June 18, 2014

Promoting Atheism

Wonder (emotion)
Wonder (Photo credit: Frode Inge Helland, Wikipedia)
Of the suggestions I made in my Four Things We Can Do To Make More Atheists post, the one about promoting atheism probably requires the most elaboration. I noted in that post that we have done an excellent job of criticizing religious belief and have devoted less effort to the promotion of atheism. When it comes to reaching religious believers who have started to experience some doubt about their faith, I think this task becomes essential. For most people, being right is not going to be enough to persuade them to abandon religion for something as stigmatized as atheism.

I can remember being a Christian, experiencing significant doubts, not knowing what to do, and fighting the doubt as long as I could. I did not have accurate information about atheism or know any other atheists. All I knew was that atheism was to be avoided at all costs. It would have been so helpful at the time to have heard de-conversion stories and to realize that many atheists feel that they benefited from losing their religion.

The Benefits of Atheism

If there are benefits to atheism - more than just having the knowledge that one is basing one's beliefs on evidence - then we need to share these with religious believers who are beginning to doubt and with those who are exploring atheism for the first time. I recently read Generation Atheist, a collection of de-conversion stories, and I believe the author of every one of them addressed what they had gained by leaving religion for atheism. Liberation from primitive fears, self-confidence, the freedom to be oneself, and the embrace of reality-based knowledge were some common ones. There were many others. Again, if there are such benefits, we need to do a much better job of sharing them.

How did we change as people when we moved from religion to atheism? What did we learn about ourselves and others? How did we grow? How has atheism improved our lives? We tend to focus on the hardships we have faced and continue to face. This is understandable because many of us are seeking to highlight the problems associated with religious privilege, discrimination, and the like. But if we are serious about wanting there to be more atheists, we cannot forget to address the many positives. If leaving religion did not improve our lives in meaningful ways, why would we advise others to leave their religions?

Don't Forget Emotion

Not everybody loves science and reason. Many intelligent atheists told me that they found Cosmos incredibly boring and could not bear to watch it. I did not share this opinion, but I have to recognize that not all atheists are going to be science enthusiasts. I have heard from at least a few atheists that they find the emphasis on being rational that pervades many of our blogs to be off-putting. "We aren't robots," they point out, and they are right to do so. Plenty of atheists seek something that the religious might call "spirituality" (e.g., strong feelings of awe, transcendence, a deep sense of connection with other beings).

I agree with the critics who say that many of us have neglected emotion and made our message less effective by doing so. I have struggled with this for some time. I think I shy away from more emotional content because it seems less familiar to me. I tend to emphasize reason because I am more comfortable with it. And yet, this certainly limits my effectiveness. I hope I can learn to do better.

But what does it look like to not forget emotion? For starters, I imagine that telling stories about one's experiences is necessarily more emotional than providing more abstract or analytical pieces. In so doing, we can share how events impacted us on an emotional level rather than trying to interpret them. What does it feel like to lose friends because you are an atheist, and how have such experiences shaped you?

If I put myself in the shoes of a religious believer who has never seriously thought through my faith or stopped to consider that others do not share it, I think that hearing an atheist describe the emotional impact of public prayer would do far more to open my eyes than hearing some legalistic diatribe about separation of church and state. And if I put myself in the shoes of someone brand new to atheism, I really think I'd want to hear more about what was in store for me on an emotional level, including both the highs and the lows.

There is a reason why nearly all methods of persuasion utilize emotion. It works. Emotion is the main way we assign relevance to information. I suspect that many of our messages would be more effective is we became better at using emotion. I certainly have my work cut out for me, but I'm ready to try.

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