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The Grindstone of Persuasion

If you were a regular commenter on the old site, you’ve probably noticed a shift in the commenting community since Daylight Atheism came here to Big Think. The old site had a smaller, more homogeneous community, and as a result, there were a lot more “atheism 201” discussions – how we can organize and build a welcoming secular community, how we can overcome internal disagreement to unite in defense of our political rights, how we can phrase our arguments to be most convincing, and so on.

But the new site has a broader and more raucous commenting base. To use an analogy I’ve mentioned before, the old site was more like a quiet house on a residential street, whereas the new one is more like a storefront in a crowded shopping mall. Many more people are wandering in who don’t necessarily know who we are or what atheism is about, and comment threads more often turn into basic “atheism 101” arguments: Why don’t you believe in God? What do you want? Shouldn’t you be nicer to religious people?

This gets frustrating, I know. (To be honest, some of my regulars have more patience for it than I do!) Nevertheless, I think it’s important that we engage these questions, even if it’s for the tenth or the hundredth time, and I want to explain why.

Last month, Slacktivist wrote a post about the Intelligence Squared debate I attended. He says that he finds public debates to be pointless and tedious, because no one ever changes their mind as a result:

Such debates are framed as having something to do with persuasion, but there’s little reason to think that really has anything to do with what’s going on in such forums. No skeptic has ever left such a stage saying, “Gee, an uncaused cause — I’d never thought of that.” And no religious believer has ever been brought up short, saying, “Why, yes, an impersonal, not-at-all transcendent tea kettle in space also can’t be disproved and thus is a perfect analogy for belief in God. How silly I’ve been.”

But from a look at the evidence, this is plainly false. As measured by audience voting before and after the debate, the number of undecided dropped from 22% to 10% by the end of the night. In other words, a full 12% of the people who were present at the debate changed their minds one way or the other. Sure, maybe some people were falsely claiming to be undecided to make their side look better in the end – but all of them? Isn’t it much more straightforward to conclude that some people did in fact change their minds?

Along these lines, my colleague Greta Christina has written twoposts, one from 2008 and one more recent, asking former believers who are now atheists to say what changed their minds. You can see for yourself that for some of them – not all of them, but for a significant number – the key factor was thinking about it and arguing about it. Witnessing debates, participating in debates, reading atheist books and websites – these things change minds. In fact, if I can be immodest for a moment and quote a selected few:

I started reading FSTDT (Fundies Say the Darndest Things). That sort of all-out mockery resonated with me, and over the course of a few years, gradually led to me not really holding too much confidence in that whole jesus thing anymore. Then I discovered Adam Lee, Ebon Musings, and Daylight Atheism, and reading everything written on those two blogs is what prompted me to truly declare myself as an atheist.

At the same time, my dad, who was becoming more and more outspoken about his own previously-understated atheism, directed me to the website of his atheist group at home. From there I discovered greta christina’s blog and daylight atheism. I read through a lot of the archives of both. The key concept for me was that spirituality and atheism, awe and science, are not at odds, but rather improve each other. All of the cognitive dissonance and mental turmoil of the previous years dissipated in probably a few days.

…reading The God Delusion when I was in year 10 definitely shifted me from ‘I’ve never really thought about it much, but I’ve never in the past believed in God’ to ‘I’m pretty sure God doesn’t exist’, and it combined with Ebon’s magnificent essays at Ebon Musings were what made me really interested in the atheist movement.

And in a past post of mine, “Belaboring the Obvious“, there were similar answers. Once again, people stepped up to say that their minds were changed by thinking, talking, and arguing about religion – a multitude that, according to some commentators, doesn’t exist.

I know that having the same 101-level arguments over and over is tedious, frustrating, infuriating even. But it’s the most important thing we can do, because the only way people’s minds change is by debating. It doesn’t happen immediately, and it doesn’t happen in every case, but it does happen. Personally, if I have a hundred unproductive and futile arguments for every one person who I can genuinely persuade, I consider my time well spent.

When we think about changing minds, we should bear in mind the “wind and water” analogy. Minds do change, but that change doesn’t come in great tectonic shifts. It comes in slow, patient accumulation, like water dripping on stone, carrying away a few grains at a time; like ice freezing and thawing, widening the cracks a little each year. The next time you get into one of these arguments, bear this in mind. Think of our grander goal, of how we’re trying to shift society’s attitudes and that this is the only way to do it; and on the personal level, think of who may be there under layers of religious indoctrination, and what they may achieve if we can help them emerge into the light.

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P.S. I’m on Twitter now! Follow me at @DaylightAtheism


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