Is arguing with religious believers worth it?
The Secular Student Alliance conference last weekend has left my head buzzing with ideas, which will be filtering out into my writing over the coming days and weeks and probably years. The one I want to talk about today came from
Jerry DeWitt, executive director of Recovering from Religion (CORRECTION: it was Keith Lowell Jensen), who gave an answer to this question that’s still echoing in my head.
There’s a talk I sometimes give, called “Resistance Is Not Futile: Is Arguing About Religion Worth It?” (Here’s a video of it.) In it, I make the case that arguing with religious believers is worth it — and give some ideas on how to do it. And when I give this talk, there’s a little interactive exercise that I do. I ask the people in the audience to raise their hands if they’re an atheist. I ask them to keep their hands up if they used to be religious. and then I ask them to keep their hands up if they were persuaded out of their religion — at least in part — by arguments against religion that they read, or saw on YouTube, or heard from their friends, or whatever.
There are always lots of hands still in the air. Proving my point: that arguments against religion can be effective, and are not a waste of time.
At the Secular Student Alliance conference last weekend,
Jerry DeWitt (CORRECTION: Keith Lowell Jensen) made very much the same point during his talk — but in a way that was both more succinct, and more powerful.
He was talking about this notion — very prevalent in the atheist community — that arguing with religious believers isn’t worth it.
He asked the audience to raise their hands if they used to believe in religion.
And then he said, “I think we were worth it.”
I think we were worth it.
When this question of arguing about religion comes up, we sometimes see it purely in adversarial terms. As if arguing with people made them the enemy… and as if saying, “I think you’re mistaken and here’s why” were the same as saying, “I think you are stupid and inferior and worthless.”
But I don’t see it that way. When I argue with a believer about religion, I’m not saying, “I think your beliefs make you stupid.” I’m saying, “I think you’re smart enough to get this. I think you’re open-minded enough to be willing to change your mind. I think you’re strong enough to deal with changing your mind about something important.”
I think the atheist community is awesome. Sometimes totally maddening… but awesome. I think becoming an atheist can make your life better… if for no other reason than that it is correct, and a correct understanding of the world makes us better able to cope with it. And most people in the atheist community used to be religious. Many people in the atheist community had their minds changed, at least in part, by arguments against religion. Including me.
I think we were worth it.