In my “Pugilist in Good Faith” post, I explained why I didn’t see a contradiction between aggressively going after other people’s ideas and remaining open to revising my own opinions. After reading it, commenter dbp had a question about whether this balance is possible when you’re doing it in public, and his question deserves a longer response. He wrote:
The point isn’t so much that you’re out to persuade people of a position you’re also (on this blog) publicly subjecting to interrogation. That seems fine to me, which is why I find your answers on those points reasonable. However, there’s another area in which I think you’re doing yourself a disservice, if a completely (OK, maximally) unencumbered re-examination of your atheism is your goal.
Specifically, you’re setting yourself up as a champion or model for the atheist side. (NB, this is my interpretation of the effect of what you’re doing, not my assumption of your explicit goal– I’m not trying to accuse you of being in it for your own glory or anything.) You (admirably) try to establish guidelines for debate and ways to establish tactical advantages in ‘deconversion,’ you remonstrate against atheists whom you are disappointed in, and in general you’re gaining a reputation as a public ‘evangelist’ (if you will) for atheism. That’s why you are asked to guest blog on sites like Daylight Atheism, and why you accept.
All of that’s fine, just as it is for someone on the Christian side to do the same for Christianity. But isn’t it inimical to the goal of honestly and openly examining the foundations of your belief? That project is really, really hard to do well in any case, and gaining a ‘standing’ among others who hold the belief in question risks, it seems to me, encumbering the investigation you have set out to make. In the admiration, camaraderie, and attention you get in such a role, you start to have more at stake than simply the intellectual tenets you hold, and that can work subtly on the mind. Which is to say, I fear you may be shooting yourself in the foot.
Let’s put it this way: I think the marginal danger to my intellectual honesty caused by having this blog is pretty small. I like the internet, and it’s certainly exciting when I see the combox explode with thoughtful comments or when I notice the Google Analytics trendlines make a jump (hi, everyone who came over from the Volohk Conspiracy yesterday!), but the offline pressures on my thinking are a lot stronger than anything you guys can muster.
I was brought up by atheists. My mom is from a long line of secular Jews (who managed to get kicked out of half of the countries in Europe for printing banned books just ahead of the general Jewish purges) and my dad likes to call himself an “alumnus of Catholicism.” And if I decided I was going to convert, I’d break their hearts, along with the hearts of almost every good friend I have who is an atheist (a pretty large percentage).
Unless I became a miraculously good evangelist/apologist, I wouldn’t be able to make a good enough case to all these people that I wasn’t just being stupid. And if there’s any vice I embody, it’s pride. It’d be very hard for me to know I looked gullible or just plain weak. I’ve enjoyed a reputation as someone who keeps her head in a crisis, who manages to put aside emotion concerns and think logically. If I were a convert, I don’t see how they could trust me as a thinker.
So it’s not that your opinions don’t influence the way I think and write — I was really frustrated during my guestblogging experience at Daylight Atheism, since I obviously wasn’t expressing my thoughts about rhetoric persuasively – but it’s easier for me to take a bad response online as a spur to do better or a reminder to reexamine my premises. If I turn out to be wholly wrong about atheism, this blog and my online popularity will be the last thing I worry about.