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Debating and Deconversion

September 11, 2009

Sisyphus: This is a guest post written by one of my good friends and a regular commenter, Schevus.

One of the biggest problems that arises when a non-theist and a theist (Christian for the purposes of this post) debate religion is the different position that each side is coming from. For an example, let’s take the common situation of a non-theist presenting biblical contradictions and fallacies as an argument against Christianity.

The non-theist believes the Bible is an aggregated collection of works written by men with no divine influence. The theist usually believes the Bible is the divine work of god, or at least that the authors were divinely inspired. The non-theist will probably point out the negative aspects of the Bible – slavery, murder, homophobia, sexism, etc, as arguments that Christianity is not a religion of love, and that it can be manipulated to perpetuate evil works or does so directly. The problem with this is that since the theist believes the Bible to be the work of god, attacking the Bible is attacking god himself and the theist will become defensive. Theists do not have the objective view of the Bible that non-theists have. They are, generally, very close to and emotional about it, and are thus unable to debate parts of it on their merits alone.

Sometimes I think non-theists, especially vocal strong atheists, allow their arrogance to get the better of them, which results in them trying to deconvert religious people simply to feel accomplished in doing so. I see no gain for society from someone who is a good person that happens to be religious becoming not religious. If they are not hurting anyone, it is not your duty to “enlighten” them and free them from their “stupidity”.

The reasonable argument against religion is to prevent it from being used as a rationale or guise for evil, immoral, or intolerant acts. I personally feel that debating the merits of religion itself is a poor avenue for this achievement. I think it is much more effective to work through our supposedly secular government to limit or prohibit things such as intolerance, religiously motivated violence, etc. If we cannot make the necessary changes through government, changing it so that we can should be the focus.

It’s very unlikely that fundamentalist or strong theists are going to be swayed away from their religion by logic, and thus there is little justification for trying to do so, other than self-aggrandizement as I mentioned. Theists who are less firm in their beliefs are most likely to be swayed away from religion by societal acceptance, so as more people are open about their non-theism more weak theists will be drawn away with little commotion.

Note: Sisyphus has been bugging me for some time to guest post for him, and I’ve finally relented. More from me may be coming.

30 Comments
  1. September 11, 2009 3:06 pm

    You consistently equate theism with Christianity. While Christianity is a form of theism, not all theists are Christian. I think it would be more correct to replace “Christian” with theist and “bible” with “scripture.” Then your argument would be more widely applicable.

    Also, while I may understand why you would choose to lowercase “bible,” when referring to a specific work, it’s more correct to use the capitalized form. This way, we’re sure you’re not talking about just any bible, but the Christian Bible.

    I disagree strongly that a religious person becoming non-religious is not a positive outcome, even if that person is not actively spreading their religion or abusing others. My reason is this: religious people, due to their supernatural worldview, are erratic. If a Christian wakes up one day and the swirls in her oatmeal look like Jesus, she might decide that she’s not doing enough for her God. What would constitute a more religious action than quiet worship? It could be anything from putting a bumper sticker on her car to filling that car with explosives and driving it into a public building. We won’t know until she does it, and neither does she. When you give up reality, you give up causality, so anything can follow anything else.

    I also find it difficult to believe that “societal acceptance” will lead theists to deny religion. If anything, I believe the opposite is true. Society expects faith, more than it expects a lack of faith. This is why Christians are more forceful in their derision of atheists than they are of Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and others. A Christian can accept, in some ways, a Muslim believing in a “false god” a lot easier than he can accept an atheist believing in no god at all. There is a common ground between theists of different faiths that atheists do not share, and it is rooted in their supernatural worldview.

    The gist of your post, if I understand it correctly, is that we should stop trying to spread a rational, naturalistic worldview and instead simply “vote atheist.” Well, this is both unacceptable and impractical. Atheists and people with naturalistic tendencies are largely excluded from public service. Despite laws to the contrary, there is still a religious test for many public offices. Of course, it’s not expressed that way. Instead, it’s in the language candidates must use, to sway enough theists (the majority) to vote for them in order to get elected.

    If I chose to debate a theist, it’s not out of arrogance, or to free them from their “stupidity” or to increase the ranks of atheists. It’s to reduce the overall amount of ignorance in the world. In other words, it’s not proselytization, it’s education.

    • Schevus permalink
      September 11, 2009 3:21 pm

      I made it explicit that the term theist represented Christians for the purposes of this post. Lowercase bible was simply a typo that will be corrected.

      I’m pretty sure if someone who sees an image of Jesus in their oatmeal spontaneously blows up a public building, there were underlying mental issues that were unrelated to religion. Last I checked, even the Bible doesn’t suggest this course of action.

      I strongly disagree with your views of societal acceptance. I know many, many Christians who are only Christians because it’s what their family / friends expect of them. They have no strong connection with God, it’s just a social construct. If more of their friends, and maybe some of their family were openly non-theistic, it’s quite likely these people would follow suit. Non-theism is growing in the US and I fully believe this is the main reason for it.

      I never advocated that non-theists should stop spreading a rational message. My point was that many theists are unresponsive to that message, and hammering them personally with it again and again is unreasonable and unsuccessful. You know the ones I’m talking about – you will never make them see your logic.

      I sense a very defeatist attitude as far as non-theists in government goes. Unlike convincing a fundamentalist Christian to give up their god, making inroads into the political spectrum is a very attainable goal with proper organization. And it doesn’t take a non-theistic person in government to support secularism.

      How many strong theists have you deconverted? How much ignorance have you removed?

      • September 11, 2009 4:56 pm

        Perhaps our views on societal acceptance come from regional differences. I’m not sure where you are, but I live in the Bible Belt; deep in the Bible Belt. In Alabama, people can still lose jobs, their children and more if their disbelief becomes public knowledge.

        I know the theists you’re talking about, and you’re right. Some people just will not listen to reason. My father-in-law is a Baptist minister. I’d never debate religion with him. It would be pointless. Besides, he only has one source document to work from and, as you stated above, we disagree on the veracity of that document.

        To my knowledge, I’ve “deconverted” to use your term, one theist. It wasn’t even intentional. Of course, that person may have been an “atheist waiting to happen.” I can’t know for sure. As to how much ignorance I’ve eliminated, that’s also hard to know. We never really know the impact we have on others, especially with the advent of the Internet. I take every opportunity that I can, when I feel that it’s safe, to make my beliefs (or lack thereof) known and I am, to a certain extent, “out” on the web.

        I also agree that if someone blows up a building because of a religious experience, that there was probably some underlying mental problem. However, since we also don’t know who among us has underlying mental problems, I feel that my example, and my argument, still stand.

        Thank you for your response. Very interesting and well articulated post.

  2. September 11, 2009 7:18 pm

    Foxhole Atheist reporting.

    I agree with most of what you’ve said, but I don’t think there is harmless belief in irrational things.

    The nondescript housewife who tithes $20 a week at Catholic mass and doesn’t push her beliefs on anyone is still funding the legal defense of child molesters, whether she realizes it or not.

    An unassuming Muslim man who listens to his Imam when he’s told that the Polio vaccine is the great Satan’s tool to make him impotent and infertile is still allowing the resurgence of this disease.

    When a sitting President of the US believes that a nuclear exchange with the Soviets is the final battle of Revalations, most complex life on this planet is put in a very precarious position.

    Religious moderates provide a safe haven for religious extremists.

  3. September 12, 2009 1:48 pm

    “I see no gain for society from someone who is a good person that happens to be religious becoming not religious. If they are not hurting anyone, it is not your duty to “enlighten” them and free them from their “stupidity”.”

    “If they are not hurting anyone” is a rather broad statement…

    Does Prop 8 hurt anyone?

    I would say yes — and that more than half of the population who voted on the proposition voted for Prop 8 — and many for explicitly religious reasons. And this vote occurred in California; not the epicenter of the Bible Belt.

    Does teaching a child “that there exists a place of eternal suffering where many of her friends will burn forever” hurt anyone?

    I would say yes. So, I think that it is truly rare that the first part of your conditional statement obtains.

    Furthermore, I disagree with the rest of the statement even if ‘they are not hurting anyone’ directly.

    I have a commitment to having beliefs that accurately represent reality — the truth matters, and I want to know what the truth is. Many religious people would agree entirely with that last sentence.

    It is not the case that I am trying to impose reality on these child-adults who surround us. The people of our society actually care about reality. They believe their religious beliefs because they think they are true. Generally, people want to know if they are wasting their time and money on nonsense. Engaging in conversation and debate with believers is not to impose a goal I have on them; it’s to help them achieve a goal they already desire.

  4. September 12, 2009 1:52 pm

    Arg, my comment about Prop 8 got a bit mangled. Let me rephrase and elaborate a bit.

    Does Prop 8 (which denies equal rights for homosexuals) hurt anyone?

    I would say yes — and more than half of the population who voted on the proposition voted FOR Prop 8 — and many for explicitly religious reasons. And this vote occurred in California; not the epicenter of the Bible Belt.

    If you agree that denying equal rights to homosexuals is a harm, then the people who are fair game to engage are the majority of the voting population of California at minimum. Which probably means the majority of the nation.

    If that’s the case, then even accepting your premise and conclusion, you seem to be arguing that we are limited to arguing with the majority of people in the US. That’s not a very strong conclusion.

    • Schevus permalink
      September 12, 2009 10:45 pm

      I completely agree that Proposition 8 is harmful. That said, you and others seem to be misinterpreting my point. I’m not saying that it is wrong or a waste of time to debate with any theists. I’m saying there is no justifiable reason to continue to debate, argue with, berate, etc those theists who have established that logic will not sway their religious opinions. I’m talking about the strong and fundamentalists theists whose religion makes up who they are. I thought I made this point clear in my original post, but apparently non-theists aren’t as astute as they like to claim. =P

      So, lets reiterate. If a reasonable theist is willing to undertake rational debate on the topic of religion, that’s great. If they see the light of logic and reason and alter their beliefs and actions based on that, superb. But if someone is unresponsive to logic, incapable of rational debate, or uninterested in debating about their beliefs, don’t presume to impose your position on them unless they are flagrantly harming others with their actions.

      • September 13, 2009 2:05 am

        “…unless they are flagrantly harming others with their actions.”

        Do you think that Prop 8 counts as flagrant harm?

        If not, I completely disagree with you.

        If so, I agree with you. But, as per your argument, that now moves the majority of religious people in the liberal state of California onto the debating block. (The only ones you appear to attempt to shield from my logic-rays are the religious ones that do not flagrantly harm others with their actions).

        Also, you seem to miss the idea that I’m not interested in an imposition — I’m saying that most religious people share the notion with me that they want to have beliefs that accurately reflect reality.

        —-

        “The reasonable argument against religion is to prevent it from being used as a rationale or guise for evil, immoral, or intolerant acts.”

        I would say that this is EXTRA motivation for arguing against religion. I completely disagree that only immediately tangible negative consequences of believing nonsense are valid reasons for motivation.

        “I personally feel that debating the merits of religion itself is a poor avenue for this achievement.”

        Many would directly agree with you. I acknowledge that religious debate and discussion is rarely successful, but that it is the best option that we have available (however poor the results may seem). And I mean best in regards to ethics and effectiveness.

        Further, “I think it is much more effective to work through our supposedly secular government to limit or prohibit things such as intolerance, religiously motivated violence, etc.”

        I suspect that we would profoundly disagree on this point. Perhaps you can give me some specifics — what kind of intolerance should the government limit, and how should they limit it? If I wrote that the Bible says that homosexual sex is a sin, would I get fined? Imprisoned? A free pass because I was probably saying that as a reason to think that the Bible should be discarded as a moral guide?

        • Schevus permalink
          September 13, 2009 10:31 pm

          No, the government should never impose on free speech, no matter how ugly that speech is. Prop 8 is a good example of how the government should have worked properly. We live in a democratic society and fundamentalists (with wads of cash) injected themselves into the political process to discriminate against gays.

          Should we try to convince these people the error of their religious ways, or should we work to mobilize the rational people out there for the next vote, or the next election? I think the latter has a much better chance of success.

          I personally find it reprehensible that anyone is legally discriminated against, especially gays. I don’t think it will be long before they have national protection, especially with the swath of states that legitimized gay marriage this year.

  5. September 14, 2009 11:30 am

    “Should we try to convince these people the error of their religious ways, or should we work to mobilize the rational people out there for the next vote, or the next election? I think the latter has a much better chance of success.”

    Yes! I totally agree. I just wonder if we have enough votes to hold off the theocrats.

  6. September 19, 2009 9:38 am

    Schevus writes:
    I think it is much more effective to work through our supposedly secular government to limit or prohibit things such as intolerance, religiously motivated violence, etc. If we cannot make the necessary changes through government, changing it so that we can should be the focus.
    ++++++++

    It seems you harbor the suspicion that our government is really not all that secular. You can be forgiven for your doubts. Though democratic and well intentioned, I don’t hold out hope for your strategy.

    Government cannot control what is in people’s hearts and minds. The only way we will end the hegemony of religion in the USA is to press the institutions where they are weak. Ethically, their practice of submitting vulnerable children to mind control is on very shaky ground regardless of the legal niceties.

    Sexual abuse is common in all the institutions, not just among catholics. Here there is a clear line of attack. Making the institutions spend their funds on legal fees and reparations lessens the damage they can do. The current financial debacle has forced many churches into bankruptcy.

    As far as moderates not hurting anyone, this is patently false because they are like Uncle Toms. Sam Harris has provided the strongest line of argument against moderates.

    I’m not saying we have to rip the rosary beads out of little old ladies gnarled hands. And it is not useless to hold conversations with theists. Some of them can be deconverted as witness all the self-help sites on the web. Which brings me to perhaps the strongest tool in our bag. Apostates.

    These people have been on the inside and some of them harbor wounds from their experiences — many would like some payback. Or shall we call it closure? These are the people who are in the best position to talk to their friends and family members, to write letters to the editor, post videos on the web and to march on Washington. I agree that talking theocracy is useless, but pointing out how religion causes strife in families and communities is harder for theists to argue against because every family experiences the divisiveness. We don’t have to prove this point, all we have to do is give examples from real life. Books, movies and videos are full of stories about people who have been harmed by religion.

    I try to find the most poignant personal narratives I can and then I post them to forums where theists participate. The ones from children seem to have the best effect. I have had an 18 month conversation with parents on the subject of why they think they have the right to force religion on their children. The forum is hosted by Amazon.com and is listed under Parenting.

    http://www.amazon.com/tag/parenting/forum/ref=cm_cd_NOREF?_encoding=UTF8&cdForum=Fx20C498EK5JY4S&cdPage=1&newContentNum=3715&cdMSG=addedToThread&cdSort=newest&cdThread=Tx2CZZFKFXLZ0XM&newContentID=MxILNLULSFV6PL#CustomerDiscussionsNRPB

  7. Mark P. permalink
    September 19, 2009 9:46 am

    I see no gain for society from someone who is a good person that happens to be religious becoming not religious. If they are not hurting anyone, it is not your duty to “enlighten” them and free them from their “stupidity”.

    This is why I have a blog rather than knocking on people’s doors. My blog is an extension of me and my door. I am not trying to enlighten them, but rather deconstruct and debunk their brand of theism. If they want to read and discuss their fallacy without opposing views or comment…they need to visit blogs of their kind.
    My philosophy is “my blog…my rules”. I would expect to be treated the same if I commented on a Christian blog. We atheists have been silenced far too long and I will not be badgered or “preached to” at my door.

  8. September 20, 2009 11:46 am

    I have tried commenting on Christian homeschool blogs and to say I received a chilly reception is a huge understatement. They don’t want anybody puncturing their sacred cows. Perhaps it is because holding on to faith is not all that easy for a lot of people. They need constant reinforcement and hearing opposing views is threatening.

    • fester60613 permalink
      September 25, 2009 11:50 pm

      I had a home-schooled young man (early 20s) hired as an intern for my department and he was so socially inept that I had to let him go.

      I’m not saying that all home-schooled young adults are going to be socially inept, but chances are that the lack of interaction with a wide range of other children is not going to given them the social skills required to succeed in – or struggle through – the current Western Culture.

      That young man confided to me that he – and other home-schooled young adults of his church – were baffled when their non-religious peers treated them “like freaks or aliens” even though religion was never openly discussed.

      While I am convinced that parents who insist on “protecting” their children from “worldly influences” by home-schooling are doing these children a great disservice: The rude awakening in the “outside” world after home school can be traumatic and may dislodge them from their faith.

      Further, even if their faith survives their transition to the outside world, it seems that they and their views are pretty much dismissed by their peers as irrelevant and even repugnant.

      In general – and I stress in general – it may be that this social rejection of the home-school religious minority may serve to impair the drive to create a Taliban-like society in the United States at the grass roots level.

      I certainly hope so!

      • atheistwar permalink
        September 26, 2009 11:37 am

        A lot of parents home school their children for reasons other than religion. Thought I would point that out so that you don’t pigeon hole people. Some people actually think that one adult teaching a few children can give a better education than one adult teaching twenty five.

    • atheistwar permalink
      September 26, 2009 11:40 am

      Perhaps you should go on dailykos and realize that religion doesn’t hold a monopoly on this.

  9. fester60613 permalink
    September 26, 2009 12:00 am

    Schevus – as I understand your post, you are rejecting the evangelization of atheism (or non-deism).

    I find that I am extremely rude to those who come up to me on the street and want to tell me about their personal relationship with a god. I assume that I too would be on the receiving end of rudeness should I walk up to someone and attempt to tell them why their religion is, in my opinion, well, evil.

    Which is to say that face-to-face evangelism seems these days – to me – not to be a successful method of recruiting membership to ones particular brand of belief. I’ll discuss my “non-belief” readily if the topic comes up in conversation, but I’m not about to raise my humanist-secularist-ish banner on a street corner.

  10. atheistwar permalink
    September 26, 2009 11:32 am

    “Theists do not have the objective view of the Bible that non-theists have.”

    You actually believe that non-theists, specifically atheists such as yourself, have an objective view of the Bible?

  11. duhsciple permalink
    September 26, 2009 11:35 am

    Agreed. Theists have killed, are killing, and will kill people for reasons of faith.

    And. Rationality and reason are no salvation. People have been killed, are being killed, and will be killed for reasons of logic, rationality, and, circling back, reason.

    Therefore. We need to be rescued from both reason/faith that results in death to reason/faith that leads to life

    • atheistwar permalink
      September 26, 2009 11:39 am

      Good points. I like that last sentence, simple but says alot.

  12. September 29, 2009 10:25 am

    I find debates pointless. My old atheist group sponsors them all the time and I think it’s a waste of time – at least for an Atheist. Maybe you could sway someone who is on the fence for which whose religion has steered them away from skepticism – like Catholics often are. Mostly the debaters like to hear themselves talk. Christianity is the 800 lb delusional gorilla in the US so it is fitting to use it as a main target. I find it useful to ridicule faith. Parody has always been an effective tool for the underdogs since it exposes fraud and it doesn’t require a lot of resources like a indoctrination facility, brainwashing staff and statuary. Yet some atheists only want to play nice because it’s just mean to make fun of someone – even when they are plotting against you. You cannot debate someone who is irrational. Christians will often accuse atheism as being a religion, claiming that it is faith in denying that god exists! Might as well debate Marcel Duchamp or Man Ray.

  13. duhsciple permalink
    September 29, 2009 1:48 pm

    Rev. Barky, bring it on!

    I pray that your challenge as an atheist will cleanse theists like me of our delusions so that we theists might be driven to realize that G-d is beyond what can be comprehended by our limited neural networks. Too often we theists do offer bad answers and interpretations of reality. Of course, I have tipped my hand. I believe in a deeper G-d Realty beyond traditional a/theism debates.

  14. September 29, 2009 3:57 pm

    All I can say is good luck with that.

  15. duhsciple permalink
    October 2, 2009 1:31 pm

    Reason, rationality, science, and logic are not stopping the human species from the suicide of destroying the biosphere. We are due for a crash. We have reached beyond the “carrying capacity” of the planet. All kinds of fraudulent faith are behind this, not just the religious kind.

    Rev. Barky. Again, I say bring it on. And now I’m bringing it on. When you write, “Good luck with that” my conclusion is that you are a collaborator with fraudulent faith. Right now it is a matter of choosing life or death. It is a matter of repentance, the human species turning in a different direction, or catastrophe. We must evolve into a deeper spirituality and morality. Now! There are incredible scientists who get it. They see the beauty that we are about to screw up. And they understand that this is a faith crisis.

    C’mon people, wake up!

    • October 2, 2009 3:14 pm

      I’m sorry. Are you implying that global warming is due to a lack of faith? That could be the biggest post hoc error I’ve ever encountered. How can you possibly link the decline of religion to the decline of our environment? If anything, there should be an inverse relationship. I know plenty of folks who are torn between their religious beliefs and their concern for the environment, and they usually end up falling on the side of dogma; a dogma which teaches that Man has dominion over the Earth, and cannot destroy God’s creation. There’s been more resistance to environmentalism from religious conservatives than any other group, save for major industry.

  16. duhsciple permalink
    October 19, 2009 3:40 pm

    I can’t find my comment about global warming from awhile back. If I used the word “faith,” I apologize. I meant the word “repentance”.

    If you are religious and hold a distorted view of “dominion,” repent.

    If you are not religious and are spending your time arguing about a/theism, repent.

    I don’t care about non/faith.

    I hear what you don’t believe, but what are you for? If you are simply for reason, logic, evidence, and rationality, count me out. If you are for the environment, the vulnerable, the abused, the war battered, then count me in– regardless of your non/faith or a/theism.

    Again, my apologies. Perhaps the conversation at least helps me to gain clarity. Remember I am at a disadvantage, being a duh-person.

  17. duhsciple permalink
    October 19, 2009 3:48 pm

    Speaking of duh, I found my comment.

    By “fraudulent faith” I mean “not being for something beautiful and life-giving”.

    I wrote in a polemic fashion (which isn’t my strong suit, obviously) to call for “repentance”. I do think we need prophets (= truth tellers) when it comes to the environment and matters of justice.

    I, too, have observed the failures and sins of religious people in these matters.

    And I invite the non/anti religious to “repent” in these matters of life and death. I am suggesting that we move from “domination/dominion” to “care/conservation.” More later…

  18. tully permalink
    November 2, 2009 7:33 pm

    While I agree with the major point of your essay that atheists don’t always debate in the most effective manner, there is one point I would like to take issue with:

    “I see no gain for society from someone who is a good person that happens to be religious becoming not religious. If they are not hurting anyone, it is not your duty to “enlighten” them and free them from their “stupidity”.

    The reasonable argument against religion is to prevent it from being used as a rationale or guise for evil, immoral, or intolerant acts. ”

    Magical thinking is harmful. It allows for parents to not obtain medical treatment for their children. It allows for the blind acceptance of authority committing atrocities. It allows for spreading non-truths for a “higher purpose.”

    It is impossible for it not to be an enabler for immoral acts. A good person who happens to be religious would deny their religion when a moral question forced that. Which makes them not really religious at all.

  19. drmab permalink
    December 8, 2009 6:56 pm

    Sing from the rooftops: “Atheism is dead!”

    http://www.conspiracycafe.net/forum/index.php?/topic/25104-atheist-apocalypse/page__pid__117856__st__0&

  20. August 1, 2010 1:24 pm

    I agree that magical thinking is harmful—but part of what makes it magical is that you can’t dismantle it by force. Maybe one in a million times you can, but that’s only speculation. In fact, attempts to dismantle religious belief typically end up strengthening it. This is why the more aggressive “new” atheist thinkers, as much as I may respect their thought, sometimes strike me as inappropriately evangelistic. Spread the message, certainly, but not in a way that’s going to be obviously counter-productive. Sometimes I get the distinct feeling that Professor Dawkins, Sam Harris, and others are mostly just preaching to the choir.

    Bad word choice, perhaps.

    I think that just about the best we can do is to continue to show that there is a growing community of atheists (something like 16% of Americans at present, I’ve heard) which can help support those who might be afraid to come of out of their atheist shells, and to continue to push for the secular values that are supposed to be at the heart of our government. But that alone is a daunting prospect, since a great many of the most politically volatile Americans see themselves as voting on a Bible-inspired platform.

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