Atheism and Diversity: Is It Wrong For Atheists To Convert Believers?

Do atheists hate diversity?

Is the very act of atheist activism (trying to persuade people that atheism is correct and working to change the world into one without religion) an act of attempted conformity? Are atheists trying to create a drab, gray, uniform world, where everyone else is just like them?

It’s probably pretty obvious that I think the answer is a big fat “No!” (Probably said in the Ted Stevens voice.) But it certainly is the case that many atheist activists, myself among them, are working very hard to persuade religious believers out of their beliefs. Not all atheists do this, of course; many have the more modest goals of separation of church and state and religious tolerance, including tolerance of atheists and recognition of us as equal citizens. But a good number of atheists are, in fact, trying to convince religious believers to become atheists. I’m one of them.

And since many believers see this as an intolerant attempt to enforce conformity — particularly believers of the progressive, ecumenical, “all religions perceive God in their own way and we have to respect them all” stripe — I want to take a moment to address it.


Thus begins my new blog post up at AlterNet, Atheism and Diversity: Is It Wrong For Atheists To Convert Believers? In it, I point out that religion is, above all else, a hypothesis about the world — and it’s not intolerant of diversity to try to persuade people that a hypothesis about the world is probably wrong. And I point out that our options for dealing with different religious beliefs aren’t limited to either intolerant evangelism and theocracy, or uncritical ecumenicalism. I point out that atheism is offering a third option: the option of respecting the important freedom of religious belief, while retaining the right to criticize those beliefs, and to treat them just like we’d treat any other idea we think is mistaken.

This is the third in a four-part series about atheism I’m writing for AlterNet. I’ll be reprinting all these pieces here on my own blog eventually; in the meantime, enjoy this one on AlterNet!

Atheism and Diversity: Is It Wrong For Atheists To Convert Believers?

7 thoughts on “Atheism and Diversity: Is It Wrong For Atheists To Convert Believers?

  1. 1

    As a theist, I see nothing wrong with your trying to convert believers, and agree that your arguments increase diversity. (which is why I read you)
    All the reasons for believing in God boil down to two categories: 1) Some authority figure said so. This one covers both authorities who try to use logic, and authorities who use divine revelation. 2) You have experienced the Divine directly.
    Category 1 should be easier to convert than they are; I find it hard to understand how anyone can believe in the absense of evidence, myself. Category 2 you won’t be able to convert, because they do have evidence. Either way, I can’t see any harm in the attempt.
    But notice I said I have no problem with *YOUR* attempts- because you argue from position, not ad hominem, and grant basic human dignity to the other side. Those who say things like “sexually molesting the children didn’t do as much harm as raising them Catholic in the first place”, or “there are two types of people; atheists and schizophrenics” are, in my opinion, every bit as dangerous as any religious fanatic.

  2. 2

    I love how, every time you write a post like this over at Alternet, out come the shrieking defenders of religion who proceed to redefine atheism into whatever they choose, and then attack that version.
    They never allow you to define it for yourself. They must define you for you.

  3. 3

    For myself, the main reason why I don’t actively try to deconvert believers is because I think the goal of separation of church and state is more important. It’s easier to get believers on board for creating a shared egalitarian secular public square if I can sincerely say that this isn’t a step in some master plan to destroy their faith — rather it’s something that really does benefit all of us.
    But I don’t go out of my way to avoid deconverting people, I don’t object to atheists who proselytize, and my personal non-proselytizing has nothing to do with my fondness for diversity.

  4. 4

    The main reason I’m not actively doing this is that I am just not good at it, and it’s not worth my peace of mind.
    I see that you still get replies now and then to your ‘Atheists and Anger’ post, and just reading the latest reply now illustrates well my feelings. Yet another one who read words in front of them and still fail to miss the point of them completely… Sisyphos wouldn’t change work if you offered him this!
    I’m not saying it IS hopeless and not worth the work, only that I as an individual, are not equipped for it.
    I do fully agree with, and support your latest post at AlterNet.

  5. 5

    I have no issue with people who want to convert people to a new way of belief or disbelief, so long as they respect boundaries. For instance, if an atheist were to come to my door and ask me if I’d heard the good news, I’d be just as irritated as if it were a theist of any stripe. But promoting what you believe in the public square, your own personal webpage, and other appropriate venues? Totally cool, and very irritating when people don’t acknowledge that right.
    As for the third option you mentioned atheism offering, reasoned discourse and critique while respecting other beliefs, this isn’t strictly the domain of atheists. I honestly don’t know where it originated, and it may well have originated with atheists, but there are groups of religious people who like this model as well. I know they seem a lot fewer and further between, but it’s a start.
    Definitely with you on separation of church and state, and would love to see tax-exempt status stripped from any religious organization participating in politics to drive that point home. I know that wouldn’t solve the problem, but I think it would be one good step.
    Finally, the idea of unfalsifiability. When you look at religion strictly as a hypothesis, unfalsifiability does make it worthless to consider. Of course, I’m sure you know religious and spiritual people don’t always look at it that way. I would never bother bringing religion into a scientific talk, because that’s not an appropriate forum for it. Science is about this world, that we can objectively observe, and that we know exists. However, I find unfalsifiable beliefs interesting. This isn’t because I think being unfalsifiable makes them right by nature. It obviously doesn’t. What it does is indicate that the belief could conceivably be true and consistent with our current scientific understanding.
    This doesn’t enhance our understanding of the world, and it isn’t interesting from a scientific perspective. But it is interesting from a perspective of speculation on things that we can’t prove one way or another. Mental gymnastics if you will.
    In addition, if religion and spirituality were in an area that is unfalsifiable, and could be consistent with science if true, there would be far less need to deal with this issue of religions that try to deny science.
    I think the unfalsifiable beliefs are the ones we should spend the most time considering in the context of religion because they’re the ones that won’t interfere with science.
    Of course, I like this because it neatly packages things up (at least in my mind). Science considers ideas which are verifiable one way or another, while religion considers ideas which are unfalsifiable. This lets science do what it does best, keeps religion out of the way of science, and allows people to maintain beliefs that could conceivably be consistent with science.

  6. Sam

    I really enjoyed reading your article. Thank you for engaging and challenging me.
    Based on your premise, I can’t really contradict you. I would like, however, to play devil’s advocate and throw out another hypothesis.
    I’m looking at religion from an armchair sociologist’s standpoint, not a scientific one.
    Your argument is based on the assumptions that humans make logical decisions. In my experience, religion is not the only realm of irrational belief.
    Have you ever read Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities? It’s based on the premise that national identity emerges when a group of people agree to accept a common history, and ignore whatever historical differences may have arisen. The history that is agreed upon may or may not have anything to do with what actually happened. This is a gross oversimplification of the book, granted.
    Enormous communities are created around Scifi fantasy. I find this phenomenon absolutely fascinating. The people who go to these cons are well aware that their favorite characters are not real, but that doesn’t stop them from engaging their shows as if the shows were gospel truth.
    I’m not placing any value judgment here. I just wonder if there is some instinct or genetic wiring that causes people to center their sense of identity around seemingly irrational beliefs. I can’t help but feel like there’s something more to it, if that makes sense.

  7. 7

    One analogy that might not have occurred to you yet is political: What about Independents? Is it wrong for them to try to persuade people it’s mistaken to hold strongly to a particular party? (I’m not an independent, but I can see some merit in that argument myself.) And are independents trying to create a drab, gray, uniform political landscape?

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