Last week, I took part in a panel discussion about religion. One of the other panelists was a (really sweet) Christian woman. When the moderator asked us how we arrived at our religious (or atheistic) views, I answered honestly: I started questioning my faith, and the more I explored it, the less I believed it. Eventually, I became an atheist.
There was a little more to it, but that’s the gist of it.
When it was the Christian’s turn, she told this long, beautiful story of the person who brought her to Jesus, who guided her through some rough patches in her life, who died too soon, and whose life best resembled the “grace” that Jesus exhibited.
Obviously, the whole story had the atheists in the crowd rolling their eyes. Sure, it’s a nice story, but it doesn’t mean Christianity is true.
But here’s the point: Her story was compelling. Mine wasn’t. The audience ate up everything she said. I can’t say they did the same with me.
How much of that is my fault and how much of that is how atheists operate in general?
A lot of atheists stop believing in god after a long process of introspection. Maybe they read a book or a friend (or, ironically, a pastor) started them down that path, but there usually isn’t a “born again” moment. When we talk about why we’re atheists, we talk about logic, science, what’s true, and what’s not.
When Christians talk about why they buy into the Jesus, you get these heartbreaking, I-once-was-lost-but-now-I’m-found stories.
We know better than that. They’re being guided by their emotions while ignoring the question of truth. We’re guided by reason and critical thinking.
It’s not that we can’t be compelling — we all know how powerfully someone like Neil deGrasse Tyson can “sell” us on the importance of science. It’s possible. We’re not all that talented, but some people rise to the occasion.
Still, I’ve been to a *lot* of atheist conferences where the majority of the talks focus on why god doesn’t exist, why religion is wrong, why evolution is true, why this philosophical argument is better than that one, why this fact and that figure are relevant…
Not a lot of stories. Not a lot of emotion. Not a lot of anything that’ll make the audience shed a tear. Not a lot of the things that draw in people who think with their gut instead of their brain. Not that it’s a bad thing to use your brain, but if we’re trying to reach out to people beyond our own bubble and convince them we have it right, we need to meet them where they are and draw them in.
Anyway, I bring all this up because Sam Spokony of The Quietus has a longform article about the Reason Rally on the site and offers a fairly balanced view of what he liked and didn’t like.
For example, he didn’t like the tone set by some of the entertainers…
Sure, I’m all for dirty jokes, but when you’re looking to simultaneously prove your philosophical correctness to adversaries and ask for the respect of your fellow citizens, is it really in your best interest to send out Andy Shernoff to sing his favorite tune, “Get on Your Knees for Jesus ‘Til He Comes”?
The bigger comedic names — Tim Minchin, Jamie Kilstein and Eddie Izzard — followed an identically aggressive path in their sets, and while raucous humor is standard procedure for these guys, I wondered: Was this really an attempt, on any level, to communicate with the theists this movement will somehow need to convert over the course of the coming generations, or was it just — as [Bad Religion singer Greg] Graffin said about his own impending set — a celebration, for those already in on the joke?
I should say I think people like Spokony are making a mistake if they’re looking for just one goal of the Reason Rally. If you think the purpose was to show America that atheists are out there in large numbers, you’re right. If you think the purpose was to mock religion in the company of others who agree that it’s ridiculous but who may have to censor themselves back home, you’re right. If you think the purpose was to inspire atheists to be more active locally, you’re right.
Yes, some of the acts weren’t kind to religion. Or the virgin ears of children. Or people who don’t have a particular sense of humor. But that’s ok. There was something for just about everybody.
Spokony liked certain aspects of the Rally. He wrote some kind things about me, which is always appreciated, but what got me nodding my head in enthusiastic approval was this bit where he compared Richard Dawkins‘ of-course-we’re-right-we’re-atheists attitude to the more palatable-to-theists tone taken by Graffin:
Dawkins simply ran off some facts, figures and poll numbers related to earth science, biology and the number of people who do or don’t believe in God — and then exhorted all in attendance to continue ridiculing theists with great contempt. The question this begged, as he walked offstage to another round of thunderous cheers, was rather simple, and one perhaps vital to everything the New Atheists stand for: What did Dawkins offer at this rally that the comedians didn’t? Not much, one must think, regardless of how technically accurate he or they may be. But when you choose to build — to use the words of 17th-century Puritan John Winthrop, when he first settled in America — a theoretical city upon a hill, and then to look upon those who yet fail to understand you with little more than smugness, mockery and scorn, what else can you hope for?…
Maybe that foreshadows the subsequent success of Graffin’s more tolerant approach over that of hard-line New Atheists, who may come to worry so much about presenting the inherently faultless logic of their views that they fail to take into account the politics of communication — the very stuff with which the religious right has maintained a cultural upper hand.
This. So much, this.
We’re so laser-focused on proving we’re right that we often ignore the way in which we communicate this information. We think that if we just state the evidence, people will figure it out. They won’t. They rarely do. They don’t all think like we do.
Is this even worthwhile to talk about? I think so. Dawkins does a wonderful job of raising awareness of the problems with religion. But if you want to convince someone who’s not an atheist to take our concerns seriously, nothing beats the power of a good story.
It’s not that we don’t have those kinds of speakers in our movement — we do — but the Christian world is *filled* with them. Hell, it’s a rare event in the Christian world when you’re not emotionally drained after listening to a big-name speaker.
We shouldn’t abandon evidence and logic. But it wouldn’t hurt to put them in a larger context.
When people ask me how we were able to raise so much money for Jessica Ahlquist, I tell them it’s because she’s a compelling figure — an intelligent, young, female atheist who was fighting against her school, her city, her mayor, and a *lot* of angry Christians. Everyone wanted to help her. I wanted to help her. The same goes for Damon Fowler. When I tell their stories, people listen. If I were to try to raise money for a general scholarship for high-schoolers, I guarantee it wouldn’t raise as much money as a scholarship for one particular high-schooler with a good story.
What’s the point of all this? We’d do well to take a page out of the Christian playbook — tell a story whenever we talk to an audience.
Unlike them, though, we can do it while telling the truth.