And is there any difference between that and religious evangelicalism? Between that, and religious evangelicals/ missionaries trying to convince people that their religion (or lack thereof) is mistaken, and that they should convert and join their own religion instead?
I've been thinking about what I do here on this blog. (When I'm not talking about porn or politics or cute animals, that is.) And a big part of what I'm doing is trying to contribute, in my small way, to the eventual disappearance of religion from the human mindset. I'm trying to convince any believers who might be reading this blog that their beliefs are mistaken... or at least, plant the seeds of doubt in their minds. And I'm trying to help arm other atheists (as I have been armed by so many other atheist writers) with good arguments to use in their own debates with believers.
And I've been wondering: Given my strong negative feelings about religious evangelicalism, is what I do here ethical?
(Or, maybe more to the point: Given what I do here, are my strong negative feelings about religious evangelicalism consistent?)
My usual response (you know, to my own voice that I argue with in my head) is to say, "I'm writing a blog. People are free to visit it or not as they like. I'm not knocking on people's doors, or moving into their villages, or shouting at them through bullhorns on the streets. I'm not invading people's lives or their privacy. Presumably nobody visits this blog -- or stays in it for very long -- if they don't want to read arguments against religion. And outside the public sphere, I rarely offer my opinions on religion unless I'm asked."
But I'm not sure that that, just by itself, is enough of a difference. After all, many atheists I admire do much more pro-active, in- your- face things -- going on TV and radio, for instance, or writing in newspapers and magazines -- to spread the good word about God's non-existence. And I'd be doing all that too, given the opportunity. Of course, you can switch channels on the TV or turn the page of the newspaper, just like you can surf to another blog. But still. If the only difference between atheist writers and religious evangelicals/ missionaries is that we don't knock on doors and shout at people on the street, then I'm not sure that's enough of a difference to maintain my sense of moral outrage at evangelicalism.
So I've been thinking about this.
And I've realized that my problem with religious evangelicalism isn't that they're trying to change people's minds. Trying to change people's minds is a grand tradition. The marketplace of ideas, and all that. If you really think you're right about something important, of course you should try to share it. That's how good ideas get out into the world. And being exposed to lots of different ideas is good for you. It exercises the brain. It's how good ideas get strengthened and clarified, and bad ideas get winnowed out. As Ursula Le Guin said in The Dispossessed, "The idea is like grass. It craves light, likes crowds, thrives on crossbreeding, grows better for being stepped on."
Which leads me, not coincidentally, to what my real problem is with religious evangelicalism... and what I see as the real difference between it and my small efforts towards atheist de-conversion.
My efforts towards atheist de-conversion are based in -- here comes the broken record -- reason and evidence. I offer arguments and reasons for why atheism makes more sense, is more consistent, is more likely to be accurate, than religion. And that's true of most other atheist writers I know. (Most of the time, anyway.)
Religious evangelicalism does nothing of the kind. It bases its persuasion on fear: the normal fear of death, and the trumped-up fear of hell and eternal torture. It bases its persuasion on false hope: a hope for immortality that the persuaders have no good reason to believe is true. It bases its persuasion on falsehoods: flat-out inaccuracies about the realities of history and science.
And it bases its persuasion on the suppression of other ideas.
The suppression of other religious ideas is one of the most widespread elements of religion. It's not universal, but it's depressingly common. It's codified in the texts and tenets of religions: the concepts of the heathen and the heretic, rules against interfaith marriage, the very concept of religious orthodoxy, etc. It's often codified in law: not just in blatant theocracies, but for decades and centuries in supposedly more enlightened societies. (Example: It took until 1961 for atheists to be guaranteed the right to serve on juries, testify in court, or hold public office in every state in the United States.)
And it's codified in dozens of forms of social pressure. The idea that it's rude to question or criticize people's religion. The idea that religious faith by itself makes you a good person. The social deference given to ministers and rabbis and other religious leaders. The idea that being tolerant of religion requires that you not criticize it. Religion has built up an impressive array of armor: not intellectual weapons to defend its ideas, but armor to protect it against the very notion that its ideas require defending.
So yes to the marketplace of ideas. But in the marketplace of ideas, religion gets a free ride. In the marketplace of ideas, religion gets a free round- trip ride in a luxury limousine, with a police escort and a climate- controlled armored truck to transport its merchandise. All at public expense. And religious evangelicalism relies on that.
And that, I think, is the difference. The problem with religious evangelicalism isn't that it tries to persuade other people that it's right. The problem is that it tries to persuade using fear, and false hope, and falsehood. And it tries to persuade by shutting up any other ideas that might contradict it. It tries to win, not by playing fair, but by rewriting the rules of the game.
But I'm curious as to what you all think. Regular readers of this blog: Do you think there's a difference between religious evangelicalism and what I do in this blog? If so, what do you think that difference is? If not, why not? And I especially want to hear from other atheist bloggers. How do you parse this question? Do you see what you do do as different from what religious evangelicals and missionaries do? (Apart from the issue of you being right and them being wrong, of course.) And if so -- why? This is actually a complicated question for me, and I really want to get some different perspectives on it.