[Today’s guest post is by Kile Jones, founder and editor of the Claremont Journal of Religion.]
It’s understandable to get frustrated over people unwilling to challenge their own assumptions and beliefs. That family member whose certainty is as blind as it is foolish. The fundamentalist you keep debating on Facebook that cannot fathom the idea he might ever be mistaken. But what really gets me are ex-believers who are pessimistic of the possibility that rigidly-religious persons may change their minds.
The irony here is not subtle. You changed but others probably won’t. As a former conservative Christian youth pastor, I am familiar with the strength in which many believers hold their views. These dogmatists epitomize Eric Hoffer’s “true believer.”
But here’s the thing: There are innumerable “former fundies.” You, as an ex-believer, are the evidence you need to challenge your own pessimism.
I suppose there are many reasons to become frustrated over the stalemates we ex-believers get involved in. First, it does seem rather rare for someone to leave their restrictive and insular beliefs and groups. If it was as common as some of us hope, the numbers of adherents would be radically less than the already low number of people remaining affiliated with these groups. Second, I suppose it’s some kind of hubris on our part. We were smart enough, courageous enough, and had the intestinal fortitude these people lack. The conundrum that occurs when we think this, is that we know all-too-well what it was like being in their shoes. This has a humbling effect that can counteract the pride with which we gaze over the religious masses.
Now I’m certainly not advocating an unrealistic and naive stance on the ability of true believers to cast off their shackles. Nor am I proposing a progressive optimism that you may find in Steven Pinker or Nigel Barber. I’m an atheist who’s convinced there will always be religious persons and true believers. But this does not squelch my hope for people to change.
There’s another important point I try to keep fresh in my mind: People don’t have to end up like me or change in the way I did for me to be encouraged. I always get asked why I didn’t just change my theology and liberalize. Why didn’t I just become a Unitarian Universalist or United Methodist? Being asked this reminds me that many people traverse those landscapes. They become liberal Christians, or find a practice and tradition that many of us consider a more positive force in the world.
This is where I am critical of projects like Peter Boghossian’s. I don’t want to “create atheists,” as if somehow that will make the world better. Of course, I am not opposed to someone following the route I took, and I also can’t help having my own ideas about what I consider “better” ways of being in this world, but to assume people should follow some uniform path is beyond pretentious. This is also evident in the way “free-thinker” has been used. It has been used to describe people who all end up thinking relatively similarly about life. And I’m not exactly sure how free it is if everyone ends up thinking the same.
So as ex-believers, it seems fitting that we not only recognize how difficult it can be for people to change their views and social groups, but also not to end up cynically viewing believers as unchangeable. They can change just as we have. And if they don’t follow the same path as us, that’s alright. We want better people, not just more atheists.
Kile Jones is an atheist involved in inter-faith dialogue who works towards building bridges between non-believers and religious persons. He is one of the founders of Skeptimergent–a group of atheists and progressives working on fostering relationships between skeptics and liberal religious persons. He is the founder of “Interview an Atheist at Church Day” and Claremont Journal of Religion. His twitter is @KileBJones