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Should Atheists Evangelize?

March 20, 2006, 10:53 PM
Dabanner

It is a perennial question, among atheists, of whether we should evangelize in favor of atheism the way the religious do. It is not hard to see why this question has been so hotly debated, since there are good arguments on both sides.

Since atheism is a positive worldview, there would seem to be a reason we should bring it to others. Deconversion is almost always described, by those who have gone through it, as an ultimately joyous experience. There is true happiness in throwing off the burden of religion and waking up to a world that is bright and beautiful, a vast and awe-inspiring place through which we are free to chart our own course. Since our goal as atheists should be to increase human happiness, we should spread this message as widely as possible and work to persuade people to join us.

On the other hand, unsolicited evangelizing is almost never appreciated by its targets, and almost always perceived as rude and intrusive. The Jehovah's Witnesses, who go door-to-door to preach to complete strangers, are a byword for unwanted religious annoyance. The born-again Christians who scream about hellfire on streetcorners and subways are usually dismissed as lunatics or fanatics, and the ones who "merely" find some excuse to insert god-talk into every conversation are often dreaded by others. Clearly, this is behavior we should not strive to emulate - it does not accomplish anything positive, and if anything, is likely to turn people against us.

On a first pass, my sympathy is primarily with the latter argument. People who have the predisposition - the innate curiosity, skepticism, independence of mind, or whatever other quality it takes - to become atheists will probably end up becoming atheists anyway, and the others probably will not deconvert no matter what we do, so why bother? More importantly, I do not want to contribute to a culture where everything is an ad. The ceaseless drive of some theists to turn every interaction into an opportunity for witnessing is a thing incomprehensible to me. So long as others are not infringing on anyone's rights, I am fully content to live and let live. And besides, wouldn't it be to our credit if people knew that their atheist friends and acquaintances would just leave them alone, would treat them as human beings with independent minds and not as prizes to be won? That perception, if it became widespread, would probably gain us more sympathy and good will than any amount of streetcorner evangelizing.

But wait. Concerns of politeness aside, if everyone else is evangelizing, can we afford not to? "When the student is ready, the teacher will appear" may be an inspiring platitude, but businesses that abide by it will probably go broke waiting for customers. And if our "business" is a good idea, should we not want that idea to survive and flourish, and take steps to see that it does? The marketplace of ideas is a crowded and noisy realm: those who are not willing to throw a few elbows are liable to be drowned out entirely, and participants that cannot be heard show a distressing tendency to die out. I would gladly leave others alone, but not if it meant consigning atheism to extinction. Too much is at stake. If humanity is to attain its full potential and put an end to suffering and injustice, rather than sinking back down into a new dark age of superstition, fear and religious warfare, it will in all probability need our help. Should we then evangelize?

There are, I must admit, grounds for doubting my earlier statement that some people will become atheists, others will not, and that these two groups will sort themselves out with or without help. That is too much of an oversimplification. Some people will deconvert even if they never meet another atheist, and some people never will regardless of the persuasion we bring to bear, but in between those two groups there is - there must be - a middle ground of people who could be influenced, persuaded, won over. As an analogy, consider the many forms of commercial evangelism: TV commercials, telemarketing, and e-mail spam, to name a few. All these things are widely unpopular, and yet, they seem to work. Someone must be buying the products marketed this way; telemarketing companies are not going out of business, and some e-mail spammers get very rich indeed. And though it is more difficult to measure, religious spam does also seem to work. Conversions one way or the other are rare, but they do happen.

Then again (and I realize how indecisive this post has sounded; I am working toward a definite conclusion, trust me), people hardly ever convert because of a flier they are handed on the street. When people do convert, in all but a tiny minority of circumstances, it is because of a close association with someone whom they find credible and whom they trust. A more comprehensive argument can be made this way, but more importantly, most people are willing to follow someone whom they believe would not lead them astray. Does this mean we should confine our evangelizing to friends and family, or if not, are we thereby committed to establishing schools and institutes to train and equip atheist missionaries? I trust I am not the only one who finds this idea absurd. Don't we nonbelievers have more important things to do?

I have been oscillating between two sides, considering all the arguments each has to offer, and it is now time for me to take a firm stand and declare my position. I believe that atheists should evangelize, but not in the sense of bothering strangers on the street or going house-to-house and ringing doorbells. Instead, we should write letters to the editor and contribute guest editorials in newspapers and magazines. We should participate in public debates and maintain pro-atheism websites explaining ourselves to the world. We should, wherever possible, appear on TV and radio shows. We should regularly write to our elected representatives. And we should publicly take on theists practicing the more annoying forms of evangelism. By their actions, they have made themselves fair game for rebuttal; and many people no doubt would be glad to see a knowledgeable atheist confront an obnoxious streetcorner preacher. All these actions serve to spread our message and inform people of our existence without intruding directly into their lives, which is what I believe we should aim for.

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Should Atheists Evangelize?

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