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

Befriend your ideological opposite. It’s fun.

Step inside the unlikely friendship of a former ACLU president and an ultra-conservative Supreme Court Justice.

Sponsored by Charles Koch Foundation
  • Former president of the ACLU Nadine Strossen and Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia were unlikely friends. They debated each other at events all over the world, and because of that developed a deep and rewarding friendship – despite their immense differences.
  • Scalia, a famous conservative, was invited to circles that were not his "home territory", such as the ACLU, to debate his views. Here, Strossen expresses her gratitude and respect for his commitment to the exchange of ideas.
  • "It's really sad that people seem to think that if you disagree with somebody on some issues you can't be mutually respectful, you can't enjoy each other's company, you can't learn from each other and grow in yourself," says Strossen.
  • The opinions expressed in this video do not necessarily reflect the views of the Charles Koch Foundation, which encourages the expression of diverse viewpoints within a culture of civil discourse and mutual respect.
Keep reading Show less

Physicists find new state of matter that can supercharge technology

Scientists make an important discovery for the future of computing.

Surprising Science
  • Researchers find a new state of matter called "topological superconductivity".
  • The state can lead to important advancements in quantum computing.
  • Utilizing special particles that emerge during this state can lead to error-free data storage and blazing calculation speed.
Keep reading Show less

Physicist advances a radical theory of gravity

Erik Verlinde has been compared to Einstein for completely rethinking the nature of gravity.

Photo by Willeke Duijvekam
Surprising Science
  • The Dutch physicist Erik Verlinde's hypothesis describes gravity as an "emergent" force not fundamental.
  • The scientist thinks his ideas describe the universe better than existing models, without resorting to "dark matter".
  • While some question his previous papers, Verlinde is reworking his ideas as a full-fledged theory.
Keep reading Show less

How to heal trauma with meaning: A case study in emotional evolution

As tempting as it may be to run away from emotionally-difficult situations, it's important we confront them head-on.

  • Impossible-sounding things are possible in hospitals — however, there are times when we hit dead ends. In these moments, it's important to not run away, but to confront what's happening head-on.
  • For a lot of us, one of the ways to give meaning to terrible moments is to see what you can learn from them.
  • Sometimes certain information can "flood" us in ways that aren't helpful, and it's important to figure out what types of data you are able to take in — process — at certain times.
Keep reading Show less