn’t “know it in our hearts.”

    • Heathernicolern

      “We became atheists because of our reasoning abilities; we didn’t ‘know it in our hearts.’”

      Thank you! The day that atheists start convincing people with emotion-driven, snake-oil salesmen techniques is the day we completely lose.

  • TiltedHorizon

    “I think atheism leaves out a whole emotional component from the argument.”

    Wow. I have been discussing this very topic with the good folks at the NEPA Freethough Society for the past month. It is good to know I am not alone in these thoughts.

  • Jakanapes

    Based on these comments, I must be super unusual.  I never want to hear any speaker, ever.  If it’s informative I can read it so much faster and absorb it so much better than if somebody is just yammering about it.   It drives me crazy to have to sit and wait for somebody to finish their sentences and get to the damn point.  Write it down and I’ll read it.

    • http://profiles.google.com/nathanlee2 nathan lee

      Reading is nice in that respect – it’s a lot faster, and you can skip parts you don’t like. It completely ignores a few types of learning though. Once in a while you want to associate something by sight or sound, and presentations can satisfy both of those better than a book.

      Technically it’s even better to get smell and touch in there too, but labs like that aren’t always feasible.

  • CatherineD

    If that is the case than the members of the clergy project would be excellent speakers for the freethinking community!

  • walkamungus

    Don’t conflate rhetoric with falsehood. There’s nothing wrong with atheists using all the rhetorical tricks in the book when they’re speaking — I wish they would, frankly. There’s nothing wrong with engaging people’s emotions, either, because oftentimes that’s the most effective way to get people on your side. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Stephan-Goodwin/676660806 Stephan Goodwin

    There are TONS of pastors, and a handful are public speakers of any quality.  I figure the percentage of pastors that are strong speakers may be about the same as among atheists, but they outnumber us.  

    That, and as someone else said: they are professional speakers.  Most of us in the movement have to do other things for a living.  

  • Anonymous-Sam

    Sam Kinison, anyone? XD

  • http://www.facebook.com/AnonymousBoy Larry Meredith

     I went to a Skepticamp that had people using notecards and powerpoint. It was really boring actually.

  • Onamission5

    I also wonder if it’s not a certain personality type which is attracted to vocations where public speaking is requisite. Much like actors do not tend to be intorverts, preachers and politicians do not either. It seems to me that what all those vocations have in common is the need for external validatation and large amounts of attention, whereas the average atheist may or may not share the same need.

  • walkamungus

    What about when preachers aren’t preaching, or at least aren’t preaching specifically about religion? It’s tough not to get choked up when listening to King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/James-Sweet/1280927267 James Sweet

    I want to approach this from a different angle and point out this is just another variation of the “Shut up, that’s why” ploy.  If atheists are emotional, they are “just angry at God.”  If atheists are restrained, then they lack the passion of pastors.

    Heads I win tails you lose, yet again.  Perhaps there will come a day when it is appropriate to think about whether it makes sense to inject more emotion into atheist speaking, but until then, I’m intended to respond to this kind of shabby concern trolling with more a “Fuck you, that’s why.”

  • Anonymous

    “Are Pastors Better Speakers Than Atheists?”

    That’s like asking if apples are larger than oranges. Some of them are, some are not. It really depends on the individual example and what what you’re comparing it to.

  • ORAXX

    If what the pastors of the world talk about was supported by either truth or logic, there would be no need for their theatricality.

  • Tom


    So is it the emotion that makes them stand out? I don’t think so. Atheists are equally as passionate… just about different things.”

    I’d tend to disagree.  Passion is just another word for “strong emotion.”  Well, what’s my disagreement?  Emotion is one of our biggest obstacles to rational thought.  It begs us to bias and encourages us to spin.  So passion is on a tighter chain at skeptic/atheist events, lest the attendees fall into hypocrisy.  I find atheist meet-ups and conferences rather boring.  Boredom is an emotion too, but I’ve never been passionately bored.

    Pastors have more, permission, so to say, from their audience to leave prose and go into poetry.  Which gives them the potential to speak more beautifully.  And to wander into tempting delusions…

    “At every atheist conference I’ve ever been to, there are always a few speakers who stand out.”

    All it takes to stand out is being different from your environment or context, it’s nothing special.  I remember humanistic Rabbi Sherwin Wine and the first New Humanism conference, not because he stood out and was better than the others, but just because he was GOOD.  He demonstrated Ethos, Logos, and Pathos in such a masterful way!  He did’t need to beat others at it to demonstrate it

  • george.w

    I am suspicious of promising specific emotional outcomes. Leaving religion is a different experience for everybody.  Their emotions some quite powerful, belong to them, not to me.  As a speaker my goal would be for people to leave the talk knowing something they didn’t know before, and taking courage from it if they are so inclined. As a former minister I learned how to control my breath, project my voice, how to organize a talk, and how to use rather manipulative, made-up illustrations (we called them “parables”) to bring about a conversion to Jesus. The first three things are fine in any context, the last is contemptible. Use real stories, real data, real science.

  • Rpschussler

    I once heard something to the effect that a good speaker might keep an audiences rapt attention while describing how to fold a napkin, but a poor speaker could bore you while sharing a major secret of the universe.  Made me always want to strive to have the discipline to focus on what was being said and the value therein.

  • Keulan

    One of my favorite atheist speakers is Sam Singleton. He’s passionate about what he’s speaking about, and I love how he combines the style of religious preachers with good use of reason and logic.

  • Anonymous-Sam

    I think it would have to be pointed out that atheists and pastors is not a fair comparison. Pastors are the leaders of their congregation, while the word “atheist” by itself doesn’t designate any specific role. Pastors are supposed to be charismatic speakers, while “atheist” just means the person in question doesn’t believe in religion. Now, if you specify an atheist leader, or an atheist speaker, then you’re referring to a specific vocation and I would expect that person to be an effective speaker. Maybe not a charismatic one, because I would afford them a reasonable degree of leeway in that department — I wouldn’t imagine someone preaching a controversial message really cares how much anyone likes them, as long as they were able to effectively convey the message.

  • http://twitter.com/_Axe_ Axe

    Of course bullshit is always going to sound sweeter than hard cold facts.  I don’t think it matters which are better at wooing the audience.  Heaven is always going to sound better than a dirt nap.  Actually, I think I really depends on the audience you are catering to, and most of the time pastors are catering to uneducated persons. What people in a trailer park find interesting and a group of MIT students find interesting are completely different. The TRUTH about the TRUTH will set you free. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/barrett72 Raymond Barrett

    Seems odd that no real solutions were offered to the perceived problem. I’d like to suggest that more people start a toastmasters group. The techniques they offer should only be considered a starting point, but it is a systematic process and a non-judgmental way to get experience (you’re expected to make mistakes).

    Some TM groups open with a religious ‘invocation’ and the ‘pledge of allegiance’ but there are TM groups that are designed with particular communities in mind, like freethinkers/humanists or GLBT’s.

    http://www.freethinkersclub.org

    http://www.rainbowtoastmasters.org


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