Atheists Need to Do a Better Job of Communication April 10, 2012

Atheists Need to Do a Better Job of Communication

Last week, I took part in a panel discussion about religion. One of the other panelists was a (really sweet) Christian woman. When the moderator asked us how we arrived at our religious (or atheistic) views, I answered honestly: I started questioning my faith, and the more I explored it, the less I believed it. Eventually, I became an atheist.

There was a little more to it, but that’s the gist of it.

When it was the Christian’s turn, she told this long, beautiful story of the person who brought her to Jesus, who guided her through some rough patches in her life, who died too soon, and whose life best resembled the “grace” that Jesus exhibited.

Obviously, the whole story had the atheists in the crowd rolling their eyes. Sure, it’s a nice story, but it doesn’t mean Christianity is true.

But here’s the point: Her story was compelling. Mine wasn’t. The audience ate up everything she said. I can’t say they did the same with me.

How much of that is my fault and how much of that is how atheists operate in general?

A lot of atheists stop believing in god after a long process of introspection. Maybe they read a book or a friend (or, ironically, a pastor) started them down that path, but there usually isn’t a “born again” moment. When we talk about why we’re atheists, we talk about logic, science, what’s true, and what’s not.

When Christians talk about why they buy into the Jesus, you get these heartbreaking, I-once-was-lost-but-now-I’m-found stories.

We know better than that. They’re being guided by their emotions while ignoring the question of truth. We’re guided by reason and critical thinking.

It’s not that we can’t be compelling — we all know how powerfully someone like Neil deGrasse Tyson can “sell” us on the importance of science. It’s possible. We’re not all that talented, but some people rise to the occasion.

Still, I’ve been to a *lot* of atheist conferences where the majority of the talks focus on why god doesn’t exist, why religion is wrong, why evolution is true, why this philosophical argument is better than that one, why this fact and that figure are relevant…

Not a lot of stories. Not a lot of emotion. Not a lot of anything that’ll make the audience shed a tear. Not a lot of the things that draw in people who think with their gut instead of their brain. Not that it’s a bad thing to use your brain, but if we’re trying to reach out to people beyond our own bubble and convince them we have it right, we need to meet them where they are and draw them in.

Anyway, I bring all this up because Sam Spokony of The Quietus has a longform article about the Reason Rally on the site and offers a fairly balanced view of what he liked and didn’t like.

For example, he didn’t like the tone set by some of the entertainers…

Sure, I’m all for dirty jokes, but when you’re looking to simultaneously prove your philosophical correctness to adversaries and ask for the respect of your fellow citizens, is it really in your best interest to send out Andy Shernoff to sing his favorite tune, “Get on Your Knees for Jesus ‘Til He Comes”?

The bigger comedic names — Tim Minchin, Jamie Kilstein and Eddie Izzard — followed an identically aggressive path in their sets, and while raucous humor is standard procedure for these guys, I wondered: Was this really an attempt, on any level, to communicate with the theists this movement will somehow need to convert over the course of the coming generations, or was it just — as [Bad Religion singer Greg] Graffin said about his own impending set — a celebration, for those already in on the joke?

I should say I think people like Spokony are making a mistake if they’re looking for just one goal of the Reason Rally. If you think the purpose was to show America that atheists are out there in large numbers, you’re right. If you think the purpose was to mock religion in the company of others who agree that it’s ridiculous but who may have to censor themselves back home, you’re right. If you think the purpose was to inspire atheists to be more active locally, you’re right.

Yes, some of the acts weren’t kind to religion. Or the virgin ears of children. Or people who don’t have a particular sense of humor. But that’s ok. There was something for just about everybody.

Spokony liked certain aspects of the Rally. He wrote some kind things about me, which is always appreciated, but what got me nodding my head in enthusiastic approval was this bit where he compared Richard Dawkins‘ of-course-we’re-right-we’re-atheists attitude to the more palatable-to-theists tone taken by Graffin:

Dawkins simply ran off some facts, figures and poll numbers related to earth science, biology and the number of people who do or don’t believe in God — and then exhorted all in attendance to continue ridiculing theists with great contempt. The question this begged, as he walked offstage to another round of thunderous cheers, was rather simple, and one perhaps vital to everything the New Atheists stand for: What did Dawkins offer at this rally that the comedians didn’t? Not much, one must think, regardless of how technically accurate he or they may be. But when you choose to build — to use the words of 17th-century Puritan John Winthrop, when he first settled in America — a theoretical city upon a hill, and then to look upon those who yet fail to understand you with little more than smugness, mockery and scorn, what else can you hope for?…

Maybe that foreshadows the subsequent success of Graffin’s more tolerant approach over that of hard-line New Atheists, who may come to worry so much about presenting the inherently faultless logic of their views that they fail to take into account the politics of communication — the very stuff with which the religious right has maintained a cultural upper hand.

This. So much, this.

We’re so laser-focused on proving we’re right that we often ignore the way in which we communicate this information. We think that if we just state the evidence, people will figure it out. They won’t. They rarely do. They don’t all think like we do.

Is this even worthwhile to talk about? I think so. Dawkins does a wonderful job of raising awareness of the problems with religion. But if you want to convince someone who’s not an atheist to take our concerns seriously, nothing beats the power of a good story.

It’s not that we don’t have those kinds of speakers in our movement — we do — but the Christian world is *filled* with them. Hell, it’s a rare event in the Christian world when you’re not emotionally drained after listening to a big-name speaker.

We shouldn’t abandon evidence and logic. But it wouldn’t hurt to put them in a larger context.

When people ask me how we were able to raise so much money for Jessica Ahlquist, I tell them it’s because she’s a compelling figure — an intelligent, young, female atheist who was fighting against her school, her city, her mayor, and a *lot* of angry Christians. Everyone wanted to help her. I wanted to help her. The same goes for Damon Fowler. When I tell their stories, people listen. If I were to try to raise money for a general scholarship for high-schoolers, I guarantee it wouldn’t raise as much money as a scholarship for one particular high-schooler with a good story.

What’s the point of all this? We’d do well to take a page out of the Christian playbook — tell a story whenever we talk to an audience.

Unlike them, though, we can do it while telling the truth.

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  • Kahomono

    I commented once at Ph* about some issue and said that perhaps our message would be better received by the masses if we remembered that many people don’t actually care that much: they are more concerned with whether their boss is happy with them or if their kid has a cold or will there be enough money at the end of the month for a nice dinner out.  And so it might pay to shape our delivery for what I have heard referred to as the “movable middle” the 60% or so of people who aren’t hardline one way or the other, and might be swayed if we bothered to tell them something worth their attention.

    Well! Just for suggesting that, I was excoriated – first as a god-bot, then as an accomodationist (oh BTW guess which is more hated there?).  When I gave up and announced “OK, this is my LAST POST on this topic the sniggering reaction was “any bets?”

    Not to isolate this to PZ’s blog, which I still read especially when I want a dose of something to anger me at the stupidity of theism in the USA.  That’s just where I tasted it the most.

    We definitely have to figure out how not to be in our own bubble.  The one we make fun of Christians for inhabiting!

  • Most of humanity is very responsive to stories. I think my husband does a pretty good job of emotionally engaging people, as well as Jerry DeWitt, and Teresa MacBain (all former pastors). We are trying to harness that power, getting people to tell their stories, for others to learn from and to foster understanding. A lot of people are engaged in this, and some people are not. Just kind of depends on your venue. 

    As for the comment above about the culture at Pharyngula, yes it can be harsh, that is what some people like, though. You received a lot of flak there because you were trying to tell those people what to do and how to do it. They get that same comment over and over again, and don’t like that there. I personally don’t like it when people tell me over and over again something I’m supposedly “doing wrong”. It chaps my hide, and I bet it does yours, too.  The problem is not with being an accomodationist, the problem is when you try and silence those who are not. Just let PZ and his Horde do their thing and you can do your thing. It takes all voices, and all inputs to be part of a social movement. 

    If you are personally not a fan of harsh criticism of religion and relentless mocking of bad ideas, you are free not to read it and participate. You can and should hang out here at FA, or go to other blogs, read and share other pieces that are more to your liking. Write your own things that you’d like the world to see in the tone that you want.  And then people will come on your blog and tell you that you are being too harsh and you can tell them to fuck off.   😀

  • Anonymous

    Hemant, you’ve hit upon something very important here, imo.  I do think there’s a kind of ‘who cares if we’re ‘inspiring’? attitude that is prevalent amongst atheists…….which I think is very short-sighted.

    Yes, we’re easily able to make better arguments, that’s a given ~ but until/unless we’re motivated to go a step or two further, and care enough to try to demonstrate how atheism can be ‘inspiring’ in some way, we’re going to lose a lot of potential atheists out there.

    And the thing is, it’s not like we can’t do this;  I’ve come across so many atheists who are able to express their ‘road’ to atheism and do it in a VERY inspiring way…….

    So, why not invest some energy into trying to do that?

  • Anonymous

    I just came across this post by a believer (Christian) on another board ~ he expressed having new doubts and this is his reply when asked about it:

    What has changed is how I view the bible. What caused this? You and folks like
    you asking great questions.

  • Well, I think atheists need to know when they should be in “preaching to choir ” mode versus “converting the masses” gear. When I’m communicating with a believer or someone who is on the fence (as most Americans are simply because they are so ignorant of their faith)  I don’t go mucking about talking about Occam’s razor. I try to keep it simple and personal.  

  • Kahomono

    I see a risk in this of creating a series of fairly tiny echo chambers, each tuned to one pitch only.

  • Aimeejoe

    I was speaking with a woman one day about science.  Her comment to me was that it was cold and uninteresting, I think she would probably say the same thing about reason.  Being reasonable means keeping your emotions out of the mix when trying to sort out what is true in any given situation.  Religion speaks to the emotions.  People respond because they are emotional about life and they want a purpose and religion obliges.   I don’t think we are bad at communication, maybe we are too good at it.  Religion keeps it simple and it capitalizes on a need that we all have and that is to belong and to be cared for.  Religion provides a father/mother figure that science and reason simply cannot.  I can understand someone when they say something like reason and science is cold, because it is a bit chilly to be told the truth sometimes.   The truth is good for us much like a good antiseptic is good for a wound, it burns but in the long run it is good and will always be better than ignoring the need to clean it.  The very nature of being reasonable requires that we be our own mother/father figure and most people simply have never moved beyond that and it is a scary prospect to know that you and only you are the one who is taking care of your needs.  The ironic thing is that we are all, believers and non-believers alike,  taking care of ourselves, the training wheels are off it is just that we, the non-believers, have recognized this fact.  The thing we need to do is be gentle AND compelling.  We need to appeal to the person’s need for confirmation, show them that they have been in control all along.  That is how it was for me.  It was scary, true.  I was never more frightened than when I heard Sam Harris for the first time.  He mentioned death and that he knew that when he died that it was game over.  That scared me, but I knew deep down that he was telling the truth and that is what many believers know too they just haven’t been able to come to terms with it.  

  • I think we have these stories, they just aren’t loud enough yet.   When Nate Phelps spoke at Reason Rally there were thousands of people on the verge of tears, if not actually in tears.  Same goes for Taslima Nasrin. 

    I also think that the shitty things that happen to atheists aren’t what make us atheists but rather further proof of the non-existence of a loving god.   The death of my 4 month old nephew and the illness of my father-in-law (from cyclist to quadriplegic) were not causation of my atheism but merely assurance that I am correct in my non-belief. 

    However… The same stories have driven my family members in the opposite direction.  Towards religion.  So that same story can be used either way.  I think theirs would be more compelling in the scenario played out above where an audience is the judge.

  • But there already *are* a whole bunch of  “echo chambers” all over the place. The beauty of it is that there are so many different perspectives, so many different organizations out there that atheism *as a whole* is not one big echo chamber. There are so many great blogs, facebook groups, real life organizations and support groups out there and every one of them has their own specific topics of focus, their own tones and communication styles, and their own goals. This is a good thing!

    Hell, even a great deal of these places are places where lively debate takes place within those narrower scopes.   Just think about the discourse on Greta Christina’s blog as compared to No Longer Quivering, compared to Friendly Atheist or to the Humanists of Florida. There are lots of topics all these different places that produce all sorts of different arguments in their own ways. Not echo chambers, but focused places of certain styles.  Diversity is awesome. 

  • Sean Trapani

    Compassion for those who can not distinguish between their ideas and themselves is precisely what what led us to create our own blog, Mr. Mehta. Much of the atheist movement has become a phalanx of insolent teenagers snickering at the different kids in the hall. This marginalizes the work of so many, like Carl Sagan, who shared his perspective with love instead of malice.

  • Becoming atheist is like being born. It’s a long, drawn out process, it’s painful and then you just find yourself in a bright strange world. “finding jesus” is like making love to create that baby. It’s warm and fun and you aren’t alone. It’s way nicer to hear about that than the process of being born.

  • 67 Tbird

    I think the people coming out of the Clergy Project can teach us some things about this. Give a listen to Teresa Macbain or Jerry Dewitt. Their story telling is absolutely captivating! We could learn how to communicate our message with a bit of ‘grace’ from these folks.

  • Santiago

    Deconversion stories are highly powerful if told right. I for one, am fascinated by the stories of those who left their faith. They can also resonate with those who are searching or have doubts in a way that “logic”/”reason” cannot.

  • DFL42

    I think that this is a good idea in some respects and a dangerous idea in others. On the one hand, I agree that people are more responsive to emotional stories, and that telling our personal emotional stories might help people identify with us.

    On the other hand, it is one of the virtues of our movement that so many of us didn’t get here for emotional reasons. We got here using reason to figure it out. That type of thinking is valuable, and I think we would be mistaken to rely too much on emotion, because I think in some cases it is better to convert fewer people if the end result is that when those people finally are converted, they convert because they recognize the validity of the reasoning, rather than because it makes them feel good.
    I don’t want a society where people think it’s okay to evaluate truth claims based on the level of comforting emotional response they get from them. I think that, insofar as we can do both–incorporate stories into our arguments *and* emphasize that those emotions are *not* the reason people should convert–that adding stories is a worthy idea. Can those be separated though? Can you tell an emotional story when answering a question about what is true without implicitly suggesting that the tugging of the heartstrings should be a factor in the audience’s decision about the truth of the claim? If not, do we really want to be encouraging emotional thinking in that way?

    I’m not entirely sure what I think, but I think it’s a worthwhile consideration. If we could convert more people quicker using emotion, but converting people more slowly would mean that in the end, more people would have learned the valuing of making decisions rationally instead of purely emotionally, I’d be tempted to say the slower route is the better one in the long run.

  • Anonymous

    Re “Who cares 

  • Anonymous

    At the Reason Rally, I think Nate Phelps was a perfect example of the type of compelling, emotional storytelling that exemplifies a combination of a persuasive message with beautiful communication.

  • I think the current incarnation of this movement and it’s verbiage have plenty of emotion in it. The goals of ridiculing, mocking, and showing contempt convey quite a lot of emotion. And those people outside the movement who are listening to such words recognize those emotions. The question is: are these the kind of emotions that you want surrounding your public visage? So far, the answer I’ve seen coming from supporters of this movement has been a resounding yes. A second question, the one you seem to be implying, is, “Are the kinds of emotions surrounding atheist’s message very useful in generating the public image we are aiming for?”

    Ridicule, mocking, and contempt.

    So, what kind of image are you aiming for?

  • While I was at Elements, my brain shut down into “almost listening” mode whenever the Christian pastor opened her mouth, like it does whenever I listen to particularly uninteresting sermons. She essentially devolved into “pastor mode”, where you get to spout about any vague, Jesus-y concept (“love” “grace” “salvation” “rebirth”) until you run out of breath.

    I didn’t find her story compelling at all…I thought it was incredibly poor reasoning for choosing religion. Essentially, she meets a wonderful person when she is young and hurting, and simply adopts the religion of her mentor. 

    She went on a Jesus-flavored Gish Gallop because “I imitated my role model” is not nearly as compelling as “I followed truth where it led me”. 

    Her story said nothing about the value of the actual religion – just in the importance of her personal experience with “grace” and “hope”. The trick is be able to recognize when your brain is in a half-listening mode (when I’m more apt to just absorb whatever is being said to me instead of listening purposefully) and give yourself the critical thinking skills to be able to see beyond the rhetoric. 

    I don’t know about how atheists fit in all this – I’ll have to sit on it a while. But I do think you’ve got a point about our obsession with making sure our arguments are flawlessly logical and cold. Now, to ruminate…

  • Geeze, Pharyngula is not a bad word.

    Christians need different people to speak to them. There are those who are swayed by the kind of preachy, “why can’t we be friends,” soft-spoken comforting words that are being described above, and there are those who’ll be swayed by angry, loud, in-your-face words like PZ tends to give.

    The “accomodationist” part is where people tell PZ that he’s doing it wrong and he should be more soft and sweet to Christians, and learn to work together with them instead of condemning their beliefs. There is no evidence that either approach works better. Trying to be all lovey-dovey is impossible when you’re being told by people who want you DEAD that you’re going to Hell.

    I will never be happy living with the fundamentalists. I will call them out of their vile methods and I will tell them they’re believing in a religion that wants me to die or live for the rest of my life alone and miserable.

  • Carl Sagan, by the way, was an agnostic rather than an atheist. (I am, too.)

  • Cdunphy

    Hemant, others have mentioned it; but as a member of the Clergy Project I can say that I know  many moving stories about transitioning out of faith.  It is a liberating experience to know that you truly see.  
    Religion is nothing more than a maze of misdirection and most believers spend their lives corralled, surrounded by the towering walls of theology.  Unfortunately they don’t know that these walls are only paper thin.

  • Muito_axe

    Let’s not forget that many of those stories that Christians tell are either blatantly untrue or overwraught with so much exageration that they might as well be fiction. The institutions are supported by this emotional manipulation and couldn’t exist without it. For atheists to offer that would be to offer the same poison and it just is not needed.

  • Nhills

    There’s no way to “win”. If you use reason in an argument, they call you cold and unfeeling, unable to connect with people. If you use emotion, they smirk, and smugly claim that you’re not being logical.

  • I don’t think it would be entirely difficult to have stories which are compelling on both reasonable and emotional terms.  The trick may be not only to include the reason and logic that brought you to leave the church, but to really emphasize the differences in your life and mindset before and after (like the woman who has been saved), as well as to paint leaving as something that required you discover great inner strength.  For me, leaving the church freed me from inane fears and impossible standards and allowed me to see and appreciate the universe for all the glory inherent to it.  I was -and remain- a generally good person, and yet the dictates of the church I was in had so beat me down that I didn’t believe it, that I always felt inadequate, dirty, sinful, bad… and I was like 11 years old.  If that doesn’t move your gut what will?

  • Layne Ransom

    I am *so* glad you wrote this, as the lack of truly narrative writing I see coming from prominent atheist writers is disconcerting.  

    I’ve started on an essay (which will probably become several) about my de-conversion from Christianity to atheism, which while was ultimately caused by reasoned thinking, is the most emotionally intense and frustrating and complex issue/event/whatever I’ve had to deal with in my (pretty short still) life.  And it still affects me; I’m realizing that while I killed any shred of belief in the Christ narrative, it still holds a lot of emotional importance as a symbol for important relationships, for ten lifelong-impacting years of my life, for so many things that are hard to extrapolate on in a comment.

    But yes, I’m working on my story, and I think telling those true and complicated and messy stories is so important; that’s such a vital way we connect as *humans,* no matter the gap we’re spanning.  Apathy about whether or how we tell our stories is apathy about a great amount of what is true. 

  • Mary

    Critical thinking is a pleasurable thing, and I think that’s why atheists do so much of it and enjoy doing it. Unfortunately, there are millions of people in this world who don’t know HOW to think critically. So what’s the next best thing??? Emotional thinking – it makes you feel good, takes you from a high to a low to a high (how exciting), and doesn’t require much reason at all. Oh – and because it’s emotional, it goes to the same “places” within us as love, kindness, charity, etc. So it FEELS true and inspiring.

    I still haven’t “come out” to most of the people in my life, but for the few I’ve told, I have been forced to convey the emotional part of the de-conversion, simply because without it my story is sad and cold to them. Religious people, especially, have come to see emotional vulnerability as closely related to honesty and truth. In the Christian church, if a person isn’t emotionally vulnerable when he is saying something important, he will probably be warned about pride. Human weakness is often praised in the Christian church…when we are weak, then the message (and God himself) are strong.

    Unfortunately (as far as connecting with the religious goes), critical thinking is empowering. It is strong – it asks questions and accepts facts as the answers. You don’t get “reason credits” when you grovel, repent or cheer with joy…or when you speak in gibberish that no one can understand but God.

    The only way I know to come close to bridging this divide is to talk about the humanity of atheism. Most of us arrive at atheism because we realize that we don’t know what we thought we knew. We come to accept that the religious people in our lives are inspiring but not necessarily right. There is often disillusion, confusion, hurt and loss involved. And then we have to find a way to know what is ethical and good in a world where there is no definite guide from above.

    Even if a religious person thinks that we are 100% wrong, he may, for a few minutes, imagine what it would be like to try to live without this perfect God who makes everything better. Maybe instead of hating us they will sympathize and actually understand that some people function in the world without all the “answers” that they hold dear. And then, who knows, maybe one day when they have a scary question, they will think about it without as much fear.

  • Anonymous

    It must be said, so I’ll say it. I’m an agnostic AND an atheist. There is no “rather than.” The two words answer different questions. Gnosis – Greek noun for knowledge. Agnostic answers the question of “Do you think that you can know if there is a god or not” while atheist answers the question of “Do you believe that a god(s) exist.” 

  • Abstractsecularist

    Hemant. You are a writer. Your book was personal and honest, and reached many people. Perhaps a new book, sharing compelling and personal stories of deconversion and atheist life. Proceeds going to a politics-free cause, so that there is no pulpit “shaming” based on where the money goes. Ironically, the majority of visible atheists are folks whose personalities are inherently unlikely to articulate such stories. Additionally these same personalities are unlikely to draw “wobblers” over. Think about the attributes of the atheists you know: Strong-willed, publicly unconventional, independent, introverted, self-motivated. These are precious traits for some citizens to have, but they do not necessarily draw(or seek to draw:”They should figure it out on their own”) others to emulate them. We need stories of moms who provide their kids a morally structured childhood, complete with charity and good works. We need brothers who realized that when their sibling died suddenly that the emotional help they needed was not from church, but from therapy and community. We need teens who have chosen to limit their drug use and sexual partners because they love themselves enough, and want to protect their own bodies…

    Emotional communication is what marketers do(including the Rick Warrens of the world). Using this tool in the service of helping others see that atheism is a “normal” (not rational, normal–you have to grok the difference) way to exist is the strongest way of reaching the most people. Solicit stories from people. When you have a few hundred, keep the ones that made you cry. Have a therapist read them. Have a marketer read them. Keep the best 15-20. Edit aggressively. Work hard on a title. Get a haircut for the Today show…

    Many people need to see others modelling a “lifestyle” in order to conceive it for themselves. This is not about “hiding” the iconoclasts of atheism, it’s about holding a mirror up for regular folks to look into and see a new version of themselves free from the emotional tyranny of “faith.”

    Just don’t title it something lame like “Atheist Voices”

  • Anonymous

    I see little way to eliminate one’s own bias when thinking that atheists are too cold and rational, or too emotional, or like sniggering teenagers, etc.  It’s very hard to be know with any assurance that one technique or another won’t be effective for this person or that person, or at this time or another, and then you have to  be clear which goal you’re talking about.

    Rather than criticizing entire approaches, I think it’s better to realize that we never know what may affect someone else a little or even a lot, so any approach may be useful in some circumstance, and it’s hard to know for which circumstance with any hard evidence.

    I hesitate to say this, but with the exception of clear evidence to the contrary, it’s all good.

  • Griefbeyondbelief

    I find that the need some people have to hear the truth in an emotional, personal manner puts me in an odd position as an atheist.  My story, and the story of Grief Beyond Belief (the nonreligious grief-support network) move people, including believers, because they involve the death of my infant son.  This makes it much harder for believers to say, “You only *think* you can live without God because your life is easy.  Just go through a tragedy and we’ll see you praying!”

    Grief connects us as human beings.  I have spent a substantial amount of time questioning and challenging believers who would have quickly turned away from the conversation if we had not already connected on the topic of grief.  I also challenge atheists to better meet the emotional needs of our community: to interact with each other, with former believers, and with those struggling to let go of belief with kindness, compassion and patience.  Those who are in need of emotional support, whether it is the grieving parent or the teenager coming out as gay, will find it easier to leave the church if we offer the same or better support and community than the church, but without the lies of God or the afterlife.

    As for the question of whether we should speak with anger and biting humor or compassion and heartwarming stories: true, lasting change ALWAYS comes from many directions.  If my weapon in this battle is schmaltz and yours is sarcasm, so much better to win the war. 

  • Anonymous

     @deanna So the logical folks over at pharyngula who mock those who approach things from an emotional level, react with emotional vehemence to someone using logic about how best to achieve the goals they claim to advance. This is somehow excusable? The point is that if you pride yourself in following logical processes and openly mock those who do not, you should be rightly exposed when your behavior is totally out of line with the values you claim to adhere to.

  • Slantrhyme

    Being an atheist is like being in or being a fan of an honest true-blue indie rock band:  you do it coz you do it and don’t make a big production of it.  Unfortunately that won’t get you many fans.  The truth sells itself, but very slowly.   We need more fireworks, sure, but we can’t lie to ourselves enough to set them off. 

  • JA

    It took me years to “become” an atheist. I finally gave up on religion in the hospital when my first pregnancy ran into big trouble and they were planning to deliver prematurely. I was worried about losing the baby or whether she would have problems if she did survive. I tried to pray and realised there wasn’t anything there to pray to. I realised how meaningless and useless it was. Yet, I honestly don’t think I could make this story emotional in any way. Maybe it’s because I would tell it like it actually happened and not embellish it the way born agains do.

  • In a lot of cases, atheists/humanists/skeptics aren’t going for the emotional appeal because they’re already quite well aware of how manipulative it is. Religion (and marketing) live almost exclusively in the emotional realm because that’s the only thing they have to offer. We have to ask ourselves if it’s really useful resorting to the same crass tactics (instead of, for instance, pointing out how crass they are in the first place.)

    We also have to be careful about judging impact from first impressions. If, for instance, Hemant had presented just one aspect within his panel discussion that made people think, that might arise again later, he most likely would’ve thwarted whatever immediate warm-and-fuzzy feeling the christian woman brought about. Emotions are great, but they’re short-lived. When they peter out and we’re back in neutral mode, appeals to rationality still remain.

    There are lots of different approaches, and it all depends on what we’re trying to do. If the Reason Rally were full of people telling their conversion stories, however emotional, it would have looked more like a support group and have been even more ignored by those ‘outside’ the group. It also would have virtually no effect on religion, since we would have been doing exactly what every religion wants by simply leaving them alone, accepting their demarcations. But part of the point was to bring attention to how often religion intrudes where it doesn’t belong, and that really can’t be addressed with happy stories. That has nothing to do with gaining converts, and everything to do with keeping religion personal.

    That article, by the way, was all over the map, and showed no small amount of self-contradiction. When someone directly quotes Dawkins speaking of the beauty of evolution and then claims his only message was ridicule, I’m really not able to take them seriously.

  • Why do atheists, or at least some atheists, need to “fellowship” around their atheism?

  • Gunstargreen

    I can’t help it people are suckers for their emotions and flowery stories. There’s nothing similarly emotional to my becoming an atheist. Nothing positively emotional at least, as it wasn’t an easy thing to become.

  • Anonymous

    You’re right that theism focuses on emotional and social fulfillment, and atheism focuses on cool logic and reason.  One of the things I do like about this blog is that it recognizes the emotional and social needs that churches meet as positive things; things that would also benefit the atheist community.   However, here..

    We think that if we just state the evidence, people will figure it out. They won’t. They rarely do. They don’t all think like we do.
     I think you make the divide between “us” and “them” here too big.  After all, a large portion of “us” is made up of former “them”.  While I think you are under-emphasizing the appeal of logic and facts, I think we should bring in speakers and leaders with more emotive style.  We might de-convert more people, but it would also reaffirm the diversity of our own community. 

  • FWIW, Pharyngula is also where you’ll find the daily “how I became an atheist” stories by readers.  Some of them are short and to the point:  “I became an adult.” 

    Others tell a story of people who WANTED to believe, who DID believe, and who experienced some particular turning-point event which changed their path.  Who went through hardships because of their decisions and yet know it’s the right choice for them to have made.

    And nobody accuses any of them in the comments of being accomodationists.

  • As with all communication, the real question is “who is your audience?” Consider an uncontroversial example. I speak regularly about my area of scientific research. This is a subject of wide interest: I speak at elementary schools, at high schools, at town meetings, at museum lectures, and at professional conferences. I’m discussing the same subject in each case, but my presentations are very different. At the schools, I’m trying to “convert” young minds to science by emphasizing the excitement of discovery. At community lectures, I try to tie my work to the local context. For educated, non-specialist adults I try to show how actual data is used to better understand nature. At scientific conferences, I talk about equipment, data analysis methods, and statistical results.

    This is the way atheists need to think when presenting their ideas. Dawkins has some great communications skills, but he is failing completely if he comes across as offensive when he’s presenting to a religious audience he wants to convert. The same speech may be highly effective in an auditorium full of atheists, however.

    My biggest complaint isn’t that atheists can’t tell a compelling story… they often can. The problem is that, all too often, they only tell it one way.

  • “I see a risk in this of creating a series of fairly tiny echo chambers, each tuned to one pitch only.”

    I believe you’ve perfectly described a pipe organ.  Those can be incredibly useful, I hear, if played in concert.

  • Because the alternative of going to a church for such contact is closed off.

  • Mike Laing

    I have difficulty talking to almost any christians because they are not about to change their minds anytime soon. Most of the ones I meet are not sincere about valuing the truth and reason. All I do is say things like, “That doesn’t make any sense” and “how do you figure that?” if they bring something religiously based.

    Personally, I am sick of using kid gloves and the more we are adamant about valuing truth and common sense, and being forceful about it, the more it becomes socially acceptable to speak our minds with equal force.

    Just keep making noise, and don’t intimate that religious views are acceptable in certain, personal, settings. Reason is reason, the right to not have religion preached at us is fundamental, and we should act that way always. It is only by not showing deference in any situation or manner that changes will happen. 

  • But if you don’t believe in God, why do you want to attend a group that talks about that?  Why wouldn’t you just go bowling or something?

  • Yup, I’ve heard this before. Oh so many times.

    I don’t believe I have any good way of knowing that things like deities exist or not. Therefore, my answer to “Does a god-like awareness exist?” is this: I don’t know and I have no trustworthy way of knowing. If you believe in things like gods, you may be right. If you don’t believe in things like gods, you might be also be right.

    In short:
    An atheist says that god does not exist.
    A theist says that god does exist.
    An agnostic says that neither opinion is one they can adopt because the answer is not knowable.

    These three definitions are not new. They existed long before the current wave of atheism. What I see now is an attempt to erase the middle ground. It is an attempt to set up battle lines and create an “us against them” dynamic. This suits the needs of the atheist movement because it wants to amass as many people as possible. You can’t do that as efficiently if many of your potential supporters fall across a wide spectrum of belief. So, why not manufacture an ideological binary? Black and white fires adversarial emotions far better than a full spectrum of color.

    I absolutely refuse to play along with this.

    You may now speak of unicorns, Santa Claus and probabilities, if you wish. I won’t be listening.

  • Ally P

    I don’t think the lack of interesting stories is essentially a bad thing. Atheism is something one arrives to oneself, through a process of sorting out “compelling stories” from “evidence” or lack thereof. And facts, while un-poetical, are still facts. 
    I don’t think we can “convert” people into thinking- which is why we cannot advertise. The religious, on the other hand, need to create the connect since what they are peddling is just that. Yes, as atheists we can be more pleasant and maybe “kinder” but we cannot “win hearts and minds” in the same way as they do- because we are not that way.  We should not try to beat the religious because a. we cannot b. that would not differentiate us from them because religion is a mass experience while atheism is more personal.

  • Still in hiding, sorry

    While I think that we
    could do a better job of promoting the fact that we are good people, that we do
    charitable work, and that we can live peacefully with those of faith,  I personally would rather remain in hiding for
    the rest of my life than see a single person “converted” to atheism
    on the basis of an emotional argument.

    I’m not an atheist because it’s cool, I’m an atheist because
    I see no evidence for a deity.  If people
    cannot be persuaded by reason, then so be it; otherwise, we risk the creation
    of a social movement, rather than a rational one, which I believe would
    inevitably become nothing more than just one more religion.  This is what concerns me most about the approach
    taken by those like de Botton.


    There are no shortcuts. 
    Yes, we must show that we are not monsters, we must continue to speak to
    the wonders of the real world, we must encourage people to learn and study and
    think critically.  But, in the end, if
    they cannot be convinced through rational means, then that’s the way it goes.


    I don’t want people to “convert” to atheism; I wan
    people to admit to it.

  • Still in hiding, sorry

    Sorry about the weird formatting; I psted from Word, and it mucked it up.

  • PS: There is, of course, a wide spectrum of belief between atheist, agnostic, and theist. I fall pretty close to the middle. Obviously, you do not.

  • Aimeejoe

    You know tragedy;illness; loss, does seem to drive people toward religion.  Kind of like they are afraid of more trouble if they don’t become more obedient to the deity of their choice.  It reminds me of an abusive relationship.  The more beating one takes the more the abused thinks it is their fault.  

  • I see it this way:

    An agnostic says that, philosophically speaking, it’s not possible to say a god does or doesn’t exist.

    An atheist says that, scientifically speaking, the tests which should’ve shown the existence of the supernatural have failed.  Until one of those tests shows otherwise, we’re going with the null hypothesis.

    A theist says that he doesn’t care about the evidence, scientific or philosophical, unless it confirms what he’s already decided to believe.

  • Anonymous

    In that case, since you ended your post by poisoning the well on discourse, I suppose I’ll just say have a nice day!

  • As a species, we have many types of individuals, like the different kinds of bees in a hive, workers, drones, queen, etc. Each fulfills their genetic code by emotionally reacting to their circumstances in their unique way. Some weigh the facts, others look to people’s feelings, yet others keep out of the way and look from a distance, seemingly uninvolved, yet important to the outcome. Some are destroyers, seemingly unable to leave  a tender moment alone. They are all important – actually, I think (along with Joseph Campbell) we developed the different roles genetically for survival  as the human family.  To try to shoehorn everyone into one type of person’s role is to ignore this diversity in hopes of a perfect world – it ain’t gonna happen. And it shouldn’t happen. The more diverse we are in being atheists, the more chance we have of changing the entire society for the better.  Just do what feels right to you,  and let other atheists do their part without judgement – we’ll all get where we wanna go sooner.

    Hell, maybe being an atheist in itself is a genetic mutation for survival. It sure feels like it sometimes.

  • FSq

    With all due respect, why should we have to modify our speech to try and make those who call us heathens, evil, “going to hell” and without morals, nice and happy?

    Great, some 10-year old has his parents ghost write a book saying he had a mystical experience in heaven and it reaches Joe and Suzie Six-Pack with a bible under each arm.

    We need to make it such that THOSE people have to try and get into OUR good graces, not the other way around. However there is one major problem here:

    Checkers always did outsell chess.

  • Anonymous-Sam

     Just makes me think of the news site I glanced at yesterday, announcing the Tennessee bill that’ll let teachers pick apart what parts of science they don’t like (i.e., the bill doesn’t let them teach creationalism, but it lets them teach that evolution is wrong). The very first comment was something along the lines of “Whoo, way to go, believers, making our kids even stupider than they already were! Jesus would be proud if he weren’t dumb shit some dead fuck made up!” and the other 9001 replies were… not indicative of anyone being swayed by his logic.

    Unfortunately, that’s exactly the sort of response I’ve come to expect to see. So yes, ridicule, mockery and contempt, that is exactly what the average atheist seems to think is the best argument. Maybe if we call them a dumb fuck a few more times, they’ll start to listen? HEY THAT GETS THROUGH TO SOME PEOPLE.

    Not that I’ve ever seen it.

  • Aimeejoe

    No one knows for sure.   I call myself an atheist because I do not believe in man made gods.  But I do not call myself an agnostic because I have no idea what is out beyond the singularity.  No one does, yet.  My suspicion is that there are no gods; at least gods that we can imagine.   Atheism and theism is an earth bound idea it cannot reach into the abyss and be anything but.  It would be foolish to announce that you know anything about what is beyond what already know. 

  • Given the amount of well poisoning I see atheists engage in on a daily basis (ridicule, mocking, and contempt), I am having difficulty feeling any remorse. Funny, how people do not like it when the tables are turned.

  • Yes. I have been saying for years that we need to employ some emotion if we are going to truly communicate with those whose argument is based in their emotion rather than in their intellect. That is why a friend and I have created and published two atheist poetry collections, “Above Us Only Sky” (Incarnate Muse Press, 2003 & 2008) since poetry tends to appeal to emotion. I am happy to see that more atheism/Humanism/Freethought is finally being expressed via the arts. The 2nd Annual International Freethought Film Festival will take place in Denver in August this year, and a photographer, Chris Johnson, recently raised over $100,000 on kickstarter to fund his photography book, “A Better Life”, featuring photos of 100 atheists and their thoughts on joy and meaning in their lives. A filmmaker, Eric Criswell, is on kickstarter right now trying to raise funds for a documentary about ministers who have lost their faith but who feel they are trapped in their job and cannot reveal their new atheism. Let’s keep it up and use the arts more!  And, when we can, let’s help those need funding for these exciting and worthy artistic endeavors.

  • FSq

    Oh yes, I forgot.

    In many ways, I too am like Bill Maher. I am an atheist because it requires so little effort. No church, no Thursday night bingo, no preaching…..

  • An atheist says he does not believe in any god or gods. Some atheists may claim there are no gods, but that is not a general statement of atheism, merely an opinion of some atheists.

    Philosophically, “agnostic” usually means a person who claims an idea is beyond knowledge. In practice, I think most people who call themselves agnostic are, in fact, atheists who simply don’t like that word, or are afraid to really commit to what they truly believe.

  • Actually, I’ve heard theists say that deep within their hearts, on an intuitive level, they feel the presence of something. So, you might say that a theist trusts their sense of intuition more than other sources of information and sees those sources of information as incomplete without the additional input of intuition.

    I understand that this is extremely unsatisfactory to most atheists and that people seem to think that such ways of approaching the world are terrible. I think a lot of theists feel the same way about atheists, too.

    And thus, we have one large brawl–unity through animosity.

    Maybe there’s room for both kinds of people? Maybe pluralism is a better goal than seeing those who are different from you as defective?

    The answer I’ve been seeing coming from both extremes is: no, we must eliminate the other way of being.

    The well is poisoned by poisonous goals, as well as poisonous words.

  • Anonymous

    Well, actually, that’s what a lot of atheist groups do; the one I belong to, for example, has gone bowling, and plays trivia weekly at local restaurants. At these events we don’t yammer on loudly about atheism, necessarily, but we’ll talk about it if someone brings up an interesting point – and in doing so, we’ll know we’ve got a receptive audience.
    Short version: an atheists’ meeting doesn’t have to be all serious or all frivolous.

  • Anonymous

    You could have dropped the spiel and merely written your last sentence. The meaning would be unchanged.

  • Write your own things that you’d like the world to see in the tone that
    you want.  And then people will come on your blog and tell you that you
    are being too harsh and you can tell them to fuck off.   😀

    You gotta love the irony of someone who defends the lack of effective discourse at Pharyngula by scolding someone here.

    I’m wondering why you’re not following your own advice, but then again, I’ve already seen how many Pharyngulites believe they can do no wrong, and have no reason to consider it.

    By the way, don’t bother replying – I’m not into hypocrisy.

  • I’ve heard this one before in another venue. Bisexuals are often told by lesbians/gay men that they are too afraid to choose the more radical way of being (“pure” homosexuality). They are too enamored of heterosexual privilege. In a sense, they are the cowards of sexual orientation. (I don’t think this, but some lesbians/gay men do.)

    I’ve seen radical feminist separatists tell run of the mill feminists that they need to pick the side of separatism and that run of the mill feminists are tools of the patriarchy if they do not. Attachment to men is an unwillingness to take a stronger, truer position.

    This social pattern plays out again and again.

  • I wasn’t asking what kind of fun activities might an atheist group take on.  I was asking what it is that causes atheists to need their version of “church.”

  • Anonymous

    I would bet that there are very few emotional stories of de-conversion compared to the number of people who suffered enough cognitive dissonance to start doing the homework it requires to familiarize oneself with the actual evidence and how to follow it to it’s logical conclusion. To get away from presuppositionalism and motivated reasoning.
    I empathize with those who’ve de-converted after a health related scare and found no solice in religion, of those who came from abusive situations at the hands of religious parents or pastors, or those who are ostracized for their sexuality, or other non-conformity.  But my own story is that I had doubts and apologetic answers weren’t cutting it.  There’s nothing terribly emotional about it. The pain of cognitive dissonance grew. But I went along with the crowd for a long time.  What started me actually doing my own homework was an introduction of creationism as actual science.  That in-of-itself wasn’t enough, but it led to the recognition of logical fallacies which led to higher biblical criticism. And that is where my faith diluted to homeopathic proportions.
    I certainly feel the need to be compassionate at times and militant at times, but I take great care in when to approach each indiviual situation.  Still, my story is not wrought with emotion, just a desire to live in reality.

  • Anonymous

     Some atheists do indeed go bowling.

    In my atheist group we talk about the problems of living in the hyper-religious community we reside in.  We talk about rampant anti-atheist discrimination.  We discuss difficulties many of the members have in revealing their atheism to their families and friends, and dealing with the aftermath.  We vent our annoyance or amusement or fury at the actions of religious people, from saying “a miracle, God is great!” when a disaster kills all but one person, to assassinating a politician who dares to question anti-blasphemy laws.  We discuss the many, many overreaches of religion in society, religious privilege, infringements on women’s health care, creationist incursions into science curricula, religion-based anti-gay discrimination.  We talk about the inappropriate adoration of the concept of faith itself, about the denigration of science, and about anti-intellectualism.  We discuss evolution, morality, and agency.  There are many topics to discuss.

    We also eat food and drink coffee in the company of people of like mind, people who don’t think it’s strange or a failing to be an atheist, people who share many of our concerns and interests.  We haven’t gone bowling yet, but we might.

  • Agreed.  It’s like the faith healers who tell those who are not healed that they do not have enough faith.  Perhaps they feel the tragedy was caused because they did not have enough whatever to offer the god of their choosing.   It just makes me sad.   But again, it makes for a compelling story that tugs on the heartstrings of anyone listening.  If I say, “Yup, my 4 month old nephew died of SIDS and that continues to provide me proof there isn’t a god.”  It’s nto nearly as romantic/tragic as if I say, “My 4 month old nephew was called home to a Jesus I did not know.  It was him who showed me the light of the Lord as he was granted his angel wings.”

    (I feel really dirty even saying the latter).

  • LifeInTraffic

    It’s not church. It’s a place where like-minded people go to do stuff, just as a book group, chess club, hiking group, etc. would be. None of these things are a “Church,” they’re just meetings of people with similar interests. Sometimes they will stamp collect, scrap book, hike, or whatever their focus is, but often they’ll also do other activities. It’s called a social group. Gatherings of people who have a common interest or lifestyle does not a church make. There’s no “worhship” of atheism going on.

    And, if you’re in my neck of the woods, it’s probably the ONE place you could go that doesn’t totally revolve around religion regardless of other activities. Seriously, the hiking groups here open with a prayer. Ugh.

  • Anonymous

     Community. It’s a place to “talk shop” with people who understand your vocabulary and your problems, except that it’s more personal than professional.

  • Anonymous

    You are either being purposefully obtuse, or trolling your way around until you feel like someone has walked into whatever “gotcha!” you are planning. But Sackbut already answered your question. Humans are social animals. We congregate with others with similar interests and experiences as us to feel welcomed and comfortable and communicate about shared experiences and just generally enjoy life. Church does not have a monopoly on groups of like-minded individuals getting together to pontificate on ultimate questions (or go bowling, which I did plenty of when I was a youngster as part of a Lutheran youth group.)

  • Cincinatheist,

    Regarding your first sentence, you’re wrong on both counts.

  • There are powerful reason for why stories engage us, and while some seem to be born with the talent to socially connect with others with little effort, connecting with an audience can be learned, like any skill.

    I did a lot of work in marketing communications. It will come as no surprise to folks here to learn that deception, manipulation and obfuscation are practiced regularly by MarCom people. We do these shady things because it’s the most effective way of implanting messages into the mind of the consumer. As James Randi has shown, even the brightest people are subject to the deceptions of a trickster. While critical thinkers are the least likely to be taken in by communications sleight-of-hand, the tools that are used remain highly effective because that’s the way human beings are wired.

    If the purpose of a given atheist is to engage with believers in the hopes of breaking them out of their bubble, the methods that should be used are as varied as the audiences. Organizations spend a lot of money on understanding who their customers are, and they keep spending that money because customers continue adjusting their wants and needs. In short, it’s not realistic to pick one communications strategy and expect a million religious bubbles to burst. The approach has to be more of a mosaic, and the trick is in matching strategy to audience.

  • Anonymous

    For the same reason any other humans seek out like-minded individuals. Not necessarily “church” per se, but some grouping that provides social interaction, the ability to expand a group of friends, opportunities for learning, a platform for organization, mutual activities … why is that so hard to understand? It should be obvious: being human “causes” us to need each other.

  • Anonymous

    The problem isn’t the answer but the question. “Tell me about the time your dog died.” vs. “Tell me about the first time you met your dog.” Guess which one of these stories is going to suck?

    The story of how we all became atheists is not particularly compelling. Coming to the realization that most of the world believes something we have found to be false isn’t exactly the theme to uplifting Lifetime movies for a reason.

  • I think your examples are poor ones. Bisexuals do exist on a continuum between complete heterosexuality and complete homosexuality. Opinions on feminism do span a spectrum.

    Agnosticism, however, does not lie on some continuum between theism and atheism. Indeed, no such continuum exists at all. You are a theist or an atheist; there’s no middle ground.

    A rational, intellectually honest agnostic is an atheist. The two are not mutually exclusive. A rational person does not believe in gods, because there is no evidence of their existence, and because there is nothing we observe that can only be explained (or even be best explained) by gods or supernatural elements.

    Different atheists will have different degrees of comfort with the evidence (and lack of evidence), and will therefore be more or less certain in the confidence they place on their views. Some atheists will be so certain that they are willing to say “there are no gods”. Others are not certain at all, and lean towards “I don’t know”. And some will say “the question cannot be answered”. That is the view of an agnostic. But still an atheist.

    Of course, a theist can be an agnostic as well. Agnosticism has nothing to do with either theism or atheism, and it is not exclusive of either.

  • Are you kidding?! Your story is already emotional, just as you tell it! It’s already compelling. From the first sentence, I wanted to read to the end.

    A good story doesn’t need “embellishing”. It captures some truth that reaches people in a way they can relate to. Yours does. And it leaves me wanting more… how was the birth? How has your life changed? Again, important elements of a good story.

  • Anonymous

     Reason does not lend itself to warm and fuzzy like a story about being saved.  If what you are looking for is an entry point into the bubble that an emotional story can provide, I don’t know if reason can do that.  

    Humor is an emotion that can also provide a way in.   I’m not talking about making fun of them or their beliefs, but those human moments that we all share and can laugh at together.    I forget who said this:  
    If you’re going to tell people the truth, learn to make it funny. 

  • Vad

    I also like your story and think it is emotionally compelling! I also like it because I essentially had the same experience – not with being pregnant, but with praying about something that was very stressful to me and then realizing that their was nothing to pray to and that it was just me.

    The ‘problem,’ as I see it, with stories like these is that, while they are certainly emotional and especially resonate with people who have been there, I’m afraid they will come across as really “negative” to people who haven’t had that experience. Usually going from meaning to meaninglessness, or from having divine support to it just being you on your own, doesn’t make people particularly inclined to that message, at least emotionally. I know I couldn’t think of a way to tell my story that comes across as particularly inspiring. Your story might, though, if it had a happy ending? D:

  •  This.  Personally, I resent it when people impose on my politeness to force me to listen to their various emotional journeys or health issues.  Those discussion should be saved for one’s closest friends.

  • Anonymous

    Xtian stories about life experiences in the extreme bringing them to Christ make me barf.  I have been a devout atheist woman since I was 16, and am now 54.  My life has been extreme, and at each turn I have chosen to be the “atheist in the foxhole.”  

    Due to a hereditary disorder, I have had the “opportunity” to understand disability.  I was born with the spine from hell and have had 11 spine surgeries in the last 25 years.  While I had to give up volleyball and softball, I still have a 13 golf hcp.

    My romantic life has similarly provided challenges.  I divorced once in my twenties, once in my thirties, and then found the man of my dreams at age 39.  He died suddenly  in a canoeing accident.  Found the even better man of my dreams at age 45 and he was killed in a car accident six months into our relationship. 

    I have humorously considered the fact that there might be a god and he wants me on my knees, but have never wavered.  The deaths of loved ones hit me harder because I believe that it is The End.  I was in the room as my ethical atheist father lost his battle with cancer without wavering, so I guess it is in my blood.  

    I know about personal loss, I am well acquainted with grief, and I have steadfastly remained an atheist.  No matter how hard life got, abandoning my brain for a belief in a Sky Fairy offered no solace.

    Interestingly, I am extremely active in my (conservative, small town) community and am always praised for my positive attitude and ability to motivate and validate.  Most do not know I am an atheist and would be surprised to know that my personal “spirit” is wholly the outcome of life choices on my part.  

    My life story could and does motivate; but there is no plate to pass, so its value is limited.  An xtain could sell it, but I prefer to simply live the hand I am dealt with the most skill I can muster.

    Tellin’ it like it is. . .


  • SJH

    A couple of thoughts:
    You assume that Christians/religious only come to their beliefs through emotion. There are many theists who come to their conclusions based on a “long process of introspection” as well. In fact there are many atheists who, after this “long process”, come to the conclusion that God does exist and become religious. This is not unusual.

    You make a good suggestion that, if you want to convert people, then you should spend more time on personal stories. But telling a story is not the end of it. The story must have a conclusion, it has to have hope to be compelling. Speaking as an outsider, if I were emotional and you were trying to convert me, my first reaction (perhaps subconsciously) would be to wonder what is at the end of the tunnel and is it compelling? Honestly, even if you made the best arguments for why atheism is the most likely truth (which I disagree), I think I would take the risk and still choose the lesser of the probabilities, religion, because I would want there to be a purpose. People want to have hope in something. Telling me that there is no hope in anything outside of our limited existence and that our suffering serves no purpose is not compelling to me.

  • Anonymous

    I wasn’t asking what kind of fun activities might an atheist group take on.  I was asking what it is that causes atheists to need their version of “church.”

    But instead you’ve stumbled into a vast bowling conspiracy! 😀

  • I’m actually working on something along those lines for this summer… Not quite what you lay out here, but in the same vein.

  • Agnosticism, however, does not lie on some continuum between theism and
    atheism. Indeed, no such continuum exists at all. You are a theist or an
    atheist; there’s no middle ground.


    People keep on telling me that I do not exist and yet, when I look in the mirror, I see an image.

    Mr. Peterson, I think the point is that you do not see how I categorize myself as being a rational choice. On that we disagree. I provided an explanation, and you don’t think it makes sense. I’ve provided observations of social patterns that I see repeating themselves. You think that doesn’t make sense.

    OK, then.

    I will continue to identify as I do, and you can just see me as irrational. I don’t care.

  • Darwin’s Dagger

    It’s hard to tell a good story about discovering nothing. You aren’t going to excite people with tales about emptiness. Your atheism, in an of itself, means nothing, it requires no defense or explanation, it is merely a perfectly good response to an overwhelming lack of evidence.

    The integrity of science, the maintenance of the separation of church and state, the fight against religiously inspired discrimination and hatred can be a source of inspirational stories and arguments, but these topics are not exclusively the concern of atheists, so you may have to share them with theists, deists and other believers.

  • I think a lot of the problem is that so many atheists – especially those who label themselves “anti-theists” – think it’s a great idea to call religion a mental disorder or a disease. This is insulting to those people who hold a simple faith, but are not ardently hellfire-and-brimstone religious people (such as my brother). If anything, calling religion a disease or a disorder is only strengthening the resolve of those religious that  are determined to think that we are the tools of evil. 
    Also, as a person who appreciates science, but is decidedly more interested in art and humanities, it’s very easy to be put off by the sheer amount of science thrown at me by many in the atheist community. Don’t get me wrong, I love research and hardcore academic philosophy, but the fact is that many people just straight up don’t understand science; for example, when I told my parents that we’re essentially seeing the photographs of stars, the response I got was, “They don’t know that. How do they know that?” Part of the reason behind this is that people who look at things solely from a scientific perspective are viewed as unfeeling, emotionless robots. That’s why our arguments about aborting cells fall on deaf ears; those cells represent what may or may not turn into a person, and because we decide to look at things solely from the scientific viewpoint, our argument feels emotionless and calculative, even though for most people, the argument is very emotional indeed. We need to be more accessible in general. I came to atheism through not just science, but through the impact of various works of art (Bo Burnham’s “Words, Words, Words”, His Dark Materials, various quotes and literature). We need more of that, more emotional oomph, because science alone just doesn’t cut it for most people who grew up with a religion.

  • I don’t care how you categorize yourself. Just don’t make the claim that “agnostic” defines you in the same way “atheist” or “theist” does. The last two actually tell me something about your beliefs in deities. The first tells me nothing. If you call yourself an agnostic, I still don’t know if you believe in gods or not.

    Whether or not you are an agnostic, you still MUST be either a theist or an atheist. Those are non-overlapping sets that include every human with enough of a mind to conceive of the concept.

  •  A lot of coming to Atheism stories are from emotional to rational. For many who look for stories, this is not as compelling. My own story was a rather slow process of letting go of all fictions bit by bit, not out of strife or horror or disgust, but because reason simply made more sense historically, humanely, and emotionally. When it was evident that all the sugar-coatings were just in the way, the last of them blew away. Remembering that still makes me feel free. YMMV

    But had anyone been in my face about it along the way, I would have resented it. I do things at my own pace. I always have. Trying to get me to hurry up and evolve just makes me stubborn. 😉

    That is why I see the shift from religosity to reason as a continuum, and not as a an either/or switch. Very few people can handle the dizzying effect of removing religious trappings and having to stand in full view of an uncaring universe. Most need to build up an inner strength for that. Or find the inner strength that is already there, more likely. This is where the compassion and understanding come in. Not to coddle, not to forgive, but to support, and to assure – like crutches do. There is nothing wrong with offering support while someone learns to walk.

  • (deleted – formatting too skinny)

  • An atheist says that god does not exist.
    A theist says that god does exist.
    An agnostic says that neither opinion is one they can adopt because the answer is not knowable.

    Translation: I neither believe, nor disbelieve in the phenomena known as deities.

    The problem is, I am not giving you the answer you want. You want me to pick a side: yes or no, atheist or theist.

    From Wikipedia:

    In the popular sense, an agnostic is someone who neither believes nor disbelieves in the existence of a deity or deities, whereas a theist and an atheist believe and disbelieve, respectively. In the strict sense, however, agnosticism is the view that human reason is incapable of providing sufficient rational grounds to justify the belief that deities either do or do not exist.

    A list of agnostics.

  • Just because something is not knowable, that doesn’t mean one can’t have a rational opinion based on evidence.

    All rational people are atheists, because rationalism doesn’t support the alternative. They may or may not be agnostic, just as theists may or may not be agnostic.

    Claiming to be agnostic as an alternative to either theism or atheism is nothing more than intellectual laziness. You are treating “agnostic” as “I’m not certain”, which isn’t what it means.

    (The Disqus format is really not conducive to structured discussions of any depth!)

  • Those are non-overlapping sets that include every human with enough of a mind to conceive of the concept.

    I love the implicit insult, C Peterson.

    I have to say, the negative attitudes I see coming from either extreme only serve to remind me of some of the possible drawbacks of forming an opinion about something for which their isn’t enough information.

    I’ll stick to being “intellectually lazy”.

  • Annie

    I think atheists could tell compelling stories that would reach a larger audience by sharing a crisis event and then the tools one used to make it through that crisis.  Really, it’s all in the story leading up to how you dealt with it that (I think) appeals to a larger audience.  For example, if you wanted to share the juicy details of a failing marriage, you could then end the story with how you utilized trained professionals in psychology to help you find the tools the relationship was lacking.  Or how you spent hours researching the treatment protocol of a loved one to ensure they received the best possible care… after you had the room sobbing about the loved one’s condition or ailment. 

  • There was no insult intended, implicit or otherwise. I only wanted to eliminate from the two sets anybody incapable of understanding the distinction- babies and small children, the senile, the mentally ill. To include all humans in the sets would be inaccurate.

    The fact that you see my comment as a personal insult does tell me something about your worldview, and helps explain why you see so much negativity.

    My entire approach to discussion centers on civility. I never substitute reasoned argument with insult.

  • Somehow, I doubt your sincerity.

  • TCC

    I think some atheists forget that there really are people on the margins of religion who can be pulled away from its gravitational pull (if I may mix my metaphors somewhat). I haven’t been a nonbeliever for long – about 2.5 months – but that is essentially my story, and I’m hopeful that there are more people out there who were in my position and could be persuaded that religion is bunk.

  • Deanna Joy Lyons

    I’m unsure of where you are getting the idea of hypocracy and scolding. I’m being earnest in my reply to the above commenter (aside from the obvious throwaway joke indicated by the smiley). I really do want there to be lots of different voices speaking about atheism in all sorts of ways. Perhaps it’s the difficulty of text, but it sure says a lot about your idea of what an appropriate discourse is if you a) immediately assume the worst about someone, then b) scold them and c) tell them not to reply because you don’t want to have open dialogue.

  • Deanna Joy Lyons

    Well said! As someone who also uses a bit (ok, maybe a lot) of schmaltz I approve this message. 🙂

  • Anonymous

    Kent, honestly, I agree with a lot of what you say regarding the perception of atheists (and others who tout science) as unfeeling robots, and I agree that emotional impact helps make stories memorable.  You’ve said some things, though, that I think summarize a number of disagreements I have with a few strains of discussion here.

    I think a lot of the problem is that so many atheists – especially those who label themselves “anti-theists” – think it’s a great idea to call religion a mental disorder or a disease.

    They don’t think it’s a great idea; they think it’s a true statement.  What would you have them do, lie?  Can you think of a polite, gentle way to tell someone you think their belief system constitutes a mental disorder?

    I assume you disagree that religion is a mental disorder.  Fine; that’s a factual claim, something to be put on the table and debated openly, with evidence and argumentation, not discarded because some people are offended by the question.

    And face it, simply being atheists is inherently insulting to many religious people.  Atheists are claiming that God, something around which the religious person has based his entire world view and many of the actions and decisions of his life, doesn’t exist, that religion is false.  There is not an easy way to soft-pedal that one.  There are ways of being less obnoxious about it, sure, but if we are to be honest, the truth is harsh.

    We need more of that, more emotional oomph, because science alone just doesn’t cut it for most people who grew up with a religion.

    A bunch of people have said something like this in the comments here, that people respond better to atheists being nice than to atheists ridiculing ridiculous ideas.  I don’t believe it.  I’d like to see some evidence.  Thus far, the only evidence I have seen are overwhelmingly in support of the other side: all the anecdotes like those at the Dawkins site in which a religious person was convinced by strongly-worded critiques and ridicule to take a long hard look at (and eventually leave) faith.  It would be nice to see if “you can catch more flies with honey than you can with vinegar” actually panned out, but I am not convinced.

    To be sure, the purpose of strongly-worded critique and ridicule is not necessarily to convince believers of the folly of religion, but if that is one of the effects, great.

  • Tomasz

    I think that maybe for a few atheists, the reason their stories aren’t so warm and cuddly is because there is a lot of anger behind it and an eye opening into reality, into fresh air which is what majority of people fear doing or even hearing about it. 

    For me, I was and still am angry at what religion is and how it works. Although I do have a feeling of finally awakening and living life free of this slavery. Very few people break away from the shackles of religion for many reason but mostly because of the fear of what others will think etc. 

    Also, becoming an atheist is something quite rare but on the other hand, it is achieving a higher purpose in one self. This of it like competing in the olympics, not many people get to that level.

    Just think of the 80/20 rule, its probably 99/1 like in business or anything else. The same could be perhaps be said about atheism, that it’s rare. I mean to be successful in business, you have to do what you want and not listen to others (to a certain extent). 
    Just the numbers themselves tell you that it must be a huge deal to the the 1% of society.

  • JA

    Yes, every thing turned out fine. She was delivered two months early and hospitalized for one month. She’s 7 now and doesn’t have any issues. You’ve basically stated what I think the problem would be with my story. It would seem like I went on a path with no meaning or comfort, which isn’t as compelling as the stories of people who found God in times of crisis rather than those of us who lost God in a crisis. It doesn’t seem like the end is happy. Even if I am happy, which I am.

  • Jim

    You do understand that liking an idea does not make that idea actually true, right? 
    I totally LOVE the idea that I get a paycheck without working.  I could even use lots of “introspection” to arrive at the conclusion that this idea makes me feel really fuzzy (is “compelling,” in your terms).  But the actual real-world data just doesn’t support that my beloved idea is true.   I could nonetheless cling to fake “hope” that my paychecks really will magically materialize without me going to work. Or, I could employ actual, real-world, data-driven hope and purpose.  For example, I could focus on the rewarding parts of my job, or on doing my work more efficiently, or on working harder for a promotion.   The real-world results  are not just compelling, but actually observable and verifiable too.     

  • pagansister

     So happy to hear all has gone well with your little girl, now a big girl of 7.   Having a husband (of 47 years) who is now experiencing memory loss, I wish I could pray to a Deity to stop the progression.  I can’t because there isn’t one.  Just have to take advantage of what medicines etc. that can slow the progression, but eventually there will be nothing medically that can be done.   There is no way this kind of thing is the “will of any god!”

  • Anonymous

    Here is my thing about that: 

    religious conversions are SUPPOSED TO BE DRAMATIC. Isn’t church testimony supposed to convert others to the faith? The crazy part is that many of these stories are exaggerated and embellished to be more attractive. 

    I know plenty of theists who pretty much make stuff up when it comes to being born again. 

    The crazy part is that most people when they learn I am an atheist, they always assume it was because of a traumatic church experience. When i tell them the story, they are bored (and I am a great story teller) because there aren’t any epiphanies or stories of child molestation or pastors sleeping with my wife. I am sure if there were, it would be more interesting. But for most of us atheists, we struggled with faith, did our research, talked to people, debated, and then made that decision. So do you want me to make stuff up? 

    As atheists, we shouldn’t be in the business of de-converting folks. Let folks do that on their own. many of these born again testimonies are doctored up (yes, i said it because most of them are made up – check all of the former atheists/satan worshippers who are now fundies) to convince people to join their church. we are just answering a question. 

    all we should be doing is letting people know we are here, we are good, and we aren’t letting them change and implement laws that come from someone’s imaginary friend or ancient text. 

  • SJH

    Jim, I do not think that you have any real world evidence that does or does not support anything regarding a deity. You should not speak as if science has some how proven that God does not exist. There is always a  possibility that God exists and based upon current evidence there is a good chance that God exists. The possibility is undeniable and far from remote. In my post, I was simply stating that even if the possibility was remote (not “fake”) then I, and I think many others, would still choose the remote possibility over atheism because atheism offers nothing beyond one’s self and a pointless existence. This is not an attractive option.
    I was also trying to point out that I agree with Hemant and that if you are attempting to convert people to atheism (sounds rather fundamentalist) then you will have to provide a compelling story but that it would be difficult from my perspective. I offer you the opportunity to provide that compelling story.

  • I was born an atheist. I don’t have a story, or a journey, or anything like that. Religion isn’t emotional for me, and neither is atheism. It just is. I am slightly troubled by the notion that we’re supposed to “get something” out of atheism, or that atheism is supposed to offer people something similar to what they get out of religion. It doesn’t do that, and it’s not intended to. Atheism is simply the fruit of honest, critical observation of the world around us. If that’s not enough for some people, I don’t think dressing up atheism in emotional terms is going to help. Maybe it’s better to focus on creating a more secular environment so that children aren’t indoctrinated into supernatural thinking in the first place.

  • Robyman444

    I was only one paragraph into this when I thought: The difference is that religion appeals so strongly to emotions while non-belief relies on the mind to sort things out. That be the situation. As a pretty powerful example of story-telling, in college I was head-over-heels for a Catholic girl. Having known her for nearly 6 years, about 2 months after I told her I was no longer a Christian – and getting no ugly reaction from her – one day her dad hits me with the fact that she’s engaged and visiting the guy in another city; I had never, ever known. Not hearing from her for the next 2 weeks – despite me telling her parents I was happy for her and her parents’ assurance that she would contact me – prompted me to completely lose my cool and write a very angry letter. She turned this over to her dad and he quickly phoned me to say “get lost.” This call took place literally moments after I stepped into my house from going out to dinner. For a long time I thought “well, damn, there is no way this can be a coincidence in terms of timing… god must be real and is teaching me a very clear lesson for being an atheist; one door has been slammed shut in my face, but if I pay attention surely another one will open. But the fact remains that her bullshit and her dad doing the dirty work are not respectable in any way and really just don’t make a shred of sense. And what sense does it make for God to reward her with a VERY wealthy husband, a big house and a family for behaving like that toward someone who thought we, at the very least, had a solid friendship? And were their actions the pure reflection of God’s will? Is that what God truly desires – total separation and no communication between Christians and nonbelievers on Earth? Seems to be the case, and I absolutely will not and cannot follow such a deity.” Well, long story short, I’m still an atheist 11 years later and a good friend of mine helped me to understand that I would have been contacted eventually, whether I was at home (parents) or at my apartment. And, equally important, I realized that even if god exists, we are not puppets. God does NOT attach invisible strings to our bodies and move us all around to precise locations at precise times for this or that event or “revelation” to occur. Such a set-up would annihilate the very concept of free will. As hard as it may be to believe, what happened to me wasn’t some planned event to make me “see the light,” and I would have heard from her dad sooner or later for him to deliver the final statement. In the end, she got what she wanted not because she’s a great person or because she deserves it as some kind of holy reward, but because she was insanely gorgeous. But I’d bet all the money I have that she still thinks her whole life is one big, divinely-controlled fairy tale/miracle…

  • Etan_ji

    A good example of reason and emotion working together should be one of the main philosophical objections to theism: The Problem of Evil (or, more accurately, the Problem of Suffering).  Obviously, there is a logical or evidential component, depending on which form it takes, but it’s always been obvious to me that there’s also a very strong emotional component there: the sheer horror and sorrow one feels at the suffering in this world.  As a teenager, I didn’t know what the Problem of Evil was, but I remember people telling me that God allowed suffering for such-and-such a very weak, ad hoc reason (if, indeed, they didn’t just say that “God works in mysterious ways”).  All of these reasons were abhorrent to me both rationally AND emotionally.  One church youth group leader even told me that an earthquake in India only happened because people there “didn’t keep up the practice of Christianity.”  Even at 15, I knew that was both historically inaccurate and incredibly callous and lacking in any shred of compassion for one’s fellow human beings.  This moment wasn’t quite a conversion on the road to Damascus, but it was one important event in my realization that I didn’t believe in God.  To this day, one reason I don’t believe in God (aside from all the usual reasons) is that doing so would make me a very angry person!  I find it much easier on my emotional well-being to be an atheist.

  • Georgina

    Truth is beauty! 

  • Demonhype

     I agree with you, and I have no idea why these guys don’t seem to get it.  Be “nice”,  be “accomodationist”, but you are not being told off for that, you are being told off for scolding someone who isn’t emulating the style you chose to emulate.

    As for that absurd claim that you have somehow “scolded” them–well, you weren’t.  You were pointing out that there are many different styles, ranging from nice and respectful to religion and aggressive and critical toward religion, and that they both work.  You were disagreeing.  They were scolding.  Some people never seem to understand the difference.  (For example, the former is “I think you are wrong and here is why” vs. “The way you live your life/express your views/etc is wrong and you need to specifically do it the way I do it because my way is the only correct way”.  They went to a blog and berated someone for not using the same sweet and gentle style they use to deal with the religiosos while insisting that anyone who wasn’t being sweet and gentle is a detriment to everything, while you simply disagreed with the idea that there is only a single view or technique that is acceptable or “right”, without insisting that your own favored approach is the one correct approach.)

    Why do some people never understand this?  That they are not being persecuted for their “accomodationism” but for their insistence that accomodationism is the “correct” way to do atheism?

  • Demonhype

     Yes.  My mom (though she now denies it ever happened) asked me when I started reading atheist blogs why I would want to associate with “the very people who commit rapes and murders and that sort of thing”.  She really said that–I remember it so much because it was not something I would have expected from her, but now she insists she never said or thought any such thing.

    Over  the years though, especially after I came out to my family as an atheist, my mom and my brother both started to hear stories that I would share with them from sites like Pharyngula or Friendly Atheist, or back in the day with IIDB, of anti-atheism discrimination and oppression and persecution and other nasty business regarding some of the uglier religious nuts.  I didn’t accuse them of anything or ask “why the hell would you want to be associated with people like this?” but just hearing those stories–and later, knowing that I was also an atheist–brought them to a point where they were aware of 1) what atheists are really like, 2) what many atheists have to deal with or go through and 3) how truly nuts some religious people can be, including some of the sorts of people they would have once believed to be wonderful because of their faith.

    Now my mother asks “why would anyone, including God, damn someone who honestly doesn’t believe in any of this?  They can’t choose to believe any more than I can choose not to believe.”

    All the logic and reason and philosophy wouldn’t do anything for her, but the emotional elements of personal anecdote combined with knowing an atheist changed a lot of her views about atheists as well as some of her views about religion (though she still personally believes).

  • Demonhype

     Problem is that every theist insists that “intuition” will indubitably show you that their own deity of choice is the “true” one and not any of the others.  No Christian says this without expecting you to become Christian–if you became anything but Christian, they would insist you “did it wrong”.  Or that a demon clearly answered your call.  Same goes for other believers.  How should I believe this “intuition” trip when those other fifteen believers with gods you totally disagree with are saying to me my “intuition” should lead me to their religions?  How should I believe in this “intuition” trip when people following their intuitions always seem to arrive at the religion they were raised with or, failing that, some other majority religion in the area they were born?  Unlike science and reality, where I can describe the scientific principle behind something and then demonstrate it, and all the intuition in the world won’t change the results?

    Intuition is not the equivalent of science and reality.  Intuitively the earth is flat and the sun goes around the us and not the other way around, for example.  Intuition is a combination of ignorance, emotional desire, and knee-jerk reaction with little to no basis in reality.

  • Demonhype

     Pretty much, yeah.

  • Demonhype

     There are people like PZ who get emails all the time of people who were swayed by their approach.  Some people are affected by sweet and gentle, some need to be shaken up and challenged.  Some believers take a sweet and gentle approach as evidence that you are weakening to “the Power of Christ” in them and the only thing that affects them is something that upsets or challenges them.  For every anecdote of how someone being “rude” wasn’t effective, there is an anecdote that it was, which is why the “I saw an article/know a guy/etc” thing isn’t the same as evidence.

    Not to mention all the “atheists/non-Christians are all stupid/evil” crap you get from the Christians, and no one ever starts whining at them about how bad or wrong that is–especially when it happens in their churches, which is where they are congregated.  Whereas when atheists get together in a rare situation where they can say what they want and not have to constantly censor themselves or worry about getting fired or something, in a country that is majority Christian/believer where they have to worry about being screwed over simply for existing, there is continuous whining about how horrible we are.  When Christians get together for a rally or at a Christian party or at their church or at the government buildings or events and talk about how worthless and evil unbelievers are, it’s just a “healthy attitude” or “free expression”, which apparently do not apply to atheists even in their own venues.  If an atheist has a get-together and out of ten people there one is a believer, those nine atheists MUST tiptoe around that believer’s precious little feelings or else those atheists are vile and evil and horrible and “not helping”.

  • Demonhype

     “In a lot of cases, atheists/humanists/skeptics aren’t going for the
    emotional appeal because they’re already quite well aware of how
    manipulative it is.”

    So much this.  I know that when someone tries to get me to think with emotion instead of reason, I find myself doubting them even more and being even more inclined to rationally and logically dissect everything  they say.  Because if you are going to insist I use emotion to make this decision, that is an indication that you don’t have a leg to stand on with evidence and if I made the effort to look at it logically all the massive gaping holes and problems and contradictions would come into clear view and you’d lose.  So you need me to think with my “heart” instead of a more reliable thinking organ, because emotion is infinitely malleable and it’s the only possible way you can make it look like you have any point at all.

    That doesn’t mean I don’t have emotions, just that I recognize emotion as a piss-poor decision-making tool, as well as it’s amazing usefulness as a slave-making tool.

  • Demonhype

     Very much so.  I mean, in my class, there is this one person whose portfolio has some Jesus-related Christian stuff in it and he can feel free to include it without reservations.  I, on the other hand, have to live in fear that some prospective employer will find out that I am an atheist–and nothing more than that.  I have to fear that simply being an atheist will prevent me from getting some much-needed employment.  And then I am told that these Christians are so persecuted and oppressed, even as they can speak as they please regarding not only the state of their faith but political/economic/etc. side-effects from that without fear of any kind of consequence (so long as they don’t become too extreme ie. advocate or enact violence), while I have to cower in fear that simply being an atheist will render me un-employable.

    So it’s nice to be around a group of people where I don’t have to curb my tongue, put up with religious views, or worry I’ll be put on some “do not hire” list.  If believers had to deal with the same thing they’d have some idea of why atheists bother to get together.  So far, I’ve only been able to do it online but I hope to be able to join some groups in person someday.  (I live in the middle of freaking nowhwere.)

  • chephy

    That’s the whole point though — religion is so successful because it speaks to emotion, and people drink it up because it’s so comforting for them. Trying to do same with atheism simply doesn’t work — first, it’s not very comforting (especially to the immature minds that need simplistic nurturing that religion provides), and secondly because the whole point of atheism is to step back from your emotions and examine the world in a rational, reasonable way. But I do think we can talk about some emotional component of atheism. For me the two primary themes in this regard are freedom (which, however, comes with a lot of responsibility as well as a sort of a cosmic loneliness) and the aesthetic beauty of scientific, logical examination of the world (and, conversely, the sickening religious nonsense — apart from all the other flaws with it, religion is just UGLY, it’s in SUCH excruciatingly poor taste!) 

    The truth is, though, I am an atheist in spite of the emotional side of things, not because of it. We’ll all die, and that just… sucks. If I could believe in God, I actually would — and I think that’s why so many people do… wishful thinking.

  • Coincidentally, I’m currently reading “50 Voices of Disbelief: Why We Are Atheists” and have found that the most interesting essays to me are those which relate personal experiences, rather than those which detail philosophical points (mostly related to theodicy, to be honest).

    I also happened to catch this video of Neil DeGrass Tyson discussing telling vs educating with Richard Dawkins.

  • LifeInTraffic

    Absolutely this. I don’t want to manipulate someone into something. This is one of my main complaints with almost all religions: it uses emotion and sensationalism to manipulate, to misdirect, to dissuade people from using reason and logic.  Using the same techniques, regardless of how effective they are, is just appalling to me.

    I’d much rather teach someone how to look at things with reason, how to think critically, how to evaluate things for themselves. It may be the slower road, but IMHO it’s the higher, more honest road.

    I don’t want to “convert” people to anything. I want them to learn to see clearly, beyond emotion and hyperbole. They shouldn’t “convert” to atheism, they should learn to eschew irrational, harmful belief systems through skepticism, reason, and critical thinking. To me, this is a very different thing than “conversion.”

  • LifeInTraffic

    I have no idea why people think existence is pointless without some being staring down at them, analyzing their every move. My existence is certainly not pointless, and my life certainly extends far outside myself.  
    Your view of what makes life meaningful is clearly pretty limited.

    Meaning for me isn’t some nebulous thing, some servitude to an invisible being, some decree that I *must* do such and such. My life is given meaning by the relationships I choose to have with the people and the world around me, the work I do, the joy I take in living every single day. I don’t need the promise of an afterlife to make today meaningful, to enjoy the fruits of my labors, to find beauty in the world around me, to give me goals in life, to encourage me to make the world better for those who live here. I find it sad that may people apparently do. My time on this earth isn’t made less important simply because there isn’t a magic afterlife.

  • Jflcroft

    I think you’re absolutely right! I’ve been banging this drum for a while! The very first thing I wrote as a published Humanist was on storytelling.

  • Laurence

    I think the most coherent way of looking at the whole agnostic/atheist thing is to look at it as a grid with two axes, one for theism/atheism and another for gnosticism/agnosticism.  The theism/atheism axis refers to whether a person believes in god or not.  A theist believes in god or gods, and an atheist lacks belief in god or gods.  The gnosticism/agnosticism axis refers to an individual’s claim of knowledge. A gnostic is someone who claims to have knowledge about the existence of god, and an agnostic is someone who does not claim to have knowledge about the existence of god. I think the gnosticism/agnosticism axis could also refer to whether or not people even think claims of knowledge about god are even possible.

    Personally I think it is silly to limit claims of knowledge to things like absolute certainty.  Also I think people can have differing stances on different conceptions of god.  For instance, I think it is reasonable to say that I know that there is not a god who cares about us.  This is because the incredible amount of empirical evidence of suffering makes unreasonable to think that there is such a god.  But I’m more agnostic about a deistic god as we simply don’t have any good reason to think that this kind of god exists.

  • Timberwraith,

    Although I self-identify as both an atheist and an agnostic, I see your point mentioned in the various comments you have left here. Personally, I view agnosticism as the main deviation from theistic thought. I define theistic thought as the premise that we know all sorts of details about supernatural agents (like Yahweh and Jesus) and what they want us to do and believe. Once a person makes it to agnosticism they will typically jettison all the harmful scripture and personality worship so prevalent in all the theologies. If at this point an agnostic still wants to believe in an unknowable supernatural agent, I’m fine with that. I think that getting to this agnostic position is a significant and worthy endeavor. I personally think it is then pretty much irrelevant whether or not the agnostic jettisons the actual belief in a supernatural agent in the world. 

    I’m a “big tent atheist” where agnostics are welcome.  Or alternatively, a “big tent agnostic” where atheists are welcome.  If we must draw battle lines, we need to draw it between agnostics and theists. 

  • ruth

    I like stories.  People like stories.    The story may be about finding meaning in life without gods.  It may be about being abandoned by family.  It may be about how you are alone and hidden at work.  Read the ask Richard stories.  There are any number of compelling stories to tell about the atheist experience.  I was really moved when I heard Julia Sweeney’s search for god and finding atheism.   This isn’t being manipulative or doing a sales job.  It is life.  
     Life isn’t just about reason and logic, it has a significant emotional component and that is not removed when you remove God.  I think too many religious people think of atheists and cold and empty.  We can show that we are not.  

    The story does not end with finding atheism.  The stories include how you live life as an atheist.  The examples Mehta gives in his blog post are compelling stories about likable young people who were persecuted for their atheism.  

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