Stress-testing the
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Why do atheists proselytize?

Evangelical atheism seems to be on the rise. Which is odd, when you think about it.

A couple of days ago the Christian News Network published an article on evangelical atheists taking to the streets to convert believers. This seems to be one of many campaigns increasingly being organized by “evangelical” atheists—the most famous perhaps being the bus campaign.

Yet it strikes me as very odd that atheists would do this.

Don’t get me wrong. From an evolutionary perspective, it makes good sense to try to increase the size of your peer group while diminishing the size of opposing groups. That way, when they inevitably try to stab you with pointy sticks or bash you with rocks, you have a better chance of survival, and your genes will continue to be propagated instead of theirs.

So that isn’t what I find odd. What’s odd is that this isn’t what seems to primarily motivate evangelical atheists. Rather than evangelize because they want to make more atheists, they seem to do it because they think believers should stop being wrong.

Now admittedly not all atheists are evangelical. Probably not even most of them. But those who are all seem to have the same fundamental shtick: there is something wrong with religious belief, so we ought not to “do it”. Think of people like Richard Dawkins, who describes belief in God as a delusion, or the ex Christopher Hitchens, who described religion as poisoning everything. They seem to have two related beefs with religious belief—but the second beef is what really motivates them:

  1. Religious belief is factually wrong
  2. Religious belief is ethically wrong

Why is religious belief ethically wrong?

From a Christian perspective, I think there is considerable warrant to agree with atheists like Sam Harris when they express outrage at religions like Islam, which really do “poison” everything they touch with violence, misogyny and anti-Semitism. And I can even sympathize with atheists who believe that Christianity promotes injustice with regard to issues like homosexuality (although of course I disagree with them).

But atheists don’t seem concerned merely with stamping out those kinds of religious beliefs. I’m sure they see liberal Christianity, which supports homosexuality and egalitarianism and so on, as more benign than orthodox Christianity. But they definitely don’t see it as entirely benign. They seem to want belief in God itself entirely eliminated.

In my experience, the reason for this is not ultimately because of some effect that belief in God has on society—but simply because belief in God is factually wrong.

In other words, item (2) above actually flows from item (1), something like this:

  1. All people have a duty to believe what is true, and disbelieve what is false
  2. Atheism is true and Christianity is false
  3. Therefore, all people have a duty to believe atheism, and disbelieve Christianity

A Christian like me, of course, agrees with premise (i). I just disagree about (ii), so I come to a different conclusion on (iii). But my agreement with (i) is based on the notion that we are created by a God who is truth, who designed us to know truth, and who obliges us to believe truth.

So what puzzles me is, why would an atheist believe something like (i)? What is the explanation for this truth-believing duty we have? To whom is it directed, on what grounds is it established, and on what authority is it enforced? That’s how duties work: they are owed to persons because of some morally legitimate claim that person has on our actions, with a morally legitimate authority backing up the claim.

Evolution?

Obviously we can’t owe duties to evolution. Even if evolution were “interested” in truth rather than survival (which it is not), it is an amoral and non-personal process.

Other people?

The only alternative available seems to be that we have a duty to other people to believe what is true (and presumably those people have the same duty to us). But this seems only marginally less absurd than having a duty to evolution. Imagine that I believe gnomes are stealing my socks. It is just bizarre to imagine that I am thereby violating a duty to every single person in the world, or even every single person in my country, or every single person I happen to know.

Moreover, what would ground this duty? Why would we have a duty to other people to believe the truth? Certainly it is not because they say so. Most of them do not say so. If you want to believe in sock gnomes, what difference is it to me? I don’t think even most atheists would care to claim that I am violating a duty to them by believing something false—even if it is as significant a false belief as believing in God.

We can go further. A legitimate duty is one with a moral authority behind it capable of enforcing it. But who, exactly, is going to enforce the duty to believe what is true? Atheists don’t typically engage in citizens’ arrests and march Christians down to the nearest police station, because they realize they’d probably get in trouble. There is no authority under atheism that enforces the duty to believe in truth; but there is the authority to enforce penalties against harassment and wrongful arrest. But if there is no one in our society with the moral authority to enforce the duty to believe the truth, then in what sense is it a duty? Doesn’t it just become something that atheists want us to do?

But why should I care what an atheist wants me to do if there is no moral obligation on me to do it?

11 comments

  1. Brian Barrington

    I am an atheist so I will give answering your question a go.

    Atheist A cares about the happiness and well-being of his fellow human beings, and thinks that they will be happier if they are free from the false belief in God. So he proselytizes for atheism.

    Atheist B cares about the happiness and well-being of his fellow human beings, and thinks many of them will be happier if they believe in God, so he does not proselytize for atheism even though he himself is an atheist.

    Atheist C does not care about the happiness and well-being of his fellow human beings, so his decision about whether to proselytize or not is based purely on self-interested calculations. Maybe he thinks it makes no difference to him personally whether others believe in God or not, so he does not proselytize one way or the other, since he couldn’t care less. Maybe he thinks human beings can be more easily manipulated and controlled for his benefit if they believe in God and in other religious superstitions, so he actually proselytizes for theism – even though he himself does not believe in God he tries to persuade others to believe (I would guess this type of atheism is common among politicians, the wealthy and other powerful people where there are a high proportion of highly intelligent atheist sociopaths). Or maybe he for some reason thinks it will benefit him personally if there are more atheists, and therefore he proselytizes for atheism – I doubt there are too many atheists like this, although maybe there are a handful who want to make money peddling atheism, or who want to become famous by peddling atheism and so on.

    Now, how much an atheist cares about the happiness and well-being of his fellow human beings depends on nature (e.g. genes) and circumstances (e.g. the environment in which he was brought up, his life experience etc.) – the same applies to people who are not atheists. In humans there is a spectrum, ranging from sociopaths and extremely selfish people at one end of the spectrum (who have no concern for the happiness and well-being of their fellow humans) to extremely altruistic and compassionate people at the other end of the spectrum (who have very high concern for the happiness and well-being of their fellow humans) – most people are somewhere in the middle – they are a mixture of selfishness and altruism. We have evolved as social animals who live in groups and who have developed capacities for moral emotions and behaviour such as cooperation, compassion, guilt, shame, love, friendship and so on – but these capacities co-exist in most of us with a capacity for selfishness, and for not caring about the well-being of others and so on. So an atheist’s attitude to proselytization will depend on where he is on this spectrum, what he judges to be in the best interests of other human beings, and what he judges to be in his best own personal interests.

  2. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    Hey Brian, thanks for taking the time to write all that :) So you think evangelical atheists are not typically driven by a sense that all people have a duty to the truth?

  3. Brian Barrington

    You’re welcome! I would say most evangelical atheists think that human beings by nature desire to know the truth, and also that humans benefit from knowing the truth – and these evangelical atheist also think the truth is that God does not exist – so they attempt to spread that truth around. Perhaps some evangelical atheists would phrase this in terms of a “duty” to truth although my impression is that most of them do not typically use that language or phraseology. 

  4. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    I’m intrigued by the notion that human beings benefit from knowing the truth. It seems to me that consistent atheism leads inexorably to nihilism, and you see that corroborated in various psychological studies, where believers are generally happier than nonbelievers. Given that religion is generally explained under evolution as a false belief which aids survival by encouraging human flourishing, while atheism leads logically to nihilism, I’m curious how an evangelical atheist would argue that knowing the truth in this particular case is of any benefit at all? Wouldn’t the opposite actually be true?

  5. Brian Barrington

    Yes, I’m inclined to agree with much of what you say. Many people are by nature perhaps happier believing in God. However, there are also some people who are by nature happier not believing in God. There is a kind of a natural human variation in the need for religious belief. So I am not personally an evangelical atheist – at least in the most radical sense. But if both theism and atheism are socially tolerated then each person will be able to fulfil his or her innate nature.

  6. Daniel Rae

    Not sure if the horse has bolted on this discussion or not but I stumbled on and I hope you don’t mind if I chip in.

    I’ll quickly introduce myself. I’m an Engineer in my 20s. From the UK. I have no religious beliefs, which would make me an atheist. However I personally find the notion of atheists being considered a distinct social group of any kind to be against what atheism should really be about. I know there are atheists who, as you say, proselytize. However I view proselytism in general to be morally wrong, I also see it as being fundamentally at odds with atheism itself. I therefore do not wish to be associated with those “evangelicals”. I would invite you to take a look at Humanism if you have not already. https://humanism.org.uk/humanism/

    Reading this article was quite enlightening actually. I have a lot of friends who are religious but have never had a proper discussion on the subject of belief. I was interested to read about how you approach the issue of our duty to know the truth. You talk about requirement of a moral authority and the question of grounds. I think the fact you look for moral authority is interesting because I think it reveals one of the fundamental differences in how religious and non-religious people structure the world in their heads. In a non-religious world view there is no governing moral authority. The morals by which we live are basically derived from altruism, reason and culture, which I would say was also originally the source of most religious morals. When you said we owe it to each other to believe the truth, I think that was close to how I view things, but not quite. Regardless of the cause, whether bestowed by the supernatural or not, we humans as you say have the unique ability to discover the truths about our universe and ourselves. I think we therefore owe it to ourselves to use this ability and to strive to undo our own ignorance wherever possible. As an engineer, I derive this philosophy from the work I do and will do in future to try and help to better the well-being of humanity. To clarify, we do not owe it to each other to seek the truth. We owe it to ourselves. You owe it to yourself to find what you believe is true. What you deem to be true has to be your own decision.

  7. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    Hey Daniel, you’re welcome to comment since I left the comments open :)

    The morals by which we live are basically derived from altruism, reason and culture

    On the face of it, that seems problematic on a number of levels. For example:

    1. How is an appeal to altruism not viciously circular? How can you know altruism is good without first knowing what is moral?

    2. What does it mean to derive morality from “reason”? I take it by “reason” you mean something like the principles of inference; but while it seems we have a duty of some kind to obey those principles, the principles themselves are non-moral. How would you get morality out of, say, the law of noncontradiction, or modus ponens?

    3. If morality is derived from culture, how can you know that a culture which engages in genital mutilation and gang rape is worse than your own? You would seem to effectively empty the terms “good” and “evil” of any universal meaning. Yet most people recognize that this simply won’t do; even those who think that relativism is true are often seen railing against the evils of some other culture.

    I think we therefore owe it to ourselves to use this ability and to strive to undo our own ignorance wherever possible.

    Sure, I agree.

    As an engineer, I derive this philosophy from the work I do and will do in future to try and help to better the well-being of humanity.

    Okay, so you equate seeking truth with increasing well-being? But suppose we grant this (though I’m not sure I do). What makes increasing well-being good? Why ought we to strive to increase well-being, rather than decreasing it? Utilitarianism simply can’t get off the ground, as I show in my response to Sam Harris’ Moral Landscape Challenge.

    You owe it to yourself to find what you believe is true. What you deem to be true has to be your own decision.

    So on atheism, would you agree that whether or not what I believe turns out to actually be true is irrelevant?

  8. Brian Barrington

    These comments came into my inbox so I can’t resist commenting myself.

    1 – It goes without saying that if God does not exist then Divine Command Theory does not get off the ground, since basing one’s moral beliefs on the non-existent commands of a non-existent being would be utterly irrational and make no sense whatsoever. Compared with that fairy tale, basing ethics on a combination of common sense, altruism, reason and culture makes a lot more sense, at least to non-theists.

    2 – The connection of morality with altruism is based on human nature and reason, so it is not an arbitrary connection. We know that we have evolved to be social animals who live together in groups and who need to cooperate in order to successfully survive and reproduce. To enable us to cooperate we have evolved inbuilt faculties for altruism, compassion, empathy, benevolence, kindness, sympathy, love, guilt and shame. These moral faculties, emotions and intuitions enable us to help each other and to avoid harming each other, so that we can live successfully in groups. It is human nature to regard altruism and compassion as morally admirable and good, and to regard egoism, cruelty and selfishness as morally bad. However, although these natural altruistic urges are important guides to morality, on their own they are probably not sufficient – the urges must take into consideration convention and culture resulting from differing circumstances in different times and places, and they must also be guided by the most universal, rational and plausible fundamental moral principles.

    3 –The two most universal, plausible and rational moral principles that are most often espoused in moral philosophy and by human beings are (a) the Golden Rule – I cannot consistently and coherently demand that others refrain from doing certain things to me and my family (e.g. murdering me) unless I also agree not to do those things to them. Thus, reason dictates that I avoid doing these things to other people (e.g. murdering them) and (b) the utilitarian principle, which holds that the ultimate good is the greatest happiness of the greatest number -therefore it is morally good to help others and morally wrong to harm them. Perhaps neither of these principles on their own fully explain and justify morality, but taken together with our natural moral emotions and intuitions, they provide the best guide to and basis for morality.

    4 – Culture, convention, law and moral customs are important guides to morality, since they develop overtime in particular places and therefore there could be a good reason why they exist. But on their own they are not sufficient – the conventions must ultimately be compatible with the most universal, reasonable and plausible fundamental moral principles, such as the Golden Rule and the utilitarian principle, and with basic human moral urges of altruism and compassion for the suffering of others.

    5 – There is no general agreement about the fundamental nature of morality so perhaps none of the above things on their own provide a complete justifaction and explanation of morality. Morality is not yet an exact science like arithmetic or biological evolution. However, taken together the above approaches provide the best explanation and justification of morality that is available to a reasonable person.

  9. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    taken together the above approaches provide the best explanation and justification of morality that is available to a reasonable person.

    On the contrary, Brian, since they take for granted that our moral faculties are nothing more than sophisticated survival instincts, they actually explain morality away entirely. Things like freedom and virtue become nothing more than coping mechanisms under atheism, and should rationally be treated as superstitious nonsense.

  10. Brian Barrington

    From a naturalistic perspective, evolution has created individual people who genuinely care for the welfare of other people and who are genuinely nice to other people – the motivation of the morally good individual is to actually help other people –what the person really and truly wants is to benefit those they love or care about. This is not superstition – it is a fact.

    Now, on a biological level the “purpose” of the behaviour is survival and reproduction, but this is a metaphor because biology does not really have “purposes” – only conscious beings, such as human beings, actually have purposes, intentions and motivations, and those intentions and motivations are often purely altruistic, compassionate, empathetic and benevolent. If you explain a phenomenon one one level (e.g. a biological level), then the phenomenon is still there – so a naturalistic biological explanation of why humans are moral beings who can genuinely care for each other’s welfare does not change the fact that humans really are moral beings who can genuinely care for each other’s welfare.

  11. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    f you explain a phenomenon one one level (e.g. a biological level), then the phenomenon is still there – so a naturalistic biological explanation of why humans are moral beings who can genuinely care for each other’s welfare does not change the fact that humans really are moral beings who can genuinely care for each other’s welfare.

    I don’t think you understand the problem. You can’t bootstrap morality from non-morality. If you turn words like “right” and “good” into mere descriptions of how the majority of people prefer to act due to biological selection forces, you strip those words of their commonsense meanings. To say that I ought to do something implies that I have an obligation to do it. But where does obligation itself come from given that we are simply biological machines? To say that I am doing good to help other people implies that I am virtuous to do it. But where does virtue come from given that the universe is, at base, nothing but matter/energy interacting according to mindless physical laws? And to say, in turn, that I am virtuous implies that value and meaning are objective features of reality—these aren’t things you can bootstrap from naturalism.

    You seem to be indirectly accusing me of the composition fallacy. But the problem is, that’s only an informal fallacy. So you need to make an argument to show that it’s a fallacy in this case; you can’t just assert that morality is hunky-dory under naturalism in the teeth of my arguments to the contrary.

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