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.



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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.