May 16, 2018

Humanists Who Want More Atheists to be Humanists

Civility SavesPretend for a moment that you are liberal who plans to vote for Democratic candidates in the 2018 U.S. midterm elections. It would be nice if others would join you and support the candidates you will support, wouldn't it? Perhaps you can persuade some people to do just that, making it more likely that the candidates you support will win their races.

What do you suppose might be the most effective way to persuade others to support the candidates you support? Perhaps you could engage in childish name-calling against those who are likely to support other candidates. It is difficult to imagine that this would be an effective tactic and almost impossible to imagine that it could be your most effective approach. If anything, it would likely be effective in doing little more than energizing the other side to vote against your candidates.

What else might you try? If you value reason and aspire to be more rational, you might consider making a persuasive argument. That is, you might let others know about your preferred candidates and make a compelling case for why they are preferable to other options. Tell us why you support them and why it might be in our interest to do so too. Not everyone has succumbed to the disease of political tribalism; some people can be reached.

Now set politics aside entirely for a moment and imagine that you are not just an atheist but also a humanist. You recognize that atheism is extremely limited in scope, meaning nothing more than the lack of a belief in gods. You also recognize that humanism is much broader and includes many things that are not part of atheism. You happen to believe that humanism makes a great deal of sense, and you wish that more atheists would embrace it. Instead of demonizing those who do not, you might consider making a persuasive argument. Let these atheists know what you like about humanism. Explain why you consider it an important addition to atheism.

But what if your efforts at persuasion fail? Welcome to the real world, a world in which we rarely get everything we want. Many atheists claim to embrace reality, but some still seem to throw tantrums when reality does not conform to their desires. If your attempts at persuasion appear to fail, try harder. Be persistent. Recognize that it is very difficult to accurately assess the impact of your efforts, especially when you are broadcasting your message on social media. Just because you might not have persuaded one person with whom you are interacting does not mean you have been unsuccessful in persuading others. Perhaps someone observing the interaction changed his or her mind without telling you. Perhaps the impact of your words was not immediate but delayed. Don't give up.

I took my share of criticism back when I suggested that we are all ambassadors of atheism whether we want the role or not. I'm sure some of this criticism was deserved, but I stand by what I wrote. I vividly remember the first time I met another person who identified as an atheist. It did not happen until my second year of college, and it was kind of a big deal. I had been the only one I knew until then. This person was wonderful, but I sometimes wonder what impressions might have been formed had this turned out not to be the case.

When I'm interacting with others online, one of the reasons I strive to be civil is that I recognize I might be the first atheist someone has encountered. And even when that's not the case, I am aware that I might be the first atheist someone has encountered online that hasn't been a dick to them. If I wanted to convince other atheists to embrace humanism, I certainly wouldn't do so by attacking those who didn't immediately do so. I'd focus my efforts on reasoned persuasion.