June 9, 2016

Atheist Proselytizing

The Reception of the Rev. J. Williams, at Tanna, in the South Seas, the Day Before He Was Massacred, 1841 (B-088-015)

I had to laugh the other day when I encountered Christians on Twitter complaining about how those pesky atheists are always proselytizing. "Why are atheists so intent on proselytizing?" I rarely bother trying to have discussions on Twitter anymore, so I figured I'd take a stab at providing an answer here instead.

I know that proselytizing has religious connotations for most of you. It does for me too. Instead of taking the easy way out in that regard, let's go ahead and be as charitable as we possibly can to these Christians by defining proselytizing as "to attempt to convert or recruit." Let's also replace "convert" with "de-convert" just so we are clear on what we are talking about. That is, an atheist who proselytizes is someone who is seeking to de-convert (or recruit) religious believers to atheism. And since atheism is not a worldview, philosophy, or ideology of any sort, this sort of de-conversion or recruitment would necessarily mean that the atheist is aiming to disabuse a religious believer of his or her religious beliefs and not to replace these beliefs with anything else. Thus, a successful case of atheist proselytizing would be one in which a religious believer abandoned his or her religious beliefs.

With that out of the way, how many atheists engage in this sort of proselytizing? Obviously not all of us, right? I mean, I do not go around attempting to persuade religious believers that their religious beliefs are incorrect and that they should set them aside. I don't knock on the doors of my Southern Baptist neighbors (or peek in their windows) to tell them the same tired story they have already heard countless times. I don't stand on a busy street corner yelling gibberish at passersby. I don't even troll religious believers on Twitter in an effort to engage them in argument. I do, however, write an atheist blog. I also share my own content and the content of other atheists on social media. My target audience is usually atheists; however, I have written at least a few posts over the years that were aimed at religious believers (here's an example). Perhaps this was me proselytizing in some respect.

But just because not all atheists proselytize does not mean that some do not do so. Some atheists certainly do proselytize. I see atheists accosting religious believers on Twitter every day to argue with them, and the goal does sometimes appear to be talking them out of their beliefs. Some atheists write books filled with arguments designed to persuade religious believers that they are wrong or to give atheists tools for proselytizing (even though most of them do not perceive what they are doing as proselytizing). Some prominent atheists have stated in interviews that they see part of their role as talking religious believers out of their beliefs. And some atheists do act in a manner that is not terribly different from evangelical Christian street preachers.

To be clear, I am not condemning or even criticizing atheists who proselytize for doing so. Just because I might not do some of the things they do in the way they do them does not mean I cannot see the value of some of it. Religious belief is irrational, and persons who act on the basis of religious belief sometimes do things that harm the rest of us. If someone decides that he or she is going to try to talk some religious believers out of their beliefs, I am not about to stand in the way.

What strikes me as so fascinating about this is really just the idea that Christians would complain about it. It is almost as if they have never heard of Christian evangelism or encountered any evangelical fundamentalist Christians. Why should atheists be expected to keep our thoughts on the subject of religion to ourselves while Christians are free to share theirs with anyone who will listen to them? Why is proselytizing not just expected but valued when it comes from a Christian and not an atheist?
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