Argument works

The following is an excerpt from chapter 3 of the book.

At this point, I hope I’ve gotten you to see the absurdity of automatically objecting to any criticism of religion, whether or not the criticism is right. But you still may be wondering why some atheists (not all, mind you) put so much effort into arguing about religion.

Part of the reason, I confess, is that it’s fun. Well, for me there are times when it gets not-fun, but most of the time it’s fun. There’s something about arguments for (and against) the existence of God that makes them every bit as powerful a form of nerd catnip as finding ways to powergame in Dungeons and Dragons. But I don’t just do what I do for fun. One of the main reasons to argue about religion is that it actually works for getting people to leave religion.

Want proof? Read stories from from people who’ve left religion. They rarely do it without reading at least some of the reasons other people before them have given for rejecting religion. I know I didn’t. If you’re interested in seeing the good done by just one recent popular atheist writer, Richard Dawkins’ website has a section dedicated to “the good” out of the mail he receives about The God Delusion, including many messages from people saying the book helped them leave religion [18].

And the effect of a book like The God Delusion multiplies over time, as people who’ve left religion because of the ideas they’ve heard then spread those ideas to more people. Greta Christina (who I’ve already mentioned several times) has written “I personally have been told by several people that they left their religion and became atheists, in part, because of things I’ve written. And I know that I left my own religious beliefs, in large part, because of things that were written by people in the atheist movement” [19].

Some people may have a hard time believing this. After all, in their experience, they hardly ever see an argument change anyone’s mind, so they conclude arguing doesn’t change minds. They’re not totally wrong: it’s really hard to change minds by argument. But what they may not realize minds is that being changed by argument may be hard to notice, because people aren’t changing their minds on the spot. Admitting you were wrong is embarrassing, so rather than changing their minds in the middle of heated arguments, people are more likely to change their minds when they’re thinking about something they’ve heard or read on their own.

If you’re still not convinced, here’s one more data point: JT Eberhard, one of my fellow bloggers at the website Patheos, sometimes starts speeches by polling the audience: who used to be religious but aren’t anymore? Raise your hands. Now keep your hands raised if some argument played a role in your leaving religion. Almost all the hands stay up [20]. This isn’t really surprising. It may be hard to change people’s minds by argument. But you’re never going to change people’s minds by keeping quiet about what you believe and why you believe it.

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