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 Gregory Phillip Dearth on March 28, 2014 at 10:48pm

Penn, you probably have certain techniques and skills that makes your presentation digestible as a result of your training. Too many atheists let discussions become too heated, passing a certain point of any productivity. It comes down to tone. Also, my blog was about talking to friends, not preaching to just anybody. You likely use tact and ease yourself into your discussions. That is different from the 'preaching' that I grew up with in theism, whereby the preacher would yell assertions without evidence with an authoritative tone unjustified by the content. A calm, collected, and calculated approach likely leads to more productive discussions.

Comment by Michael Penn on March 28, 2014 at 7:12am

Trained once as a preacher, today I seem to be preaching atheism. It seems very normal to me and seems like common sense. Apparently I have opened up the minds of a few people even if they don't know exactly what this is about. They simply do not want to be believers. I'm showing them that there is nothing there to believe in the first place.

Comment by Luara on March 28, 2014 at 5:34am

Acting based on knowledge and truth is ALWAYS better than gambling. Acting based on fantasy or faith is a gamble as your actions might or might not be beneficial.

You make assumptions about how people's minds work that are often not true.  Our conscious reasoning is often not the best part of our decisions. 

People may use religious belief to elicit inspiration.  Our minds may be enabled by this to come up with things they otherwise wouldn't. 

The kind of fantasy that's involved in prayer usually doesn't involve concrete, immediate wrong factual information.  And an Islamic person trapped in a cave whose prayer involves motions may well make exceptions for emergencies.  Religious people aren't usually absolute idiots, mechanically carrying out instructions that will get them killed.  They usually fasten their seatbelts in cars, even though their religion promises them bliss if they die in an accident.  People's beliefs are a more subtle matter than just a belief.  They don't take it literally. 

It is best to believe as many true things as possible and not believe in unproven or completely made up things. This enables individuals to make the most logical decisions, which tend to be the best decisions regardless of the situation. I do not have to prove this

You don't have to prove it, and that's good because you can't prove it.  You can believe it if you like, but it's only your belief.

Humanity might almost exterminate itself with products of brilliant reasoning:  hydrogen bombs.  Probably better for nations in the end if they did pray for success in their warfare rather than building hydrogen bombs that could almost wipe out humanity.  Unfortunately, even though the vast majority of humanity believes in an all-powerful God that has their ultimate good in mind, people don't take this belief literally.  They arm themselves. 

I don't say that I know faith is better for people overall.  I don't know.  Neither do you, really.  You do seem to have that faith related to atheism that I wrote about earlier.  And I suggest you read the discussion in that link, there's a lot in it and I won't have to repeat myself so much. 

I could write a simple computer program, say a Tic Tac Toe playing program, that does better with wrong information about the opponent's moves.  A more complicated computer program, like a chess-playing program, might also do better with false beliefs.  Perhaps even a false belief about what's on its opponent's chessboard would make it a better chess-playing program.  That would depend on how it was programmed.  If it was capable of "believing in God", perhaps it would do better with that belief. 

And people are enormously much more complicated than even the best chess-playing program. 

If you totally idealize the programming process, yes it would do just as well or better with all the information it can get.  It can throw away information it doesn't need. 

But we don't live in an ideal world.  Computer programmers are non-ideal evolved beings; computer programs have limits to their memory and their processing speed, etc. 

I can see how, believing as you do, you would be impelled to preach atheism. Perhaps you have that belief as the result of a need to resist your religious family's belief that religion is better.  Religious people are usually absolutely convinced that religion is better, and one has to resist that attitude somehow. 

Nonbelievers are not necessarily convinced that nonbelief is better.  I see this as a virtue in nonbelief, because it incorporates a kind of humility before reality.  I'm a nonbeliever, not because I believe that's necessarily a better way to live life.  Rather, because I come from a nonreligious family, and I have analytical habits of mind that refuse unproven beliefs.  I don't like jumping to conclusions, in a quite general way. 

I don't have a conviction when I contemplate religious people, that they should be set straight for their own good.  I can see how their religion may help them,  

I do like the idea of challenging others' beliefs.  But that is more because I have been profoundly harmed by others' (nonreligious) illusions.  And because it's a way of engaging with religious people that does not involve a struggle over me accepting their religious virus, rather trying to get them to pass their virus through a kind of sieve of thought. 

Comment by Gregory Phillip Dearth on March 27, 2014 at 11:52pm

Acting based on knowledge and truth is ALWAYS better than gambling. Acting based on fantasy or faith is a gamble as your actions might or might not be beneficial. Acting based on knowledge and truth always results in the most logical action, which will likely increase one's odds at acting correctly for any situation. Fantasy and prayer are fake. They are the opposite of truth. As such, they are by definition inferior to truth. Thus truth is better than non-truth (a fact that requires no proof, as it is true by definition).

If a person survives a cave-in because their faith just so happened to include procedures that are equivalent to what a rational person does, it is LUCK, and not a justification for that belief.

Just as in my example, if the individual had Islam as their faith, their prayer technique would actually decrease their chances. The point is that there is no way to know for sure if an individual's superstitious faith will serve them well in making decisions or reacting in situations. That is, faith, fantasy, religion, whatever you want to call it, is not reliable compared to truth.

Regarding truth... Let me see if I can explain this better. It is best to believe as many true things as possible and not believe in unproven or completely made up things. This enables individuals to make the most logical decisions, which tend to be the best decisions regardless of the situation. I do not have to prove this, and this is not an assertion. It is simply a fact, an intrinsic nature of reality. The more in touch with reality one can be, the better their decisions and logic will be. If they behave according to fantasy or faith, they run an increased risk of making illogical choices. This is because faith is not a path to truth and is independent of reality. It is in the mind alone. This is why in the cave-in situation the person that understands the safety procedure of what to do is more likely to survive compared to someone whose faith may or may NOT include practices that help their odds.

The best path to truth is rational thought that is consistent with the logical absolutes and an understanding of natural phenomena. This is what drives science, which is, after all, the single best proven mechanism for discovering truths of complex interactions in nature.

The use of fantasy or faith is a crap-shoot: your odds depend on the physical actions taken depending on the specific fantasy or religion. This increases the possibility of errors, as it is not directly contingent on knowledge of the situation (and how to logically react). It is not necessarily true that a fantasy will always decrease your odds. But it is certainly not a good way to gamble in a situation.

Thus the position that truth is better is not one that requires proof or faith. It is superior by its innate nature of being based on knowledge and logic. The odds are better for anyone using knowledge as a foundation for their actions compared to someone who uses fantasy, except when that fantasy just so happens to result in equivalent natural results. The fantasy, even if it results in equivalent results, is inferior to knowledge and truth because it is not justified. It is entirely a gamble of whether one's fantasy or faith will provide a positive outcome. The least risk of error is in truth, which makes it better. The fact that it is better is contingent on the definition - it is a bit of a tautology. Truth is better than fiction. Actions based on truth have lower incidents of errors than actions based on fantasy as it implies a connection to reality that is superior and requires knowledge.

Interesting conversation, Laura, as always. Good deep philosophy...

Comment by Luara on March 27, 2014 at 8:58am

Are you saying that prayer can invoke some effect that natural means cannot replicate?

Prayer itself is "natural means".   People's magical beliefs can influence them very powerfully.

This power obviously does not imply that the imagined being is actually out there in some sense. 

The position that truth is better is not one that requires proof or faith.

So prove that :) You can't, it is not necessarily true.  Someone's false idea may easily be useful for them, or for others. 

You already gave an excellent example refuting your own idea: someone's false belief that a higher being is watching out for them in a cave-in might calm them in ways that trying to consciously calm themselves cannot - giving them more time to be rescued.

People may also use false beliefs to reach beyond their conscious reasoning, for wisdom that goes beyond common sense.

I have some of that faith that truth is better.  But only some.  Human beings are too complicated to say that truth is always better for them.  We are more subtle than that. 

Comment by Luara on March 27, 2014 at 6:41am

It's a very idealistic position, that human beings, creatures shaped by the forces of evolution, happened to evolve so that they are better off in general with truth rather than fantasies.  It involves a very high estimation of our conscious reasoning powers vs the nonrational aspects of humanity - which also evolved. 

And it's a totally unproven high idealism.

Comment by Gregory Phillip Dearth on March 27, 2014 at 6:36am

'Faith in truth' makes no sense. We are talking about having knowledge of what will ensure survival versus having a faith that MIGHT lead to actions that cause survival or might lead to death. The person using a knowledge of how to behave in a cave-in is not relying on faith at all. They are acting on a logical set of rules that will ensure their odds of survival are highest.

It sounds like you are arguing for theism here. Are you saying that prayer can invoke some effect that natural means cannot replicate? You do know that prayer is talking to yourself, so any effect it has is in fact of natural origin, right? The key natural processes that ensure survival in a cave in is a slowed heart rate and slowed breathing. You can do that with prayer and without it equally.

The position that truth is better is not one that requires proof or faith. And it is independent of one's position on god. A theist might believe that truth is always better and an atheist might not.  It is the default position. The burden of proof is on the people claiming false beliefs can help in some situations. That is why again, I ask you for an example of when belief in a fantasy helps someone.

So I ask you for an example of a fantasy helping someone. I maintain the position that prayer has no effect, only the biological changes that accompany the activity (which may or may not help depending on how one prays).

Comment by Luara on March 27, 2014 at 5:53am

That is why even faith-based decisions are inferior to rational thought.

That doesn't follow. And you are arguing against yourself. Someone's specific fantasy that a being out there will help them, would likely help them in your cave situation. 

there is no faith related to the position of atheism.

I didn't say that atheism necessarily entails a faith that the truth is always better. 

However, that's a faith that many atheists have, and you seem to have.  It's a faith that may cause someone to become atheist.  So it is a faith related to atheism. 

It is an unproven belief, and quite likely wrong in some circumstances.

Comment by Luara on March 27, 2014 at 5:46am

It's easy to think of dangerous beliefs, such as "Allah wishes me to set off a nuclear bomb in New York City to kill a lot of Jews".

But by the same token, there are useful beliefs, such as "God wishes me to teach third world women to read and to empower them via microcredit". 

Comment by Gregory Phillip Dearth on March 27, 2014 at 5:43am

Saying someone's faith helps them and saying their actual fantasies help them are two different things. Faith is existent, a state that defines a strong belief or hope in things unseen (using the Hebrews definition of this wholly religious term). The fantasies are the things unseen (non-existent). The faith is indeed part of the causal chain that would possibly lead to a person being helped. But the subject of that faith (the fantasy) is not helping them.

You switched gears from fantasies help people to faith helps people. Faith, being a poor substitute for rational thinking can lead to either a logical or illogical action. For example, perhaps the person stuck in the cave had a faith that required a lot of verbal invocations and standing up, bowing, laying down (sort of like prayer in Islam). Their faith would hinder their survival in that case. Again, it is not their fantasy that would cause them to use up all their oxygen before rescue. It is the specific physical actions that their faith required of them that lead to their death.

Faith has the possibility of both logical and illogical actions, either helping or hurting an individual. Rational thinking, however, can only lead to logical action. That is why even faith-based decisions are inferior to rational thought.

Religious people are always saying how much their fantasy helps them would be consistent with your initial statement. Their faith might or might not help them but theiir fantasy is not doing anything as it does not exist.

Also, I never asserted that it was true for everyone in any circumstance. i gave one example and asked you for any example for your position, leaving open the possibility that I might be wrong. Instead, you changed the term of your statement from fantasy to faith, one of which is a subset of the other and straw-manned my position on the matter.

Furthermore, there is no faith related to the position of atheism. The phrase makes no sense whatsoever. I do not require faith for my position of disbelief in god claims. I do not require faith for any of my other positions as well.

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