I don’t think there are good intellectual reasons to believe in Zeus, fairies, Jesus, or other magical beings.
But there are many good practical reasons for believers to avoid anything that might cause them to doubt their religion. In a religious world, doubting religion can carry high costs.
For example, let me consider what my father – a pastor – stands to lose if he ever chooses to doubt the dogma he was raised with. He could lose:
- His dearest friend, Jesus.
- His home (the church owns it).
- His job, the only good one he is really trained for.
- His wife of 25 years.
- Many of his dearest friends, nearly all of whom are Christian.
- Relationships with many of his family members, nearly all of whom are Christian.
- The social advantages of having official rank in the dominant religion of his country.
- The social privileges conferred by the state on his religion.
- The peace of knowing he will not die, but live forever with Jesus.
- The emotional satisfaction of being certain.
- The comfort of being loved by the Creator of the universe.
- The exciting sense that he is on a personal mission from God.
- The pride in knowing he has invested so many decades towards a good cause.
Now those are some seriously good reasons for my dad to avoid questioning his faith. In fact, it’s quite possible that for him, the benefits of atheism (having a coherent worldview, freedom from ancient superstitions and prohibitions, etc.) do not outweigh the costs of losing his faith.
Would I be doing my father harm by trying to get him to consider his religion rationally, with the same common sense he uses to consider everything else?
And the cost of doubt is even higher for many others. Some Muslim countries execute those who leave the faith. You can even get your Christmas presents taken away!
The real barriers
I say all this because I want atheists to be aware of what they are dealing with. We are not dealing with intellectual barriers. We are dealing with more powerful barriers: emotions and relationships.1
So when talking with Christians, perhaps atheists should focus less on a believer’s intellectual needs and more on their human needs. It is important to promote evidence-based thinking, but it is also important to show believers that atheism can be moral, fun, meaningful, passionate, social, loving, and acceptable. A believer very often only has relationships with other believers, so it is important to form genuine relationships with believers so we can show them that atheists aren’t evil or unhappy.
Also, we need to reduce the costs of doubt. This means fighting for political and social acceptance of atheists. This means promoting interfaith tolerance and love. This means emphasizing the superior morality and freedom possible through atheism. This means offering community and relationships to potential ex-believers. This means offering comfort without God.
We need to give believers not just good rational reasons to doubt their religion, but also good practical reasons.
- This is, by the way, equally true of most atheists. Christian evangelists know that people don’t convert for intellectual reasons, but for emotional and relational reasons. They invite rejected outsiders to join their special club and take part in activities with people who are kind and generous. They tell unbelievers that God loves them and has a special mission for them. I bet more atheists are converted by these tactics than by intellectual Christian apologists. [↩]
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