You'll never change anybody's mind!

When I hear people say that I just want sit them down, give them a reproving look, and ask them where the hell they think all these new atheists are coming from?  Is it the stork?

I employ a tactic I shamelessly stole from Greta Christina whenever I speak.  I ask the audience to raise their hands if they’re an atheist.  Most hands go up.  I then ask them to leave their hands in the air if they were once Christian.  Most hands stay up.  I then ask them to leave their hands in the air if an argument, whether from a friend, the God Delusion, or something they read online helped them to deconvert.

Most hands stay up each and every time.

Yesterday I got home from my Michigan debate on “Does God Exist?” with Minister John Allen at the University of Michigan and reported on my facebook status that about half the Christians who filled out review cards afterward scored me as the winner.  This, of course, makes me incredibly happy.

When the leader of Cru (what used to be Campus Crusade for Christ) thinks you won, that’s saying something.

John Allen, for the record, was a very sweet guy.  He’s a guy with whom I’d happily be friends (and to whom I consider myself a passing friend now).  He has been a minister for a long time, has talked to plenty of non-believers I’d wager, and is accustomed to speaking to crowds (New Life Church has a registry of about 900 and there were about 500 people at the debate).  He is experienced and used arguments directly out of the apologist canon.

Which brings me to…

But John was prepared.  He’s made a power point presentation.  He had watched all my talks on youtube and crafted arguments specifically to address points I’d previously made.

And, as I said above, he used some of the fallback arguments of apologists whether they’re in the pews or on cable: argument from personal/religious experience (testimony), fine-tuning, cosmological argument, etc.  These arguments didn’t fail because of a lack of skill or readiness on John’s part: they failed because those arguments are not good.

All the same, in response to my facebook status celebrating that some believers scored me as the victor I got comments like…

The majority of them are still Christian. If you gave arguments about why Christianity is fail, they thought they were good arguments, but they’re still Christian… what does that tell you?

What it tells me is that your arguments, no doubt VERY good and chock full of points I would eagerly agree with, did not get through to the underlying emotions that cause people to be Christian. You challenged their rhetoric, but not the underlying indoctrination that causes that rhetoric to be accepted. It’s very satisfying to say “Christian claim X is false because of A,B, and C.” But what I see modern atheists not doing… and what I wish people would start doing more… is saying “Christian claim X is false because of A, B, and C and here’s WHY you think it’s true and how you got to believe it.”

This person respects my work and I’m glad they can feel comfortable enough to give me their opinion.  I just think their opinion’s wrong.

My lovely girlfriend explained it thusly:

I think sometimes it’s easy to forget that most people don’t lose their faith in a day. It can take months or more for people of faith to really think about arguments they hear, and to finally say they had it all wrong, and maybe the atheists have a good point. I’d wager just about nobody leaves these debates thinking “Wow, the opposing side was so good, my entire worldview was wrong. What was I thinking?” But they might be thinking, “Oh, the atheist made a good point, but that can’t be right, I should go look this up.” That’s how it begins. Debates make people ask questions, and that’s why they’re worth while.

Good though I am at arguing for the falseness of religion, I have only once convinced anybody within the course of a single conversation.  Yet I have well over 100 saved emails of people saying “You know six months ago when we had that talk and I said you were an arrogant ass?  Well, I thought about it and it turns out you were right about x, y, and z.”

Hell, that’s even how I change my mind: over time, thinking about things others have said. And I don’t think the process can be escaped because I don’t believe human beings control their beliefs.  I mean, how many of us could climb to the edge of the roof atop a skyscraper and convince ourselves by force of will that gravity doesn’t work?  Nobody.  That’s because your beliefs are the produce of whatever facts are rattling around your skull and you’re powerless to do anything about it.  That’s why when I get told I must choose to believe someone rose from the dead 2,000 years ago or burn for eternity I must point out that god’s a malicious ass, because my mind is already made up on that and there’s nothing I can do to change it until good evidence is introduced.

It’s the same with believers.  Once the right counterargument or fact gets into the machinery of their mind, it’s over.  It may not be over at the time, but eventually they will change their mind.  Just like me, they have no choice.

But because arguments don’t immediately achieve results, we get people in the movement saying argument doesn’t work.  It literally makes me want to vomit blood.

I always want to ask them what alternative exists?  Not explaining to religious people why they’re wrong?  Hoping if we placate them by telling them how great they are that eventually they’ll want to be atheists like us?  How has that worked for the last few centuries?

At least the person commenting on my wall did have a suggestion.

what I see modern atheists not doing… and what I wish people would start doing more… is saying “Christian claim X is false because of A, B, and C and here’s WHY you think it’s true and how you got to believe it.”

But I don’t see the utility in this.  It’s motive guessing which is impossible for me to do honestly.  Yes, they were probably born into a Christian home and indoctrinated since birth, but so what?  How will pointing that out help?  I grew up in a secular household.  It doesn’t make me any more or less likely to be right.  If someone said I was an atheist because of how I was raised I will just say “but I have all these tasty arguments.”  And then we’ll be right back to where we were; exchanging our reasons for believing as we do.  Most Christians will do the same.

What’s more, if I tell them why they believe the things they do, it feels like I’m being condescending to them by saying I know their motives better than they do (or that they’re lying).  I’d much rather wait until I know for sure someone’s reasoning sucks for sure before I start condescending them (that was a joke, I think telling someone why I think they’re wrong is the highest respect I can pay them).

And plus, we’ve all heard Christians’ “I used to be atheist!” stories.  They love those.  If I tell someone they were indoctrinated since birth and turn out to be wrong, I look like a jackass.  I also have to sit through an “I used to be atheist” story, which I hate doing.

And lastly, I get aggravated when people motive guess me because it’s so useless and so arrogant.  “You’re just close-minded!”, “You just want to have lots of pre-marital sex!”, “You want to be your own god!”, etc.  Each of them directly implying that I’m not willing to be reasonable and not making my best effort to be reasonable.  It’s insulting.

I don’t mind being insulting, and I don’t mind saying people aren’t making their best effort to be reasonable.  But I want it to come after I’ve heard their arguments and seen how they conduct themselves, not as a part of presenting my case.  If I tell someone they’re being deliberately obtuse, I want their arguments to be the reason I say that, nothing else.



About JT Eberhard

When not defending the planet from inevitable apocalypse at the rotting hands of the undead, JT is a writer and public speaker about atheism, gay rights, and more. He spent two and a half years with the Secular Student Alliance as their first high school organizer. During that time he built the SSA’s high school program and oversaw the development of groups nationwide. JT is also the co-founder of the popular Skepticon conference and served as the events lead organizer during its first three years.

  • becca

    A couple of times, Mr. Allen came *this close* >< to using Pascal's Wager and the threat of hell. To his credit, he backed off, and didn't use that argument. Still, what I got from JT was a lot of reasoned scientific arguments, and what I heard from Mr. Allen was a lot of emotional arguments – certainly nothing that would make me re-think my position.

    I'll be interested to see whether Mr. Allen takes you up on your offer to prove his last quote was quote-mined.

  • jamessweet

    Channeling Churchill: Argumentation and debate is the worst possible way to go about changing people’s minds — except for all the other ways.

  • iknklast

    I’m glad to see you putting out this argument. I’ve been saying it for some time, but don’t have a good forum. For what it’s worth, I think it’s great that people don’t come to one event, hear our facts, and immediately deconvert. That’s the Christian story – emotional conversion, not intellectual – and it leads to followers, not leaders. I hear Chris Mooney and others talk about the need for a good story, and I think, but we’ve got a good story. Lots of good stories. So what? Do we want to take Christian sheep and turn them into atheist sheep? I don’t.

    I saw a study a few years ago that looked at how people change their minds. Those who went from atheist to Christian were, in most cases, instantaneous, like lightning. Those who went from Christian to atheist were a long, slow process, as people re-examined deeply held, cherished beliefs, sometimes for years.

    For what it’s worth, I quit believing in God long before I knew I quit believing in God. Because of the reinforcement from our society, a person isn’t just going to go out and not believe in God anymore. It involves getting rid of a piece of yourself, an identify you’ve seen as yourself for a long time. It also involves reevaluating relationships with family and friends, because you know that’s going to change. Life will never be the same again, and it will never be easy again.

    Keep up the good work, JT

    • RhubarbTheBear

      Good point about the instantaneous nature of Christian conversion versus the long process of atheist deconversion. That was, in a nutshell, my experience.

    • Ray

      Good points comparing emotional vs rational conversion. My current MO when dealing one-on-one is to ask why the other person believes what they do and to try to gently plant the seed of doubt. If later given the opportunity I can encourage that doubt to grow. The way to reality is via critical thinking and you have to do the work yourself and that takes time.

    • Ringo

      Some days I wish I could be an atheist sheep. I’ll read about some fantastical claim and I want to just “see what FTB thinks about it” instead of putting in the work and thinking about it for myself, but that seems like the opposite of skepticism.

  • RhubarbTheBear

    Deconversion seen as an evolutionary process? Change over time? How fitting. It took me more than three decades, and those three decades were spent not trying to deconvert, but to hang onto my faith. I may never entirely get over the feeling that, somehow, I “failed”, and I may never have a good comeback to the faithful should they accuse me of such failure. However, I do realize that this particular “failure” doesn’t matter.

  • Gordon

    I (partially) credit reading The God Delusion with my deconversion, but I did not give up on christianity till about 6 months later.

  • Healthy Humanist

    BAMCIS! Right back to tearing things up! Nice work JT.

  • Rory

    To be fair, JT, I’m an atheist, and I would definitely like to have lots of pre-marital sex and be my own god. But I don’t think the one explains the other two.

    • Healthy Humanist

      I second this.

  • IslandBrewer

    I think that’s exactly how it works, JT.

    Facts get stuck in someone’s head and rattle around until the irrational beliefs start to wear and fall apart.

    You AREN’T getting to the underlying emotions and beliefs that make these people christian, and you aren’t trying to. You can’t. You aren’t making an emotional argument, you’re making a factual one.

    A christian’s beliefs aren’t come by in a rational way, so you can’t really expect a rational argument to simply come up and overturn their beliefs in one fell swoop. All you can do is present facts, and let those facts fight with the underlying emotional rationale in the believer’s brain for a while.

  • J.B.

    Empathy is a good position for those in a position to be empathetic. It’s always good to examine one’s rhetorical devices, but it’s also pretty conceited to tell a professional how to do their job.
    Good stuff J.T.

  •!/Erulora Erulóra Maikalambe

    I did the faith waffle for a good decade. It started when I began to think for myself. It ended when I really started to consider the no-nonsense, in-your-face arguments I’d been exposed to. Especially where those arguments exposed that a lot of what I’d been brought up on (anti-evolution propaganda) were complete lies. Still dealing with anger issues over that.

  • Dennis

    Very nice JT. My parents are baptist ministers and have been a part of church and the christian community for as long as I remember. I too, led vacation bible school, went to church camp and sang in church when I was a kid.. but really never bought into the whole thing or cried out of joy when people got saved/baptized.. praise this, amen that.. it just all seemed so damn silly.. but how could all those people be wrong? So I kept going to not let my family down(and cause I was a kid and had to). Over the last 10-15 years.. the real changes started happening in my life.. I got away from just the christian side of the story.. traveled around.. socialized with different kinds of people that I had never got to meet before.. experienced real life situations both good and bad. My eyes started opening so that I could see to crawl out from within that box in which I had been trapped. As you stated in similar words above, when something triggers you to ask the right questions.. the answers can either be ignored or followed up with more questions.. either way.. the cycle has begun. But, religion is like a drug.. once your hooked in, its hard to see outward from its grasps. whether it be human nature, the need for emotional support, something to cover up the reality even if said cover is false in itself.. or because you are afraid of alienating and hurting those loved ones around you who are a bit more fragile in their beliefs.. parents that feel they have failed because you dont believe in the all mighty good word of the lord that you were raised by and therefore saying that they failed and raised you wrong. Through the years.. all of my questions about religion, how some believe its true, why others don’t, why people need it and why all the contradictions. You never get a straight factual answer from a christian, its always about feelings, faith, the word of the holy ghost from within.. SAY WHAT? Jumping past all the transitions, though they span over my life as a whole.. the main parts happened pretty fast.

    Today, my family is pretty aware of my stance, whether they accept it completely or not. For one of my birthdays, my mom got me a “special” bible.. it had my name printed on the outside and cost more than “normal” bibles. She had already bought it, but the day before my birthday I had announced to my mom in straight forward words, no beating around the bush, that I dont believe in god and that its just a fake shoulder for society to lean on when they cant handle the realities of life and want to control others lives, though they barely have any control of their own. She was hurt.. but we have retained the same mutual respect(if not more), and mother/son love that we had always had. Secretly, I believe my mom really has a hard time believing it too.. she is quite a bit smarter than her husband as I dont ever foresee any hope there in his deconverting. But to this day, and from each day on.. i will never tell my mom she needs to change her opinion or that she is wrong. I believe that the relationship her and I have will allow her to attentively see my life, how I live and how I treat people, to question and form her own opinion of what its all really about. The seed of truth was planted when her son stepped out away from everything he had been taught over the years, retained moral and ethical value.. and shed all the chains, all the misery and emotional mutilation required to be a religious believer.

    The power of standing up and speaking what you believe, or dont believe in is phenomenal. People do not question things if everyone around them already “knows” the answer. All it takes, is one voice, one experience, one life amazing or not, to start a chain reaction that all the lies in the world cannot stop. NO, 99.99~% of the time you will not see immediate results, but who likes a flip flopper, or as iknklast put it, “Do we want to take Christian sheep and turn them into atheist sheep?” Me neither.

    Good Job JT and Christina, and all the wonderful people of this group that take your time and devote it to others, even when they dont know how much its impacting them yet. I wish we had a SSA when you and I were in school, I had to break my way away from religion from within the confines of a religious community and family. You and everyone in your family whom I know are wonderful people, and it sure isnt cause of some bearded dude with his thumb down on you telling you that you have to be.. the choice of decency runs deep in your blood.

  • Jeremy Shaffer

    And plus, we’ve all heard Christians’ “I used to be atheist!” stories. They love those. If I tell someone they were indoctrinated since birth and turn out to be wrong, I look like a jackass. I also have to sit through an “I used to be atheist” story, which I hate doing.

    I find the “I used to be an atheist” stories as funny as they are useless. My usual response when someone starts in on one is to quickly point out that I used to be a theist and ask if that makes them any closer to questioning their current belief. From there I ask to move on to more productive avenues of conversation.

  • HumanisticJones

    The whole “arguments never work thing” or the “being blunt just chases people away” crap… I don’t get it. I would be one of those people with my hands raised through the whole question line. I was born into a Catholic household and deeply indoctrinated into Catholicism. Arguments worked, if slowly, when I encountered them.

    I can definitely say that my movement away from being a full on Catholic started around high school, but I had cafeteria Catholic, nominal Catholic, liberal Christian, cultural Christian, new-age Christian/Spiritualism woo mix, Spiritualism, Supernatural pantheism, and deism to trudge my way through before I finally hit atheism in 2006 (Yes, Dawkins won a convert after God Delusion chapter 4 tore open the last of my deistic arguments like children tear open christmas presents).

    I probably wouldn’t have been stuck dragging my way through as much woo as I did on my way out if I had some strong skeptic or secular influences in my life. Yeah, looking back I feel like I needed MORE gnu atheists telling me my beliefs were crap and why, pointing me at books to read and debates to watch.

    tl;dr – JT keep arguing and debating! I know there are tons more like me out there that need it.

  • Sastra

    Atheists who insist that “arguments never work” always sound like theists to me — because they’re working from the same premise. Religious belief is always about your identity. You’re either a believer or you aren’t. You’re either the type God/religion appeals to or you’re not. It’s all faith.

  • James

    Religious People think Just because atheist can’t disprove God Their is a possibility their religious belief may be true?

  • H.H.

    You know who really couldn’t change any minds? One Million Moms. They announced today that they were dropping their boycott of JCPenny over their hiring of Ellen DeGeneres as a spokesperson.

  • Ashton

    I’m not sure that the paper in that first picture is saying that the person is the leader of Cru. I read it to say that they heard about the event from the leader of Cru. Unless you know something about who wrote it that we don’t.