This post will be a long read for you. I spent more than a month unsuccessfully persuading myself not to write anything on this topic, but thoughts just kept pestering me to the degree that I could not focus on other, more important things.
Being godless does not come only from carefully considering the evidence on the existence of the supernatural and reaching the conclusion that since there is no evidence, then the claims on the existence of god are unsupported. It is common knowledge by now that you can be godless simply by being apathetic. You probably met individuals who resist the desire to be proselytized not because they can point fallacies in religious thinking, but because they do not care about metaphysical questions at all. For them the existence of god carries as much importance as the existence of unicorns. This message is not for them.
In my own time, I have done my own share of evangelizing. Although I was not committed to a church, I surely tried to convince others that believing in the Christian god is a good thing. Since the Orthodox Church in my country is known for its bigotry and corruption, it was not hard to persuade some people that you can believe in god without necessarily believing in a church. Of course, now, when I look back, I am embarrassed. I remember those moments when I was surreptitiously perusing Jehovah Witnesses’ books, or those where I was standing up in an auditorium of a church filled with two hundred to two-fifty people, mumbling words of a karaoke song from a screen, “O, Jesus please save me,” thinking about how crazy are the people in the front row with their raised hands, twirling as if in a Sufi-like dance. I remember the moment when my father called me during one of those Christian sermons, and asked me about the songs in the background, and how I had to answer, or better lie, that I was at a rock concert, certainly a place where a normal sixteen-year-old guy should be. I doubt that he believed me, since in a conversation that did not last more than one minute he asked me twice about the music, and who would ever believe that rock concerts are held at ten in the morning?
But this image of me as a believer did not describe me entirely. I was a believer only in the eyes of the unbelievers or agnostics or believers who went to church out of tradition, but who had little knowledge of the bible and history of religion. In the eyes of more avid Christians, however, I was at best an agnostic or an atheist who was yet noncommittal about his lack of belief. After all, I always asked controversial questions about all the rape, war, incest, and other things that are supposed to be sinful with which the Bible is replete. I had good conversations with these avid Christians, from which I learned that most of them did not read the Bible entirely, but have selectively taken mostly the good parts in it. Even pastors who led the sermons at some protestant churches, which in Moldova are called rudely “SEKTA,” a name that in the US would be attributed to Moonies, were reluctant to talk about the darker parts found in the Bible. That is when I understood how powerful the social bonding among protestant Christians is. I realized that many of them do not come to sermons only to hear the “Message,” but they come there because they can find supporting friends, who would be glad to help them with whatever spiritual or financial troubles they might have. They come and have a good conversation with like-minded people, and also feel good about themselves for leading a subjectively righteous life. Or they come there because the food is delicious, as it often happened and happens in my case.
Clearly, I have changed. I was an unaffiliated Christian, then an agnostic, and now I am atheist. I treaded the same road from belief to disbelief that many others went on, but I know that this journey would have been bumpier and longer if someone challenged my belief in the existence of god. Why? Because whenever someone’s personal beliefs are challenged in a militant way, that someone will erect barriers that no amount of reason and persuasion can surmount. I remember the rare occasions when I met atheists, who were extremely polite and nice people, and how after conversing with them on matters of religion I would end up being more convinced that I was in the right and they were in the wrong. How else can you make your case in such an uneven debate, where you have to prove the existence of the nonexistent with rational arguments, but by ruefully maintaining your apologetic quackery? Unless you are a new-age creationist, such a Michael Behe or Gerald Schroeder, who conjures data in a mystical way, there is as much evidence you can provide for the existence of god as there is for the existence of crab-people.
Later, I got rid of the Pascal’s wager that you can find in his apologetic notes in the Pensees. I realized that persuading people to believe in a deity simply because the bets are lopsided is emotionally manipulative and undignified. “Well, you know,” says Pascal, “that if you do not believe in Santa, he might change his mind and not bring you anything for Christmas.”
Still, I am not a militant atheist. I know from my own experience that defending my lack of belief and attacking religious groups would only make things worse. That is why I do not support leading atheists like Dawkings, Hitchens, Dennet, Harris, and especially Silverman, although I share their line of reasoning when it comes to the existence of god. They have been promulgating a message of atheism for more than enough time, and I believe that their message has strengthened the lack of belief in atheists, but it has not added any use in persuading believers to let go of their irrationality. Even atheistic demotivators or motivators or whatever those black-framed photographs are called, with their cutting humor that mocks religion, are pandering to atheists and are reinforcing the faith of believers. Saying to a large group of people that they are foolish enough to believe in something that does not exist is a quite telling message, which is often met with aggressive responses. In order to show you how far people can go to rationalize their beliefs, let us look at an observational study described by Leon Festinger. Go Wiki:
Festinger and his associates read an interesting item in their local newspaper headlined “Prophecy from planet Clarion call to city: flee that flood.” A housewife from Chicago, given the name “Marian Keech” (real name: Dorothy Martin, later known as Sister Thedra), had mysteriously been given messages in her house in the form of “automatic writing” from alien beings on the planet Clarion. These messages revealed that the world would end in a great flood before dawn on December 21, 1954. The group of believers, headed by Keech, had taken strong behavioral steps to indicate their degree of commitment to the belief. They had left jobs, college, and spouses, and had given away money and possessions to prepare for their departure on the flying saucer, which was to rescue the group of true believers.
Of course, the end of the world did not happen, and many of us would assume that that would be it. What happened, however, is that most members rationalized their beliefs by claiming that their faith saved the world. Also, before the day of the supposed apocalypse, they preached their message reluctantly, while after the dis-confirmation, they became ardent missionaries, tirelessly maintaining their belief in aliens from the planet Clarion.
Does it, then, make sense to aggressively promote a message of disbelief, if the end result is the opposite of what atheists want?