Philosophical impact

We often assume, because no change of position is admitted during a debate, that there is no impact at all. This view is overly binary. After 40 years of evangelicalism it took me five-years to leave, and I can tell you the process is iterative.

To convert people to rationalism my advice is to keep the aims modest. The people you’re likely to encounter will think you’re insulting them if you refer to their statements as “arguments from ignorance”.

Stick to:

Establishing that truth matters, or should, to all of us.
Helping your theist friends to understand the burden of proof
Asking how the believers have concluded that their claims are true, while other religious claims are not.

Throughout, address the ideas and not the people who hold them – although the extent to which believers weave their beliefs into their identities makes it impossible to avoid all awkwardness.

Human Impact

Whether it’s the changing of minds, working for secular neutrality in government policy, or mitigating unfair discrimination against secularists in overwhelmingly religious societies, persuasion is crucial. People are not persuaded by someone who triggers their defensive responses.

By the time I attended the last course meeting, it was tinged with a hint of mutual sadness. It had been genuinely lovely getting to know these folks. They said they had come to look forward to our meetings and were sad when I’d had to miss one. Yet I’d been nothing if not direct with them. Like saying that I regard myself as more moral than their god, that faith itself is often misogynistic, that magical thinking is harmful and original sin is perverse, among many other things.

Personal Catharsis

This was the first time I’d been in a church environment since I left Christianity, and the ability to express myself assertively and without reservations was invigorating and liberating. But the real victory was not the one you might expect.

Rather than convincing anyone of anything outright, effectively and logically demolishing their beliefs, it seems I managed to present the folks there with the human face of an atheist. They thanked me for being kind and respectful of their persons, even when I disrespected their beliefs. They said they could relate to a lot of the personal struggles that I had shared with them. They offered me a spot in a tent at the church’s men’s camp the following weekend (I politely declined) and the most vociferous and least open among them said that I had shattered her preconceptions about what atheists are like.

In the end, I just saw good people at my table and I told them so. I tried, always, to be sincerely curious about my questioning, and appeal to humanist morality and basic principles in addressing the immorality of beliefs – not the people who hold them. I sense that some of what I said still made them deeply uncomfortable, but it is conceivable that we could meet socially in the future. Whether we do or don’t, the point is that the mutual human empathy to be able to do so has been established.

I suspect that, at least five of the people who were at my table might question someone in future who generalizes about the “immorality of atheists”. Given my personal experience of attitudes towards atheists here in SA, plus research in places like the USA, and the fact that we still face the death penalty in many parts of the world, I regard my modest shattering of their preconceptions as a massive victory.

Charles Webster

South Africa


Originally published in Secular World Magazine –

Reproduced with the permission of the author

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