Why do religious believers visit atheist blogs?
And what should atheists' response to them be?
There was a recent piece on Daylight Atheism that's got me thinking about this question: a compelling, fascinating, completely excellent guest post, Jehovah's Witnesses Hate the Smurfs, by former Jehovah's Witness Sarah Braasch. The main thrust of the piece was simply to describe the abusive craziness of her upbringing -- some of it specific to the religion, some of it simply made worse by it -- and to describe how she left it, and how it still affects her to this day.
But what's got me thinking about today's question is an almost tangential point that came up in the comment thread. I had asked Sarah what atheists could do to make things easier for people who are coming out of religion. I asked, "Is there anything this community could have done that would have made your transition easier? Is there anything we could be doing now that would make it easier on people who are leaving abusive religion?"
Sarah had a number of good answers to that question. But what really jumped out at me was this:
I want to suggest that those folks that like to argue here for the religious viewpoint are making their first steps towards leaving religion.
I know that it's easy to get upset with them and to lose patience with them. But, I firmly believe that that is why many of them are here. They are testing the waters. They want to be argued out of their beliefs.
I know it's easy to succumb to the temptation to ignore them or marginalize them as trolls or whatnot. But, one of the reasons that I really like Ebon and his site is because he does show them a little more care and concern and respect than the typical atheism site.
Not all of them, to be sure. But, it's just something to think about the next time you react to one of them.
Instead of alienating them, we should probably be trying to embrace them. And, assist them along on their path towards complete deconversion.
And it got me thinking:
I think Sarah has a really good point.
I think a lot of religious visitors to atheist blogs (and forums, and Facebook pages, and so on) are making their first steps towards leaving religion.
When I was leaving my religious beliefs, there weren't any atheist blogs. (As far as I know, anyway.) But I found the next best thing. I found Skeptical Inquirer magazine. I'm not quite sure why I picked it up in the first place: mostly I was interested in the science and anti-conspiracy thinking and so on. And also I thought Ingrid would like it.
But a big part of why I kept on reading it was that I was testing the waters of my religion, and of letting it go. I wanted to think more carefully about what I believed and why. I didn't want to believe out of wishful thinking anymore: I wanted to know whether my beliefs were defensible, consistent, supported by evidence or at least not flatly contradicted by it. A lot of what the Skeptical Inquirer talked about -- astrology, anti-vaccination hysteria, conspiracy theories, etc. -- were issues I was already down with, and I shared their deep value for the willingness to face harsh truths, and for letting reality trump pretty much everything. Plus I had tremendous respect for their careful consideration and rigorous "benefit of the doubt" testing of ideas they clearly thought were bullshit. If my beliefs were going to be anything other than a rationalization of what I wanted to believe, I needed to run them through the Skeptical Inquirer gauntlet, and see where they came out on the other side.
And I think that's true for a lot of religious visitors to atheist blogs and forums and Facebook pages and so on.
Now, I don't think that's the only reason theists visit atheist blogs and whatnot. Some are just hit-and-run evangelists, wanting to spread the word of Jesus or whoever: they're not interested in what atheists think or say, and they don't stick around long enough to find out. Some really are just trolls, spoiling for a fight, poking the beehive with a stick just for the fun of it. And some are reasonable believers -- still mistaken, I obviously think, but reasonable -- who are interested in understanding atheism now that it's becoming more important, and who want to forge alliances with us on issues we have in common.
But I strongly suspect that Sarah is right. I strongly suspect that a lot of the believers visiting atheist blogs are having questions and doubts about their beliefs, and are wanting to test the waters. They've always thought their beliefs were reasonable -- especially, in the case of progressive believers, compared to the beliefs of the more prominent and obnoxious organized religions. (I'm always surprised at how many believers say, "Oh, your problem isn't with religion, it's with organized religion" -- and are genuinely surprised when I reply, "Actually, no -- I have a problem with all religions, including yours.") They've always thought their beliefs were reasonable -- but now, they're having some doubts. They don't just want to accept what they've been taught/ what they want to believe, and move on with an unexamined life; they want to examine their beliefs and make sure they make sense. (Julia Sweeney leaps to mind.) They've heard about atheism -- it's hard not to these days -- and this option they'd never seriously considered is now all up in their face, so they want to give it a fair shake.
In other words: They're proto-atheists. Any formerly-religious atheist knows that these kinds of doubts and questions and investigations are the first cracks in the foundation of faith. These folks -- some of them, anyway, maybe a lot of them -- are taking their first steps to atheism.
So what does this mean for atheists?
I think it means we have to be patient.
I've written before about the need for patience in the atheist movement. I've pointed out that, while the same old bad arguments are very old indeed to any atheist who's been around the atheosphere for more than six weeks, they're not old to the believers who are making them. They are brand new to them. So yes, we have to keep on pointing out the flaws in the "You can't prove atheism with 100% certainty" argument, and the "Life and the universe are just too complex to have happened by chance, therefore God did it" argument, and the "Atheism is a faith just as much as religion" argument. Even [deep sigh] Pascal's Wager. Just like teachers have to keep explaining the same concepts to each new crop of students, we have to keep explaining Atheism 101 to each new crop of visiting believers. (And a lot of the time, there's a "water on rock" phenomenon: we almost certainly won't persuade anyone out of religion in just one debate, but that debate plus twenty others with other atheists may wear the rock down.)
So we have to be patient for that reason. But we also have to be patient for the reason Sarah brought up. We have to be patient because many of the believers visiting our blogs and such are taking their first steps out of religion. In fact, the very arguments they're making are their first steps. The argument are their first steps to thinking of religion, not as a basic axiom that's assumed to be true, but as just another hypothesis about the world, one that deserves to be treated like any other hypothesis, with the same criticism and questioning and expectation that it support itself with evidence. (Which, as we all know, is the beginning of the end.) Today's defenders of the faith are tomorrow's die-hard atheists. Some of them, anyway.
So we have to be patient with them.
Now, to be clear, I don't think "patience" means "continuing to beat your head against a brick wall indefinitely." There comes a point in many discussions and debates when you have to be willing to just drop it. (A lesson I have a hard time taking to heart...) If someone just keep repeating the same points over and over; if they deal with your responses to their points by ignoring you and just repeating themselves again; if they keep bringing up red herrings; if they keep changing the subject every time they get backed into a corner; if they seem uninterested in basic rules of logic and evidence; if they keep turning a discussion of actual issues into a meta-discussion of whether atheists even have a right to make our case... it's okay to bail. All of these gambits are part of religion's massive armor against legitimate questions and criticism, and it generally takes more than one Internet argument to penetrate it. Part of being patient is knowing when to back off for the moment. Maybe the seeds of doubt will have been planted, and someone else will pick up where you left off. Maybe not. Either way, there's no law that says we have to pursue every argument to the bitter end. (I'm writing this to remind myself of that as much as anyone else...)
And of course, I don't think that "patience" means "letting ourselves be doormats." I think we can and should make our case, and make it firmly. When we get accused of being intolerant, disrespectful, mean bad people just for making our case, we can and should point out why that's absurd, unfair, and just another way of armoring religion and shutting us up. And I don't think "patience" means we have to let ourselves be treated with genuinely insulting contempt. I am generally in favor of taking the high road when this happens: if a believer starts hurling personal insults and calling me ugly names, I will usually respond with cold manners rather than sinking to their level. (If for no other reason, so that anyone else reading the thread will see the difference.) But we can take the high road and still stand our ground.
Patience doesn't mean letting ourselves be kicked around. What it means is remembering that we're talking to human beings, and treating them as such. It means being rigorously careful about critiquing ideas and beliefs without insulting people. (A lot of believers won't make that distinction, and will take it very personally when we critique their religion -- but we need to be rigorous about it anyway.) It means remembering that it's not fair to treat people like they're stupid just because they're not familiar with the ideas we're so intimately familiar with. It means keeping in mind how hard it can be to let go of religion. It means remembering that we're asking people to abandon a form of comfort they've relied on for years... and are asking them to make themselves into one of the most hated groups in the world, and quite possibly to alienate their family and friends, while they're at it.
Patience means remembering that the reason many of these folks are here arguing with us is that they're curious about us -- and it means doing our best to keep the door open, instead of slamming it in their face. It means we have to do more than make good arguments for atheism. We have to show why atheism is a safe place to land. And we have to make it a safe place to land, as much as we can.
We have to treat the people we're arguing with as people who might soon be our side.
Because that's exactly what they are.
And now I want to throw this one out to my readers.
If you are now an atheist and once were not -- and if you spent time in atheist blogs and forums and so on before you deconverted -- why did you do that? What made you think, "I want to go check out an atheist blog"? And when you did, what did you find helpful or not helpful in your process of deconverting? What (if anything) did you find inviting, and what (if anything) did you find off-putting?
And if you're a believer reading this blog -- why are you here? What makes you interested in reading atheist ideas, and what do you get out of it? I'm genuinely curious about this, and I want to know.