I have come to realize that I am annoying people. That in itself does not bother me. I have always been an odd duck, and not someone that many people found appealing. My best friends are similarly unique individuals who are also considered difficult to get along with by their contemporaries. But what I have recently realized is that my enthusiasm for challenging belief and promoting atheism has a very negative effect. It perpetuates a perception of atheists as angry, confrontational, literal-minded emotionless asses.


This is a serious problem for atheism as a movement. The most vocal of the minority are the recent deconverts, those who only recently abandoned faith in superstitions and gods for a rational perspective. And recent deconverts are actually very much overjoyed to be free of celestial dictatorships and guilt-driven mind games. It is this joy, this sense of freedom, that motivates atheists to tell others, so they too can share this experience. It does not typically come from a selfish narcissistic place in the atheist's mind, but rather a real concern for society and a desire to lead others to freedom.

But it is indeed the very nature of irrational belief, that is, religion, that makes confrontation and debate so inherently tricky. You can be good friends with someone and often hold conversations covering a wide range of unimportant subjects. You can even challenge their political views without damaging the relationship. But the moment you challenge their religious beliefs, you have crossed a line as you are challenging something they perceive is the core of their being. To a believer, having their religion challenged is offensive. It calls into question their sanity, their ability to use logic, and the meaning they have given themselves (thinking religion has provided this meaning) for their existence.

I think it comes down to a choice to not be an aggressor. Answer questions when asked. Debate someone that asks to be debated. But don't be the aggressor. It might seem that taking a passive road to changing society will slow progress. But I posit that this aggressive method of attacking and challenging people without their consent is by no means improving the situation and may actually be slowing progress.

People are waking up. Society is changing. Atheism is on the rise as rational critical thinking is becoming popular. So atheists need not be so concerned to challenge every religious statement other people make. Focus on the big fights. Church and State separation is the most important battle for atheism. Individual people's beliefs play into this fight, but it is more logical to attack the threat than the passive people that happen to be religious.

We should challenge people that are crazy enough to believe in young Earth Creationism or Intelligent Design. But it is more productive to challenge legislators and school boards that mean to introduce this crap in our schools than it is to challenge passive individuals who just happen to be ignorant of science.

It is indeed hard to not speak up when one of our friends says something remarkably ridiculous. But the conversation needs to be mutually agreeable. That is, it is impolite to just attack a belief without first asking the individual for clarification and getting their permission to discuss the matter. One should explain why the desire exists to discuss the subject of religion. If it is a genuine concern for the person's mental health and happiness, tell them. Assuming that they will perceive your advice as a benefit to them is a dire mistake. They must be willing to take advice, and challenge their own beliefs for any conversation on religion to be productive.

Many atheists were indoctrinated into Christianity. They were taught at a young age to spread the religion by challenging people and talking about it ad nauseam. Once they became atheists, this need to preach has not been totally eliminated. It is programming left over from the god virus that motivates many atheists to preach atheism. I now realize how much I hate hearing Christians preach their nonsense. But only recently did I realize that I am doing the same thing - preaching - and it annoys people to a high degree. I wish to eliminate the god virus from all aspects of my personality. Abandoning this need to preach is an essential endeavor, and marks a completion of my deconversion.

Narcissism is a tricky state to avoid as an atheist. We are indeed the more rational and healthier position. We are right. And it certainly feels great to be right. And unlike religion, we do not just believe we are right, but can logically show how our disbelief is justified. That is, we have a justified true belief that we are right. This, by definition, means we know we are right. So the real trick is not letting this knowledge go to your head. Atheists are right, but bothering everybody with our disbelief by challenging their core beliefs without warning does not help the movement at all, and only serves to perpetuate a perception that atheists are full of themselves.

So for these reasons, and because I value friendship more than I like hearing myself talk, I am henceforth refraining from interjecting my view in every conversation where religion pops up. I will cease to discuss my atheism with anyone that does not first ask me about my beliefs. And I intend to apologize to anyone I have offended by attacking their beliefs.  I will be an activist where it matters, on school boards and in my voting. And I will gladly debate anyone who wants to debate the subject. I will ask permission and make clear my intention and position if I feel I must challenge another individual's beliefs. But I will ease myself into the conversation rather than ramming my atheism into them like a freight train.

Atheism leads to a fulfilling and peaceful outlook through humanism. If the perception of atheism was some form of humanism, or at a minimum non-threatening, the movement would persist at a quickened pace, and the minority would become the majority much sooner. Most people desire a fulfilling and peaceful existence and religious people are starting to realize that their religion might promise such things, but never quite delivers. If this aspect of atheist humanism shines through, it will attract far more people as the populous realizes you don't have to be a confrontational prick to be an atheist.

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Comment by Napoleon Bonaparte on March 24, 2014 at 2:53pm

Who called you a confrontational prick ?

Where I live religionists aren't numerous and if I come across one who raises the subject of religion I will confront them and deal with them thoroughly. I lost a long time friendship this way but I can't stand infectious bullshit.

Religionists are either fraudsters or idiots. They should be kept in their place.

Comment by Luara on March 24, 2014 at 1:30pm

Peter Boghossian has a lot of sample conversations in his book. 

One very short example:  a security guard there was going to go off as a Mormon missionary.

SG:  But if there's no God, where did the universe come from?

PB:  Maybe the universe has always been here.

SG was stumped and freaked out.  Don't remember if SG went off as a Mormon missionary, after all. 

Comment by B Fletcher on March 24, 2014 at 12:50pm

Interesting discussion all-round.

I'd love to see an example of a socratic dissection of someone's religious worldview.  I think you'd have to be a pretty good interviewer to make that work, since any surviving religion is going to have a lot of in-built defense mechanisms.  Also, anyone would just nod along with the idea that the unexamined life is not worth living, but apparently "do you accept Jesus as your lord and saviour?" counts as sufficient self-examination for a depressingly large number of people.

I don't remember the last time I had a discussion about religion with a theist.  Especially since becoming a parent, I find my conversations tending to be short and functional.  I've definitely been thinking about this stuff more in the last year or so, and if religion were to come up in conversation now I expect I'm less likely to just quietly smile at theistic BS.  I'll certainly try to keep it polite and restrained, though, because Gregory's point is worth noting.  Just because some theists are boorish is no excuse for everyone else to follow along.

Comment by Luara on March 24, 2014 at 3:52am

How someone chooses to deal with others' areas of silence is a personal matter.

Someone's beliefs about the ultimate nature of the universe are no minor matter though, and if a religious person has beliefs that they are shielding from critical examination with their silence, it will limit one's relationship with them. 

And if they are a friend, not challenging their self-deception is a way of letting them down as a friend.  Religious people are people too, and may be helped with their self-deception. 

Comment by Gregory Phillip Dearth on March 24, 2014 at 12:36am

And that is the problem, Laura. Religion is a private matter to most people. That is why I recommend that we broach the subject delicately, getting permission to talk about it, or let them bring it up. Of course if we are attacked, let em have it.

Comment by Luara on March 23, 2014 at 6:49am

I might initiate a conversation with a theist, but only in a Socratic kind of way.  Their beliefs aren't off-limits.  Religious people shield their beliefs by trying to make them off-limits, by claiming it's too sensitive an area, too private to talk about. 

Comment by Gregory Phillip Dearth on March 23, 2014 at 6:37am

Laura, you are precisely right. The Socratic method is the best way to have a conversation with a theist, especially gnostic theists (who think they know the truth of their belief). It prevents one from simply rattling off paragraphs of information that will likely go right over the theist's head and makes them examine themselves critically.

Comment by Gregory Phillip Dearth on March 23, 2014 at 6:33am

Never start a fight. Always finish it. Precisely my point.

Good ideas all around. I agree completely. Specifically,

"Frankly, I have no interest in proselytizing atheism.  I let the believers do that, but I WON'T be silent when someone wants to make unsubstantiated claims that have the potential to impact me.  I've done my homework, and am ready.  The rest is up to them."

The key to why this is quite reasonable is the distinction made when those claims have the potential to impact you. In your other example, concerning JWs, obviously they initiated the conversation. And indeed, if someone is so poorly prepared that they resort to ad hominem attacks, the argument is obviously well under way and all bets are off.

So yes, I agree with you completely. It is based on how much impact a person's position has on your life. You don't attack someone that is not a threat. But if someone poses a threat or starts the fight, we should all be ready to tear them a new one.

Comment by Luara on March 23, 2014 at 6:27am

Peter Boghossian wrote a book A Manual for Creating Atheists that promotes the Socratic method in engaging religious believers.

This means asking them questions that get them to examine the reasons why they hold a belief. 

It doesn't involve arguing with them.  As Boghossian points out, arguing doesn't work.  And it's tiresome. 

But presenting facts that challenge the person's belief is part of the Socratic method.

I like it because it's confrontational but not in an aggressive way.  One can engage with people's religion, one doesn't have to relegate such an important area to silence.  But in a nonaggressive way. 

I've tried it online, and a bit in person.  Online, it has mostly made religious believers shut up after awhile. 

In person, I did this with a woman who was sitting next to me on a long busride.  She told me a lot about her daughter who thought she had "multiple chemical sensitivity".  This is a scientifically unsupported concept, where people blame tiny traces of noxious chemicals like organic vapors for severe health problems. 

I had trouble talking because I was wearing a mask for allergies.  But I told her about the studies that have shown that people with "MCS" weren't able to discriminate between the chemicals they are supposedly sensitive to, and pure air, in blind challenges.  I asked her if MCS is a reaction to the chemical itself, how come people haven't been able to tell the difference when they don't know if they're getting the chemical or not?

Her daughter had moved to Los Angeles, a much drier place than New York State, and I suggested that perhaps she was better there because there were fewer molds (she had mold sensitivities). 

That sort of thing.  It didn't annoy her at all, she seemed to enjoy talking about it. 

Perhaps people would be more sensitive about religion.  But, people do enjoy being asked what they think.  It's not offensive, it's flattering. 

Also, the Socratic method keeps one open about one's own position.  I realized later that double-blind challenges aren't necessarily the "gold standard" for the reality of such reactions.  The reason is that there's a "training effect" where the mind learns to experience a reaction and generate symptoms by suggestion.  So people with "MCS" who are being "challenged" with a container of vapor that might or might not have a bad chemical in it, are likely to experience a reaction just by the suggestion that it MIGHT be one of their "culprit" chemicals. 

Also, people are likely to have anxiety in the blind challenge, because "making up" something is such a loaded concept.  Anxiety can cause people to experience symptoms. 

So now if I encountered such a person, I might suggest that they do blind challenges with themselves repeatedly, to find out if they really are sensitive to the chemical (in such small concentrations that they can't smell it).  Or perhaps enlist the help of a doctor.  If someone really can't tell over many trials if a container of vapor really has the chemical or not, THEN they have constructed a wrong theory to account for their reactions.

Comment by Loren Miller on March 23, 2014 at 6:04am

I've thrown this out numerous times here on A|N, but my attitude regarding discussions with believers is premised on two basic principles:

  1. Don't attempt to convert me or subvert the government.  You won't be able to do the first and you'll make a very determined enemy of me if you try the second.
  2. I have exactly ZERO respect for irrational belief (though I don't generally say that openly).  I'll respect YOU to the same degree that I am respected.  Indulge in ad hominem or other forms of personal attack and the kid gloves come OFF.

When a quartet of Jehovah's Witnesses came to my door in April of 2010, I volunteered that I was an atheist, about the same way I might have said that the Tribe was playing Tampa Bay at Progressive Field tonight.  I answered their questions and told them where I stood and (I think) was polite throughout.  In that case, there really was no fight, but then, I don't think the JWs were much prepared for an encounter with someone like me, either.  There have been two more such encounters since; the conversations have been lively, sometimes downright spirited, but so far, not at all contentious.

As it comes to the matter of discussing / debating atheism on a more, shall we say, energetic basis, I prefer the attitude advanced by one Captain John J. Sheridan, commander of Babylon 5 some 250 years from now:

Never start a fight.  Always finish it.

This is Cleveland, Ohio, and I don't run into such situations very often (truth be told, not at all!).  Virginia I would suspect would find a more active (and potentially hostile) environment.  And too, everyone has their own style, approach, comfort in thinking on their feet, et cetera.  There's also the matter of being willing to deal with a more ... hell, let's call a spade a spade ... violent confrontation.  Back in November of 2009, an A|N member related what happened when a religious discussion got more than a little beyond the bounds, and the aftermath thereof.  James handled himself brilliantly, probably far better than I would have and has set one hell of an example for just HOW to deal with such an extreme circumstance.

Frankly, I have no interest in proselytizing atheism.  I let the believers do that, but I WON'T be silent when someone wants to make unsubstantiated claims that have the potential to impact me.  I've done my homework, and am ready.  The rest is up to them.

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