Criticizing Religious Belief

I am a sensitive artist
I am a sensitive artist (Photo credit: kevin dooley)
I had not initially planned to write follow-up posts to my Four Things We Can Do To Make More Atheists post, but I have decided that I'd like to do so. This one focuses on the first of my four suggestions for what we can do, as individuals and collectively, to make more atheists: criticize religious belief.

As I mentioned previously, I think that we have been doing this very well and we've certainly been at it awhile. We have effectively flooded the Internet with material criticizing religious belief. In so doing, we have made it far more likely that a religious believer will encounter material critical of his or her religion than ever used to be the case. What I want to do here is expand a bit on what this can look like and mention what it probably shouldn't look like.

Consider the Audience

I think that it makes sense to aim content critical of religious belief at each of two fairly different audiences. First, we have religious believers who have not yet experienced significant doubt. Some have been sheltered by others who have control over them, and others are sheltering themselves because they have been taught that doubt is evil and will lead to hell. Assume that much of this audience has not encountered significant criticism of their beliefs, and this may mean that they have never given much thought to their beliefs. They may think that everyone believes as they do (a foundational aspect of religious privilege).

We can change this. Our presence itself shows them that not everyone believes as they do, and we can certainly provide criticism of their religious beliefs. The goal for this audience is simple: provoke thought. I would not approach this group aiming for de-conversion; I would merely hope to provoke a bit of thought. They will likely be very resistant initially, and that is okay. All we're after is depositing a tiny shred of doubt that will grow into something later. Use images, text, audio, and/or video to point out what is wrong with religious beliefs. The person is not the target; the beliefs are the target. Highlight the logical inconsistencies or the implications of primitive beliefs in the modern world. Expose the horrors contained in the "holy" books. Demonstrate that these beliefs are not just irrational but destructive.

The second group we are interested in are the religious believers who have started to experience doubt and can now be described as struggling with it. They are almost certainly aware that not everyone shares their beliefs. They may have even started to explore some of the criticisms, but there are probably many they have not yet encountered. They are likely to be more receptive to criticism of religious belief than the first group, and they may even seek it out. My guess is that these are the sorts of individuals who visit atheist blogs and follow atheists on Twitter. They may have trouble admitting it, but they are becoming curious.

Some of the content we'd like to get out to the first group can be used here too, but those in this second group are less likely to be hearing it for the first time. They are also likely to want more dialogue. They will try to interact with you, and this is an important difference. Patience is going to be essential here. The person who asks why there are still monkeys if evolution is true is at least engaging. I know it can be annoying, but at least they are asking questions and not merely hiding. And please remember, there was a time when some of us might have asked similar questions. I certainly remember not knowing what atheism meant. I expect that a patient and interactive style of communication is going to work better for this group.

Notice that other atheists really aren't the intended audience for content criticizing religious belief. We've already gone through this process, and we have already said no to religious belief. Some atheists will still be interested in this content, particularly those who are relatively new to atheism, but they probably aren't the intended audience for much of it. Thus, it probably makes sense when you share this sort of content to think about how you can help religious believers find it.

Avoid Name Calling

Name calling and personal attacks can undermine otherwise effective criticism of religious belief to some degree. It does not matter if you are trying to reach religious believers struggling with doubt or those who refuse to admit that some of us do not believe in their god(s). When we resort to name calling, we are giving them an excuse to dismiss the content we are sharing. They might not even remember the content, as the name calling will usually be more salient. And that means that our effort is being wasted.

I do believe that there is a place for ridicule and mockery of absurd beliefs and that they can sometimes be effective. Mocking absurd beliefs is not the same thing as name calling or personal attacks. The target and goal differ considerably. One targets ideas and aims to provoke thought; the other targets people and aims to...well...I guess I'm not really sure what calling people names on the Internet aims to accomplish.

I see quite a bit of name calling by atheists taking place on Twitter, and I am curious about its intended goal. Is calling someone a "deluded fuckwad" supposed to help in some manner? If so, how is thought to help? Perhaps it is not done to accomplish anything at all. Maybe it is done merely out of anger and is not imagined to produce any sort of positive outcome. If so, I'd encourage those doing it to consider whether there might be a downside.