Should atheists engage in proselytization? I solicited questions about my philosophy of atheism on Facebook and that’s the topic of the first question: Do you think trying to “convert” people to atheism is a good idea generally or at least sometimes?
I don’t think atheism is something you “convert” to. Atheism is just one philosophical position, not an entire system of beliefs or anything like the complex set of beliefs and practices and communities that religions involve. There are religions that are atheistic and there are people with a (metaphorically) religious zeal about their atheism. There can also be atheist philosophies and communities that are not exactly religions but to one degree or another developed and organized and defined alternatives to religions.
But the real question being asked in the prompt question is whether it’s a good idea to try to get people to become atheists.
I am all for trying to persuade people of atheism, but not at all for trying to proselytize for atheism. I write articles making the case for atheism and in suitable forums where people are willingly up for debate I will argue for atheism directly to individuals.
But I would never approach my relationships with individuals with the attitude that it’s my job to change their thinking and change their lives. I do not target new people I meet and make it my mission to change them. I abhor the idea of forming relationships with people with the ulterior motive of just trying to get them to join my club. I also do not accost strangers or try to rope acquaintances into discussions about religion. It is wrong to approach relationships with others with a manipulative agenda to change them. If I cannot accept you as you are, then I am going to avoid having anything to do with you, not take it upon myself to change you. I don’t want to have the necessary self-satisfaction and self-righteousness to approach people in an asymmetric way where I see myself as the one in possession of the key knowledge of what is true and good and the other person is an ignorant person in need of my intervention. I want reciprocal encounters. I don’t want to engage in conversations with the attitude that I’m certainly right and I know what is best for the person I’m talking to and the other person is someone to be corrected. I don’t want to disrespect other people that way.
That said, I have described myself in the past as an “evangelical” atheist because I really do want to persuade people of atheism. I am unusually passionate about atheism becoming more common. I prefer to argue for atheism through the impersonal medium of writing because it allows people to process what I say in their own way and on their own schedule. My ultimate goal in advancing atheism is increasing people’s autonomy and rational understanding. Writing articles that people can privately read and digest without any social pressure from me is a great way for people to be truly free to engage the arguments on their own terms.
I also want to persuade people of atheism because I think it’s the best philosophical position on the question of interventionist personal deities and I think people ideally should believe what is true. So, even where a given individual’s theism does not link up to any undue deference to religious authorities, I would theoretically hope to persuade them of the better philosophical position (assuming I am right about what that is—and of course I’m happy to keep listening to my interlocutors and to be the one to change my mind if I am the one who is indeed wrong) since that’s a good in its own right. I don’t think there is anything wrong with having philosophical opinions or arguing for them because you think they’re correct and you think it’s, all things equal, better that people hold more correct philosophical views. This does not turn into proselytization as soon as the topic you have philosophical views about is theism or religion. Just because conflicts over religious ideas and practices have been nasty and oppressive does not mean that everyone who wants to advance a philosophical position about theism or religion is an authoritarian looking to impose a religion on others against their will.
Should a Christian-preacher-turned atheist-stop using his public speaking skills? Before this question can be answered, perhaps we should ascertain whether the person in question actually has public speaking skills. I’ve heard more than a few preachers over the years who were horrible public speakers. Their sermons were poorly crafted and their speaking skills ranged from incoherent to monotonous. Personally, I don’t know how some people listen to this kind of preaching year after year. Perhaps this is their purgatory.
I always prided myself in preaching well-crafted sermons. I worked hard in the study to produce the best sermon possible. I spent hours and days preparing my sermons. My goal was to preach in such a way that people would not only hear me but be moved to make a decision. The goal of every sermon was to force people to choose. Neutrality was never an option. Choose YOU this day whom YOU will serve, the Bible says. Even now, the most powerful speeches are the ones that demand something of listeners.
When I preached I was animated and passionate. In my early years, I moved around a good bit, but as I got older my movement lessened. Over time, I developed a style, a methodology of preaching. Generally, people found my style pleasing and my voice easy to listen to. I wasn’t a raging, fire-breathing, pulpit pounding, aisle running Pentecostal, but neither was I a droning, lifeless Methodist. (sorry for the stereotypes)
Words are powerful tools. Coupled with the methodology of preaching, words have the ability to move people and motivate them to do great things. However, words also have the power to manipulate and control. Numerous readers of this blog can testify to how the words of their pastor were used to sway, exploit, shame and abuse.
Any preacher worth his salt knows the power his words have over others Preachers know that the right word at the right time can elicit a certain response. They know what words can trigger an emotional response. Yes, preaching is supposed to be about knowledge and instruction, but mere knowledge will never cause a people to rise to the occasion and go to war with Satan, the world, Democrats, secularism, and atheists. Great orators know how to stir people to do that which they might not normally do. Therein lies their power, and that power, when used wrongly, can hurt people or cause them to do things that are harmful, not only to themselves, but to others.
So what is a person such as myself to do? I preached my first sermon at age 15 and my last sermon at age 48 I spent 34 years telling people, thus saith the Lord. I have given thousands of sermons, having preached through most of the books in the Bible. Preaching is very much a part of who and what I am.
As a preacher-turned-atheist, I find myself in uncharted waters. I still have a passion for public speaking. I know I could be good at teaching most anything. I suspect, knowing my skill-set, that people would find me engaging and easy to listen to. As most any former parishioner of mine will attest, my ability to hold a crowd’s attention was never a problem. Oh, I had plenty of problems and shortcomings, but when in the pulpit I was at my best.
I miss preaching. I miss the personal interaction with people. I miss seeing my words move, challenge, and motivate people. As most ex-preachers will tell you, preaching was not the reason they left the ministry or deconverted. It was the stuff outside the pulpit; endless meetings, personal squabbles, or financial struggles that caused the most stress and angst.
In 2012, Pentecostal-preacher-turned-atheist, Jerry DeWitt, delivered a powerful speech at the American Atheist Convention. His speech, dare I say sermon, was given using the preaching skills that had served him well as a Pentecostal preacher.
Dan Fincke, a friend of mine who blogs at Camels with Hammers, wrote a lengthy post about Dewitt’s message and his speaking skills and style. Dan thoughtfully raised some issues that former preachers like Dewitt and I need to consider carefully:
So, as Richard Wade watched this former evangelical go so far as to present the narrative of his turn to atheism in the precise idiom of a Pentecostal preacher, he turned to me and said, “You were right!” It made the dynamic so clear.
So—is this a good thing? I think in most ways it is, but I have a reservation. There is nothing wrong with a narrative in which “once I was blind but now I see”. This has always been a part of secularism. The Enlightenment’s emphasis on the “light of reason” was coopted, for example, by Descartes from St. Augustine. We need to reclaim some of the emotionally resonant metaphorical terrain that is part of our linguistic and cultural means of expressing certain kinds of experiences. Just because a certain emotionally powerful form of personal narrative was cultivated in evangelical circles does not mean it cannot have genuine parallels among apostates. We are not just ripping them off or somehow remaining Christians. But sometimes we do remain evangelicals, only now atheistic kinds. The apostate’s narrative often just has some basic formal similarities that make it true to co-opt similar categories to evangelicals when conceiving of and narrating what is happening within oneself.
But what about the Pentecostal delivery? I can imagine some atheists with what I like to call “religious PTSD” rejecting it out of hand for its “triggering” connotations that remind them of the shameless charlatans who pioneered, and up through today still, exploit those techniques to manipulate people into falsehoods and religiously based moral corruption. But the vast majority of the auditorium seemed happy to play along with DeWitt and to really enjoy the experiment. He got a hearty standing ovation from a good portion of the room when he was done and was one of the day’s leaders for applause lines for sure.
But the Pentecostal style might also simply look so well practiced and formulaic and manipulative that it is the equivalent of a shameless Hallmark card or a schmaltzy movie providing cheap emotional triggers using the easiest and least respectable methods in the book for pushing people’s buttons.
I think that if the emotional button pushing is a way to make an end-run around reason, that is corrupt and despicable. But if it is to package and deliver rational truths and moral ideals of rationalism to people in a way that will properly align their emotions to what is actually true and ethical, then ultimately I am not convinced there’s anything dishonest or manipulative about that. I am open to arguments though….
…As I also explained to Richard the morning before seeing DeWitt, I have preachers’ rhetorical skills and yet for the most part I assiduously avoid them in my classrooms, and instead work with my students dialectically and put the stress on the development of their own reasoning skills. Occasionally, I will get on a roll about something I’m passionate about and reach back to make a rhetorically boosted little speech. But even then I hold back on going quite to preacher levels. And if I do, it’s tempered and not exploitative.
There are two reasons for my hesitation. One is purely technical. I once picked up the interesting advice that if you can do something exceptionally well you should do it only selectively, so as not to diminish its impact. In general you should only put as much rhetorical push into an idea as it needs and save your force for when it’s really needed, always calibrating force applied precisely to what is necessary at every level.
But the more morally serious and germane reason I hesitate to go into preacher mode is that it can be downright anti-dialectical and counter-productive to cultivating an atmosphere of rationalism and habits of careful reasoning. Preaching, rather than just teaching or guiding through questions, runs the risk of inherently training and reinforcing the audience’s infamous preexisting susceptibilities to falling for passions and pretty words at the expense of rational thought. Even if you convince them of your point with your bluster and poetry, you do not train them in careful critical thinking in the process, and so you have not guaranteed they have learned to think for themselves, so much as to simply think like you. And you may have just contributed to their ever ongoing habituation throughout the culture in being led by irrationalistic appeals rather than rational ones. This is not just a pitfall of the parts of our movement that dance with religious forms but also the ones which dance with dubious political rhetorical tactics too.
I’m not sure if it is the case that the preacher’s style is always mutually exclusive with training in critical thinking. Clearly a major part of why it’s so dangerous in actual religions is because it is explicitly coupled with injunctions to just have faith and with countless dubious appeals to unjustified authorities. Can a rationalism which explicitly denounces such things be compatible with some fiery preaching? Can one preach successfully against authoritarianism and faith or is there an implicit bogus appeal to faith in the ungrounded authority of the speaker that is structurally there every time a teacher takes recourse to the tactics of the preacher?
Dan waves the red flag of warning and rightly so. Preaching, particularly certain styles of preaching, can be used to manipulate and control. Dan wisely warns about making an end-run around reason. Far too often preaching is nothing more than the reinforcing of this we believe and we shall not be moved from this we believe.
As a preacher turned atheist, I cannot turn off the speaking skills I used to ply my trade for 34 years. They are very much a part of who I am. The best I can do is be mindful of the power of the skills I have and make sure I use them in such a way that people are not only moved but instructed. I need to be aware of the power I have to manipulate people with my words. Self-awareness of this fact will keep me from falling back into using the tricks of the preaching trade to elicit the desired response from those listening to me.
That said, I want to put in a plug for passionate, pointed, challenging public speaking. Quite frankly, the atheist and humanist movement needs a bit of life pumped into it. I have listened to many speeches, lectures, seminars, and debates that people told me were wonderful. Well-known atheists and humanists, aren’t they great? Uh, no. B-o-r-i-n-g. Dry. Monotonous. Some atheist and humanist speakers would be better off if they stuck to doing what they do best: writing books and magazine articles. Leave the public speaking to those who do it well. If they are unwilling to do so, then they need to go back to school and take a few speech classes.
The atheist and humanist movement needs people who have the ability to passionately move people to action. I would rather suffer a bit with Jerry Dewitt’s preaching style (and I am not a fan of the Pentecostal style of preaching), than listen to a well-educated, boring man WOW me right into an afternoon nap. We are in a battle against religious zealots and theocrats, and we need speakers who can stir and motivate people to action.
Some atheists and humanists naïvely believe that knowledge is all that matters. Like Joe Friday, they think if they just give people the facts they will see the error of their way. Don’t get me wrong, knowledge is important; it’s essential. Way too many people becomeatheists out of anger or disappointment with the Christian church. Just like the Christian zealot, the atheist shouldknow why he believes what he does. Or as the Bible says, the atheist should be ready to give an answer for the hope that lies within them. But, at the same time, we should not divorce our beliefs from our emotions. Some things matter, and if they matter, our emotions should be stirred, motivating us to act accordingly.
Paul, in 1 Corinthians, wrote about being a voice heard above all others. There is so much clamoring for truth these days. Who do people turn to? Those who stir them; those who speak to them. As atheists and humanists we must not disconnect our intellect from our emotions. If we believe we have the answer to what ails our universe, then we must be passionate about it, and that passion ought to come out in our public speaking. Yes, people need to hear what we have to say, but they also need to feel it.