A while ago, Hemant Mehta of Friendly Atheist had a post contrasting atheist deconversion stories with Christian conversion narratives. He thought atheists need to beef up speaking skills to be able to match the intense emotion of Christian “once was lost” stories.
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…
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.
I’m always in favor of getting into public speaking and reframing your talks to have a narrative arc (this was always my first piece of advice when I ran pre-science fair murderboards), but I think it’s not enough to fill in the rhetorical gap that Hemant is talking about. It’s not just that Christian converts tell their stories with more aplomb; their arcs are intrinsically more satisfying.
Christian stories usually take the form of “Our hearts are restless til they rest in thee.” They end with a homecoming. Atheist deconversion stories feel a little more like the end of The Graduate: the escape has been effected, but it’s not clear what you’re going to do next. The problem puts me in mind of a quote from the beginning of E.L. Konigsburg’s (totally stellar!) book From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. Two siblings are planning to run away from home, but they hit an snag:
“Of all the sissy ways to run away and of all the sissy places to run away to…” Jaime mumbled.
He didn’t mumble quite softly enough. Claudia turned on him, “Run away to? How can you run away and to? What kind of language is that?” Claudia asked.
We shouldn’t cleave to a flawed philosophy just to have the peace of answers, but, if we believe in an orderly universe, we should expect to find rest and peace at some parts of our philosophical quest. The real purpose of questioning everything is to turn up some answers. But when atheists pick ‘skeptic’ as their main self-descriptive adjective, it can seem like they’ve picked process over the goal and it’s impossible to match the emotional draw of Christian conversion stories.
That’s why I’m delighted to see that Free Thought Blogs’ Crommunist is starting a “Because I am an atheist…” series, meant as a compliment to PZ Myers’s “Why I am an Atheist” posts. Atheists need to talk about what philosophical propositions have passed their newly rigorous criteria, not just explain how religion failed. It makes your position more compelling and it’s a good check to make sure you’ve calibrated your false positive/false negative filters appropriately.