Do We Want to Convert the Religious?

Ronald A. Lindsay

Do we want to convert the religious? Should one of the primary functions of organizations such as the Council for Secular Humanism and the Center for Inquiry be to persuade the religious to abandon their beliefs? To answer these questions properly, we should first ask: What objectives would be served by converting the religious?

The exact nature of religious belief varies from person to person but usually involves commitment to the existence of a supernatural reality, including a deity. We who are not religious have (presumably) examined the relevant evidence and have found it insufficient to support the claims of the religious as they relate to the existence of a being or beings that transcend the natural world. Simply expressed, the religious hold false beliefs.

But so what if the religious hold false beliefs? Does that by itself make any difference to us? Undoubtedly, you and I may be mistaken about many things, such as the identity of the last Hapsburg monarch, the contents of the standard model of particle physics, or the maintenance record of Saabs. But these mistakes do not appear to appear to cause much consternation, nor to inspire movements to combat delusional admiration for Saabs.

Therefore, if we think it’s desirable to make an effort to persuade the religious to give up their beliefs, it must be because some not-insignificant number of religious believers are motivated by their religious beliefs to shape their behavior in ways considered undesirable or harmful. I suggest there are three broad categories into which such harmful behavior might fit. First, there is harmful behavior that is self-regarding. Second, there is harmful behavior that consists of trying to force religious beliefs on others. Third, there is harmful behavior not directly connected to the imposition of religious beliefs that manifests in patterns of conduct or support for certain policies that are seriously detrimental to others.

Perhaps some may disagree, but I think that in almost all instances, beliefs that produce disadvantageous self-regarding behavior provide insufficient justification for concerted efforts to disabuse individuals of such beliefs. Religion can and does produce false hopes, but so do love and dreams of playing professional football. I’m not saying that we should be indifferent to those who are building their lives around an illusion. We should certainly confront them with reality when the appropriate occasion presents itself. But I am saying that the false hopes engendered by some religious beliefs are not a sufficient reason for devoting significant time and effort to persuading the religious to give up their beliefs.

However, for many—but, importantly, not all—of the religious, belief is not purely a personal matter. To the contrary, many of the religious actively seek to convert others. Moreover, they often seek to impose their beliefs by enlisting the support of the government. This support can range from laws prohibiting individuals from abandoning their religion or criticizing it (such as the laws forbidding apostasy and blasphemy in some Islamic countries) to laws that passively support religion by allowing religious symbols to be displayed on public property. Whatever form government support for religion takes, it is wrong. It is a violation of freedom of conscience. Everyone should be free to come to his or her own conclusions about the existence of the supernatural without compulsion, prodding, or oversight by the state.

But notice that although religious beliefs surely motivate some of the religious to use the government as a crutch for their beliefs, other individuals who are religious are staunch defenders of church-state separation. Indeed, in the United States, the individuals responsible for providing us with constitutional guarantees of religious freedom were all religious to some degree (although some, such as Thomas Jefferson, were tepid deists). In other words, it’s possible for a person to be religious and also support a secular government. So if we are concerned about combating preferential treatment for religion, it’s not necessary to persuade the religious to become atheists; we need only persuade most of them of the justice and advantages of secularism.

Turning to harmful behavior not directly connected to the imposition of religious beliefs, let’s first distinguish day-to-day personal interaction from conduct specifically influenced and shaped by religious beliefs. In terms of their routine interaction with others, there is little to distinguish the religious from the nonreligious. Belief in God does not make someone a bad person, nor does rejection of the supernatural necessarily result in a virtuous life. Of course, humanists profess to embrace certain core ethical principles, but we humanists—just like our fellow humans—do not always act consistently with respect to the ethical norms we espouse. Indeed, some of the biggest hypocrites I have known are humanists who speak and write eloquently about humanist values. One’s metaphysics is simply not a reliable predictor of one’s moral character. Accordingly, improvements in personal morality cannot be a reason for persuading the religious that their beliefs are in error.

However, although religious belief, or the lack thereof, may not make much difference to a person’s moral character, it can make a difference in the types of behavior one considers morally appropriate and, perhaps even more important, in the public policy one supports. Many—but, again, not all—of the religious aspire to base public policy on their religious beliefs. In the United States, religiously motivated individuals provide much of the support for continuing the ban on same-sex marriage, restricting or eliminating access to abortion, prohibiting stem-cell research, teaching creationism in public schools, promoting abstinence-only sex education, and so forth. In other countries, the pernicious influence of religion is even more evident, with religion providing the justification for the subordination of women, the suppression of nonreligious education, and the denial of personal freedom.

With respect to this category of harm, it seems it would be beneficial to persuade the religious to change their beliefs, but we must be careful not to make a hasty overgeneralization. Especially in Western countries, many religious persons do not seek to impose their views on others or to utilize religious dogmas as the basis for public policy (perhaps because there isn’t much room for dogma in their religious beliefs). Along with humanists, they believe that we should have a secular state and base public policy on secular concerns and empirical evidence.

It is not so much religious belief in and of itself that is of concern to us but the mindset of all too many of the religious that their doctrines should be reflected in the laws and regulations that govern us all and, furthermore, that they need not provide any justification for their support for a particular public-policy other than “God says so.” If we are to have a truly democratic society, we need most of the people to break free of this mindset. There is one clear prerequisite for democratic discourse to be successful: the participants in that discussion must be able to understand, evaluate, and debate reasons that others offer for their views. That is not possible if religious doctrine is offered as a justification for public-policy positions. You cannot argue with someone’s faith.

So we do need the religious to accept that discourse about public policy should be framed entirely in secular terms, and that decisions about public-policy should be based entirely on secular considerations. For some, that may mean they must first stop believing in the supernatural because their religion so pervades their thinking and their life that they cannot conceive of reasoning about ethics and policy matters in secular term until they stop believing in spirits. Of course, these are precisely the religious individuals who are the most difficult to reason with, so the odds of persuading them that their religious beliefs are unfounded are low—but the probability is not zero.

To sum up: if religion were purely a personal matter, the religious beliefs of others would be of little concern to us. What we are principally concerned with is support for secularism. We want a secular state; we want nonbelievers to be treated fairly and equally; and we want public policy to be free of religious influence. To achieve these objectives, it is not necessary to convert all, or even most, of the religious. We simply need to ensure that a sufficient number of individuals are committed to the principles of secularism. That might require persuading some religious to become nonreligious—because they would not accept secularism otherwise—but only relatively few. And that’s a good thing, because most of us atheists don’t find missionary work attractive or productive.

I’ve spent a bit of time reasoning through the question of whether our focus should be on religious conversion, not only because it is helpful for understanding the mission of our organizations (you will note that in neither the mission statement of CFI nor the Council is there any reference to conversion of the religious) but also because it places in appropriate perspective the disagreements between so-called accommodationists and so-called confrontationalists. As some of you know, at the thirtieth-anniversary conference of the Council this past October, we had a panel discussion devoted to this topic, with PZ Myers and Victor Stenger debating Chris Mooney and Eugenie Scott on the approaches and tactics to be used in dealing with the religious and their beliefs. [Highlights of this dialogue will be featured in the June/July 2011 issue of Free Inquiry.—Eds.] All of the panelists defended their views ably, but what struck me was how little difference there was among them. Moreover, I came away from that discussion thinking that even these differences might be diminished if we first consider what our objectives should be prior to deciding what tactics to use in dealing with particular religious individuals and institutions.

During the panel discussion, Myers eloquently defended the proposition that atheists should never be untruthful, either about their own beliefs or about the implications of science, including the facts about evolution. I agree wholeheartedly. Truth is an important value, and fidelity to the truth should operate as a constraint on our conduct. On the other hand, we don’t live in a philosophical debating society. Most of us are primarily concerned with issues such as whether women can continue to have the full range of reproductive rights, whether the government can support stem-cell research, and whether evolution will be taught in public schools. In other words, we are primarily concerned with issues that have practical importance and consequences. Prevailing in an argument on the existence of God is a good thing, but only infrequently does it have significant consequences. Even the theists whose beliefs have been exposed as intellectually bankrupt rarely abandon those beliefs or modify their behavior.

In deciding what tactics to use, two things should be foremost in our consideration: our integrity and our objectives. As to the former, Myers is spot-on. We cannot compromise on the truth. But there are a lot of different propositions that are true, and which ones we choose to emphasize should be affected by our objectives. To provide a concrete example: if I can convince a person that the state has no business looking to religious doctrine for guidance on abortion without addressing the question of whether there is a God, why would I spend time and energy on the latter issue? Moreover, I may not particularly care whether that person, in the privacy of her own home, prays for an end to abortion, provided she supports the legal right of all women to decide for themselves whether to bear a child.

Jefferson, who is a source of wisdom on many things, may have put it best when he said, “It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” Except to the extent that the religious are motivated by their beliefs to pick our pockets or break our legs, their beliefs, as absurd as they may be, should not be a matter of significant concern.

Ronald A. Lindsay

Ronald A. Lindsay is the former president and CEO of the Center for Inquiry. Currently, he is senior research fellow for CFI and adjunct professor of philosophy at Prince George’s Community College.

Do we want to convert the religious? Should one of the primary functions of organizations such as the Council for Secular Humanism and the Center for Inquiry be to persuade the religious to abandon their beliefs? To answer these questions properly, we should first ask: What objectives would be served by converting the religious? The …

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