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.