Through Words Or Through Deeds?

Through Words Or Through Deeds? August 30, 2009

Hemant Mehtamakes the case that even more than strong debating points, atheists really need to draw people as “salt and light” if you will:

Yes, there are arguments against any god’s existence and arguments against the truth of any religious text. We shouldn’t stop making them. But I don’t think these arguments, as logical as they are, appeal to the masses.

What will convince more people to lose their faith? Hearing a philosophical debate featuring an articulate atheist or witnessing functional, happy atheists going about their lives with no regard for a god or religion? The debate loses every time.

I doubt that any Christians will look at a happy atheist and think, “wow! what does he have that I don’t?” and want to become an atheist. Though, I am a little embarrassed to say that in my Evangelical days I did get some non-believers who gave me such “what do you have that I don’t remarks” so I know that such strange sentiments are possible to generate in people.

But I doubt that people genuinely struggling with religious belief will find the happiness of atheists an argument for much of anything. There are too many deep psychological associations with religion that people need to overcome and that’s a very personal and idiosyncratic process. I doubt that looking at happy atheists makes a whit of difference. Their real questions are about how to orient their identity without its religious component.

And that’s why I think that the whole “out-campaign” with its emphasis on atheists as a group with an identity is crucial. I know how squeamish atheists are about the whole group thing and worried about group-think. But I think they shouldn’t be. Humans need groups in a deep, deep way. And religion has too long exploited this need to get people to swallow lots of nonsense they never would otherwise. If atheists don’t meet this need for ethical community and group identity then we will always be under-serving the general populace and sending them back into the arms of superstition peddlers.

And I think that a little bit of coherent philosophy from atheists helps give people a sense that they are not just leaving a community engaged in thinking about who they are (in their religion) but that they are actually joining another group in a comparable practice of working out who they are.  People want that.  Atheists need not and, of course, most emphatically should not become philosophically monolithic.  But banding together under the banner of rationalism, rational morality, commitment to rigorous standards of knowledge, and freedom of both thought and action is the real attraction.

I think it’s more likely that anyone who will be bowled over by the happiness and superlative morality of atheists will do so only when they have first come to associate atheism in general with a philosophy and practice known for certain positive virtues.  Only then they can contextualize and relate an atheist’s happiness to their more general philosophy of life and thought and group-affiliation.

So, I think for the time being, the work is still what those of us activist about atheism here on-line are engaged in, and that’s establishing and meme-ing a whole set of signature commitments—to reason, to rational morality, to worldwide freedom, to honesty embrace of truth no matter what it is, and to an affirmation of the world and life as they are—to which alone atheists insist on being fundamentally allied and around which alone we intend to be unified.  If we can ever get the word atheism associated first and foremost with such ideals, then and only then do I think that people will start to see individual atheists as instances of a nobler ideal.

So, I think more atheists need to come out of the closet, be upfront about their ideas, and become associated with a more appealing way of thinking than religion offers.  And in that context, be role models of reason, morality, and affirmative living.

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