In the course of this essay I have strayed a few times from my stated goal. I started out criticizing the Four Horsemen for thinking that debating is the same as marketing, but I ended up making a number of points that would be much more at home in a debate than in a sales flyer. Indeed, there are a lot more points I’d love to make, but they are so explicitly debate-style that I can’t justify including them in this ostensibly market-focused essay. But my own struggle with trying to avoid debate points has actually helped me clarify my thinking about the core lessons that atheists need to learn to improve their marketing.
Although it seems strange to say, atheists can’t help but feel a certain intellectual kinship with the most extreme religious fundamentalists. This is because the one quality they both share is an inability to look at the world in more than one way. For religious fundamentalists, their holy book of choice is the only perspective from which they willingly view the world; all others are automatically suspect. For atheists, the Rationalist Credo is the only perspective from which they willingly view the world; all others are automatically suspect. Does this make atheists guilty of dogmatic thinking? Maybe, but only in a very technical, unuseful way: any dogma explicitly mandating unyielding skepticism of dogma is less harmful than a dogma that doesn’t.
This is the basic problem that atheists run up against when trying to convert religious moderates. Religious moderates do not suffer from the same cognitive disease that atheists and their fundamentalist “brethren” do – moderates are capable of effortlessly switching from one worldview to another, depending on which part of the world is being viewed at the time. Religious moderates are not only capable of thinking dualistically, but capable of doing so without effort or conscious awareness.
It seems to me that atheists spend so much time debating because, according to their world view, that’s how people arrive at the truth. I think a moment’s thought should vindicate the notion that if a fervent religious believer also accepted rational argument as the only way to arrive at truth, they would eventually arrive at atheism under their own power, without any help from us. Debates are only marginally successful at converting religious believers to atheism because only a marginal proportion of religious believers are predisposed to treat the debating process with the same respect that atheists do.
Part of the reason for this is that, for most people, their concept of debating and rational argument is anchored in their understanding of law and the justice system. In legal circles, two parties debate as a way of arriving at a winner and a loser. In intellectual circles, two parties debate as a way of arriving at the truth. It is a truism that the legal system is flawed – that guilty people with sufficiently skilled lawyers can go free, and innocent people saddled with incompetent public defenders can find themselves on death row. Our legal system’s reliance upon and publicizing of the debate format has drilled into most people’s heads the idea that debates are anything but a foolproof avenue to truth. A dualistic religious believer who is presented with many otherwise convincing atheist arguments in a debate could easily invoke this truism to justify their gut-level rejection of those arguments.
Another example of how dualistic thinking poses a hurdle for atheism is the word “science.” To most atheists, and all scientists, “science” is just a process – it’s a reliable process for how to find things out. (Just as free-market advocates define capitalism as simply the best way thus far discovered to efficiently distribute wealth, science is defined as simply the best way thus far discovered to convert unknown things into known things.) To the general public, though, “science” isn’t a process, it’s a subject they had to study in school. People with the proper understanding of science know that its methods can be applied to find out about many subjects – meteorology, anatomy, economics, history, grammar, business, even drama – but the popular impression is that science is somehow different from all those other subjects. When a person with such a dualistic understanding is told that the choice is between “God and science,” they cannot be blamed for thinking, “Oh really? Why not God versus geometry? Why not God versus criminal justice? Where do these scientists get off?” Conversely, when dualists say things like “God and science are not mutually exclusive,” the implicit assumption is that “science” will stay confined to the same buckets as they learned in school – cells and magnets and igneous rocks – and will leave alone their understanding of more immediate, practical matters like comparison shopping, automotive maintenance, politics, or romantic love.
Richard Dawkins has stated that his preferred approach to spread atheism is to convince people of the truth of evolution, which does not require God, and then use their acceptance of evolution as a stepping stone to dismissing God. The problem with this is that dualist religious moderates are perfectly capable of compartmentalizing their acceptance of evolution in the “science” category, without bothering to apply any of its insights to what they’ve compartmentalized in their “spirituality” category. Dualistic thinkers do indeed seek consistency and coherence in their beliefs, but only within the various mental buckets they’ve designated – they don’t seem to reliably take the next step and require consistency and coherence across all those buckets.
What this tells me is that the most effective approach to dealing with religious moderates must take dualism into account. It is not enough for atheists to structure their arguments to point out inconsistencies and incoherences across mental buckets, since dualists are essentially immune to such an attack. They must structure their arguments to find inconsistencies and incoherences within individual mental buckets, since those are the kinds of flaws that even dualists are capable of detecting. I’d like to think that the better parts of this essay are better because they adhere more closely to this principle.
The other central message I’d like atheists to extract from this piece is the importance of making a distinction between religious belief and the urge to worship. If the mindset we are up against can be defined entirely in epistemological terms, “faith,” “belief,” “knowledge,” “reason,” “rational,” “truth,” and so forth, then I think atheism has a fighting chance. But if the mindset we are up against is based on some kind of primal urge to worship, we’re in trouble. Don’t underestimate the power of such an urge; it’s the only thing that reconciles certain otherwise irreconcilable positions held by religious believers. (Which is a greater insult to the dignity of humanity: that our selves are nothing more than spiritless, worldly by-products of the large-scale computations performed by the hundreds of billions of neurons in our brains, or that we are intrinsically flawed spirits cursed at conception by an original sin we did not commit, doomed to seek redemption if we wish to achieve lasting happiness? I would say the latter is the greater insult, but since it is embedded in a belief system that offers religious believers someone to worship, they accept it without a problem.) I think more energy needs to be put into studying the relationship between worship and religion, and more time needs to be spent by atheists honing their approaches based on what that study yields.
If there is a God, isn’t His least appealing attribute His incessant hunger for worship? Isn’t that the one character flaw that essentially disqualifies Him from being worthy of worship? I would find an utterly indifferent God more compelling and awe-inspiring than one who cheerfully admits to being maniacally jealous on the first date. Jealousy makes His nature much closer to those of His intrinsically flawed, constantly sinning children than cosmic indifference would.