Changing minds

A student I ran into recently told me that I, along with his roommate, was the reason he became an atheist. Apparently when in a questioning period, he went to a panel discussion on campus where I represented a godless infidel perspective, and this helped tip the balance.

Now, I don’t want to exaggerate my influence, though everyone who teaches is gratified when occasionally a student gets something deeper from what we do than just a passing grade. I’m sure his roommate and other peers have had a much greater influence on the student than anything I said. And there’s always sampling bias. I may well have turned off a number in the audience and nudged them away from nonbelief, but I would hardly get to know that.

What was interesting to me, however, was the ambivalent thoughts the student triggered. First, I silently hoped that the state legislature never got to hear this story. (They hate higher education enough as it is.) Then, there is also the fact that I really don’t know what I want to accomplish in public events other than accurately represent nonbelief as I see it. Making atheists out of anyone is not part of my agenda; some people might legitimately conclude from what I say that they don’t want any part of it. The student saying I helped tip him in my direction actually made me feel uncomfortable.

And now I wonder why. Maybe I don’t want to come across as a mirror image of an evangelist, going around trying to deconvert people. Maybe I’m a liberal stereotype, having trouble with full-throated commitment even to my own side in an argument. But I admit, part of it probably is some degree of internalizing negative social attitudes toward atheism.

What is Christianity? Part 14
Critical Historians vs. the Dogmatists (Believers or Deniers)
Did Jesus Exist? Ehrman's Complete Failure - Part 4
What is a Microaggression?
About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University