Should an atheist proselytize?

June 30, 2008 at 11:47 am 39 comments

When I started the series, Why do Christians de-convert?, I said I was analysing de-conversion stories with an eye towards answering a rather simple question about tactics. How can we support or even promote de-conversion?

These stories have shown that there are a number of ways of supporting Christians who make steps towards de-conversion, but in almost every single case it appears that the doubt that led to de-conversion came from within the individual.

Here’s the only story I found among the one hundred and seventeen I examined that credited de-conversion to the specific intervention of an atheist:

I ran into a very good friend and told him the story of my conversion. He was not critical, but kept asking questions about why I took to this religion and specifically required that I put things in my own words instead of mouthing what I had been told. He made me think! and that’s all it took.

We can tell people that there are alternatives to Christianity, and for many people who chafe at the stupidity of religion yet are unable to properly express it, this is liberating. We can raise questions about the dogma, hypocrisy, or the illogical beliefs of religion, but most people who cited these as factors, raised the questions themselves.

In addition, we must defend science and rationalism from attacks, especially in education. As we saw from earlier examples, fundamentalist Christians have to wage war on science. They have correctly identified that their beliefs either need to accommodate a rational understanding of reality, or they have to destroy or discredit rational identity in the eyes of their followers.

However, as atheists, we delude ourselves if we think that we have some kind of role in “shaking up” peoples faith even though we can provide the resources to support people trapped in the religious paradigm. Ultimately a person has to liberate themselves from religion, it is not for us to assume the role of atheist proselytes.

Originally published by Kieran Bennett, reprinted with permission.

Entry filed under: KieranBennett. Tags: , , , , .

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39 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Doris Tracey  |  June 30, 2008 at 12:50 pm

    People don’t have to liberate themselves from religion if they don’t want to because as we all know there is free will. The tie to God has been there since the beginning of time, which was not the Garden of Eden. You don’t need to proselytize, people and water always seek it’s own level.

  • 2. Ubi Dubium  |  June 30, 2008 at 12:52 pm

    I quite agree. I have read so many personal stories of de-conversion here, and none of them, (and that includes my own) have resulted from an atheist actively pushing atheism.

    A few people have mentioned that one of the things that led them to question their faith was the fact the description of atheists they heard in church in no way matched the real atheists they knew. But this was only ever one factor among many.

    The common thread I have seen is that each de-convert who finds their way to atheism got there on their own. They had to work it out for themselves.

    I think our best role is to live by example. To support each other and those who are still struggling with doubt. To promote rational thought at every opportunity. To fight the stupidity the fundies want to insert in our public schools. Also, we should probably try to be more public with humanitarian outreach programs, as a way to bolster our image. It would be harder for the fundies to proclaim that we are evil and selfish if we are opening soup kitchens and homeless shelters.

  • 3. Mike aka MonolithTMA  |  June 30, 2008 at 1:30 pm

    Proselytizing didn’t get me in or out of Christianity. I don’t even like to be “helped’ by a salesperson in a store, let alone by someone of a particular spiritual persuasion. Like Ubi said, I was most impressed by the idea that atheists weren’t any worse than the Christians I knew and in some cases they were much better. I’ve always been suspicious of the belief that only Christians could be good people.

    I have discussions with Christians and explain my beliefs, but I do not go out of my way to try and change theirs. I will, however, defend my beliefs, and if that leads to them thinking more about what they believe then I am happy.

  • 4. Griffin  |  June 30, 2008 at 3:09 pm

    I think that defending science is completely unrelated to any sort of atheistic proselytizing. Making sure that reality is reported correctly and that our educational institutions teach an understanding of reality that is backed up by real evidence is just good sense.

    On the question of evangalizing, atheists would be as poorly served by it as Christians are.

    If other people are interested in atheism, they will come to us. We don’t need to alienate people the way Christians do by nagging and bothering them with constant appeals to ‘convert.’

    When you stop to think about it, that sort of proselytizing is deeply offensive. Even when I was (nominally) a Christian, when somebody would come up to me to ‘tell me about Jesus’ I always wondered, “do these people really think that I’m so thoughtless and pliable that I would make a decision about my eternal soul based on a comic book, a phone call, two strangers showing up at my front door or a trick ten dollar bill left of the floor for me to pick up?

    ‘Witnessing’ does more to annoy people and drive them away from Christianity as it does to bring them towards Jesus. We’re rationalists. If we look at the evidence, we know that unsolicited nagging about religion/non-religion just sets people more in their ways.

  • 5. TheNerd  |  June 30, 2008 at 3:18 pm

    I agree, I have been creeped out more than once by someone trying to “witness” to me. When it comes down to something as personal as religion or the lack thereof, there is nothing we should do other than let seekers know that we can answer any questions they may have with a nonjudgemental attitude.

  • 6. Richard  |  June 30, 2008 at 3:31 pm

    I will add my echo to the growing consensus: proselytization is counterproductive. We all know from apologetics that most any criticism of Christianity can be and has been answered by some apologist somewhere, so those who dont wish to question their faith (yet) dont have to. Thats why it has to come from within: a believer’s faith is serving many and powerful deep-seated psychological needs. Believers dont *want* to give it up. We are all living testimony as to how diffuclt and painful it can be to give up all those illusions.

    But I do think we provide an excellent resource for those who are already in the process of qeustioning, and are willing to give opposing views a hearing. This website and others like it serve a much needed purpose in making available criticism of Christianity, arguments and answers to the apologists, a laying bare of some of the psychologic forces involved, and of course, support of others who have already been there.

  • 7. Stephen  |  June 30, 2008 at 3:39 pm

    Of the people who “raised the questions themselves”, I wonder how many actually did so completely unprompted? And how many were actually triggered in part by comments they overheard, a snippet of a television documentary, a question they were asked? (I’m not suggesting that the people who said that they raised the questions themselves are in any way dishonest. None of us can commit to memory all the many influences we are subjected to.)

    If we’re talking about aggressive foot-in-the-door proselytising, then I agree entirely that it is quite inappropriate. But on the other hand it is perfectly acceptable, indeed praiseworthy, to stay alert when religious topics come up, and drop in a well-timed question or comment when the opportunity arises.

    As an example, the ten commandments came up at work some time ago, and one enthusiastic Christian chimed in in a way that gave me the opportunity to enquire “but what about the ten commandments in Exodus 35?” So he looked them up, and you could see from his face that (a) they were completely new to him and (b) he was struggling to place them in his mental model. On its own, a fairly insignificant point perhaps, but let such incidents take place a few times, and the straws start to build up on the camel’s back.

  • 8. orDover  |  June 30, 2008 at 3:44 pm

    I agree completely. As atheists/agnostics I think we have to show religious people the respect that they constantly refuse to show us through their proselytizing. And like the Christians themselves are always saying, live by example.

    One beneficial thing we can do is not hide our beliefs. When I was in the Christian bubble I had never met an atheist. I couldn’t imagine that they were good people. They all seemed too evil to be normal. We need to normalize atheism, to show people that atheists are their neighbors, their co-workers, and their friends.

    This is much easier said than done though, especially considering that atheists as a group are even more discriminated against than homosexuals. My husband’s co-workers are all outrightly religious, and he feels like he needs to hide his beliefs from them in order to keep his job. That’s just sad. I get so sick when I hear Christians talking about how they are “persecuted for their faith.” Yeah right.

  • 9. Griffin  |  June 30, 2008 at 4:01 pm

    orDover: “One beneficial thing we can do is not hide our beliefs. When I was in the Christian bubble I had never met an atheist. I couldn’t imagine that they were good people. They all seemed too evil to be normal. We need to normalize atheism, to show people that atheists are their neighbors, their co-workers, and their friends.”

    YES! Sadly, I also agree with the paragraph that follows…

  • 10. edwinhere  |  July 1, 2008 at 6:36 am

    Proselytizing would have converted me earlier if the arguments were rational enough.

    But most of the atheists who approached me, simply wanted to enjoy ridiculing my beliefs and make me feel intellectually inferior. And this what stopped me from switching over to the other side.

  • 11. vjack  |  July 1, 2008 at 9:25 am

    I agree that atheists should not proseltytize, but I think the author is wrong about atheists not having a role in “shaking up” believers. Our very presence can serve this function. When believers interact with happy, well-adjusted atheists, it shows them that life without delusion is both possible and satisfying.

    Beyond simply being ourselves, I think dialogue can encourage believers to think and to question some of what they have been taught. I’m not saying such dialogue would lead to instant de-conversion, but I do think it can have a cumulative impact.

  • 12. Yurka  |  July 1, 2008 at 2:00 pm

    One additional reason that you may not want to proselytize – out of self interest.

    Look at what is happening to Europe. Secularization leads people to become effete, demoralized and selfish. There are NO European nations left that are reproducing at replacement or above. Pretty soon the zealous Muslims will be in the majority there, and they may well be plunged into a new dark ages.

    You atheists are like parasites, vampires. You are able to thrive off of the vibrancy, and liveliness of this Christian nation you inhabit.
    Do you really want to end it all? You won’t have the stomach to stand against militant Islam – that would be so intolerant and un-PC, wouldn’t it? You don’t want to be bothered raising kids right? Just DINK yourselves out of existence and let Christians raise up soldiers to defend you.

    Seems if you value your current state, you should be encouraging Christianity. You know in the end your philosophy leads to nihilism and apathy – you would not have the energy to stand up against militant Islam.

  • 13. Obi  |  July 1, 2008 at 2:13 pm

    It’s incredibly sad that there are people like Yurka around in this day and age. Intolerance and ignorance are terrible, terrible things. Atheists are just as human as everyone else, and care just as much for the people around them as anyone else. They simply don’t believe in ancient superstitions about god(s). The United States is a secular government at it’s core, and the founding fathers designed it as so.

    European countries with secular governments and relatively high amounts of atheists (such as the Scandinavian countries, but some of them have state churches) have the longest life expectancies, highest literacy rates, lowest crime rates, best science programs, et cetera in the world. The U.S. is currently lagging behind all of those nations, so I’ve no clue where you get the perception that Europe is in any way inferior to the U.S. from.

    Regardless, you sound like a radical/militant Christian, who is just as dangerous as a militant Muslim. Your hate speech is disgusting.

  • 14. SnugglyBuffalo  |  July 1, 2008 at 2:36 pm

    Do not feed the trolls.

  • 15. Yurka  |  July 1, 2008 at 2:38 pm

    Obi, how do you explain Europe’s current suicide-by-attrition? Do you deny this is happening? Remember the riots in France?

  • 16. Obi  |  July 1, 2008 at 3:08 pm

    Terrible events happen everywhere people are, plain and simple. The “great” U.S. is currently going through a terrible economic period, and it’s involved in a completely unjustified war on the other side of the world. Not to mention it’s one of the worst countries in terms of education (the American science system has pretty much gone to hell, in part due to the creationism vs. evolution controversy).

    This country has plenty of things wrong with it, mate.

  • 17. Yurka  |  July 1, 2008 at 3:20 pm

    But American society as a whole hasn’t lost its will to live because of its Christianity. Don’t you find it sad that Europeans don’t care what happens beyond their lives? They don’t want to be bothered with kids, or perhaps as atheists they’d feel guilty about burdening their children with life. A whole civilization shuffling to its doom because of nihilism. They need to be shaken awake, regenerated. I don’t think this can happen apart from the actions of the Spirit.

  • 18. Stephen  |  July 1, 2008 at 3:36 pm

    [blush] … that should have been Exodus 34, not 35.

  • 19. Anonymous  |  July 1, 2008 at 3:46 pm

    The ten Commandments are actually in Exodus 20.

  • 20. Stephen  |  July 1, 2008 at 4:02 pm

    Yurka: speaking as someone who has spent most of his life in two European countries and has recently worked for a few months in a third, who has visited 20 European countries and reads six European languages, I can say that your grasp of European society is about as comprehensive and accurate as the average American’s grasp of Azerbaijani monocotyledons.

    And having said that, I will now adopt SnugglyBuffalo’s advice.

  • 21. orDover  |  July 1, 2008 at 4:06 pm


    How is it that you equate atheism with having fewer children with nihilism? I know you’ve been around here for a while so I know you’ve read over and over again that we atheists/agnostics are not nihilists. In fact, we just had two blogs by Richard about how un-nihilistic we are.

    Anyway, I think you’re missing the REAL reason why educated people (including Europeans and atheists) are having fewer children: social and environmental responsibility. I decided when I was 16, and still a Christian, that I only wanted one or two children. My decision was based on the knowledge that our planet has finite resources, and that if we keep over-populating, we’ll totally run out and be SOL. People reproduce exponentially. Food and resource supplies stay at a basically constant level. Malthus figured this out way back when: if people breed and overpopulate the world, then tons of people will die of starvation. I would rather not contribute to that problem.

    (Sorry, I guess I’m ignoring the “DON’T FEED THE TROLLS” sign…I’m sure I’ll pay the price.)

  • 22. Yurka  |  July 1, 2008 at 4:23 pm

    orDover, overpopulation is a myth. You could easily fit the entire world’s population into Texas where they could live in single family homes. The world’s population will never double again, so your concerns about exponential reproduction are unfounded. Listen to this interview with Steven Mosher, President of the Population Research Institute and author of the book, Population Control: Real Cost, Illusionary Benefits:

    Also listen to the first 20 minutes or so of this podcast by WIlliam Lane Craig (before he gets to the lesson).
    [audio src="" /]

  • 23. Walking Away  |  July 1, 2008 at 5:14 pm

    (Edwinhere – that was my experience with the few atheists I met over the years. They would laugh at me and ridicule me and I wondered if all atheists were so dang mean. Of course I learned that they weren’t!)

  • 24. orDover  |  July 1, 2008 at 6:53 pm

    Overpopulation in regard to the entire planet may be a myth, but you can’t tell me cities like Tokyo aren’t overpopulated. People don’t spread out, and that creates problems. There are also other environmental factors to consider that sort of changes the definition of overpopulation. If we keep needing to use up fossil fuels and the greenhouse effect continues to increase, then human life could no longer be sustainable after a few thousand years. There might be plenty of food, but that isn’t the only factor that contributes to what we call overpopulation. With the rapid rise of population since Industrialization there have been serious consequences. That tells me that in order to keep those consequences from escalating we need to be responsible in our reproduction. I’m not talking about no one having any babies, I’m just taking about checking the exponential growth by not having vast numbers of children.

    I’m not going to listen to the interviews you link to because I don’t care to hear the opinions of irrational anti-abortion, anti-family planning Christian propagandists. Find me a source coming from someone with no dogma to support, and then I’ll check it out.

  • 25. Yurka  |  July 1, 2008 at 7:49 pm

    If most of the world’s cultures aren’t willing to participate in voluntarily limiting their families, why should you? It harms your own culture and doesn’t achieve what you want, since the world will end up overpopulated by other cultures anyway.

    It’s like giving to a charity you know is corrupt. It hurts you and doesn’t achieve your ends. I don’t understand.

  • 26. Obi  |  July 1, 2008 at 8:18 pm

    Yurka –

    What kind of a nihilistic attitude is that? It doesn’t matter what other people around you are doing. You are responsible for your own actions. It doesn’t matter whether or not other people are looking out for the well-being of the Earth and future generations — you can take it upon yourself and do the little you can.

    I’m quite surprised to hear that from a Christian, to be honest.

  • 27. orDover  |  July 1, 2008 at 9:36 pm

    Yurka, it’s called “doing my part.” It’s also the reason I separate my trash and recyclable and sold my car in favor of public transit and wakling. If everyone had the attitude you have, there would never be any progress. I can’t hold other people and other countries responsible, but I can hold myself and my country responsible. If everyone would just be personally responsible, instead of using the “everyone else does it” excuse, we could accomplish much more.

  • 28. SnugglyBuffalo  |  July 1, 2008 at 9:36 pm

    It’s more like giving to the one good charity, in spite of the fact that numerous corrupt charities will undermine the good one’s work.

    Anyway, what the heck does having more kids have to do with Christianity?

  • 29. Griffin  |  July 2, 2008 at 7:47 am

    Yurka, have you ever been to Europe? Have you ever met a European? If so, did you have an in depth conversation with that person? Also, did you talk to many people from Europe to get an accurate cross section to draw these wide ranging conclusions you bandy about with little concern for accuracy or support?

    I’ve spent a semester living and studying in Europe. I have family that lives in Europe. You have no idea what you’re talking about.

    If you’ve come here to save us from our godless ways, offering half-formed, inaccurate and demonstrably false observations about a subject you know little about is not only a bad way to convince us of anything but also reflects poorly on the thoughtful theists that are out there.

  • 30. TheNerd  |  July 2, 2008 at 1:47 pm

    Yurka – I sense much hate in you.

    *The Nerd resists pointing the “true Scotsman” finger.*

  • 31. SnugglyBuffalo  |  July 2, 2008 at 3:40 pm

    TheNerd, how did you manage to find a true Scotsman’s finger? I hear it’s impossible to verify the authenticity of such relics.

  • 32. Yurka  |  July 2, 2008 at 6:55 pm

    #26, #27 I was curious as to why it makes sense from the secular standpoint. If a few guilt ridden westerners limit their families now, then they may lengthen the earth’s ability to sustain life by a few thousand years, and this will only be discernible hundreds of thousands of years from now *if no new technologies arise and current extrapolations are correct*!!! They’re not even sure if the earth is getting warmer or colder – these theories by ecologists and meteorologists are speculative to a large degree.
    So It doesn’t seem worth it. If only such a small segment cooperates, the effects if any will barely be discernible, so I’d think it better to enjoy yourself now. That’s not the same as, say, causing acid rain *now* since I would be causing real, perceivable harm.

    #28,”what the heck does having more kids have to do with Christianity?” heh – touche. I believe Augustine even wanted people to have no children, in order to hasten the second coming. St. Paul seems neutral on the matter (1 Co addresses the issue I think). But I didn’t mean that not having children was un Christian. I just meant that it seems that Europeans were not having children for the wrong reasons. It would be a shame for a great civilization to be extinguished for those reasons.

    #29, No I’ve never been to Europe, I don’t know any Europeans, but one can see the trends there- you don’t need to know anyone personally to see these are harmful trends. What about the Dutch pedophiles trying to form their own political party? What about the fact that bestiality is on the rise in Sweden?
    Why do the British allow Muslim “No Go” areas in London? It’s as if they’ve *already* ceded territory to militant muslims? How can we not be alarmed at what these militants are doing in Europe?

    #30, it’s not hate, it’s occasionally letting the world situation get me down, which admittedly is wrong. “Do not grieve as one who has no hope”.

  • 33. Yurka  |  July 2, 2008 at 6:57 pm

    #30 you mean the fallcy? how was I commiting the fallacy?

  • 34. TheNerd  |  July 2, 2008 at 9:25 pm

    Oh, I was simply refraining from committing it myself against you, Yurka.

  • 35. SnugglyBuffalo  |  July 3, 2008 at 11:58 am

    Yurka, I do agree with some of your points. I do agree that the fact that Europeans’ populations are declining as Muslims immigrate there has potentially devastating consequences for their cultures. But I don’t think it’s a symptom of atheism. Correlation not being causation, and all that. It’s entirely possible that we could convert every European into a devout Christian, and they’d still have a declining population. The birth rate of any nation goes down when it industrializes and gains access to contraceptives and the like.

    Basically, I disagree with the idea that atheism is at the root of European’s low birth rates. And given how much corruption can be found in Christianity itself, I strongly doubt the problems faced in the Netherlands and Sweden that you mention would not have arisen had the nations remained Christian.

    So It doesn’t seem worth it. If only such a small segment cooperates, the effects if any will barely be discernible, so I’d think it better to enjoy yourself now.

    I’ll refrain from delving into the “everybody else is doing it” argument here. If you can’t see the danger of such an attitude, I don’t think anything I can say will change it. I am amused that you seem to equate “enjoying yourself” with having more kids (though maybe you meant that phrase in a more general context with regard to controlling your behavior). Given that humanity’s birth rates go down when they can help it, it seems like the overwhelming opinion is that people enjoy themselves more when they have fewer kids.

  • 36. Obi  |  July 3, 2008 at 12:00 pm

    Cum hoc ergo propter hoc.

  • 37. Gorbollocks  |  July 4, 2008 at 10:54 am

    @ Snugglebuffalo

    ‘I do agree that the fact that Europeans’ populations are declining as Muslims immigrate there has potentially devastating consequences for their cultures’

    I’m afraid thats a poor understanding of ‘Culture’. It does not work that way. Its not a static system of classification, if anything you could say that ‘Islamic’ culture and ‘European’ culture could not easily be seperated at many points throughout history (both recent and ancient) especially considering the Meditteranean and Baltic areas. There are quite strong similarities between both Christian and Islamic doctrines that have had a pervasive effect on institutional laws, the structure of social organisation and the value of certain ideologies. You can see this in the organisation of markets, schools, hospitals, architecture and on a more directly religious vein; shared saints, holy sites, and funny ideas about what is and isn’t taboo regarding the physical body.

    In fact if it wasn’t for Islamic scholars in Spain during the 9th -15th centuries it is doubtful that we would have ever had a translation of Aristotle, Plato, amongst other important enlightenment influencing philosophers, cos it certainly wasn’t happening intellectually in Northern Europe at that time.

    In any event If you are from Northern Europe and you’re a bit edgy about a supposed ‘Islamic Invasion’, bear in mind any hostility is far more likely to come from a native born ‘fanatic’, who is far more likely to originally be a petty criminal, who has joined an islamic based gang in prison and still carries out criminal activities despite the fact that this goes against the doctrines of his religion. And this specific problem has its roots based in poverty and organised crime more than anything else. In other words, don’t believe the hype. and btw I’ve never been to a ‘Islamic’ no go area in London, Bradford or Birmingham. A regards Bestiality in Sweden, well, those Reindeer sure do have a seXXXy walk, and such long and beautiful eyelashes! Oooohhh Rudddollpphh, you naughty boy! ;P

  • 38. Gorbollocks  |  July 4, 2008 at 11:24 am

    Oh and if you’re wondering why I used the term Northern Europe, its because its precisely in these countries that you are getting this kind of ‘Invasion Islam!’ discourse, whether the people living there think it applies or not. There are loads of reasons why I speculate that this is so (punitive wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, fears of abuse reg a state social support system, and good old fashioned racism), but my favorite is that fact people have an innate fear of anything that isn’t rooted in local folklore, this took Christianity hundreds of years to subsume itself into and it did so through institional involvement and aristocratic privilege in pushing authoritative worldviews on a highly animistic series of populations.

    Anywaysss, I figure you have these uppity big religions coming up from the desert in the middle east, which are by and large very similar and they get pushed through as a succesion of Kings, Emperors and Princes percolate their systems of power northwards and they hit the big forests of Northern Europe. A completely different landscape and way of living with all its tree worship, green men and holy bears. I mean they were from completey different worlds, people up north wouldn’t have had a clue what Lion looked like, much less concieve of many of the practices talked about in the bible. Also they would have spoken in Latin and only the rich elites would have understood that so for many people it was just beyond em, and they probably would have stuck to their original systems of belief because it made more sense to them. fast forward a few hundred years and this desert religion has now changed and taken on many of these local folkoric beliefs and subsumed them as inherently christian. Anyway, the point I might as well make is if you want to Proselytise succesfully you have to start appropriating the local important systems and structures. Secularisation of schools and hospitals and other important aspects of public life meant the decline of religion in Europe. This is where the propagation of atheism is succesful, all you have to do is keep religion away from these places and leave people free to make up their own irrational but pragmatic minds, and Bingo! You will never need to formulate an athiestic version of witnessing or testifying. ok sorry for the length but I’m bored at home with a busted ankle and Wimbledon sucks green felty balls…

  • 39. Josh  |  October 20, 2008 at 12:38 pm

    I cannot agree more with edwinhere. For me it was primarily an atheist / evolutionists who took some decent time to sit down and actually explain why I was wrong.

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