When I put an end to my last blog, I explained that I no longer saw any value in trying to convince theists that they were wrong and wanted to go in a slightly different direction. Here, I'd like to expound on that a little bit.
The Impenetrable Wall of Faith
Any major religion that has stood the test of time has survived for good reason, and made the appropriate adjustments in order to accommodate cultural changes throughout history. This is the basic idea of a meme.
If a religion were easily penetrable by skepticism, it would have collapsed a long time ago. Specifically, if a religion's followers were easily convinced to leave that religion, the religion would no longer be with us.
So it is no surprise that religious people are not persuaded by what atheists consider to be irrefutable evidence that God does not exist. As an atheist, you can argue until you're pulling your hair out, saying, "How can you not see this? How can you be so blind? It's so obvious!" Believe me, I've been there.
So why can't they see? Are Christians inherently dumb? Absolutely not. They have a very good reason to refute every argument a skeptic can muster: "He hath blinded their eyes, and hardened their heart; that they should not see with their eyes, nor understand with their heart, and be converted." - John 12:40
This verse is all the evidence any Christian needs to ignore our arguments. God exists. That's a fact, and anyone who claims otherwise is either blind to the truth, or in denial (If you're a non-believer, I'm sure you have had someone tell you matter-of-factly that you really do believe in God--you're just denying his existence so you can do whatever you want).
Any argument coming from a non-believer is thus discredited before it begins: "Turn away from godless chatter and the opposing ideas of what is falsely called knowledge, which some have professed and in so doing have wandered from the faith." - 1 Timothy 6:20-21
Our desire to debate is, in fact, a surfire sign that we are corrupt and conceited: "If anyone teaches false doctrines and does not agree to the sound instruction of our Lord Jesus Christ and to godly teaching, he is conceited and understands nothing. He has an unhealthy interest in controversies and quarrels about words that result in envy, strife, malicious talk, evil suspicions and constant friction between men of corrupt mind, who have been robbed of the truth and who think that godliness is a means to financial gain." - 1 Timothy 6:3-5
The Bible is chucked full of verses that make it clear that all non-believers are evil, selfish, conceited, blind, lost and even stupid. For a few (hundred) examples, just do a quick search for the word "understand."
If, despite all of these warnings to tune us out, you are able to break through and get a believer to admit a logical flaw in their faith (such as the trinity, the incompatibility of omniscience and omnipotence, the immovable mover, etc.) there is the powerful final line of defense: "We cannot understand the nature of God."
Christianity has built a powerful wall to defend every believer's faith. When a believer puts up the defense, it is simply impenetrable.
Therefore, the only way for faith to be defeated is if believers willingly open themselves up to skeptics, seeking honest answers to their doubts. But these doubts have to come from the inside. And for those internal attacks, religions have also devised some pretty crafty defenses.
Defending Against Internal Attacks
Some people are more than willing to accept something on blind faith, and for these people a religion only needs to provide the above-mentioned defenses from external skeptics. But other people are naturally inquisitive, and while they may be invulnerable to external skeptics, they will eventually begin to ask their own questions.
If you're like me and have abandoned a religion after once being a believer, it is painfully obvious to you that no major religion stands up to honest doubt and objective inquiry. For a religion to survive, then, it must have an effective way of stifling these doubts and questions.
There are two very effective ways to do this. The first way is to demonize doubt itself. Islam uses this path almost exclusively--to doubt Allah's existence is to commit blasphemy. Christianity condemns doubt to a certain extent as well, but more often uses a second method of deterrence. When a Christian begins expressing doubt, they will usually encounter a response like this Christian's advice, whose essence can be seen in this paragraph:
"In my own earlier struggles as to God’s very existence, it really came down to realizing that my struggle was against unseen evil spirits that were constantly saying, "Has God said?" In other words, it was the same old lie that the devil gave to Eve in the garden. It worked then, and it works now. But, there is no basis of truth in it! The bible is both logical, verifiably accurate, and true in every aspect of life. In short, there is nothing in it that should make us doubt. The real problem is the whispering of the devil(s)."
Christian counselers are less likely to condemn you for doubting. Like "Brother Dean" here, they will assure you that doubt is human. We are weak, and easily tempted. Evil forces pounce on this weakness, and we must pray to God for strength.
Many Christians will even claim that their doubt brings them closer to God, precisely because they have to call on him for the strength to get past their doubts. This should make perfect sense to an outsider: the more doubts you squelch by writing them off as a test, the more reason you have to believe that God exists. After all, if your faith is strong enough to overcome Satan's lies, you must have a pretty good thing going.
While doubt is not directly condemned by most churches, persistent doubt will punch you a one-way ticket to Hell. If you begin to find yourself doubting your faith, that's okay, you're only human...but you better make sure you rid yourself of that doubt as fast as you possibly can. Whenever I questioned my faith as a teen, I was told that I needed to pray for God to lift that doubt, and if my prayers weren't working that meant that something in my life was creating a sort of spiritual barrier between God and me. So doubt itself wasn't a sin, but it meant that there was some other sin in my life. In an indirect way, as long as I was living in doubt, I was living in sin.
I'm sure that I am not the only person who has been taught this reasoning. It was thoroughly convincing to me in high school and I was a smart kid. I cringe when I hear atheists call Christians stupid or gullible, because I understand just how strong the defense against external and internal attacks can be.
What's Left For Atheists?
Assume for a second that I'm completely right, and the only way to "deconvert" from Christianity (or any other religion) is for the individual to bravely embrace doubt and begin a personal search for Truth. Is there still something atheists can do to combat the destructive force of religion? Damn right there is; enough to keep us busy for several lifetimes.
First and foremost, I am not suggesting that people stop making logical and scientific arguments against religion. When believers embrace their doubt, they will seek answers, so those answers better well be out there. Personally, I started doubting God's existence a few years ago, but it wasn't until I read Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion that I became confident in my non-belief (weird as it seems, I first proclaimed myself an atheist less than a year ago). With each succeeding generation, there seems to be more and more genuine doubt. Christians see this as the corruption of society; I genuinely see it as an opportunity to save humanity (that seems extreme, I know, but it's how I see it). But the arguments that have convinced me and so many of you need to be readily available for every skeptic to come.
While I think that dedicated believers' faith cannot be changed, public policy based on those beliefs can and should be attacked. As skeptics, it is our duty to keep religion (especially creationism and ID) out of our schools and governments, fight for equal rights, and promote unhindered scientific research.
When you think about it, we are lucky to have minds inquisitive enough to break the spell, to borrow Daniel Dennett's phrase. We really are not very different from many adament believers other than our nature to ask a few more questions. Going public with our non-belief and continuing to live our lives is probably one of the strongest moves for change we can make. The more public atheists become, the more evident it becomes that we are not hopeless, immoral heathens who find no meaning in life.
In fact, we might even find that we all--believers and non-believers--have a lot in common. If we embrace a human community, there will be less of a need to form religious communities. But yikes, that's getting into a whole other topic...for another day.