How Not to Convert an Atheist
Part of the Theist's Guide

In my article "The Theist's Guide to Converting Atheists", I outlined a list of things a theist could present that would be likely to convince an atheist of the truth of their particular religion. Since I am an atheist, it is my view that none of these things actually exist, although I am willing to be persuaded otherwise. However, since writing that essay, it occurred to me that what might be more useful is a list of tactics that would not persuade an atheist, or that might make them even less likely to convert. I have listened to the arguments of many proselytizers and have read a fair number of pro-theism apologetics books, and in my experience, many of them make the same mistakes. It is my hope that pointing out to them what they are doing wrong will help reduce the annoyance and frustration experienced by my fellow atheists upon encountering the same fallacious claim for the hundredth time; and certainly, one imagines, theists trying to save our souls would appreciate the feedback, since it will help them learn which of their arguments are ineffective and adjust their tactics accordingly.

Some readers may feel that the items enumerated on this list are all matters of common courtesy in any dialogue, and not applicable just to atheists. I completely agree with such a sentiment. There is no special way to approach atheists that differs from the way one would ordinarily approach any other person; atheists are human beings just like everyone else, after all. The problem is not that atheists are inherently more difficult to communicate with productively, but that there are many religious organizations that persist in actively spreading misinformation about atheism. These groups are not interested in an open debate or an impartial comparison of the facts; their goal is to retain members by casting the alternatives in a poor light. They have no incentive to give the opposing viewpoint a fair hearing, just as a commercial touting the benefits of a product is not going to objectively list the strengths of its competitors. While these tactics may help keep members in line by convincing them that the alternatives are unpalatable, they often fail utterly when used against real atheists; many believers have found to their surprise and chagrin that we are not the arrogant, amoral misanthropes their preachers have told them we are. Similarly, many assertions that routinely go unquestioned by believers do not hold up against a knowledgeable atheist who asks to see the supporting evidence.

It is my hope that the advice presented in this article will encourage theists to view atheism as a serious, substantive viewpoint whose proponents are worthy of respect, even if they do not agree with it. The unreasoning prejudice that too often arises when people are confronted by viewpoints different from their own - theist against atheist, theist against theist - has been a substantial obstacle to peace and understanding among humanity throughout its history. We must learn to overcome this tendency and instead let reason be our guide. Only when all participants treat each other with the seriousness and respect they deserve can the debate truly begin.

• Back up to The Theist's Guide to Converting Atheists

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