The Only Way to Win Is to Fight

My earlier post, "Storming the Ivory Tower", discussed the real harm that religion is doing in the world, harm that Very Serious People overlook while tut-tutting at atheists. The natural follow-up question is how to respond. I want a soft landing as much as anyone; the question is how we get there. Will strong criticism of religion aid our cause by bringing people over to our side? Or is it the case that religion is already on the decline and the best thing we can do is to say nothing at all?


In the comments on this thread, a commenter expressed this sentiment:

I also believe that actively fighting religion only makes it stronger. Like most large organisations, it is far more cohesive and focused if it has an enemy. Like a country devoting its all to war, it bands its adherents together.

There's a parallel that's so good, I have to point it out: This is the same argument that was once made about slavery - leave it alone, don't interfere with it, and it will die out of its own accord. It's hard not to suspect that the reasoning is similar: wishful thinking by people who want an evil to go away without any effort on their part.

Does opposition make fundamentalist cults cling more tightly to their beliefs? Yes, quite possibly. But they do that whether there's real opposition or not. They see enemies everywhere they turn, and if there isn't a plausible threat, they'll just invent one to serve the purpose.

The Jehovah's Witnesses, for example, hold the belief that every non-Watchtower organization in the world is controlled by Satan. The religious right makes paranoia its stock in trade, fantasizing about how Christianity is on the verge of being banned or an Antichrist-led one-world government is on the rise (and don't forget the annual "war on Christmas" nonsense, a proud tradition since the days of anti-Semitism). And, of course, the Republican party in America, de facto the party of Christian evangelicals, regularly indulges in fantasies about how Barack Obama, a conciliatory, moderately right-wing president, is an evil Kenyan socialist Islamist atheist Marxist who hates Christians and white people. They didn't need permission from atheists to spread these lies, and they won't stop if we cease speaking up.

If atheists don't speak out, there's only one result: these delusional beliefs go unquestioned and unchallenged. When we're invisible, we're defenseless against religious leaders who demonize us and spread pernicious stereotypes about who we are. A vocal, visible atheist movement can counteract these attacks by demonstrating what we really stand for.

Even if the atheist movement is emerging as a result, rather than a cause, of religion's decline, we can still act as a catalyst that accelerates the process. We can and do win converts by challenging religious ideas in public, giving a different side of the story to people who've never heard it or thought about it before. We can and do persuade people by opposing religious privilege, breaking down the exemption from ridicule and criticism that religion has historically enjoyed. But we can also make inroads by letting closeted nonbelievers know that it's okay to come out, and by establishing a safe harbor for them to do so, a secular community that offers support and encouragement. Richard Dawkins himself says that the primary audience for The God Delusion is people who wanted to leave their religion, but didn't know they could.

Of course, when presented with this argument, we hear this fallback:

How do you know that you haven't militarized three for every one convert?

This silencing argument could have been used against any social reform movement. The civil rights movement: "How do you know that you haven't militarized three white racists for every one convert?" The women's suffrage movement: "How do you know that you haven't militarized three anti-suffrage men for every one convert?" Jewish people fighting against defamation: "How do you know that you haven't militarized three anti-Semites for every one convert?" The gay rights movement: "How do you know that you haven't militarized three straight people for every one convert?"

We know our movement is having an impact because we have evidence: the statistics showing the growing number of atheists, and the testimonials of people who were persuaded by our arguments and are happier leading lives free from religion. If you want to argue that all our efforts have produced a greater, counterbalancing harm, then make that case, but do it with evidence. Don't just present it as sheer speculation and expect us to change course based on nothing more than that.

No broad social movement has ever achieved its objectives by sitting back and waiting for everyone else to come around. Speaking out to challenge popular prejudices is bound to cause anger, dismay and agitation ("the roar of many waters", as Frederick Douglass called it). This isn't evidence that we're failing, it's evidence that we're succeeding - that the defenders of the status quo feel threatened.

Image credit: poolski, released under CC BY-SA 2.0 license

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