On Converting People to Atheism

Last night one of my roommates asked me an interesting question just as we were going to bed. It came at the tail end of an hour-and-a-half long debate about feminism, it was after 1 in the morning, and neither of us really felt like starting another conversation. I’m sure we’ll come back to it at some point, but it was a good question and I wanted to address it here.

The question at hand: How do [I] feel about converting people to atheism?

First off, I want to discuss how I feel like the language used actually makes this a loaded question vis-à-vis the word “converting”. I think of “converting”  as being the abandonment of one set of beliefs in order to accept a new set. Becoming an atheist is not this, it is only the first half: it is an abandonment of one set of beliefs. Full stop. People don’t accept atheism dogmatically, or at least they shouldn’t. Becoming an atheist because you really like Richard Dawkins, or because you’re upset about the onslaught of religious sex scandals, or because you’re angry at God are not good reasons to do so. There is only one good reason to become an atheist: because you don’t believe in any gods. However I will acknowledge that no offense was intended by the term and for the purposes of discussion I will accept “converting” to mean “convincing someone to leave their religion”.

This is still a nuanced question. There are absolutely forms of conversion which I reject as appropriate. For example, I would be as bothered by a government actively seeking to convert people to atheists as I would a government-sponsered program to convert people to Islam or Hinduism or Christianity. That’s simply not the job of the government. I am also opposed to the idea of atheist street evangelizers. The idea of walking up to someone on the street uninvited and attempting to disconvince them of their faith is repulsive to me as a form of harassment. I would feel the same way about the idea of door-to-door atheists, going around like Jehovah’s Witnesses to preach the faith.

There are really only two situations when I would personally consider attempting to convert someone to atheism: 1) if they are actively interested in a conversation about religion; or 2) their beliefs about religion are actively causing them to harm others. Situation 1) should be obvious: if somebody wants to talk about religion with me (including situations where they are trying to convert me) then I am going to participate in that conversation, and my honest participation demands that I attempt to counter their claims and convince them why they are wrong. I have no illusions that by the end of the conversation I will have added one more atheist to the world, but at the very least I would hope to have given them (or anyone listening) something new to think about, which might eventually lead them down the path of reason.

In situation 2), the attempt to convince someone to abandon their beliefs evolves from a mere intellectual exercise to an actual moral obligation. If you believe that your religion entitles you to torture and kill children you think are witchesconvince third world countries that condoms cause AIDSfinancially cut off or threaten to rape students whose only crime is asking their schools to obey the law; or to fly fucking planes into skyscrapers then you’d better believe that I support any effort to convert you to atheism. Anyone who doesn’t at least try to convince someone whose religious is forcing them to actively cause harm to people that they are being stupid is morally reprehensible.

But to go back to my first point, what does it actually mean to convert someone to atheism? As much as it might sound otherwise, I have no loyalty towards atheism. Instead, my loyalty lays with truth, and honest thorough inquiry (also called skepticism). If some religion were proven correct tomorrow, any honest  atheist and skeptic would change their mind. That’s the beauty of atheism: it isn’t faith that there is no god, but rather just the lack of reason to think that there is. If such reasons become available, we’re free to change our minds, liberated of any dogma that we stick to for reasons of mere tradition.

So at the end of the day, what is an attempt to convert someone to atheism? In my opinion, it’s simply an attempt to convince them that beliefs should be informed by evidence and facts and that skepticism and honest inquiry are the real path to truth. Once you convince someone of that, atheism should follow naturally. QED.

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