One often hears the dubious claim that rational arguments cannot persuade any one to abandon their religious beliefs or their religious faith traditions. I find when people perpetuate this idea they are usually trying to stop a debate that they find uncomfortable. Sometimes people dismiss the possibility of rational persuasion in matters of belief because they are personally inherently uncomfortable with confrontation and conflict and/or easily frustrated with disagreements that last for more than a round or two of debate. Others seem to want to use all the real psychological evidence about how our minds resist changing as their natural tendency as, implicitly, an excuse to hold on to their own prejudices and not reexamine them.
Others buy into the moderate feeling false humility that says that matters of religious belief are hopelessly subjective and impervious to rational progress. They essentially become relativists about anything about which people have had religious beliefs. Religious beliefs themselves have indeed always been based on subjective, irrational sources of belief—the unsupported claims of alleged prophets, ancient texts, communal opinion, etc.—and have always been inculcated through combinations of non-rational and irrational means, e.g., rituals, family identities, wildly arbitrary and subjective interpretations of emotional experiences, etc.
So debates between religions have always been, and always will be, futile precisely to the extent that they are about matters which have no rational support. Insofar as religious believers posit beliefs that are in principle unjustifiable and subjective, and which were formed not rationally but through non-rational and irrational processes that bound them emotionally and practically to those unsupported beliefs, all they can do in “inter-faith dialogue” is assert one prejudice against another.
Now, people wrongly generalize that just because beliefs between religions boil down to irresolvable assertions of prejudices against each other, that all reasoning about the subjects religion treats and which are not amenable to strict scientific resolution must similarly be matters of bald subjective opinion. They assume there can be no better or worse considerations from metaphysics, epistemology, history, morality, social or natural science that can give a fair-minded person reason to believe one way or another about religion.
But atheists explicitly refuse ourselves the right to faith-based beliefs that reflect merely our own prejudices and insist we have our reasons assessed for their rational merit and not be dumped in the bin of “subjective religious opinions” as though we, like the religious, were accepting arbitrary, unsupportable beliefs as a fact of life with which we were comfortable. We do not accept articles of faith or fantastic and clearly implausible stories as justifications for belief, etc.
We claim rational reasons for our views and so they should either be rationally refuted or accepted. Waving us away as inherently subjective just because our subject matter is religion or theism and religious people or theists routinely argue in unrepentantly subjectivistic ways is to unfairly dismiss us because of the behavior of our intellectual enemies which we explicitly repudiate.
In my own case, I was attending one of the most conservative evangelical biblical-literalist Christian colleges in the country. I spent my high school years alienating my classmates with my incessant evangelism and opposition to sex ed and abortion. In high school I ran an evangelistic monthly Christian publication out of my church which I distributed to all my friends in school. I spent all my Sundays and Wednesdays in church growing up, all my summers from 11-21 attending and then working as a counselor at Christian indoctrination and conversion camps. I took numerous theology and philosophical theology courses in preparation, I thought, to be a church history scholar. I gladly and believingly adhered sacrificially rigorously to evangelical rules of ethical conduct.
Nearly all my emotional, social, moral, intellectual, and other psychological prejudices were clearly and unequivocally on the side of Christianity and yet I came out an atheist to my surprise and that of many others who knew me.
So I think it is simply false to say that we cannot reason against our presuppositions or our upbringings or our desires or other psychological and social determinants which strongly incline us to keep believing what we presently do out of inertia.
We can change our minds out of considerations of reasons. We can find common ground with those with whom we disagree and reassess some of our most presently foundational beliefs to see whether they really make for a good foundation. Numerous atheists are living proof that this is possible, including very famous and adamantly skeptical ones. It is possible to embrace reason and skepticism, abandon faith, and change one’s mind.
And so I think it is not only a cop out to say these issues are rationally irresolvable but an unnecessary and immoral leniency towards believers that encourages them to persist in their choice to continue to adhere to unsupportable, prejudicial thinking as though it is the only possibility any human being ever has and as though atheists, especially the de-converted ones, are simply no more objectively correct in their views or objective in their methods of belief formation.
This is a longer preamble to a simple question than I intended, but here’s what I raise all of this to ask. You readers who did de-convert for rational reasons, can you explain what arguments registered with you and why, what rules of reason and belief formation became important to you and why, and what you think we can learn from your experience if we are to develop more targeted methods of dissuading religious believers of false and irrationally adopted beliefs?
In short, what gets through rationally and why?