This post might well misrepresent what Atheism is about. Allow me to disclaim:
Atheism has no ‘agenda’. There is no ‘secular liberal conspiracy’. The ACLU is not a group of Jews/Freemasons/Gypsies/Other Wacko Nutjob Conspiracy. Atheists don’t go around trying to deconvert people because quite simply that isn’t what it’s about.
However, that being said, Atheists are often found in the limelight when talking to people who profess faith, since the latter usually confront the former. I’ve been found on multiple occasions in a position where I was forced to explain my beliefs (or lack of them, really). There is a way to do this ethically and politely, and there is a way to simultaneously plant a tiny little grain of critical thinking in the people you talk to – if and only if you do it carefully.
Arrogance is your worst enemy. I readily confess I’m incredibly arrogant and proud, and I enjoy putdowns – the more spectacularly humiliating, the better. But this isn’t going to win any hearts and minds. It will only preach to a fringe of the choir. And yes, every time I do this, I come off as an incredible ass.
Without trying to come off as an expert in the subject of logic or debating, I’m presenting a prime, real world example of a failed conversation about faith:
B: Oo, you walked under a ladder! That’s pretty unlucky.
Me: It’s OK, I don’t really care for superstition.
B: Aren’t you even going to knock on wood?
Me: Ok, ok. (knocks on head three times)
B: (laughs) You’re not very religious, are you?
Me: Nah, as I said, I don’t really care for superstition.
B: (confrontational) What?
Me: (changes subject)
In a full blown argument about faith and religion with a Catholic person, no less, I dropped the insidious Stephen L. Roberts bomb:
S: So you’re faithless?
Me: You could say that. I need evidence to believe in anything.
S: But surely you must have considered faith, seeing how it works for the vast majority of the people on Earth?
Me: I would be lying if I told you I’ve never considered it. But I reasoned against it.
S: Why, though?
Me: For the same reason you don’t believe in Thor or Zeus.
S: (taken aback, thinks)
Me: Stephen Roberts said “I contend that we are all atheists. I just believe in one fewer God than you do. Once you understand why you’ve dismissed all other gods, you’ll understand why I’ve dismissed yours”.
I suppose the crucial difference between either situation is that in the first, I made her confrontational by, in her eyes, directly assaulting her heritage and beliefs. In a way, I did, by dismissing what helped build her own character and her ancestry as ‘superstition’.
But in the second situation, I managed to get a very intelligent woman to think twice about the reasons she honestly believed in God. I didn’t assault her heritage, attack her personally or mock her dogma. I planted a tiny little seed of scepticism – given that I care somewhat for this person, I hope it flourishes, but that’s up to her own critical faculties to nurture.
With every spirit of collaboration with the comments, I propose simple rules of thumb on how to plant seeds of scepticism, ethically:
- You are not going to deconvert anyone with one conversation
- The more faithful a person, the less open they are to changing their stance on their faith (especially in one conversation)
- Bear in mind what you hate about evangelising religious groups
- Arrogance is out
- Approach the problem constructively: instead of demolishing their heritage and beliefs (save that for the safety of the blogosphere), propose alternative ways of viewing the world
- Sense confrontation? Back off
I reiterate what I said at the beginning. Atheism is not about deconverting people or evangelising faithlessness or science. The moment it becomes that will be a dark day indeed.
However, the surge of ‘New Atheism’ is not about deconverting people or promoting an agenda. It’s about finally getting around to responding to the monopoly of religion. It’s a reaction, not an action. It might seem a little strange, confrontational even. The contrast of Atheism’s comparative radio silence with the sudden release of pressure of ‘New Atheism’ will do this.
If you ever are in a position where you’re obliged to react, do so ethically.