The more I see Christians and atheists mix it up, the more I'm starting to think someone needs to write a little handbook for Christians. There are a lot of kind-hearted but clueless believers out there who tend to get blindsided by the way we think. I notice a lot of misconceptions and so forth. So I threw together an outline, and I'm going to write something we can place in the hands of our Christian mates.
They give us enough of their literature. They ask us to read their book. It's only fair, right?
So here's the outline I scribbled, with some explanatory notes. Suggestions, critiques and commentary in the comments, if you please. Keep in mind that when it comes to writing, I have a very thick skin indeed.
How to Talk to an Atheist
I. Introduction: The Scarlet A
Statistics - growing fast. Brief overview of this book's purpose. Not a handbook for conversion. What this book is not about.
I just want to set things up here with the stats that show we're a growing part of the population. I'll probably throw in some stats from other countries for shits and giggles, just to show how far behind Western Europe America is. Here, I'll set up the premise for this book: that if you're going to talk to an atheist, here's what to keep in mind. Obviously, I'm not instructing Christians on how to convert us - the point is to have fruitful conversations without trying to convert either side. So the book's not about giving Christians pointers on how to defeat an atheist's resistance to religion - it's to help Christians understand who and what we are.
II. Right - What's an Atheist?
Someone from Athies (joke, you see). Common Christian misconceptions. The quick and dirty definition. A more detailed look at the cat herd. Some famous atheists.
In this section, I'm throwing in that wonderful quip from a coworker. Q. What's an atheist? A. Someone from Athies. Look, it was funny at the time. And it's really not that far off the mark: a lot of Christians seem to think we're aliens. Then we'll move on to a few mistaken Christian definitions, such as "an atheist is someone who hates God" - Christians in the audience, I'm sure you have plenty to tell me about how your co-believers view atheists. I'll do the quick definition, which is basically that an atheist is someone who doesn't believe in any god, and then segue into a more detailed look at different types of atheists. I call us the cat herd for obvious reasons - we're not a unified mass of people with a common ideology, and it's important for Christians to understand that atheists are as varied as the Christian churches are. Then we'll close with a few famous atheists NOT limited to Dawkins, Hitch et al.
III. Why Talk to an Atheist?
No conversion rule. What we have to offer - and argue. Not talking gets us nowhere. The world could use more critical thinking. Good mental exercise. The things we have in common.
I want to reiterate here that the "talking to an atheist" part doesn't mean trying to convert them, but holding conversations on the things that matter to us all, such as our environment, our communities, common problems we all struggle with. Atheists have plenty to bring to the table on those issues, but prepare for a robust argument on everything. Not talking to each other is just ridiculous - we all have to share this planet, we might as well figure out ways to get along. The world needs people who are willing to think critically and challenge ideas that don't work, and besides, a discussion with us is an excellent mental workout - we make people sweat. Then I want to end the chapter by pointing out that we have plenty in common: we love our kids, love our friends, want to do good things, etc., along with the more mundane interests like hobbies and so forth. We're not that different!
IV. How Atheists Think
Logic and reason vs. faith and belief. Arguments from authority and why they don't work. The skeptical mind. Gleeful argument.
This one's going to be tough, because explaining that we don't believe to a believer never seems to get through. But I'll attempt in this chapter to explain that where other people use faith, belief and intuition to guide their decisions, we rely a hell of a lot more on logic and reason. We don't accept arguments from authority... that should be pretty self-explanatory to you guys, will have to explain to Christians why "X said so" is so odious to us. I'll give an overview of the skeptical mind, which is skeptical of nearly everything. Then explain the pleasure we get from argument - we're not being mean when we rip each other's ideas apart, we're just doing what comes natural. I think a lot of Christians get the idea we're cruel bastards from the way we challenge ideas and assertations, and I want to make clear that an atheist still loves you even when he or she has left your ideas bleeding in the street. I want to bring across some sense of how much fun we have.
V. What You Can Expect if You Bring Up God
Don't do it. You had to go there, didn't you? We murder our own darlings - yours aren't sacred. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Smackdowns.
This, I think, is going to be the most fun to write. For one thing, if Christians don't want to have their sacred ideas battered and bruised, they shouldn't bring it up in the first place. A bunch of critical thinkers aren't going to shut down their critical faculties just because God's now in the mix - much the opposite. If we tear each other's ideas down, what the fuck do you expect us to do to something we don't even believe? I want to bring across the fact that in our world, the more extraordinary the claim, the more extraordinary the evidence needs to be for it, and that means religion doesn't fare too well in our discussions. And I think I'm going to throw in some famous smackdowns from various threads and public debates - if you know of any good ones, I wants 'em!
VI. How to Survive the Scrum
Believers can gain our respect. No special pleading. No evasion. It's nothing personal - unless you make it so.
Too many Christians seem to think that an argument against their ideas means we can't respect them. I want to debunk that myth here, and show how they can earn our respect. Most Christians who've faced the tough questions head-on, been candid and honest in their beliefs, and haven't resorted to special pleading, goal-post moving, evading the question, and other typical tricks fare fairly well in the respect department. And one of the major problems has been folks making things personal that really aren't - we aren't going to attack the person (much) unless the person attacks us. Criticism of an idea isn't a criticism of a person - that needs to be reiterated, because there are far too many people who take things way too personally.
VII. Why Do Atheists Hate God/Christians/Religion in General?
We don't. How an atheist views religion. The dangers of unthinking faith. The crap we take from believers. Why we kill Kenny (the creationist who always gets his ass kicked in Pharyngula threads). The dangers of woo.
We get accused a lot of hating God, don't we? I want to try to bring out our views on religion, why we think certain varieties of it are dangerous, the fact that uncritical acceptance of extraordinary claims are anathema to us. Then there's the amount of shit we take from people that gets really annoying - atheists are one of the most despised groups out there, and if there were more of us, we'd be taking a lot more crap. There's also a severe lack of understanding when it comes to our bashing of dogged dogmatists like Kenny - so I want to explain what happens to folks who repeat the same ridiculous arguments and never give up trying to impose views we're never going to buy, so yes, we do sometimes get cruel because we get fed up. And there's another element - where others think faith and belief are good things, we see too much of the harm that comes from uncritical thought, so we tend to kick back rather hard against woo.
VIII. Why Can't I Convert an Atheist?
Many have tried. The de-conversion experience. We've already explored those ideas. Proving God - and why you can't. The sillyness of asking the faithless to take something on faith.
It seems like a lot of Christians believe they're the only ones who have ever talked to us about God, and that if we only heard the Good News, we'd convert. I want to debunk that right here. For one thing, most of us have endured far too many people trying to convert us. People never get that we can live without faith, so they keep trying to impose it. Then, too, many of us used to be true believers. I'm going to do a generic overview of the typical de-conversion experience, showing that it's not something sudden (in most cases), but a process. Being a process, it's nearly impossible to reverse. Christians also seem to believe that we just haven't thought about faith, so I want to make it clear that many of us have explored faith deeply. We probably know more about religion than many theologians. So we already know about it, and we're still not impressed. Then there's the little problem of being able to prove the supernatural - you really can't. Until you can offer really real proof that God exists, an atheist probably won't be persuaded. And besides all that, it's really kind of ridiculous to ask someone who by definition doesn't believe to take something on faith, innit?
IX. Common Fallicies
No morality. Nihilism. Atheism is religion. Theology = philosophy. Impoverished world.
I want to take down the most common myths here. Christians claim we can't have morality without faith (false), atheism is nihilistic (false), atheism is just another religion (sooo false), theology is somehow equal to philosophy (they're different beasts, and I shall explain why), and that our lives must necessarily be impoverished by not having God in them (they most certainly aren't).
X. We Can Coexist
Agree to disagree. The things we all want.
I'll be showing how we coexist - by agreeing to disagree, by finding points of commonality, by respecting each other's differences, and so forth. There are plenty of things we have in common: we want to live good lives, we want a better world, we want to be good people. We have different ways of getting what we need out of life, but there's no reason my unbelief and your belief shouldn't find a way to accomodate each other. Remember, this handbook is for moderates and more rational Christians, so this will be true. We've all got Christian friends who have learned to accept us for who we are, and I hope we return the favor. Neither group is going away any time soon, so we'd best learn how to get along. And together, we can accomplish the things that matter.
A heavily revised version of the Rules I posted here a while back.
Resources and Links
A bibliography and some links to sites where Christians can learn more about atheists.
So. There it is. My idea for a handbook. The outline will change - I can already see some places where a different order might be better, and your input will of course impact matters. What think ye? Would such a thing be of use?