Preaching at the other choir - why we shouldn't try to "convert"

I was reading Dan Barker's words about "How to Talk to a Fundamentalist" in the Secular Student Alliance, and there were two points that he made that I've encountered before - something that I think on often.

The first point he made is about converting fundamentalists (to Atheism I presume). In Mr. Barker's words:
... actually, we can’t “convert” anyone. We all have to come to our own conclusions. If you were raised religious, like me, you know that your de-conversion came from inside, not from an atheist evangelist.
I really want to say, "Amen!" to that. I've come to the same conclusion when I mused on "Evangelical Atheism" before. To quote myself:
I’m convinced that outright Atheistic evangelism would be worse than useless when applied [aggressively], but it was Daniel Dennett who helped me put it into words. Dennett said in “Breaking the Spell” that the strength of an insular, cohesive group comes from the price that members must pay to join or to leave, and one of those prices is insularism – the “Us versus Them” and “Our religion is under attack!” beliefs shared by all Christians to some degree.

Any sort of evangelical Atheism specifically targeted toward a church would be seen as an attack. Christians who perceived it as such would only wrap themselves tighter in their illogical beliefs, vindicated in the price they were paying as a member of their chosen group.

Mr. Barker makes the same points that I've articulated before. Preaching rationality at a true believer won't change him or her. From Mr. Barker's words:
The bible predicts that we obedient messengers of Jesus would be misunderstood and persecuted. If you called me names, that proved the bible is true! It also raised my status in His eyes, which were more important than your eyes.

It was exciting to get doors slammed in my face. It was affirming to hear ignorant college students arguing with me, trying to use the flawed and misconstrued “facts” of mere science, which are always changing, to combat the transcendent truth of the bible, which never changes.

[Nonbelievers should] Just be yourself, say what you think, and don’t worry if
[fundamentalists] change their minds. Be relaxed about it.

Most of us nontheists will complain only about the harmful behavior (not ideas) of believers, because people should be judged by their actions, not their beliefs. If a religiously motivated action is causing unnecessary harm, then moral people will challenge such behavior. Otherwise, belief is a private matter. Tell them a little of your opinions, then leave it at that.

When I was a Christian, my pastor called this sort of practice, "bringing people to God by living a Christian life". By being a good, confident and compassionate human, you would attract people to you - people who wanted to emulate you. We were encouraged to speak our mind when the time was right, and we were supposed to point out immoral or harmful actions. But in using this method, according to our pastor we were supposed to draw people in by answering their questions.

I think Mr. Barker is right in this. When I speak to Christians, I never do so with the intent to convert them. I don't mind saying things that will make them mull over my words, that will plant a seed of doubt. But I fully realize that if their belief is strong, my words will fall in the dust.


I do think it is right and proper for secular and rational people to speak up in opposition to the religious when appropriate. When, for example, religious people presume to speak for all of a community, including the secular members of that community. I think it is right to speak out when religious people propose actions that are immoral according to secular ethics. I think it is right for us to insist on equal and fair treatment under the law.

And I find it extremely amusing when, in doing these things, some religious people brand us as being aggressive or militant.

The second thing that Mr. Barker speaks about is the "black or white" mindset that is so often prevalent among religious fundamentalists. He quotes the verse from Revelation 3:14, where those who are not "hot or cold" are instead "lukewarm" and will be spit out. I've heard pastors use this verse to demand that their congregation be firm in the Lord, and I believe that this sort of statement is a "thought-terminating cliché" that actually stops critical thinking in a cult-like manner.

When people think in this simplistic manner they do not admit that life, the universe and everything is full of subtle shades of gray. There is an infinite amount of uncertainty, and uncertainty thrives even in the strictest of scientific observations.

When a rational person encounters such black and white thinking it is often better to not try to correct it, but instead point out that there is another way of viewing the world. Then walk away. As Mr. Barker points out, by refusing to fight, you've already won.

One last thing I would like to point out - Dan Barker and I share something else, something that I think a lot of ex-Christians share. We've felt the "Holy Spirit". From the article:
Most of you nonbelievers don’t know what it is like to “talk with God.” But I do know, which is why I can write about this. It’s quite a powerful experience, which I can reproduce today, with all the attendant feelings of being in the presence of a superior being—but as an atheist I now know that “talking with God” is purely psychological and points to nothing outside of the brain.

I've said much the same thing before in my "Mind hacking God" blog entry. Again, I'm quoting myself:
I find it very plausible that religious experience is created in the software of our minds as it runs on the wetware of our brains. I think this way because after I became Atheist, I was able to re-achieve transcending feelings of awe, of acceptance, of being comforted, and of reverence.

I don’t think that feelings of Nirvana come from outside of us because the feelings are not created by a common cause. Fasting in a sweat lodge, singing in mass, inspired group visualization (i.e. preaching) and meditation can all bring people to achieve these feelings.

Religion isn’t the answer because these feelings can be achieved in mutually exclusive religions.

I've managed to recreate these religious feelings as an Atheist by using music while meditating. Classical music will do it for me. Oddly enough, so will Van Halen's "Jump". It's the same feeling of love, peace and acceptance that I got when I was Christian, only now I know that I’m the one making it happen.


What this means to me is that it is possible to be a spiritual Atheist, not in some pseudoscientific paranormal sense, but in the sense that ‘mind’, the software that runs on the brain, has the capacity to achieve a different level of awareness of itself.

Please, excuse me for quoting my own words. I don't mean to do so out of hubris. But it is gratifying to me to read that so many of the same things I've been talking about in my blog, months ago, are being said by someone I very much respect.


Scott Hatfield . . . . said...

Mark, as usual I find much to commend in your posts. But if you will forgive this poor excuse for a Christian for a little hubris, I think the implied line of reasoning behind your post does not, in fact, necessarily follow.

Can non-believers experience a sense of transcendence? Of course, and it is foolishness on the part of the believer to presume otherwise. Does it follow, then, that since non-believers can share in this experience that a transcendent realm does not exist, and that it can only be explained as a byproduct of the wetware we all the philosophers might say, an epiphenomenon?

I don't see that follows at all. It may yet be that a transcendent realm exists, with which we from time to time commune, but which does not necessarily have any detailed correspondence with our prior beliefs. Or else it might be that the realm is not transcendent, but in fact is an outcome of natural processes poorly understood, and yet connected to the existence of Being(s) outside our everyday experience, and again, in such a case there is no requirement that it closely match our belief systems.

Seen from this point of view, it is the fantastic aspect of religious experience, which leads some of us to speak in rather exclusive terms as to Jesus or Mahomet, that might be best considered epiphenomenal. I realize this is in no way a brief for the truth claims offered by religious folk....just a disclaimer that, in the absence of belief, that the sense of the sacred can be 'explained' away by so much naturalistic hand-waving.

Anonymous said...

I agree, as well. When I'm discussing religions/atheism with Christians, my goal is not to convert. My goal is to help them understand why I don't believe what they believe. If they choose to investigate or discuss my position after that, then I'll happily discuss it or point them to sources better suited to explaining atheism. I never go into it trying to change THEIR belief...only to change what they THINK I believe.

Calladus said...


It isn't always true that the simplest explanation is always the right explanation.

It just turns out to be the case in most instances.

So, there is either a realm of "transcendence" that many of us can reach, via what means we've yet to discover, but possibly supernatural.

Or there is some natural way to connect to God, some way that can be explained through physical laws, that we have yet to stumble upon.

This leads to the interesting idea that we could create a "God Radio" right out of Sci-Fi writer Clifford D. Simak's Hugo award winning book, "Way Station". (Although the Old Testament passages about the Ark of the Covenant suggests that such a radio wouldn't be nearly as benign as Simak's version.)

Or maybe this feeling of "God" is all in our head. If so, we should be able to eventually prove this.

Sure, Neurotheology is a borderland science now, mostly due to the poor quality of science in this area. But Biological psychology has been making headway in relating "mind" to "brain", and is having an interesting impact on the philosophy of the mind.

Perhaps it is all hand waving, and to put it in glib terms, perhaps it IS "turtles all the way down". But by equating the poorly understood to religion, you become guilty of the "God of the Gaps" argument.

Daniel Dennett argues that these areas are not off limits to scientific exploration. Sure, we might discover that God is all in our heads - but perhaps Occam's razor won't apply in this case and I will end up in the pews beside you.

R. Moore said...

Scott said:
"in the absence of belief, that the sense of the sacred can be 'explained' away by so much naturalistic hand-waving"

I like to call this the "entropy of arguments" , which is a fancy way of saying that while the reverse *may* be true, a lot more evidence is required than the original proposition.

In this case, we have on one hand that transcendence is merely an illusion produced by the biochemical processes of the human mind. This explanation requires no extensions to current scientific theory (energy is conserved), does a lot of "work" in that it explains a lot of situations, and is a closed system (remains true for everyone, everywhere).

Or we can propose that transcendence is a supernatural or metaphysical phenomenon. This violates all three properties of the original argument, requiring a reversal in argumentative entropy, making its climb up Mount Improbable pretty much dependent on an anti-gravity machine.

How is that for a tortured metaphor?