February 24, 2010

The alleged arrogance of atheists-4: More on the conversion question

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

For earlier posts in this series, see here.

I want to address the crux of Jared's objections to my post on the alleged arrogance of atheists, which was that my hope for a world without religion was essentially also a call for the elimination of religious people.

When we seek to eradicate what we think are false or harmful beliefs that are held by people close to us, are we trying to "wish them away" as individuals? Of course not. What we seek is to improve their lives on the assumption that believing things that are supported by evidence and have the potential of being true is better for people than believing things that have no evidentiary support and are likely to be false.

In that sense, I understand better the desire of evangelical Christians and Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses to convert the world to their beliefs. They are at least being consistent in wanting to spread what they believe to be true, though I disagree with their methods of thrusting their views on people, even strangers, without first ascertaining whether they want to discuss them.

So Jared, I am trying to convert you to atheism, just as I am trying to convert every reader of this blog who is a believer. Indeed, much of all forms of communication are attempts at persuasion over something or other. I do it not to "wish you away" but because I think you would be better off for being an atheist than a religious believer. It is no different from my attempts to convert people in general away from any racist, sexist, xenophobic, and any other form of bigoted views that they may hold that I think harms them and society at large. They too may resist. But to not expose people to alternative views in an attempt to wean them away is to not do them any favors. In fact, I think it is wrong to shield people from criticisms of their ideas because having one's ideas critiqued are an important component of learning and growth. People may disagree and retain their beliefs, but that is a choice they have to make.

So if I think that trying to convert people to one's point of view makes sense, why I am not knocking on people's doors like the Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses or standing on street corners like the Jesus people, handing out tracts containing the doctrines of atheism, which would consist of blank sheets of paper? Why don't I channel every conversation with relatives, friends, and colleagues into discussions about atheism? As a matter of fact, I almost never initiate the topic of religion in those situations and it is almost always the case that it is other people who initiate such conversations with me because they are curious about my views. And in those private conversations, I simply state what I believe and why, and counter their arguments for god. That's it. There is no atheist equivalent of the 'altar call', of asking people to come to Jesus.

I do not try to convert people in person because personal relationships involve many facets and one cannot easily walk away from conversations about unwanted topics without some awkwardness. Thrusting a topic on people is generally not a good idea. People may not be interested in discussing the topic at that particular time and are merely going to get annoyed with you for what they view as an imposition. So the people I meet personally can rest assured that I am not going to collar them and talk about atheism unless they tell me they want to.

But in the public sphere such as this blog, people are free to read or not read, agree or not agree. People can choose to enter into the conversation or walk away. Ideas can be more easily discussed and critiqued as just ideas, apart from the people holding them.

If religious people hold their beliefs so dearly that they think that any criticism of those beliefs is an attack on their right to hold those ideas or even their right to exist, that is a misconception that they themselves have to overcome. In the public sphere, any idea or belief should be freely criticized in any way. To criticize an idea or belief strongly using all the evidence, reason, and rhetoric at one's disposal is not to seek the elimination of the people holding those ideas and beliefs. It is to seek the elimination of those ideas and beliefs.

The last issue that I will discuss in the next and final post in this series is the issue of tone, which was implied in Jared's response but stated more directly by kaath in his response on the Machines Like Us website.

POST SCRIPT: White House duplicity

In my recent series of posts titled The End of Politics I described how the oligarchy that rules the US hides its power behind a screen of supposedly heated partisan politics. In particular, when it came to health care reform, I described how Obama and the Democrats choreographed this elaborate dance to hide the fact that they had no intention whatsoever of doing anything meaningful that would hurt the financial interests of their patrons in the health industry.

The latest White House proposals advanced in front of the so-called health care summit reveals this duplicity clearly for what it is. Glenn Greenwald dissects the charade in a must-read article.


Trackback URL for this entry is:


Mano -

The more I read this series of posts, and the more I think about it, the more the addiction analogy I used in my comment on yesterday's post makes sense (it is possible you've made a similar analogy before - I haven't read through all the archives).

Going out and trying to actively find and convert religionists, as opposed to waiting for them to come to you, seems to me a lot like trying to find alcoholics or addicts and trying to force rehab on them. You can be ready and waiting for them to come to you, but they have to want to listen on their own.

Posted by Eric on February 24, 2010 11:14 AM


The analogy you draw with drug addiction is a good one and not one that I have used before, or even thought of.

I may well use it in the future, though, so thanks for the suggestion.

Posted by Mano on February 24, 2010 11:30 AM

It is a good analogy. Jello Biafra, former lead singer of the punk rock group Dead Kennedys used the term "hope dope dealer" to describe proselytizers.

Posted by Scott on February 25, 2010 09:42 AM

this was well thought out and quite informative. I write on addiction, treatment and chemical dependency ( ) and I'm hard to impress...but you have done an excellent job.

Posted by Eric Greenstein on March 14, 2010 12:59 AM