Deconverting Christians
September 3, 2009 2:02 PM   Subscribe

How do I convince [the more liberal] Christians to become atheists? (Issues you have with the wording of this question are likely addressed inside.)

Obviously "Christian" isn't an all-encompassing or precise term, and there are a plural of sects, approaches and levels of worship. I'm primarily curious how to 'deconvert' the Christians who aren't so dedicated - those that maybe go to church on Sunday, but don't let the principles of Christianity rule their lives.

The difficulty in attacking Christianity is often that direct reason is rendered useless in the believer's mind by various arguments, such as these:

- Claims that God is the one aspect of life that can be dictated by faith, that he exists beyond logic, or etc.

- "But I've FELT God!" or "But I KNOW he's there!" or etc.

- "There's not enough evidence to prove or disprove God, so you have to choose one, so I chose to believe in God."
Various disclaimers:
1. This question's definitely not the best fit here, but the Green's the only place on the internet where people with the ability to answer this congregate.

2. Yes, I know that I'm asking how to impose my opinion on others. I understand that this is often considered to be in poor taste - see #1.

3. A previous version of this question was removed as chatfilter. I assure you that I'm asking this with intent to put this to use - I just don't feel comfortable specifying exactly where.
posted by LSK to Human Relations (77 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: If there were actually an answer for that question, there probably wouldn't be much variety in religion today.
posted by katillathehun at 2:07 PM on September 3, 2009 [6 favorites]

difficulty in attacking Christianity

there's your problem right there. Know anyone who's successfully attacked Christianity?

Most people seem to need to believe in something bigger than themselves. The universe, in the nanoseconds our brains allow themselves to even approach beginning to ponder its implications, is a complete mystery that nobody has any unassailable answers about.

Don't attack Christianity. That just brings up defense mechanisms. Argue positively, by example.
posted by Palamedes at 2:11 PM on September 3, 2009

This kind of arguing is pointless and in bad taste, as you say. But maybe read some Nietzsche or something?*

*Nietzsche scholars, please don’t jump down my throat. I don’t know much of anything about the man
posted by Think_Long at 2:13 PM on September 3, 2009

Non-theist here, but not an atheist in the common contemporary sense of "person with an inexplicably strong emotional investment in asserting the unprovable assertion that 'God' cannot be a valid term in the sense that it's used by many religious people."

I don't think you'll persuade Christians to become atheists — getting someone to swap one unprovable non-rational commitment for another is difficult.

Would it be acceptable to try to persuade them to become not-Christian?

If so, the obvious line of attack, it seems to me, would be that Christians are, by virtue of calling themselves Christians, inevitably lending their support to an organization (or set of organizations) — the Christian church — that has been responsible for an enormous amount of misery and suffering for hundreds of years.

A second, less obvious method might be to read up on nondualism and seek to undermine why they are theists, ie, attributing some kind of separateness or personhood to what they call God. I don't go around trying to de-Christianize my Christian friends, but this is the part I can never comprehend, and the major difference between us.
posted by game warden to the events rhino at 2:14 PM on September 3, 2009

Oh, the one thing that made the most difference in my life was interacting with people of other faiths, which pretty much directly calls into question all three of the defenses you list above.

With all the religions in the world, chances are if you're following the same faith of your parents, you're doin' this religion thing wrong -- to some (unknowable) extent.
posted by Palamedes at 2:14 PM on September 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

Read Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris for points that they make and try those out on believers.

My bet is that you will fail in your efforts, though.
posted by dfriedman at 2:15 PM on September 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

The best you can do is convert an apathetic Christian to an apathetic agnostic. What's the point?
posted by smackfu at 2:15 PM on September 3, 2009 [4 favorites]

Please don't do this. It is insufferably rude to presume to know best about something as deeply held and profoundly personal as faith. I say this as a very cheerful agnostic who is open to the idea of God for absolutely no good reason other than the fact that I find the idea that there absolutely isn't a God rather lonely.
posted by DarlingBri at 2:16 PM on September 3, 2009 [32 favorites]

Best answer: Here is a book that goes through something similar.
posted by cr_joe at 2:16 PM on September 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: game warden to the events rhino: Persuading them to be non-Christian seems to more what I really want to go for, actually.
posted by LSK at 2:17 PM on September 3, 2009

There's not much point in attacking other people's claims that they've felt God or anything like that. If you're an atheist then for you there is no justification for religion, or not enough. You haven't felt God, nor do you even know what it feels like. You haven't made a leap of faith. Etc. You will never succeed in disproving God's existence, but if you're an atheist then so far you have no reason to believe in it either. In other words, as long as you bear the burden of proof, you will never make any headway, but if you act like they bear the burden of proof, then you are on solid ground. So don't attack their beliefs, just say that you're not convinced by their beliefs; this puts them in the position of arguing for their beliefs, and they will never succeed in proving that God exists.

Summary: don't harrass them trying to prove that atheism is true; you'll never prove it. But if they try to convince you that you should believe in their religion, it will be very easy to take apart their arguments.
posted by creasy boy at 2:18 PM on September 3, 2009

For some people, it's enough to just let them know that it's okay to not believe. For some people, it hasn't really occurred to them that it's an option.

Educate. Be an example of morality without a god.

Loan them a copy of "The God Delusion". Ask them to read it with an open mind.

But the bottom line is that people must travel their own path, you can provide information, but it's up to them to do with it as they please. Ultimately many are too comfortable being cultural Christians that they won't make the move, even if they do doubt God's existence.
posted by inturnaround at 2:20 PM on September 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

BTW, I share other posters' distaste with the question. Don't be a jerk. But I do think it's legit to ask Christians to justify their backing for an organized religious structure that has caused so misery. Of course, they may have a really good answer.
posted by game warden to the events rhino at 2:21 PM on September 3, 2009

Why do you care what others believe? What good do you hope will come out of convincing people to become atheist?
posted by onhazier at 2:21 PM on September 3, 2009

1. This question's definitely not the best fit here, but the Green's the only place on the internet where people with the ability to answer this congregate.

This is false on a number of levels. If it's "not the best fit here" maybe you shouldn't bring it here.

In regards to your actual question: you won't change anybody's mind unless they feel you respect them. You obviously have little to no respect for religious people. Step one is to get off your high horse; until you can look at Christians as true and full equals, you won't get anywhere.

I suggest reading "Father Sergey" by Leo Tolsoty, the original anarcho-Christian; you might learn something.
posted by Commander Rachek at 2:22 PM on September 3, 2009 [3 favorites]

Soren Kierkegaard was a devout Christian, yet he would readily admit that Christian teachings were clearly and certainly false. That was the whole point of faith. So, I don't think you can build a case against Christianity in the way you seem to think you can.
posted by StickyCarpet at 2:24 PM on September 3, 2009 [7 favorites]

The opposite of the sort of Christian person you seem to be opposed to is "worldly person."

There's not much you can do other than encourage them to read books other than those pre-approved by their church, travel to parts of the world not sectioned off as Christian-friendly tourist havens, and talk to people of all and various beliefs with an open mind.

You should also do these things, of course. None of us are immune to closed-mindedness.
posted by rokusan at 2:24 PM on September 3, 2009 [2 favorites]

Here's how ya do it: Don't do anything.

Really. I know that when people challenge my beliefs or try to change me, it makes me cling to my beliefs even more. So, if you're not doing anything to change these people, but instead are a sincere and open person that is appropriate with their voicing of opinions, they might just come to you when doubt does creep in and then you can swoop in.
posted by Sassyfras at 2:24 PM on September 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

How do I convince [the more liberal] Christians to become atheists?

Perhaps start by asking yourself: "Why is it that I want so badly for them to become atheists, in the first place, rather than just leaving them the fuck alone?"

Maybe when you get an answer for that, you can start by telling them, because that's the first thing THEY'RE going to want to know about your attempts.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 2:24 PM on September 3, 2009 [30 favorites]

Yeah, this isn't going to work. The usual reasons why people convert to Christianity - seeking meaning in their lives, a greater good, comfort in a time of hardship, life after death - are all very powerful and don't apply at all with de-conversion. If anything, you're asking people to give up these comforting notions, and that's probably a losing battle.

You'll probably have more luck teaching people to question their faith and/or be skeptical about certain things in the Bible. But, it sounds like you are not addressing Christians who are particularly dogmatic, so I'm not really sure what your purpose is in all of this...
posted by kookaburra at 2:24 PM on September 3, 2009

Mod note: few comments removed - you can take snarky answers to email or metatalk, thanks
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 2:25 PM on September 3, 2009

I'm not an atheist anymore, but I am a non-theist. In my opinion, it's a fools errand to try to convert people in this way. People that become unbelievers do so out of their own searching, not you searching for them. Now that information is so freely accessible to all, I would recommend that you focus on making whatever arguments. testimonials, morality research, and so on you think are worthwhile available on online for those searchers. I haven't ever met someone who was converted from Christianity or any religion to atheism that did so at the urging of another atheist. The conversion, if you can call it that, was one that was done out of their own searching for truth.

People are wired for mystical and religious experiences, yes even atheists, and we use whatever cultural lens that is available at the time to interpret those experiences. For most Americans, that lens is some form of Christianity. Now when that happens, a mystical experience reinforces those beliefs. You can't fight experiences, but you can offer an alternative view of those experiences. I would encourage you to seek out these mystical experiences yourself, and put yourself in those difficult situations that religion lends itself readily to explaining. Dealing with birth, death, extreme meditative states - these are things that religions handle handily, and ready alternative for atheists to handle these things has not been standardized.

If you are looking to convert people from Christianity, go ahead, but know that if you don't have the mystical comforts that religion provides built into your conversion process, you might be doing them a disservice that their own searching for truth would be better equiped to handle.
posted by bigmusic at 2:25 PM on September 3, 2009 [4 favorites]

Seconding The God Delusion. It is exactly what you want; it not only details why pretty much every argument for God is false, but also explains why it's harmful to encourage "belief in belief," which is what a lot of the above posters are doing by chastising you for "attacking" another's beliefs.

Dawkins can sometimes be a bit inflammatory, but overall I think he gets his points across very well. His aim seems to be similar to yours--he wants to let undedicated but religious people know that it's okay for them not to believe in a religion, and then details why this is so.
posted by Polychrome at 2:30 PM on September 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

If somebody claims to have felt God's presence, they're not a lukewarm believer, even if they don't go to church as much as they should.

"There's not enough evidence to prove or disprove God, so you have to choose one, so I chose to believe in God."

This is sort of the standard argument against that kind of statement.
posted by eatyourcellphone at 2:31 PM on September 3, 2009

I'm primarily curious how to 'deconvert' the Christians who aren't so dedicated - those that maybe go to church on Sunday, but don't let the principles of Christianity rule their lives.

It doesn't sound to me like there's much work for you to do here at all. Other than having them give up lip service to a oarticular denomination, what is it you're asking of them? Piety and belief are probably better treated as a spectrum, rather than a binary state.
posted by jquinby at 2:35 PM on September 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Well, what you'd have to do for me is prove that Christianity is harmful.

All Christianity. Not some Christian beliefs. Not some interpretations of Christian beliefs. Not some social structures that were set up by particular groups of Christians at some point in time.

If you want to live by proof, prove that it's necessary. Prove that faith is bad.

Or, alternately, you could prove that lack of faith is universally better than faith. I'd accept that.

You would have to do this in a way that included no appeals whatsoever to sentiment, in a way which was backed up with facts and not conjecture. And studies that suggest that atheists are happier/more educated/wealthier than religious people don't count; correlation is not causation.

Haven't yet seen it done. Have seen a lot of very good arguments that specific believers have done bad things, that specific beliefs are unfounded and harmful, and those have had a profound impact on the way I interpret and express my faith. I have, however, never met anybody who was able to argue incontrovertibly that believing a Jewish carpenter a few thousand years ago died to bring me closer to God was actually a bad thing.

But I think you're coming from an inherently flawed perspective, here. Liberal Christians are not less dedicated. They view the principles of the faith differently than conservatives but are no less or more influenced in their daily lives by those principles.
posted by larkspur at 2:38 PM on September 3, 2009 [38 favorites]

LSK: The difficulty in attacking Christianity is often that direct reason is rendered useless in the believer's mind by various arguments, such as these:... Claims... that [God] exists beyond logic...- "There's not enough evidence to prove or disprove God, so you have to choose one, so I chose to believe in God."

There is no way to rationally argue against a belief for which there can be no rational argument either way. Belief in God is one such belief. Therefore, if you really and truly wish to dissuade people from a belief in God that's at root pretty arbitrary where reason is concerned, you must be comfortable with arguing irrationally; that is, you must be willing to contradict yourself, to lie, and to make arguments that sound very plausible but are not.

There are few philosophical texts devoted to this art because most people who are truly devoted to rationality find it distasteful to have to embrace irrationality by using arguments that only appear to be grounded in logic. One of the few exceptions to this rule was Baruch Spinoza. If I were to try to pick a text that does what you're hoping to do, Spinoza's Theologico-Political Treatise would be it. In particular you will probably find his chapter On Miracles to be of benefit in this. Spinoza is the progenitor of such classic "irrational arguments for rationality" as the argument that God would be contradicting himself if he were to break the laws of nature.
posted by koeselitz at 2:44 PM on September 3, 2009

Best answer: "...those that maybe go to church on Sunday, but don't let the principles of Christianity rule their lives."

I will nth most of the commenters so far who say you won't have much luck de-converting someone with an argumentative, fact-based approach. I also see your comment that you aren't necessarily out to strip all vestiges of religious belief from these people. So I will share a personal theory about the kind of Christian you are trying to engage with.

I've come across many people, including friends and family, who were raised Christian and still identify with it because they have no significant reason not to. They probably believe in God, or some higher power. Maybe they go to church on a regular basis, or maybe they just go on holidays. I was this sort of Christian myself for multiple years.

I think one of the reasons that this continued identification with Christianity occurs is that people tie all sorts things to it. Christianity, in their minds, is linked with moral and ethical behavior, community involvement, helping others, charitable giving, and a sense of belonging. These are all fine things, but I know it took me awhile to fully separate them from religion in my mind. To realize that all these things can exist - sometimes more powerfully - outside of religion, in a fully secular worldview.

When I've had conversations with the kind of Christians you mention in your post, this is the angle that's been most effective for me. When I talk about the arguments for the non-existence of God, I get nowhere. Or I get a lively conversation that leaves both people with no new information. When I talk instead about the relative simplicity of a non-religious worldview, or the beauty of the world as we've come to understand it through science and exploration, people are all ears and more apt to communicate openly.

I believe most people are out to live a good and fulfilling life, so the more you can show them that they can do that without all the claptrap of religion, the more successful you'll be.
posted by lholladay at 2:53 PM on September 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I know several Christians who are no longer believers, including myself. None of us changed our minds because one person argued successfully with us about it. It happens over time because of prolonged contact with rationalism and science and indeed even some arguments. It is also a very personal process. So if you expect to plant a seed of doubt in someone's mind, it might work - but for most Christians the seed of doubt is there already. If you expect to instantly convert someone to atheism through argumentation, you are going to be disappointed and will come across as a dick.
posted by twblalock at 2:55 PM on September 3, 2009 [8 favorites]

I'm primarily curious how to 'deconvert' the Christians who aren't so dedicated - those that maybe go to church on Sunday

You know, if they're going to church on Sunday, they're probably dedicated enough that some kind of big argument in favor of atheism isn't going to "put them over the edge" onto the atheist side.

There are arguments you can make in favor of atheism that will not come across as foolish and will instead sound like they are worth engaging with in a discussion so that the Christians you know will understand where you're coming from... but don't belabor under the fantasy that there's some magic key that will allow you to "deconvert" someone who sounds like a fairly active churchgoer.
posted by deanc at 3:02 PM on September 3, 2009

Best answer: There is no way to rationally argue against a belief for which there can be no rational argument either way.

This is 100% false. The existence of gods, effectiveness of prayer, claims of scriptures, the reality of miracles, the creation myths, the paranormal, etc can all be tested. The person putting forward the hypothesis that there are magical being who interact with the world can be tested and in all cases have been found to be false. The only exception I can think of is perhaps a completely hands off deism and solipsism. But monotheism as practiced today? The claims of religious texts and modern believers? Completely and uttery dead in the water.

If your friends are not motivated to change their beliefs then I really doubt any external pressure will help. If you want to help, address those who are still young an not set in their ways. Adults with strong beliefs in false things have them because it gets them through the day. Kids, teens, college students, not so much.
posted by damn dirty ape at 3:05 PM on September 3, 2009 [4 favorites]

You'll be hard pressed to find someone who converted to Christianity on the basis of another person's persuasive argument. Likewise, arguments aren't going to cut it if your goal is to turn a Christian into a non-believer. What you're asking is about as sensible as "How can I prove art is correct?"

The reason I'm not a Christian anymore is that my relationships with supposedly hellbound non-believers brought more peace and joy to my life than my relationships with fellow Christians. I heard all the arguments against belief long before I lost my faith--none worked.
posted by Meg_Murry at 3:06 PM on September 3, 2009

How does this differ from Christians witnessing? Proselytizing always sucks. Presenting people with what you perceive to be the flaws in Christianity is one thing, convincing them to "convert" to your line of thinking is another.
posted by solipsophistocracy at 3:07 PM on September 3, 2009 [3 favorites]

As an agnostic, I see pressure from both the fervently religious and the fervently atheist and anti-theist. This has been my experience:

The religious folks often speak in terms of how I can be saved, how there is a community that is willing to accept me, and that there is a place in the universe and a plan for me. However true any of this is or is not, however oppressive and punitive the religious organization, it's couched in this "we want to help you" message.

The atheists I've come across - not all atheists, but the ones hell-bent on converting people - frequently have this condescending "no doy, of course there is no God, you're being superstitious and totally irrational" attitude, and some of them make snotty remarks about invisible sky fairies and the like.

Putting belief aside, who is more welcoming: the people inviting me to their gathering on Sunday and saying God has answers for me, or the people telling me I'm a dumbshit for entertaining the notion?

So many atheists seem to think of the religion question purely in terms of logic and whether a logical person can believe in a divine power. But for a lot of religious people, that's not really what their religion is about. It's about community, seeking help or helping others, looking for answers to personal questions for which a logical approach might not be the best approach, seeking comfort in difficult or terrifying times.

I don't have a straightforward answer for how you can convert the not-quite-decided, and I apologize for that, but I think overall atheists could benefit from a welcoming, "hey, it's hard out here with no God, so let's help each other out" message rather than a judgmental or dismissive one.
posted by Metroid Baby at 3:16 PM on September 3, 2009 [11 favorites]

*Nietzsche scholars, please don’t jump down my throat. I don’t know much of anything about the man

Then you should consider not posting throwaway answers like this. They don't do you any credit and create noise for the rest of us.

As to the question, I agree it's really not a good idea to mess with people's beliefs (no one likes a proselytizer).
But in my experience, the most common way for intelligent, curious people to lose their Christian faith is to read the Bible - really sit down and read it. I know several people raised religious who became agnostic after reading the book.
posted by CunningLinguist at 3:23 PM on September 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

It happens over time because of prolonged contact with rationalism and science and indeed even some arguments.

Once I was hiking through a forest in the winter with my cousin and we started kicking trees so that they would shake off their snow, which would then fall on the person coming up behind. This quickly escalated until we were doing it just for fun and trying to find the biggest possible tree. We found one that was so thick that even a running bodycheck had absolutely no effect. The tree didn't budge a millimeter. However, being engineers we decided to take turns hitting it from opposite sides of the trunk, waiting a few seconds between hits, in order to approximate a low-frequency sinusoid. The tree still didn't budge, as far as we could tell, but the branches way at the top of the tree started to sway back and forth a little bit. And what do you know, about 20 seconds later, WHUMP.
posted by PercussivePaul at 3:29 PM on September 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

Liberal Christian here...Sounds like you're looking to proselytize. Honestly, proselytizing is a key tenet of conservative Christianity (seriously, how many Jehova's Witnesses, Pentecostals, or Mormons have knocked on your door?) and it drives me batty. They find out that I have faith AND I'm pro-choice and they jump up to pray for me. I think that there are far more important and pressing issues to pray for than my political affiliations and my views of fetuses. Regardless, I think people should just respect my beliefs and views and move on. Generally speaking, however, I'm more inclined to listen to what the proselytizer has to say if
a) s/he is nice, respectful, and articulate.
b) s/he is not wearing long denim skirts.

So if you lay off the skirts and are cool, I'll take a listen.

And I'm not sure if you know, but a lot of people believe things for different reasons. Sometimes it's just because they were raised that way. Sometimes they found their way through reason or logic (even if you think it illogical). Sometimes it's because they're crazy. Sometimes it's because they were forced to. Sometimes they don't give a shit if they might be wrong but they need faith to help them deal with X in life. (I fall into the latter category.) I'm a liberal Christian who really respects Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Atheism, Jainism, Buddhism, etc. (I'm not sure where I stand on Mormonism or Pentacostalism or militant Islam...I'm still working through the ethics of these.) Point being, I might be wrong, there might be no God and absolutely nothing will happen to me when I die except that I die. But on the other hand, I might get to see my mom again, and that's good enough for me. Plus I firmly believe in evolution and whatnot, so I figure what harm does it do me to have faith? It keeps me rooted and sane. (As does regular therapy.) Proving there isn't a god (or gods) is just as hard, if not impossible, as proving that there is /are god(s).

And FWIW, I rarely go to church.

Best of luck (I think!)! :)
posted by cachondeo45 at 3:30 PM on September 3, 2009 [2 favorites]

Mod note: This question is now being discussed in MetaTalk, please feel free to take your dislike for the question there, not here please.]
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 3:38 PM on September 3, 2009

I think that the person best able to make the counterpoints to any points that you have, would be Huston Smith. Consider reading some of his writings, including Why Religion Matters and see if you can argue against him.
posted by Edward L at 4:12 PM on September 3, 2009

I think the common point of reference for atheists and deists alike is mystery. ie the mystery of the universe. how small we are. how amazing life is. God? idunno. This guy over here says no, this guy says yes, yadda yadda yadda...but golldarnit, there sure are a lot of stars aren't there?

Personally, I think awe and mystery is the fulcrum that can switch a deist to atheism and vice versa. specifically answer the to convert a possibly teetering Christian into atheism... concentrate on how big the universe is. Get all Carl Sagan on them. But don't harp on how cold and unfeeling the universe is, that would cause retreat into the warm sunshine of religion. Instead focus on on the unfathomable-ness of it all. The vastness. How noble it is of humans to make any sense of their world, false or true. How amazing it is that we have the faculties to conceptualize the cosmos. Visualize their religion as a construct that fits neatly and tidily into your construct (but treat your construct as the Truth). Find the points of contact between your meta-construct and their toy-construct...and begin to dissolve the boundaries so that there is a gradient between the two instead of a series of walls.

But, most people see through that sort of stuff so it might be better to just be a good friend and represent your beliefs or lack thereof in a dignified manner. lead by example i guess.
posted by ian1977 at 4:15 PM on September 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I grew up in a pleasant but very religiously conservative household. We were fundamentalists, but not mean spirited.

As I grew up and read more, I began to move away from that belief system and in more vague directions.

At this point, the only concept I have of the universe and a divine presence is that it is so large and so unimaginable that it is almost blasphemy to attempt to describe it in human terms. To try to say it was a man on a cross, or a prophet from the desert, or a former Egyptian slave is (to my mind at this point) so demeaning that it flies in the face of what it all truly may be.

I began moving in this direction when I started to really read about biblical history, world history, and textual criticism in particular. It all just didn't add up to me.

Having written that, I think folks have the right to be left alone as far as faith goes. Cachondeo45 has it right, I think. People follow a faith for a number of reasons and may not be very open to your preaching.

The best you can do, and the most people will be open to is a kind of seed-planting. Talk about the Nicene creed and how it came to be. Talk about the lack of original texts. Talk about Nestorianism, the Coptic Christians, and all of the mess in 1st and 2nd century Alexandria and Rome. The problem with this is that you will have to actually learn it in their terms and most atheists are not willing to do that. Most anyone who wants to argue with or debate about an opinion that isn't their own don't want to do that.

But if you do it, do it with a softer touch - do it from your perspective and only when your perspective is asked or demanded. Sharing your opinion makes the world a richer and more satisfying place for all of us. But please be informed and reasonable, not condescending and tacky.

Remember that we all, believers or not, have a right to our opinions and viewpoints.
posted by Tchad at 4:35 PM on September 3, 2009 [3 favorites]

FWIW: Might as well give you a sampling of what you're up against. (Previous AskMeFi Question for reference to the below story)

I was raised Catholic. During my childhood the family went to church off and on mainly due to organizational issues correlating with bad economic times (as I now interpret it, read on for some of the major fall out of this prior to current interpretation).

In my Junior and Senior years of High School, going into the Freshman year of college, I was what you could call a ChristEaster attendee of Mass (Christmas/Easter only). The summer following my Freshman year, I fell into a logical hole of questioning "Why am I on this planet?/How did I get here?" and "What is my purpose other than playing into the evolutionary scheme of things I had heard of?" I concluded the following amidst tossing around some liberal or scholarly or secular ideas:
  • So really, this universe and this planet and all the life that showed up came out of nothing? Riiiiiiiggggghhhhhttt...
  • And to follow up: That would suck if my purpose was to be born, live pretty much like an animal, and then die.
And with that, after a rather busy first semester of Sophomore year, I eventually went to prayer meetings, met some really great folk, and decided there was no turning back. That hole of nothingness (a lack of core purpose in the potential reality of there being no Lord), regardless of how many layers of friends, secular accomplishments, etc. remains there unless the choice is made to believe in that which cannot be proven or disproven.

And within the past couple weeks, I have returned to mass, being certain to park my Obama Bumper Stickered car somewhere far away from the main parking lot. Frankly have not felt better about myself in years. I do not see this ending anytime soon.

As far as an answer, I'll concur with Larkspur, and add on after a bit of quick research: explain the miracles of the eucharist and incorruptibles in a secular manner. Personally I find them great, somewhat hard to believe, but very hard to believe 100% (I give it now 75%). Hopefully this will not cause a derail, and also I hope I have given you some form of level headed idea of what's going on here.
posted by JoeXIII007 at 4:45 PM on September 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Considering all that is posted at MetaFilter, I am shocked and disappointed that there's a discussion about the merit of this post. Leave it to religion to get people acting out on all sides.


I am agnostic, but one of my close friends is what I would call...pretty militantly atheist. Frankly, he's an asshole to religious people sometimes, and I frequently have to call him on it, because it's inappropriate. So, the first rule here is to not be militant as an atheist, though militant you may sometimes feel, due to all the extreme irrationality. If you're unsure of what I mean by that, here is a scenario:

Rather than saying, "That is stupid. There is absolutely no evidence to support that idea."

Consider saying, "Do you feel there's evidence to support that?"

Posing questions, rather than stating facts, is highly persuasive in conversation. However, not only is it highly persuasive, it's just good form, all around. If these people are indeed your friends, you should be interested in why they do and think certain things. I do have a militant atheist of a friend, but I also have a highly conservative Christian friend. Both of these people are wonderful and kind, though neither of them is fully aware that the other "type" of person is capable of kindness, even after my gentle suggestions; traditions and stereotypes of all kinds die hard, if they die at all. I only realize this about them because I've asked questions and been genuinely interested in the answers that were given. That is the first step to changing people's minds about atheism. Make them realize that you aren't the Evil Satan that so many of them think you are.

The second step is that you make people think about their own ideas, rather than yours. Be honest to yourself. We all love our own ideas, more so than anyone loves our ideas and more so than we love anyone else's. It's human nature. So stop trying to make people focus on your thoughts. Help people focus on theirs. You might not lead them away from Christianity, but as a friend, your doing this will help them become a better, more rounded person, no matter where they end up ultimately.

I am an agnostic (pretty well atheist, but I have some issues with the label), and I'm that way because I went about studying the beliefs that my family were trying to give me. I read the Bible back to front numerous times; I read apologetics. When I got to the end of a few years of serious study, I honestly had a "WTF is this? It's violent garbage." reaction to it all. That's how I know I don't believe. Most people, though, will never do that much studying. They will just accept what was passed down to them or what they picked up at some dark point in their lives. The average Christian only knows about the gospel of love, not all the raping and pillaging and enslavement. (And some of those who know are willing to disregard it.) So, what you need to do is make them consider the tenets of their own beliefs.

In your case, questions to ask might be:

- Why do you go to church?

- Have you read much about religion / religious history?

- Have you read %INSERT NON-PREACHY, INTERESTING SCIENCE BOOK HERE%? What did you think of it? Oh? You have it? I'll give you a copy.

- Do you believe I'm going to go to Hell because I don't believe in God/Jesus? Why? (Do not get aggressive with answers you receive.)

- What do you really think of evolution? Of atheism?

- Generic responses to their replies (that, again, you should be genuinely interested in the answers to): Why do you think that? Do you think that's true? Does that seem right to you personally? Do you think that's loving of God?

Some of the answers you receive may surprise you. For instance, many people go to church for social reasons alone, but don't like to readily discuss that unless asked, point-blank. It's the same sort of reasoning used when checking religions on census forms. Many put down a family's denomination, regardless of their personal beliefs, because it's part of "fitting in" and feeling close to people they love. On the outside looking in, though, it may seem like everyone believes a certain way, when that's not all there is to it. This is even true (especially true?) in the Bible Belt.

The key here is that you should want to know more about your friends, and so you should be interested in asking them sincere questions, in hopes of receiving sincere answers. You should be less concerned about converting them, and more concerned about helping them become the best people they can be. Note that religion, or a lack thereof, is not key to one's success or failure or the amount of good that one can do in his or her lifetime. There have been amazing, kind people from every religion, as well as from atheism; religion was rarely the impetus. You may have a brilliant friend that may positively change the lives of thousands of people. Will you think less of that friend, if she does it with the idea that it is "God's will?" If the answer's yes, then you don't love your friends "right," be you Christian or atheist.

Don't get me wrong. I know exactly where you're coming from. To be honest, I hate religion. Religion and people's strong belief in a man in the sky has harmed me in life, more than a few times. I do believe that religion (i.e., tradition) causes needless fighting, discrimination and sometimes even death. But I also realize that religion has been around a lot longer than I have and that, for some "ungodly" reason, pointing these things, which I consider facts, out to people rarely wins friends or converts people. (Note: This doesn't stop me entirely. I frequently voice my opinion concerning religion, just not against particular individuals. Some still take offense to that, but I leave them to deal with that, when it happens.) These facts, too, have problems, in that they're only facts about the religion as a whole, the psychology therein, only facts about certain individuals that would be crazy with or without religion (in all likelihood), and so they don't really apply to people who are kind and sane, anyway, regardless of what the Bible does or does not say.

My main philosophy is that if your ideas are not directly harming you or someone else, then you have every right to have them, even if your idea is as crazy as there's a man on the moon. I'm a pretty big science geek/fan, so irrationality happens to bug me a lot, and I'd be lying if I said I didn't feel like pulling out my hair sometimes when I talk to my Christian friends. But I love them, and they're good people, and they will raise good children that will benefit society. That is what I hope from anyone, from any walk of life. It doesn't mean that I won't voice my dislike of their traditions at large sometimes, or even often, but at the end of the day I know they are personally different.

Will your friends' irrational connection to a fantasy harm them or someone you know? If so, it is indeed your duty to alert them and try to do something. If not, if all it does is take up an hour on their Sunday, it is not your job to change anything. It's your job to love them as they are and help them become better people either within their religion or to the point of growing out of it (naturally, on their own journey). If you can't do that, admit it to yourself and move along without doing any harm yourself.
posted by metalheart at 4:52 PM on September 3, 2009 [10 favorites]

Best answer: The problem with 'weak' Christians is that they don't believe that they are part of the problem. They look at fundamentalist Christians and say, "I'm not that." However, if you can convince them that by maintaining their 'Christian' identity they actually give aid and comfort to those fundamentalists, you may convince them to rethink their Christian identity. Now, this might only get them to deism, but, at least, it is a step in the right direction.
posted by hworth at 4:53 PM on September 3, 2009

PS: cross out the redundant "somewhat hard to believe."
posted by JoeXIII007 at 4:54 PM on September 3, 2009

Don't disabuse kids of Santa Claus.

Don't go out of your way to challenge Christians.

Learn to appreciate the things that magical thinking can do.

And fight only the bad parts.
posted by fleacircus at 5:03 PM on September 3, 2009 [3 favorites]

2nding (nthing?) reading the bible. It is a horror story chock full of murder, misogyny, rape, and other evils. Most "lazy Christians" have never read the bible straight through and it will be quite shocking for them to see what's actually in it. Offer to do a bible study group together - do a book each week and have an academic discussion about it together.
posted by RobotNinja at 5:10 PM on September 3, 2009

Mod note: is metatalk broken? please go to metatalk if you have questions about the validity of the question or the poster. thank you
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 5:11 PM on September 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

PS2: There's also a bit of passion instilled that can universally fuel either side of the argument. It's persistent, it's consistent, and it never seems like it will end. Something I tap into these days.
posted by JoeXIII007 at 5:12 PM on September 3, 2009

Best answer: I have succeeded at this few times, in both online and offline friendships. Ultimately the credit was their own, not mine. Be patient. Don't chase them or demand that they change. It will probably take dozens of small coversations spaced over years.

The techniques are the same for faith as they are with racism. It's consciousness-raising.

Cluing someone in that faith is not a virtue, that it is unfair, that it is cheating, is just like trying to clue someone in when they behave like a racist. It's difficult to do this without antagonism, but that's key. If it's an argument, you failed. If they see you fly off the handle, you failed. Just like when you are trying to de-racist someone, you must keep them from becoming defensive and arming themselves for a fight. You must keep from seeming like you're casting blame, or that you dislike them. You're just exploring with them.

What matters is not whether they think there's a God, but their attitudes toward faith. Show faith to be exempting them from standards to which they apply to everyone else, and the social consequences of treating everyone around them with the double-standard of self-exemption. If they don't exempt themselves, explain why their faith is just an empty noise indistinguishable from non-faith. Just like the racist, at first they won't know what on earth you're talking about. But bring it home with concrete examples from life.

Just like the racist, go on focusing like a laser beam on what they are doing in their head, and why that is unfair to the rest of us. Don't waste your time on evolution, fulfilled prophecy, or the historicity of the resurrection. You will win all of those and still lose the only battle that matters, which is discrediting the thing they do in their head. The self-exemption of faith. It's cheating. You are their friend who really likes them, and they are doing something wrong to you. Focus like a laser on "faith is cheating". Focus on the inside of their head, for which they are socially responsible. Focus on the consequences of their poor choice. Ignore God, focus on faith.

For more info, you may wish to see my website.
posted by Matt Arnold at 5:46 PM on September 3, 2009 [4 favorites]

For me, I ask them what they rely upon in knowing what it means to be a Christian. They tell me they rely upon the Word. The Bible. I then go on to ask them (in a very kind, open manner) what their thoughts are on the main parts which resulted in me becoming an Atheist. Namely:

Luke 9:27 "But I tell you of a truth, there be some standing here, which shall not taste of death, till they see the kingdom of God." - are those people still alive, since the time of Jesus? Thousands of years old? If they aren't, did Jesus lie? If not, does the Bible contain a mistake? The same text is backed up by Matthew 16:28.

Following that, there is the temptation of Christ. It is told of in the Gospels, but the order in which Christ is tempted by the Devil differs between them. Luke thinks it's desert, high mountain then temple. Matthew thinks it's desert, temple, high mountain. They can't both be right, so on that alone... there simply must be a mistake in the Bible. If there's one, how many more are there? Then of course, there is the matter of what is said about the Devil says to Jesus upon the mountain.

"Matthew 4: 8-10. The devil takes Him up on an exceedingly high mountain and shows him all of the kingdoms of the world and their glory."

Forgive me for assuming that an infinite and all knowing God would be aware of the spherical nature of Earth, and the consequent trigonometric implications of the limitations of vision from high places...

Then there is the question of morality. Is the Bible an adequate guide for morality? If they are Christians who agree that God is the ultimate authority on morality, what do they think about, and can they justify for my benefit the following:

"Second Kings 2:23-24
23: And he [Elisha] went up from thence unto Bethel: and as he was going up that way, there came forth little children of the city, and mocked him, and said unto him, Go up, thou bald head; Go up, thou bald head.

24: And he turned back, and looked on them, and cursed them in the name of the LORD. And there came forth two she bears out of the wood and tare forty and two children of them."

Synopsis: Children laughed at a bald headed man, God disapproved and had them torn apart by bears. I'd like to think that if I was bald in later life, I'd not set bears upon any children who chose to laugh at my bald head. Ask them what they'd do in the same situation. If they wouldn't send bears to tear them apart, ask them how they can disagree with God's ruling in the matter and still be a Christian.

Then there's evidence of God showing favouritism. According to the Bible, if I die with the burden of my own sins, the sins of one man alone, I will spend an eternity in Hell. Jesus, who apparently took upon himself the sins of every man, woman and child who ever lived and ever will live spent just a few days there then returned to heaven. So one man's sin results in an eternity in Hell, every sin ever committed results in a "Get out of Hell free" pass so long as you're the son of God.

I can go on, but I don't want to make a long and rambling post.
posted by Biru at 5:51 PM on September 3, 2009 [2 favorites]

Going off what Biru said, if you get to the point of calmly discussing the strangeness of the Bible with friends, I recommend The Skeptic's Annotated Bible as a means of approaching certain subjects with Biblical knowledge (if you yourself have never sat down and read the Bible). As I mentioned in my other post, though, I think discussing their ideas and thoughts is best, but perhaps you can lead them into discussing certain passages which are particularly horrible and unforgiving.
posted by metalheart at 6:09 PM on September 3, 2009

As an undergrad, I started an on-campus group for atheists / agnostics, and we did a few public debates with campus Christian organizations. The main thing I learned from the experience is that you don't convert people about emotional topics through direct confrontation. The most effective thing we did as a group was to behave decently during the debate. We tried to be civil, reasonable and respectful to the Christians (while firmly defending our opinions), and although I'd say that in terms of argumentation, it ended in a draw, I got lots of appreciative mail after the fact, including an audience member who claimed that she'd abandoned Christianity after listening to us! (though this wasn't our intention). I think it did more to raise the opinion of atheism on campus than anything confrontational we could have done.

I found this disappointing at the time, because I wanted to rush into the fray with dazzling logical arguments. But usually, the most watertight argument has less impact than the experience of meeting an atheist and finding he doesn't have horns. So I think if you're a kind, honorable, reasonable person, and you're open about your atheism without wearing it on your sleeve, you'll "spread the gospel" naturally.
posted by molybdenum at 6:09 PM on September 3, 2009 [5 favorites]

I can't remember the exact study, but I do remember reading somewhere that a tendency towards faith can be genetic ... in other words, if a person believes in a supreme being, that may be partially because they are genetically inclined to do so.

First of all, I feel that faith is a very personal issue, and for some people it is a very "real" thing. So if you encounter someone who appears, or even acknowledges, that they are "struggling" with their faith, these aren't necessarily people you want to try to win over. Sometimes the struggle indicates not a lack of spiritual/religious involvement, but rather heightened spiritual involvement. Furthermore, in my experience, people who struggle with their faith and work through it end up, generally, to be more "fulfilled" in the sense of having a more concrete personal understanding of their place in the universe. These are people who generally give back positive things to the community, and their faith plays a role in that. They also tend to push religion into new (usually more positive, open, and nuanced) directions. So, in other words, if you ignore for a moment your distaste for religion, and instead look at the "big picture" (do things get better or worse), these are people you don't want to convert. These are the ones you want to stay in religion, because they tend to be questioners, critical thinkers. They're the ones who push tolerance instead of discrimination, etc. Assuming that you yourself will not be 100% successful at eradicating religion, you might as well focus your attention on another group and let these people flourish inside of religion.

Along these lines, thinking strategically: you say you want to sway "Liberal" Christians. As some above have noted, this is a problematic assumption to begin with, but let's say you're successful. Now, the overall Christian population is smaller, but it is now composed of a higher percentage of conservative and rigid-thinking individuals. Do you believe this makes the world a better place? Personally, I would rather see a religion populated with a variety of viewpoints and across the spectrum rather than one that is narrowly delineated.

As far as strategies to convert: attack the middle. There's a large group of mostly disinterested but more conservatively oriented individuals. These are the ones who might not necessarily have deep faith, but seem to relish the trappings of having a religion: well-understood moral boundaries, routine (every Sunday morning), and a feeling of satisfaction/being right. These are the people you might want to target. It might be a bit more difficult in some ways, but in other ways you really just need to find some alternative customs and mores to take place of their religion. Facts and reasoning are not going to work, but, for example, simply offering incentives to engage in non-religious social activies (for example, an enticing pork BBQ potluck every Sunday, coinciding with the time for Sunday services) might go a long way.

You haven't really explained why you want to perform this conversion. I know this might be a "non-answer", but maybe you could focus on the results you are looking for -- a more rational populace, for example -- and see how this could be built up without necessarily interfering with religion. For example, you might start a local organization to protest creationism interference in schools, or an organization that teaches religious tolerance rather than "our way is the only way".

And if it really is Christianity that you want to fight, and not the belief in a higher power, just introduce your friends and family who don't want to give up belief to the Unitarian/Universalist church! Members range from Christians to atheists/agnostics; the focus is on community rather than dogma; a central tenet is that there are many paths to spiritual growth; and they are very active in social justice (so you get the added benefit of a larger army on the "good side").
posted by Deathalicious at 6:44 PM on September 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

Biru's arguments will just make them mildly annoyed and/or amused

yeah, don't get into a textual debate with a hermeneuticist.
posted by Palamedes at 6:45 PM on September 3, 2009 [2 favorites]

On further thought, C.S. Lewis already sort of thought this through - take a look at The Screwtape Letters.
posted by jquinby at 7:34 PM on September 3, 2009

I would suggest you read theology books by C. S. Lewis (who was an atheist who converted to Christianity, and also a very sharp thinker). Specifically, "Mere Christianity" and "Miracles" would be good starts. He spends a good bit of time putting forth the arguments against Christianity (the beliefs he originally held as an atheist) and then refutes them. If you can't refute his arguments then I don't think you have much chance of winning against a smart, well-read Christian.

Note that C. S. Lewis pointed out that just because someone believes something for the wrong reasons does not make it false, nor does it mean that there are no sound reasons. He called this kind of clouded thinking "soft soap".

Disclaimer: I am a Christian (I like to think for the right reasons) and I have the same feeling of frustration when dealing with people who try to apply the rules of science to my beliefs. IMHO it's like trying to apply the rules of first aid to cosmology. They metaphorically just stamp their feet about the importance of the rules they hold near and dear to their hearts, and I say that they're wonderful rules but not universally applicable.

Feel free to MeFi Mail me if you wish to try out your arguments.
posted by forthright at 7:50 PM on September 3, 2009 [3 favorites]

Hmm...I'm a liberal Christian. What would convince me to become an atheist?

Well, it won't get you anywhere to point out the flaws in the Bible. I'll just nod my head and agree. Fundies think that faith depends on perfect scriptures, but I sure don't.

Similarly, I don't know what research you could appeal to that would make a big difference to me. I'm right there with you on evolution and the age of the universe. Heck, one of my seminary papers was about theological anthropology that assumes evolution.

If you convinced me that faith qua faith made people less moral, and not just primitive or fundy or medieval forms of it, that would get my attention.

Other than that, you'd have to convince me that that I'd be better off without my supportive church community, without the involvement in church-sponsored poverty relief programs, without a venue to express my sense of the divine (subjective as that may be), and, essentially, better off without adopting the ethics of Jesus and the hope that I can be part, in some small way, of God's work to renew the earth and restore shalom. Most of us liberal Christians aren't in the fold because we think all the syllogisms pointed that way and we have a lock on the truth. We're Christians because it's made our lives better and because we've had some experiences with God that we couldn't and didn't want to dismiss, and the symbols and vocabulary of Christianity gave us means to express that.

Here's a couple of paragraph's from Will Willimon's article "Postmodern Preaching: Learning to Love the Thickness of the Text," one of my favorite short and accessible bits of (post-)liberal theology:

For us, Easter is not true because it "really happened" or it is "historically true," or "true to our experience of the presence of Christ," though it may indeed be all of that. We must not begin with our categories of what Easter would need to be if it were to be judged by us as true. Our lust for absolute, irrefutable truth is somehow tied to our modern attempt to define and thereby to harness and to wield absolute power. As Susan Bordo has shown, the Enlightenment arose, in great part, out of a profound anxiety about certitude. We wanted sure, self-derived, objective knowledge and devised an epistemology which would deliver it to us. This was the counterpart of the Baconian attempt to understand in order to control. Yet Easter, by its very nature, is not something we can grasp or control (recall John 20:11 -18 where the Risen Christ frustrates Mary's attempt to "hold on to me"). The very diversity of the texts about Easter is testimony to disciples who had their categories and concepts, their very world disrupted by resurrection. They struggle to bring to speech that which their language was inept at describing. The creativity and intensity of their linguistic struggle is testimony to its credibility.

Easter is true because the text says it is true, because what the text says is true to the church's continuing engagement by the living Christ. It requires, not certitude, the sure fixing of truth, but rather trust, a playful willingness to let the strangeness of the text have its way with us. The text has subsumed us into itself, rendered unto us a world which would have been unavailable to us without the world having been constructed (as most worlds are) by the text. Yet that does not mean that the world rendered thereby exists only in the imagination of the text. Every time the church gathers, breaks the bread and drinks the wine, we proclaim to any who dare to listen, that what the text says, is. The text, we believe, has the power to evoke that which it describes.

When you really understand what he's driving at here (the whole article is worth a read--I'd be happy to email you a PDF), ask yourself what would work to counter this kind of faith. I don't think there's an obvious answer.

By far the majority of former Christians I know who are know atheists were fundamentalists or conservative evangelicals who lost faith when they realized that their view of the Bible was wrong. It's a pretty short hop from fundy to atheist--all you have to do is stop trusting in a literal interpretation of scripture. Paradoxically, it's a much longer journey from liberal Christian to atheist. There are fewer shared assumptions.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 9:27 PM on September 3, 2009 [35 favorites]

I'm with the Pater on this. After 20+ years of various friends, acquaintances, strangers, and even Penn Jillette in person telling me I was a moron for believing in God, the likelihood that anything you could possibly say would make any difference to my faith is pretty small.

I have read Dawkins and Harris and Hitchens and Michael Shermer (oo, another person who told me I was an idiot in person!). I have read Renan and Nietzsche and Revel. I have read the Bible in dozens of different editions and translations, read some of it in the original Greek, read lots of critical work about the transmission of the texts.

The people who are likely to question their beliefs have almost certainly already done some of this, depending on how old they are. I'm sure you have some really awesome arguments, but I doubt they're as smart as Dawkins's or Revel's, or even Shermer's.

Some of us are Christians on purpose: not out of habit, not because we haven't reflected on the big questions, not because we've been raised in a bubble where we never learned about the many, many issues around the transmission of Christian scripture and other mythologies.
posted by Sidhedevil at 10:07 PM on September 3, 2009 [5 favorites]

1. There is no possible way that a supreme being can be insecure or jealous, if a supreme being existed. As such, there is nobody directing the random pain and misery among human beings on earth.

2. Because a supreme being isn't jealous and insecure, he is merely indifferent, as one might expect from an absent supreme being.

3. Any supreme being would be proud of those who succeed at independent thought, and proud of those who resist cowering before a substitute idol for personal favors in his absence.

4. Those who worship one of the many imaginary substitutes for the supreme being do so because they believe it will result in relief, or a reward, which explains why they fall prey to a fantastically generous, but pettily demanding one, simply because he is part of a fraud to discover our self-preserving faith while gamely hiding himself.

5. Therefore, only atheists and agnostics are desirable to a supreme being. And if there is no supreme being, then only atheism and agnosticism are desirable regardless.
posted by Brian B. at 10:43 PM on September 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

I answer this question from a special POV - as someone who was in an abusive church.

Sometimes, the church is actually doing people harm and they just can't see it. Sometimes people need to be made to see that there is something wrong with a church cutting you off from your friends, telling you not to watch/read any media that is not Christian-based, and pressuring you into ever-higher levels of "dedication" and giving you can't afford. What got me out was finally, after 5 years, realizing I would always be an outsider and never fit in there. Then I became self-destructive and it took 2 1/2 years of therapy to even decide I wanted to live.

If the church is actually doing someone harm, cult recovery resources can be of help, and you also want to research spiritual abuse. There also are many websites about people who leave Christianity.

Regarding "feeling God," you may never actually convince people, but look closely at the emotionalism sections on cult recovery websites, on how they induce mass highs and lows with music and chanting.

Recovering from Spiritual Abuse
Refocus cult recovery
Losing My Religion

Last but not least, you might have a bit of luck with Biblical contradictions and inconsistencies.

P.S. You will have Mefi mail very shortly.
posted by IndigoRain at 11:16 PM on September 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

those that maybe go to church on Sunday, but don't let the principles of Christianity rule their lives

What is your yardstick for knowing when you have achieved your goal of convincing this Sunday church-goer to become an atheist?

If it's trying to get them to stop going to church one day a week, you've got a tough battle. By your description of the type of person you are trying to convince, their church attendance is the main thing that would classify them as a Christian. This person must have some good reason to do this every week other than following religious principles.

First, you'll need to figure out what they get out of their church attendance if it's something other than religion. Do they go to fit in socially with their family or friends and form closer bonds with people they know from church?

If family, there's not much to argue on unless you have some other extended family group waiting to take in only atheists.

If they are bonding with friends, now you've got a fighting chance! Form a group of really cool and awesome atheists that do cool things on Sundays. Only let people hang out with you if they are willing to profess atheism, or at least express an interest in learning more about it. Have wild atheist parties, do mysterious atheist events, really build it up that if people are willing to explore atheism that they'll be accepted into a new and exciting social group. Have this social group support members of it who are experiencing difficulties with finances or medical problems with practical help, provide networking for job opportunities. and encourage members to support member-owned businesses. For single folks, there should be plenty of other singles around their age in the group. Don't forget free childcare for those with kids, especially if they are single moms and this is their only kid-free time.

Don't underestimate the power of people wanting to be a part of a social group. We are social animals.

I'm not a Christian or an atheist, but if I heard about some atheist group meeting on Sundays with, oh, maybe chocolate strawberries and eggs benedict breakfasts, a book trade, a tool borrowing library, a good band, a short theatrical performance, and maybe a pony, I'd be so there. After a couple weeks of meeting new people and hearing about how they are atheists and that's why they like this place on Sunday, I'd probably start wanting to be one. Toss in people who are eager to hire me or fix my car/computer/help me move/answer my questions on any topic and meetup for drinks occasionally because I'm a part of their special group, and I'll be happy to kick a portion of my income to keeping the group going.

The other route would be to start with people who maybe go to the Unitarian Universalist church on Sunday, it's not to unusual for some of them to be atheists already -- but I get the feeling you have particular people in mind.
posted by yohko at 11:22 PM on September 3, 2009

As others have indicated, it's probably harder to "deconvert" the "more liberal" types. I know from personal experience.

I grew up with beliefs much more conservative than most family and friends (and this was in a fundamentalist sort of cultural background). A lot of events in my life sowed seeds of significant doubt; at the same time, I was finding exposure to much more liberal sorts of theological views and shifted to a belief system that was much less dependent on spelled-out doctrinal views (Quakerism). It made my faith even harder to diminish. I quit allowing my faith to be dependent on emotional senses or intellectual beliefs; I gladly use those functions as "languages" to express my faith, but they're not vital to the existence of my faith.

For me, it's not an emotional or an intellectual function, as it works through a different organ of how I perceive and respond to the world around me. I can be swamped with intellectual and emotional doubts about the validity of my spiritual beliefs, but I remain in them. In fact, I can think of several occasions where my faith was questioned on emotional and/or intellectual grounds and it was strengthened further.
posted by artsygeek at 12:03 AM on September 4, 2009

I'm a liberal Christian. To my mind Christians can be divided into two groups (lots of other groups as well, but let's not get into that) - 'scientific' and aesthetical'. Your scientific ones approach religion as they would science - focusing on 'proof' (the infallibility of the Bible as word of God, creationist data, miracles, etc). Aesthetical Christians tend to see God as something like a story or a text (only real) and subject to the same criticism (looking at ambiguity, multiple meanings, symbolism etc).

Liberal Christians tend to be of the latter sort, so I imagine that one way to deconvert them - at least philosophically, if not emotionally or socially or morally - would to be push them further into the aesthetical path - for example arguing that God is really nothing more than a metaphor or a symbol or a bundle of symbols and really, what has that to do with real life? I know sometimes I do go down that path and have to struggle to find the real 'God' amongst a load of academic detritus shored up in my mind.
posted by low_horrible_immoral at 2:02 AM on September 4, 2009 [2 favorites]

Religion (or more precisely, the church) provides a lot of things besides a complex explanation for how the world came to be and how to behave in it.

It provides a community, in which people can come together, socialise together and form a sort of social contract in which it's understood what's acceptable behaviour in that community; and in which their local community can relate to the larger community around it.

It provides a focus for charitable activity. My local church runs a soup kitchen; a "lunch club" for isolated elderly people, with churchgoers providing lifts to folks who need them; a "kid handover" service for parents who have split up and need to exchange children with one another without drama and recriminations.

There's also a focus for thinking once a week about how you act, how it affects others, what your relationships with those around you are like, and how you could improve those things.

All of these things are powerful incentives to stay in the church - whether or not you believe in God or the Bible - so to compete with the church, you need to provide a non-religious alternative for these activities.
posted by emilyw at 2:38 AM on September 4, 2009 [2 favorites]

Lots of stuff here, didn't read it all. Basically, I pose this:

If Christians of various sorts can go around the world on "missions" and convert people, why can't Atheists? What's so wrong about the idea of proselytizing Atheism that isn't just as wrong about doing it with any other religious choice?

The thing about Christianity in particular that is so intoxicating is the welcoming forgiveness. "Someone out there loves you, and your afterlife will be taken care of if you only join us." For people in need of things that are missing inside, this is like crack cocaine. If you can provide an Atheist alternative, you've stepped up onto equal footing. But, I certainly can't think of a way to substitute for that. Can you?
posted by Citrus at 8:20 AM on September 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

Why are you talking about God at all? I thought you were trying to advertise atheism? Spending all your time talking about God is like trying to promote PCs by slagging on Macs the whole time. By the end, I still have no idea why I would want a PC.

What does atheism have to offer? Why is it any better? Why do you like it?
posted by heatherann at 8:24 AM on September 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

Perhaps... "Tall claims require tall proofs." Ask for some. I'm sure you're entitled. The important thing is to avoid at all costs coming across as smarmy or superior. Essentially, don't ever behave like Richard Dawkins.
posted by Biru at 8:45 AM on September 4, 2009

What does atheism have to offer? Why is it any better? Why do you like it?

I always felt that converting people to atheism was like converting them to anarchism. Advocating the absence of something isn't the same as the presence of something. I've always thought this was why Dawkins is so popular, and why people enjoy stuff like Food Not Bombs. It's easier to say "Hey you can enjoy this scientific approach to the mysteries of life" [which I'm sure some can] and "Hey you can enjoy taking food that was going to be discarded and using it to create healthy meals for people who need them" [which some can]. Otherwise, at its most basic level you're asking people to leave their club to join a non-club, sort of. You'd be better off saying "Hey do you want to be a humanist?"
posted by jessamyn at 8:48 AM on September 4, 2009

If Christians of various sorts can go around the world on "missions" and convert people, why can't Atheists? What's so wrong about the idea of proselytizing Atheism that isn't just as wrong about doing it with any other religious choice?

There's nothing "wrong" with it as such.

But that poses the question: if atheists or other non-Christians of various sorts are annoyed by zealous Christians trying to proselytize to them, and if the attempts of these proselytizing Christians are lost upon them why do they think this same method would even work on Christians?
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:54 AM on September 4, 2009

If Christians of various sorts can go around the world on "missions" and convert people, why can't Atheists?

Isn't that one of the main things atheists point to about why Christianity is A Bad Thing, though? I mean, Dawkins and Harris and Hitchens are all livid about that.

I guess it's a question of whether you see it as hypocrisy or fighting fire with fire. I'm not affiliated with a proselytizing denomination myself, so I would be pissed off if someone tried to evangelize me to atheism, just as I am when people try to evangelize me to their flavor of Christianity.
posted by Sidhedevil at 9:29 AM on September 4, 2009 [2 favorites]

How do I convince Christians to become atheists?

Out of curiosity: what goal do you have in doing this? If your aim is to squash Christianity forever, do you think you can do it better than the efforts of Communist China? Even the leadership there have conceded to establishing state-run "3-Self" churches in an attempt to teach a neutered variant of Christian doctrine. Meanwhile, the underground church there continues to grow exponentially...

But to answer your question: Christians tend to leave the faith in a slow drifting away, not because of violent persecution and not because of some "Eureka!" science discovery. To that end you have to start with a focus on the heart and desires of a person and not necessarily the mind or logical/intellectual understanding (something most argumentative atheists don’t understand):

1. Begin with his relationships with God and others in the church: plant the idea in his mind that certain failures, tragedies, loss, or bad circumstances in his life show that God has abandoned him or removed his favor. Keep pushing at these thoughts and he will start to feel like he is being unfairly treated by God, that God may love others but not him, that God doesn’t keep his promises, and that He knows the person’s situation and doesn’t care and won’t do anything. Also cause him to blame himself, thinking that he is a bad Christian and will always fail at being accepted by God as a “good” Christian.

2. From here, convince him that his friendships with other Christians are contrived and ingenuine, that his friends are all fake and like God, they don’t really care or understand him. Take this to the next level: they NEVER loved or understood or cared for you in the first place. Ditto for the church leadership, pastors, elders, and deacons. Build up little annoyances in his mind at other people: maybe the way Sue talks in that high pitched annoying voice, or how Rob always seems to pray for every damn thing in his 5 minute prayers, or the way the preacher says “Umm” before every sentence. This will cause him to simultaneously socially withdraw himself from his church peers while also looking down on them; they too will withdraw reciprocally.

3. Convince him that his time at church is a waste and better spent elsewhere: sleeping in, developing hobbies, working overtime for a promotion, spending time with family and friends. Persuade him that his presence is neither needed nor wanted at church, and that his absence will go unnoticed and unmissed if he skips a Sunday or two. Or three.

4. Build a strong desire for things that are considered taboo in Christian culture: smoking, drinking, swearing, premarital sex (especially the sex), dating non-Christians. This also helps bring out the judgmental side of his church peers, which will push him further away (again, the “they don’t really understand me” thing) as well as causing him to doubt God more (“Christianity’s rules are so draconian / antiquated / arbitrary / etc.”)

5. Finally, feed him some usual atheist arguments against the existence of God—suffering in the world, contradictions in the Bible, non-rationality of faith, etc. He will use these to justify his new lifestyle, giving himself a new confidence in his departure from the church. This completes the circle.

What’s your role? You have to recognize the people who are already completed stages 1-4, and then try to nudge them into stage 5. If you try to do this with someone who hasn’t already gone through stages 1-4, you risk being perceived as militant and argumentative. Also, you have to also be a good friend, hang out, be fun, etc. to reinforce the thoughts from stage 3 and 4 (while not coming across as being an asshole who is just being friends to deconvert).

tl;dr--You can't argue your way through this, and most Christians who deconvert were already in the process of doing it anyways.
posted by chalbe at 9:31 AM on September 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

Learn, in detail, the unforgivable atrocity that sprung from religion during the Crusades, the Inquisition and various Protestant witch trials. Hearing about that and researching it further is what knocked me loose from Christianity.
posted by EatTheWeek at 10:24 AM on September 4, 2009

Mod note: comments removed - please stop arguing this point in this thread. Go to metatalk which is set up for arguing.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 11:25 AM on September 4, 2009

Hearing about that and researching it further is what knocked me loose from Christianity.

That won't work for fundamentalists, Mormons, etc who believe they've fixed Christianity by going back to the basics and/or adding new revelations, ie. all the screwed up things the Hebrews did in the OT are just history now, man.
posted by Palamedes at 3:38 PM on September 4, 2009

Regarding Pater's well-received comment, I think I've met more liberal Christians who have, over the years, slipped more and more away from their faith than fundamentalists. I've also met fewer fundamentalists to atheist conversions, than fundamentalist to moderate "conversions." Perhaps that's just my experience.

If you're still following this to any degree, I'd recommend in regard to what he's saying you question what point there is in having faith. Hopefully I'm not going to come off as a complete ass to anyone, but moderate Christianity is actually explained away easily with a simple logical argument (which hopefully most evolution-accepting individuals would agree with). If the Bible is the only text you have that mentions Jesus, your "savior," to any degree, and you think it's literally wrong about the age of the earth, and you don't believe it's accurate through and through (despite many verses that try to stress that it is), then you're putting faith in something that has no foundation. If you think Jesus was just a man, then who/what are you putting your faith in? The ideals? Well, you'd have to exclude all the violent and cruel ideas first, and then you'd be left with pretty well what agnostic/atheists believe, if not exactly so. But, considering Pater a postmodern text, I suppose some of the theorists in that school of thought would accept your calling a complete lack of faith, well, "faith." (Just my opinion, but I think postmodernism is pretty wacky and too mystical / "everything goes" when applied to things outside of media / arts. Wiki has a good book quote about this problem with postmodernism.)

I do think it's interesting that liberal Christians think they have an easier time of explaining their faith, because they don't take the texts literally. I think it's just the opposite. If you don't take the texts literally,you have a harder time pinpointing what you do believe and why you believe it. As someone else said, with this thinking, it's not a far step from just calling it all a metaphor, which really makes more sense. Moderate Christianity is such an odd way to embrace God: "Hey, I think all Your texts are completely wrong, written metaphorically and probably meant for the day in which they were written, but--what the hey--I completely surrender my life to You, will ignore all the Biblical cruelty and talk about your love and the community that has come about because of it." Huh?

If you don't believe in heaven or hell or perhaps even Jesus or God at the end of the day, what's the point of "having faith" in any part of the religion, I wonder? It's not the community part, which is slightly made up of black female Protestants, really, as so many suggest--or rather, it shouldn't be. Imagine how many more community projects could get done if "churches" didn't still have some strange, time-consuming focus on parables from 2,000 years ago!

Atheists do have communities, though, just not with religion at their roots; common interests are at the roots. This reminds me of a conversation I had with a staunch (and pretty rude) Christian recently, where he was demanding I give an example of where atheists "organize" to do good, because he didn't think that existed. I told him to go to his nearest science lab or hospital, where he would most likely find over 50% of the people non-religious, organized and working together for the good of others. He had no reply.

If you still want to go through with this "de-conversion," depending on the type of person you're dealing with, that might be the most logical and simple appeal to make, that you get more out of places when the focus is on a common interest or goal, rather than an old book that no one believes is entirely correct or sensible. However, one thing I didn't mention in my first reply to you is that, if they're going to church, they're actually of the pretty dedicated 40% minority (if they're in the U.S.).
posted by metalheart at 6:14 PM on September 4, 2009

For those who claim "atheists don't have organizations", check out The Atheist Community of Austin. I'm not sure how many other groups are there out there like this, but hey there's one at least!

Also the Unitarian Universalists have *plenty* of atheists among them. I was raised in the church and knew many. They are a great home for people who want to have the comforts of fellowship, giving back to the community, and nobody breathing down their neck about what they actually believe at a given point in time (thus making it a safe place to transition beliefs - no one will reject you if your spirituality changes).

What I would stress, when talking to Christians, is the fundamental unfairness of the idea of Christ dying for your sins. If you murdered someone, would you let a dear friend take the rap for you? No? Then why is it ok when it's Jesus? I never understood this. How can we live in a society with a morality that says "you take the consequences for your actions, especially the negative ones", yet a dominant religion that says "you get a free ride for any and all sins (you get to go to heaven) as long as you say it's okay for someone else, a super awesome guy btw, to take all the penalty for you!". It makes no sense. How is that fair at all? Plus, hey, he's really a god himself so the "penalty" isn't really one so what's the point? I don't get it. Even a child knows that punishment belongs with the person who did something wrong, not some proxy.

I think it's this "get out of jail free" card that is one of the great appeals about Christianity. Once you are old enough to realize that surely you have done some great wrongs to others, either intentionally or unintentionally, the guilt weighs on you if you have any sense of compassion or regret. Jesus is a nice way to live with yourself afterwards.

I agree you likely will not have much success, but I differ with others on why. See, I'm a lifelong atheist except during a certain rather mentally unstable portion of my life. I had a psychotic episode which involved a great number of Christian-themed delusions. At various points I thought I had been specially chosen by god to save the world, you see, and it was as real to me as the computer I'm typing on right now. I *felt* it. It was *certain*. I saw evidence for it in all sorts of things which made it 100% true to me, yet somehow others didn't quite see what I saw. That just reinforced how special I was, that god was revealing only to me his signs. The human mind can believe some pretty impossible shit when the chemical balance leans in a certain direction. Only after I got on medication and stabilized did my religious feelings wane. I maintain that a lot of religious belief, or receptivity to religious belief, is purely chemical. If your brain chemistry is a certain way at a given time, you are very likely to be religious, and if it's not, then you are quite a lot less likely to be so. I don't claim it's an absolute effect, merely that it is very powerful.

I do have to admit that when I had some very serious attacks of paranoia and the like, praying gave me great comfort. When I read the bible I felt its truth and felt how applicable it was to my life. The human mind is amazing when it comes to making leaps and finding and stretching metaphors. I believe my experiences have given me some insight into just what religion can give people that they find so beneficial / alluring. Eventually I got better and returned to my normal atheism and I was greatly relieved (in the interim there was another psychotic episode where I felt god and Jesus were out to get me to torment me and show me that I was the most evil horrible person who ever lived, complete with hallucinations. So it can go both ways).
posted by marble at 8:11 PM on September 4, 2009 [3 favorites]

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