When it comes to reasoned discussion with the religious, skeptics veer between two opposing positions. On the one side, many see it as an exercise in futility, preferring to mock believers and dismiss their claims outright. Freethinkers such as Christopher Hitchens, PZ Myers, and the irrepressible Pat Condell are representative of this camp.
On the other side, we have the “evangelical” atheists and agnostics, often former faithful themselves, who seek to engage with logic, reason, and evidence the beliefs of the pious, convinced that their former associates can be converted to freethought in the same manner they were. Such individuals include Hector Avalos and John W. Loftus.
Both sides have fairly solid arguments. Those who hold to a hardline position wonder, how can you have a reasoned discussion with someone whose beliefs are fundamentally not based on reason? You can crush the religious with a metric ton of evidence, but in the end, they’ll retreat to faith, “inner witness,” or changed lives to justify the truth of their beliefs (while hypocritically rejecting such things as evidence for the truth claims of other religions). A small degree of doubt in one’s own beliefs is typically presumed among opponents in a debate, but if one side lacks it, then what’s the use? You might as well be talking to a brick wall.
There’s also their argument that puncturing the aura of respectability surrounding faith is one of the most effective means for diminishing it. Ridicule, mockery, and dismissal are the favored tools here. Implicitly recognizing their effectiveness, many believers stridently protest such tactics, and seek to return their faith-based dogmas back beyond the pale of criticism, either judicially or violently. Such censorious responses only play into the hands of the skeptics, both by forcing religious moderates to stand up and reject them, and by demonstrating the moral bankruptcy of a “truth” that requires Gestapo-like methods to uphold.
Proponents of engagement counter with personal examples and numerous de-conversion stories, which demonstrate that someone can be reasoned out of faith, under the right circumstances. Not every believer’s views are immovably fixed. And even while they may consciously profess absolute conviction, sub-consciously, it may be a different story, resulting in an epiphany of sorts when suppressed doubt bursts to the surface. You never know what fertile ground the seed you’ve cast may find.
The skeptical evangelists also know that in our internet-driven information age, discussion is no longer local or confined, but instant, global and permanent. The individual with whom you’re conversing may be immune to persuasion, but the same may not be true of whatever audience happens by, now or in the future. Little-by-little, skeptics are building a tremendous library of freethought, accessible at the speed-of-Google. Even my insignificant corner of the blogosphere gets a number of visitors as a result of searches which leave little doubt they are of Christian origin.
Finally, opponents of the dismissive approach to religion wonder whether it repels more believers than it draws. Poisoning their well doesn’t inspire confidence that your own is good to drink from. The simple fact is that the vast majority of the planet’s inhabitants profess belief in supernatural beings. This is a tide whose ebbing will not be facilitated by removing ourselves from it. Besides, freethought grants the possibility, however remote, that there may in fact be some supernatural being(s). We cannot shut completely our eyes and ears to belief in the supernatural, lest we become like the very type of individual we oppose.
Where do I side on this question? I tend toward engagement. I’ve been particularly impressed by de-conversion stories like DagoodS’, in which online investigation and discussions with skeptics, among other things, ultimately led him to abandon Christianity. Former believers are among the most powerful forces against faith, in my view. Not only is their apostasy extremely difficult for believers to deal with (many religions have typically put such individuals to death), but they can speak to believers far more effectively than life-long outsiders. “Winning” one over is a huge plus for freethought.
Yet, I also see the utility in forthright ridicule. While some religious views retain a degree of plausibility, others are just plain nuts, if not dangerous to our collective well-being. Significant expectation of the “imminent” return of some long-dead god or prophet, for example, has spawned reflexive rejection of the danger posed by possible man-made global warming. Mocking and outrage at such beliefs will rob them of respectability far faster than reasoned explanation why they’re erroneous. Ridicule also quickly stretches the boundaries within which religious dogmas may be discussed among more sober-minded individuals. And let’s face it. The media thrive on conflict, which is why someone like Hitchens or Dawkins is far likelier to get in front of the cameras than someone who takes an engaged approach.
In sum, rejection and engagement are both proper responses to believers. The path to freethought has many avenues, and it’s impossible to predict what influence will spur the believer to take that first step along one of them. I sometimes see (heated) debate about which approach is best. Can’t we have a combination? It seems to me, they reinforce and strengthen the other.