The Great Chain

The Great Chain

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Atheism 106 - How We Win

It is hard to lose an argument as an atheist.  We have so many facts and lines of evidence from so many varied fields that it is a relatively simple task to demolish the efficacy of bronze age fairy tales.  An atheist armed with a reasonable grasp of biology, geology, cosmology, palentology can almost always trounce any Religionist in any sort of online forum or organized debate.

So why is it that so many discussions with Religionists feel so futile?

If you have ever engaged in a discussion with a Religionist, I am sure you know this feeling all too well.  The feeling that you have expertly smashed every argument made in favor of the inerrancy of their sacred text, demolished the efficacy of prayer, pointed out the logical fallacies and internal inconsistencies in their God propositions, but the Religionist refuses to concede a single point. 

At some point, they actually begin to repeat the same logical fallacy again as some manner of talismanic incantation.  And you are left with the sinking feeling that despite winning every single point, you haven't won at all.

The reality is that people do not choose atheism because of external argument.  The Faith that they carry is completely impervious to evidence, indeed, it exists solely to render evidence unnecessary.  No matter how expert our arguments, no matter how salient our points, no matter how eloquent our appeals, we cannot overcome Faith with reason.

But our appeals are not completely futile.  Our discussions are not all in vain.

Loosing onesself from the fetters of religion is not something that takes place over the course of a day or a week.  It is a process.  The reality is that there are MANY people in churches and mosques and synagogues all over the world who are already atheists (hat tip to John W. Loftus), but can't bring themselves to admit it.  They can't admit it because even more potent than Faith is the drive and the need to belong.  Many, many Religionists do not know or understand their theology.  Nothing made that more clear than the recent Pew study on Religion.  How can people maintain such a high and defensive level of loyalty to an institution whose tenets they do not even really understand?  Whose basic precepts they do not even know?  Because the social dimension, the 'Fellowship,' is more important than theology.

Many Religionists do not know or care very much about the theological underpinnings of their Faith.  When presented with arguments against it, they reflexively defend their Faith NOT because they are intellectually or emotionally invested in the theology itself, but because they are emotionally invested in the Fellowship.  The fact that their positions do not make logical or intellectual sense is irrelevant because the emotional connection to the fellowship is more important than any theological understanding or argument.

So how do we win?  How do atheists turn our victories in arugmentation into real change?

First, we need to be seen.  We need to be visible.

Second, we need to deal with the horrible stigma that is attached to atheism.  We have to come to grips with the fact that people hate us.  They hate us because they don't understand that atheists are not evil.  They need to see that we are not amoral.  They need to be shown that we are not baby eating, morality eschewing monsters who will destroy the fabric of society.  They need to be shown that we are people just like them, people with jobs, families, friends, loved ones, people who care about others, who are inclusive and who will strive for the greater good.  We need to not only point this out again and again, but actually demonstrate it whenever possible through our actions.

Third, atheists need to foster a greater sense of community.  Many atheists bristle at the very suggestion of an 'atheist community.'  Many atheists find the idea distasteful, akin to the very institution they sought to break away from, but is the idea really so bad?  Need a community become some kind of dogma enforcing liturgical police?  Is such a result inevitable?  Is it not possible to envision a community of people who will not always agree, who might vehemently disagree on many points, but who share a general worldview and mechanism for understanding the world and wish to gather to discuss and learn about the world?  Would that really be so bad?

This is how we win.  This is how atheists become something other than a despised minority.  This is how wen ensure that three hundred years from now, when people think about the Abrahamaic traditions, they think about them the same way we think about Zeus and Posiedon.

There are tens of millions of people in churches and synagogues and mosques right now who, if pressed, do not reallly believe in most of the bronze age fairy tales they are told each Sunday.  We need to recognize that when these people defend those fairy tales, it isn't the tales they are defending, but the institution those tales represent.  We need to understand that this is a process.  These people could be our allies, but in order for that to happen, they need to know that there is a social alternative to make up for what they are leaving behind and they need to see that we are not the baby eating mosters we have been made out to be.

If we do that, we can win.


  1. Very insightful. I can relate to what you said. When I began to really examine my faith it was at a time when I wasn't emotionally invested in my faith (Mormonism). I found alternate/better ways than prayer to solve my daily problems. And I wasn't involved socially that much anymore since I had just been recently married. At that time, I suddenly found myself attached only theologically or philosophically and it was much easier to dismantle the bad ideas I was holding on to.

  2. I would love to have an atheist community meet up in my state (North Carolina) to discuss something like this. Just, I think one of the reasons some atheists oppose a 'community' is because they think of a 'church' and I've always thought there could have always been something else built there... like a hospital or a school.

    Anyway, meeting up in a public place, like a park or something would be fine though.

  3. Good post. When I'm in a crowd and argue with a theist I have specific goals: 1) look like the adult; 2) smile - people will not be swayed if I come off cold; 3) testify - yes, I am an atheist and here is my personal story (life doens't end if you're godless); 4)humor - it's difficult to vilify me if you're laughing; 5) having a solid argument backed up with facts.

    Having a solid argument is #5 for me when I am selling the meme of atheism (that's what we're doing when confronting theists). Atheists can get caught up winning on "points" and thereby winning the battle (that particular argument) and losing the war (scaring away people).

  4. Alas, many theists can't relate to facts and arguments based on evidence. They have made up their minds and will never accept the possibility that they're wrong. To these people atheism is a threat to the foundation of their very frame of reference. What's scary is that they are of course often the most virulent fundamentalists of all.

  5. Another excellent post, and it's very similar to how I see things. Andy has a good point as well. As atheists, we need to show how awesome it is to be one.

  6. I have an idea about this that I am going to be sharing in the next week.