Monday, March 23, 2009

The Unlikely Disciple, and Poor Customer Retention

Kevin Roose recently published a book (The Unlikely Disciple) about his "undercover" experience at Liberty University. It's making a big splash - PZ Myers posted about it, and Hemant at Friendly Atheist read it and loved it. One immediate point of demographic interest on the unsuccessful conversion attempts that Roose witnessed is that America does not seem to be the overwhelmingly Christian nation the evangelists try to convince the rest of us that it is. But a more interesting question that Roose raises is that of post-conversion behavior. Once the declaration of salvation is made, there's no follow-up. How do the evangelists know the conversion is anything but words?

They don't, and I would guess that usually it is: the judge in Mark Twain's Huck Finn said he reckoned the only way to reform someone was with a shotgun. Reading about Roose's experience prompted me to wonder why atheists (myself included) are so hesitant to say certain words, like "I accept Jesus into my heart and I'm a sinner". Don't worry, I'm not retropostate like the raving theist - I'm just pointing out that centuries of religion-centric thinking has left even many atheists thinking unconsciously that there are, in fact, magic words that have special powers. Why not repeat such phrases and then do the opposite, precisely in order to render them obviously meaningless? As soon as I learned that the punishment for apostasy in Islam is death, my next two sentences were "I submit to the will of Allah. I reject the Qu'ran and the will of Allah." And now I'm posting it right on my blog. Childish? No more than Robert Ingersoll's challenge to God to strike him dead. It shows that nothing bad happened, either from a lightning bolt or a person.

On that note, I wholly agree that by superficially accepting a deity, you don't want to encourage evangelists and make them think there are more receptive people out there than there actually are (as I worry about here). On the other hand, what do we have to be afraid of if we make a point of show how powerless these "conversions" are? There are no magic words! So say them, as long as you can get something material out of the deal, and can show the evangelists that the words are powerless. For example, Roose mentions gastro-evangelists, who give out food or drinks to start the conversion conversation. Say you encounter some of these blokes handing out diet Cokes. Fine! In that case I say to them, "Sure I take the Lord Jesus into my heart! Let's get this sinner's prayer over with so I can get my Coke." Balance sheet: 2 minutes lost enduring babbling, but I'm no longer thirsty. Come on, tell me you've never been at the grocery store and taken a free morsel of cheese on a toothpick with absolutely no intention of ever buying any cheese. The cheesemakers know that this is a risk when promoting their product. And in fact you're even more justified doing this to gastro-evangelists, because the cheesemaker isn't spreading harmful untruths.

Of course, there's the argument that acting insincerely like this, you're being immoral; that as atheists, more than anybody we have to take the moral high ground to explode the myth of the immoral atheist.

But it's not clear to me that this is immoral. So now I challenge you, fellow atheists, with an invisible pink unicorn analogy. Imagine someone is standing on a street corner and as you walk by they say "There are invisible pink unicorns in this city, and at 6pm today they're going to stampede. They'll run over everyone who hasn't said the magic words. We're trying to save people from this horrible fate! So I'll give you a hamburger if you say the following magic words: Dazza laduzza ladimba." Why is it immoral to insincerely say the words, take the hamburger, and say "so long sucker"?

1 comment:

Joshua said...

Two issues: 1) Lying is bad. 2) Humans are very verbal entities. For many people it is possible that repeatedly saying something like "I accept Jesus Christ as my personal lord and savior" could slowly alter their beliefs. No human is perfectly rational. Does one want to risk the possible brainwashing?

(To use an example that is probably more clear cut, it might be interesting to spend some time heavily immerssed in Scientology but it doesn't take much knowledge to see that that could go drastically wrong)