Monday, September 9, 2013

How to Get Religious People To Listen to Atheists

It doesn't matter if the cat is white or black, as long as it catches mice. That was Deng Xiaoping's rhetorically clever way to back into pseudo-capitalism from communism after a disastrous couple of decades for China, and (let's count skyscrapers in Shanghai) it's working. And - important! - until they started measuring development honestly and transparently, they couldn't be sure.

I often think of something similar when I see (mostly online) debates about the "purity" of well-known atheists' approaches. Sometimes the critique is that people are being too accommodationist, or they're self-loathing, or they're not consistent enough (or, most annoying, they don't agree with every last political opinion of the complainant). While discourse within the movement is emphatically good, sometimes this misses the point. A great recent example is the criticism of S.E. Cupp (picture above), a conservative TV host - and atheist - on CNN's Crossfire. Call her "self-loathing" all you want, but just by being an atheist - maybe the only open atheist in many viewers' lives! - she's getting millions of conservative Christians to respect her, identify with her and listen to her way of thinking far, far more than P.Z. Myers. I ask earnestly, who's doing a better job of getting atheism out there?

There is room in the movement for multiple approaches. PZ and the other fire-breathers obviously play a role, but there's a whole ecosystem. Cupp and Myers are just black and white cats, and arguing over color is a waste of time. Let's identify what catching mice is for us. It's not just for everybody to say the words "I'm an atheist"; it's a little deeper than that. (Everyone in North Korea says that and I think you agree they're missing the point too.) As an aside: I challenge PZ Myers fans (or any full-frontal-assault fans) to show me the data on which technique creates more rationality in the world, relative to S.E. Cupp (or other more indirect approaches). I doubt such data exists, but if it does and I'm wrong, I will gladly change my mind. If someone responds "it doesn't matter since PZ is right and S.E. Cupp is self-loathing!", then they really don't get it, and they're a good example of what I'm talking about.

What I think all of us in the atheist/agnostic/skeptic/secular/humanist/rationalist/pastafarian world want is this:

For human beings to become more rational, and less prone to arguments from authority.

The irony is that the people claiming the rationalist high ground are often clueless about whether their arguments are having any actual effects on making other people's actions more rational. It's not about purity or whether you properly declare tribal allegiance by saying you like Richard Dawkins. Atheism is part of rationalism; and there are many, many ways to get there (and probably more effective ways) aside from verbal frontal assaults. And more than anything, the first step is getting increasing acceptance of atheists as normal, respectable human beings. And the simple reality is that rational arguments often don't work on religious people. All that said, here are some points to keep in mind.

1. There's room for everyone. The PZ's and the S.E. Cupps are not at odds with respect to our goal.

2. Measure the effect. Great, you trounced a Christian in a debate. Did you collect before-and-after data on whether people's minds changed? Or were you just trying to get the name of your local organization out there to grow your group? Whatever it is, know your goal and measure it.

3. Even if you think rationalism is a package deal, don't force-feed people. That is to say: imagine a Christian that's starting to wonder if maybe evolution is true. And then along comes someone who says, "Yes, and once you believe in evolution, you have to accept atheism as well." That Christian now has an excuse to step back from (what they perceive as) the ledge. The less threatening the new information is to the established worldview, the greater the chance of acceptance. There's no magic sentence that will convert them.

4. Don't threaten identity - individual, family or ethnic. This is a big one, and it's an extension of not trying to do too much at once; and if you want someone to dig in their heels, threatening identity is the best way to do it. But there are signs that leaders of some world religions themselves, while still being religions, are moving in the right direction (the Dalai Lama has said that where science and faith conflict, you have to go with science; the Hindu Swami Muktananda, said "You mustn't believe in your own religion; I don't believe in mine". These folks are between a rock and a hard place, so let's make it easier for them to come toward reason, not harder. Not everyone has the bravery of a Jerry DeWitt or Teresa MacBain to jump directly to atheism! Do the rest of them in this list still have a long way to go? Yes; but they're going in the right direction, and in any event these aren't the people I worry about voting to force my kids to learn weird stuff in school. They're all in the process of attacking arguments from authority, even if they're starting from a sub-optimal place.

For this last point - it's not just the leaders of religions whose identities are threatened. Even where you think that religion and ethnicity are completely conflated, you would be wrong - just ask Jerry Coyne and the very many other members of the atheist Jewish community about that. For that matter, I'm a second-generation atheist but an "ethnic Lutheran" and I still put up a Christmas tree every year. Because it's pretty. (And by the way, so does Richard Dawkins.)

Direct argument is just one method to make people more rational. Measure results!

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