What Impact Do We Have?

What Impact Do We Have? January 25, 2021

I have recently been conversing with Dan Barker by email, as he is a wonderful guy and has kindly endorsed my forthcoming book on the Resurrection. Amongst a number other things, we talked about impact.

I have brought this up before: Why do I do what I do? The blogging, the writing, the public talks… There are several elements to this:

1) Improving and refining my own worldview and arguments.

2) Because I enjoy it.

3a) To convince others of a more accurate understanding of reality.

3b) To act as a repository of information for others to draw upon to do 3a).

The problem I have with 1) these days is that I generally have too many comments here, now, at the blog that I can’t read and respond to them all. I try and skim read most, but that can be too much. So it’s less of a feedback loop as it used to be. I do try to post people’s opinions with which I disagree as an element of this, as we have seen recently.

I am interested in this third ideal – to convince others. I know that places like this are primarily echo chambers – most of you visit and read here because you agree with me. And that’s definitely cool. I do that elsewhere. It gives ammunition, or it’s just enjoyable to read people with ostensibly the same opinions as yourself.

I allow people who disagree with me to voice their opinion here. It’s all part of it. But these people are almost unanimously so entrenched in their position that my writing, or the arguments of the other commenters here, will only really manifest in the backfire effect – entrenching them more strongly in their original antithetical position.

There will be many others who are lurkers. People who agree with my position but are not bothered, confident enough, too busy, don’t feel it necessary or worthwhile, or whatever, to comment. They are a massively important part of the readership here and are almost certainly the largest demographic.

A subset of these people are those teetering on the edge of belief (in theism or any other topic I write about – politics, philosophy etc.). These are the people who are most likely to be receptive to what I write in a way that it affects their navigational direction going forward.

These are the people whose minds can be changed.

It is almost certainly the case that no entrenched fundamentalist will read a piece and change their minds on account of its no doubt awesome persuasiveness! But a seed might be sown. Either these people go on with various seeds germinating and sprouting into larger doubts, perhaps somewhere else, or perhaps continuing to be swayed here, or both. Or those people have had seeds planted elsewhere and come here for more content that ends up shifting them in the direction intended by me.

Pearce’s Law

I have absolutely no idea as to how often this happens or whether my mountains of work are worth the effort in this regard. I asked on social media the other day as to the name of an eponymous law I have at some point forgotten the name of. It concerns the amount of time you put into preparing something and whether it is worth what you get out. This can be, say, getting your windsurfer out, going to the beach, preparing it for an hour, and then washing it and packing it after, but using it for maybe half an hour. Or preparing a meal for an hour and eating it in 2 mins. Did the enjoyment merit the time and effort put into the activity?

There are many similar laws (diminishing returns, expectancy theory, Pareto’s Law, etc.), but I can’t find what I am now calling Pearce’s Law. As my friend rather accurately defined and exemplified:

Pearce’s Law: the law that the more effort you have to put into something, the shorter the enjoyment you’ll get from it. Named for the internet philosopher Jonathan MS Pearce, the reading of whose blog posts are classic examples of the law…

I’m sure you’ll let me know of the actual one!

Dan Barker’s Anecdotes

I simply don’t know whether my writing has had any effect. I guess it has to a very small degree. Dan Barker, on the other hand, after having done 137 formal public moderated debates (since 1985), has…:

…many more stories of “changed lives.” (Ha! That sounds like a preacher.) I often hear from people who have seen them online, which is a kind of “afterlife,” I guess.

He has been around the block and is still producing output of considerable clout and quality, holding such a valuable role of Co-President at the Freedom From Religion Foundation. He told me the following couple of examples:

I debated Mike Licona on the resurrection in 2003 at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. (See https://www.risenjesus.com/dan-barker-vs-mike-licona-2003-jesus-rise-dead) It was his very first debate. One of the nice effects of that debate is that there was a young college student in the audience, Patrick Elliott, who was a believing Catholic. He said that debate got him thinking about his faith. He took some philosophy and religion classes and eventually abandoned Christianity and became an atheist. He went to law school, got his law degree in 2009, and in 2010 we hired Patrick as our 2nd attorney at FFRF, his first job after law school. (We now have 10 full-time attorneys). Patrick said that debate is what turned the corner in his thinking. He has been a wonderful, solid, smart attorney for us in so many ways.

The Southern Evangelical Seminary invited me to debate Richard Howe at their apologetics conference in 2017 in North Carolina. The HUGE audience in that lofty church was 99.5% Christian (plus a few freethinkers who dared to show up). I must have made an impression, because they subsequently published an entire book dedicated to answering my arguments. The book is called Answering the Music Man: Dan Barker’s Arguments Against Christianity. It contains contributions from their scholars and apologists telling the world how wrong I am. (I am called the “Music Man” not just because I write atheist songs, but because I am like Harold Hill in the musical The Music Man, who was a con man selling something he knew nothing about).

After that 2017 debate was over, Howe and I went back to the foyer to our respective book tables, where we were both mobbed by attendees, most wanting to argue with me. One young high-school student came up to me and spoke in a low voice — “I agree with everything you said. Can I take a picture with you?” I said “Sure!” So he gave his phone to a friend to take a picture and came around to my side of the table, but before the picture was taken, a woman (presumably his mother) grabbed him and said, “No you don’t!” and pulled him away and dragged him out the door to the parking lot.

I hope I hear from that kid someday. He must be college age by now.

I co-edited a book on deconversion accounts called Beyond an Absence of Faith [UK] that contains some fascinating deconversion stories, the writers of which have, at some point, gone through this journey.

Please share below your experiences of being convinced by or convincing others (of any topic). What do you think were the defining elements? I promise I will try to read them!

I was talking to someone else today that rational arguments rarely play the key roles – emotional arguments appear to be more forceful. The problem of evil or other ones that can carry a weighty emotive quality; or personal experiences. I know someone whose very strong faith was rocked by getting divorced and then having to grapple with problematic interpretations of Jesus on divorce. Things started unravelling from there.

Anyhow, over to you.

And here’s to hoping my efforts aren’t just pissing in the wind.


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