06 June, 2008

I Think Maybe We Could Use a Handbook

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.


The Rules
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?


Woozle said...

I think this is an excellent idea.

And I would say that even without the benefit of your generous and influential contribution to my re-election campaign. Really.

...What? Oh, sorry, wrong reality. In this reality, I still think it's an excellent idea, and your earlier post giving some guidelines for well-meaning Christians already had me thinking along these lines; it's good to see that great minds continue to think alike ^_^ (and I say that with all modesty, though you may need a microscope to find it).

Would you mind terribly if I started a wiki page for the guide-to-be, and pasted large wodges of your post into it (later to be ruthlessly edited into something more final)?

Unknown said...

I think that this would actually be most useful for teens from a religious area who are interested in atheism. I believe that if someone accepts all the ideas in this book then they are actually halfway to becoming a free thinker.

One theme I get over and over again from my friends who are atheists is a strong sense of anti-authoritarianism.

As for actual people who want to convert you, on one hand it would be nice to have a complete text that sums up your beliefs--a tract. This is nice because it's not always easy to come up with this stuff. Most atheists agree with all of this so it's very convenient. Instead of repeating oneself over and over again, one can just give them the book. If and when they come back you can merely say, actually if you had read the book, it's all in there. No need for discussion.

I hate any kind of religious "debate" with strong believers of any kind because they keep rehashing the same arguments over and over again. Meanwhile, much smarter people have actually had the final say on these issues and have moved on and in most cases died a few hundred years ago. You either accept an authority or you don't. If you don't then a whole can of worms gets opened that is pretty much summed up in this book. So don't waste time.

I _am_ interested in discussion of what people think when this book and the bible and all the other religious texts have been read and digested by all speakers. Then I might have a chance to hear something new.

I would say, that true believers who are going to bother you will not have anything to do with this book. They are not there for discussion. In fact, I think that they leave their ears at home. It is utterly frustrating to talk to someone who keeps going on and on when clearly all shit had all ready been addressed. It's like talking to a wall. I guess it would be nice to have a book and say, "OK, I'll take your tract and read it, you take mine and read it. Be fair now."

Lirone said...

Sounds like a good idea to me too... so many debates seem to go round and round in exactly the same circles that this might help clarify the waters somewhat!

I think chapter 4 could also cover what counts as evidence (e.g. why one person's mystical experience doesn't prove anything - perhaps linking the Derren Brown youtube vid that PZ posted a few days ago), and perhaps things like probability and significance, reversion to mean and double blind testing.

I also wonder if it's worth exploring (somewhere) the different reactions that fundies are going to get compared to moderates.

Finally, rather than smackdowns, I think it would be good to throw in a liberal scattering of the sort of way-out-there-quotes that should make any sensible Christian blush - if only to explain what we have to put up with.

Woozle said...

"...they keep rehashing the same arguments over and over again." This is one of the reasons I started Issuepedia: so I could document those arguments and the answers to them.

Then, whenever a particular argument is trotted out for another show, I can just point at the page where that argument is presented in its most eloquent form and subsequently demolished. No need to think the whole damn thing through again; just say "We've already been here, why are you bringing this up again?"

The more I think about this book idea, Dana, the more it seems totally awesome -- and I wanna hellllp! (In all my lack-of-free-time, of course.) It seems like something about which there is a lot yet to be said -- Dawkins et al. have certainly presented the philosophical arguments for active atheism, but nobody has written a book about atheism for theists, as far as I know. It may be a challenge to keep it from growing into a monster.

I've got a lot of essays and bits and pieces which get into some of the areas you're covering; let me know if you'd like some links (not that you seem to need any help writing incisively ^_^).

Efrique said...

Waaugh! I just typed a really long reply. It has apparently been sucked into blog-comment-hell, because it's gone.

I don't have time to try to reconstruct it now. Umm. The short version: Yeah, sounds good.

When I get time I'll try to type what I can remember into notepad and /paste/ it back in here (so if it gets lost again it isn't gone).


Chaos Lee said...

It's a noble sentiment. And I think that anyone attempting to put order to thoughts and rational exploration of the concept could potentially benefit. That said, the notion of reference manuals is highly unappealing to me, largely because it seems to be doctrination, even unintentionally. The moment you create a book or a guideline, suddenly now you're establish definitions and boundaries. Don't get me wrong, books are inherently good as is information that might just risk forcing people to re-evaluate their little preconceptions. But next thing you know someone's put out "Atheism for Dummies" and then I have to stab even MORE people at the fucking bookstore.

Woozle said...

chaos lee: I hope Dana will correct me if I'm wrong, but I don't think the idea is to write a book for atheists (Dawkins, Hitchens, and others have done that already) but for theists as a guide for dealing with atheists.

It's not so much a set of boundaries for us to follow but more a declaration of independence from dogma and preconception, as I see it: Here's what we aren't, here's a realistic sampling of what we are, and here's a brief map of the place we call "rationality" so you won't get lost when you visit. Note these brown smudges on the map -- avoid those spots, and try not to wake any sleeping dragons if you want to avoid having your mind opened.

If you're still not seeing it as a net positive, please elucidate further and I'll try again.

Anonymous said...

Just wanted to point out that there are those among us Christians Who have searched and have thought deeply and still choose to believe. Does that mean we take what Our religious authorities tell us as gospel? Hell no! They are flawed humans like the rest of us and I prefer to do my own thinking thank you very much. I consider myself a Catholic, but the last person I would have tell me how to live is the Pope.

Dana Hunter said...

Ye gods, you guys - I'm stunned. I'm so glad you think this is a good idea! I think with your input, we could actually have something going here.

What I'm envisioning is a book that's brief enough to work as the kind of tract you can hand over to a Christian and say exactly what Leroy said.

There could be follow-up books if this succeeds, because there's bountiful material here. Far too much for one thin book. Think of this as a quick-and-dirty introduction for the clueless Christian - and for the clued-in Christians who just want to know more about us.

Woozle, I gladly accept your help, and your links!

The actual book itself, even drafts, I don't think should be published online anywhere. Publishers get bitchy about that, this is going to be a physical book (something that can be pressed into a proselytizer's hand), and previous publication online will mean a lot of publishers won't touch the thing. I haven't got the money for self-publishing, or the time or interest in trying to get bookstores to carry it. Major or at least known publisher would make it far easier to deal with. But we'll definitely hold discussions, for anyone who's interested in helping put this together, and anyone who wants to be a Wise Reader gets to read drafts and go crazy with the red pen.

You've all given me some excellent ideas, and I need to process them. Keep 'em coming!

Woozle said...

No online publication: Ok, and great if you think you can get a publisher interested; I was thinking something like lulu.com, but since you're actually in the Pofeshnul Awthering Biz...

I do have a secured wiki (pages viewable only by authorized users) if you think that might help for collaboration.

Possibly-relevant links for the book:
- chat transcript wherein a former Mormon asks why the heck his atheist friends didn't try harder to de-theize him, and I offer some possible explanations
- Morality Without God was an essay I started to write in which I was going to explain one way of constructing a set of morals without involving God. Ran into writer's block partway through and haven't had time to get back to it; maybe it will give you some ideas.
- Reasons to believe in God: an early attempt to separate the non-disprovable Inconsequential God from the God-of-consequences that everyone is really talking about. Written for recovering theoholics.
- Interfaith treaty proposal: some stuff which it seems to me any rational person would agree with, religious or not. Take-away message: If you disagree with any of this, then You May Be Part Of The Problem.
- God gets into the more obvious rational objections to the idea of God, in which theists should probably have a good solid grounding before attempting discussion with atheists.
- Religion gives a similar treatment to its namesake, though a bit more conjecturally
- Einsteinian religion: Einstein is often quote-mined to "prove" that he believed in God; this page thoroughly trashes that idea.
- How do we deal with the religious Right? We should probably stipulate a few things; some suggestions:
-- (a) they are a bunch of wackos many of whose key views are immoral and firmly repudiated by all decent folk, despite their alarming degree of influence in the halls of power; we don't care if we're going to hell, we do care if we have to put up with these types in our faces or governments.
-- (b) we won't assume that people who are actually willing to discuss their beliefs with atheists, without foaming at the mouth, agree with the views of the RelRight -- but we do need to understand what their beliefs are in order to have a meaningful conversation involving said beliefs. If you're not prepared to define {Christianity as practiced by you}, then why defend it? Why even bring it up?
-- (c) moderate theists need to understand, nonetheless, how their defense of irrational beliefs aids the wackos, and something needs to be done about this. You may believe something completely different from what Fred Phelps believes, but you both use "God" and "The Bible" to justify or explain it; our distaste for those terms (and others) should be understandable. ...Introduce the whole "clean out your stables or we'll have to do it for you, because we're not having this crap in our civilization" argument.

Hope the chaff content isn't too high.

NP said...

Love it! And I look forward to eventually posting a generous review on my faith-based blog!

Dana Hunter said...

@NP: I look forward to seeing us plugged there! Thank you, heart sister!

@Woozle: Thank you very much for the links. I'll be combing through them within the next few days, and we'll see where we get. You're going to have to get a cut of this if publication happens, considering the work you're putting in!

I absolutely do think we can interest a print publisher in this. There's a growing market for books on atheism, and this one's going to be rather unique. It's why I'm going to give it a chance on that circuit.

And hey - royalties! I wouldn't mind believers dropping a few coins in our pockets. ;-)

Anonymous said...

A lot of godbots seem to get stuck on this "why do you hate (my) god" thing. Um, no, I don't hate Yahweh, any more than you hate Horus or the tooth fairy; it's only his fan club that annoys me.

In "why you can't convert", I'd also quote from St. Augustine's work on "The Literal Interpretation of Genesis," where he advises that, when talking about the real world that everyone can see, "It is too disgraceful and ruinous, though, and greatly to be avoided, that he [the non-Christian] should hear a Christian speaking so idiotically on these matters".

Finally, in the "you can't prove god doesn't exist" category, I can't prove that reality exists (as opposed to being a giant Matrix-like simulation), but saying that I have theories that describe and predict the real world is simply more compact than saying that I can describe and predict my perceptions of the real world.

I don't know with 100% certain that reality exists; all I know is that so far, my perceptions match very will what I'd expect if it did.

And one more tidbit: "What's up with the Flying Spaghetti Monster?" Many people don't understand that the whole pastafarian thing was invented to show how silly creationism is by providing a farcical alternative with just as much evidentiary support as "intelligent design". It's advice to the school board, "if you set the bar that low, you'll have to let us in, too". So please don't set the bar that low.

Efrique said...

Finally made it back.

Here are three of the points I wanted to make that got lost.

(i) I see a fair bit of overlap between II and IX (what an atheist is vs what an atheist isn't).

It might be possible to merge them somewhat.

(ii) On the other hand, I wanted to point to a study that I saw a while ago that said "when people have a misconception, saying 'that conception is wrong' doesn't work - if anything it serves to strengthen it". I didn't find the study, but a similar study just popped up that says about the same thing (this time relating to politics).

See when corrections fail.

The message from the first study (which if I find again I will post a link to) basically said that if the aim is to convince the person with the misconception, you are better off not saying "you think 'X is true', but that's wrong for these reasons", and instead saying "Y is true".

So instead of a list of misconceptions, you need a list of reconceptions. For each misconception, you instead start with what's actually true.

Which brings me to ...
(iii) who is really the audience? I suspect most people who would read this will either not be theists, or if they are, they'll be the sort of theist that we mostly don't have much of a problem with (non-fundies, ones capable of following a logical argument). The ones that have the misconceptions probably won't read the handbook anyway.

So if it's going to end up rallying the troops, a list of misconceptions would be okay. On the other hand if it's partly a book on how to explain atheism to confused theists, the "setting up a conception is better than arguing a misconception" message would be an important thing to talk about.

Dana Hunter said...

@Eclectic: Good points! If any more come to you, please do leave them here. The more input I get, the better this will be.

@Efrique: I've been waiting for this! I started reading that study at work yesterday - scary stuff. Definitely going to change a bit o' my approach, I think.