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Why Does Religion Always Get a Free Ride?

We try to persuade people out of almost every kind of idea there is. Why should religion be the exception?

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So if we think it's a mistaken idea, why shouldn't we try to convince other people of that?

We do this with every other kind of truth claim. If people think that disease is caused by demonic possession, or that global climate change is a hoax, or that deregulating the financial industry will lead to a robustly healthy economy for all levels of society -- and we think these people are wrong -- we try to change their minds. Why should religion be any different?

Now, of course, religion is more than just an idea. People build communities, personal identities, support systems, coping mechanisms, entire life philosophies, around their religious beliefs.

But people build identities around other ideas, too. People have intense political identities, for instance: people are often deeply attached to their identity as a progressive, a Republican or a libertarian. People build communities around these ideas, and support systems, and coping mechanisms, and life philosophies. And we still think it's entirely valid, and even positively worthwhile, to try to change people's minds about these ideas if we think they're wrong.

Why should religion be any different?

It's also the case that letting go of religious beliefs can be upsetting, even traumatic. In the short term anyway. Most atheists say that they're happy to have let go of their religion... but many do go through a short period of trauma while they're letting go.

But it can be upsetting, and even traumatic, to let go of all kinds of ideas. It can be upsetting and traumatic to learn that the clothes and chocolate and electronics you're buying are made by slave labor; that the food you're feeding your children is bad for them; that you have unconscious racist or sexist attitudes; that driving your car is contributing to global climate change and the possible permanent destruction of the environment.

And yet we still think it's valid, and even positively worthwhile, to try to change people's minds about these ideas if we think they're wrong.

Why should religion be any different?

Yes, there's a tremendous diversity of religious ideas -- a diversity that makes up a large part of our complex cultural tapestry. But we have a tremendous diversity of ideas about politics, too... and about science, and race, and gender, and sexuality, and more. When we look at our history, our complex cultural tapestry has included alchemy, and Jim Crow laws, and preventing women from voting, and curing the "disease" of masturbation, and treating yellow fever epidemics by shooting cannonballs into the air. The world is better off without those ideas. We still have a rich cultural tapestry of diverse lifestyles and worldviews without them. And we still think it was entirely valid, and even positively worthwhile, to try to change people's minds about these ideas when we thought they were wrong.

Why should religion be any different?

It's also true that persuading people out of their religion is often seen as proselytizing or evangelizing. Proselytizing or evangelizing about religion has a bad reputation. And there are good reasons for that. Religious evangelists have an ugly history of fearmongering, deception, outright lying, applying economic pressure, using law or force or even violence, to "persuade" people out of their religious beliefs. Not to mention the little matter of knocking on people's doors at eight o'clock on Saturday morning. It's no wonder people are resistant to it.

But if that's not what atheists are advocating? If we're not advocating any sort of force or coercion, or even any sort of pressure apart from the mild social pressure created by people not wanting to look foolish by hanging onto bad ideas? If what we're advocating is writing blog posts, writing magazine articles, writing books, wearing T-shirts, putting up billboards, getting into conversations with our friends and families, getting into debates on Facebook? If what we're advocating is getting our atheist ideas more widely disseminated and understood, and creating atheist communities so people who share our ideas feel safer expressing them? If what we're advocating is essentially standing up and saying, "The emperor has no clothes" -- and offering the best evidence and arguments we can for the emperor's nakedness?

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