So if we want to make atheism appealing to the largest number of people possible, what should we do? Should we be diplomatic and kind and civil, or should we be harsh and relentless? Can we catch more flies with honey or with vinegar?
Actually, if our goal is attracting a large number of people, we must make simplified and asinine arguments, things watered down to meaningless buzzwords and easy-to-remember catch phrases.
I’m not saying this is something limited to attracting religious people only. It’s true about almost everything – politics, religion, your local book club. If the main concern is over the number of converts above all else, you should sacrifice things like nuance. You should appeal to emotions. You should give reassuring answers. You should have battle-cries and buzzwords. You should have arguments that neatly and comfortably sit on a picture to be meme-able. You need cliche meaningless sentences that your legion of supporters can mindlessly repeat in internet arguments.
If anyone’s interested, you can find a lot of interesting theology. But ultimately for most religious people, arguments in favor of God are limited to “but what about the eye” and “but can you really be moral without God” and similarly weak arguments.
If you look at internet atheism, particularly on reddit which seems to attract rather the scariest atheists, you see such arguments all the time. “Religion is a mental illness”. Some of them are even true but they have been reduced to catchy buzzwords so much that I cringe every time I see them although I agree with the message behind them.
In most debates, you see these catch phrases hurled at people and every argument sounds like a boring mantra of repetitions. It might be the debates between atheists and theists, or firebrand atheists and faitheists, or feminist atheists or non-or-anti-feminist atheists, or between any groups. What you see is people condensing their own version of things into a very annoying nuance-free hammer-shaped slogan.
That is because of many things.
Firstly, providing an argument with enough nuance requires you to spend time and get familiarized with a subject, and most people don’t care enough or have other pressing worries in their lives, so they would focus mostly on easy to remember catch phrases and don’t spend enough time and don’t pay enough attention to find holes in their arguments.
Secondly, nuance usually means accepting the strengths of your opponents. I’m as firebrand as firebrand atheism can get, yet I would never make such sweeping statements as “religion poisons everything”, or I wouldn’t claim that religion inspires no good. I believe Islam and our culture play a very significant role in the status of Middle East, yet I also acknowledge the role of factors like imperialism and political and economic situation. All this means that I think my opponent has seen half of the truth. But if your mentality is “conquer and defeat”, it’s not good strategy to do so.
Thirdly, most people do not try to convert people who are very far from them. Most people who join you are already predisposed to joining you. So creating an atmosphere of tribalism is actually good for attracting these people – they feel they are joining a new tribe rather than going nomad.
Personally, while I’m happy that I have converted a large number of people to atheism throughout my life, I honestly never argue or write blog posts with the sole intention of convincing people, but to find out the truth. I try to be civil not because I want to make religious people welcome but because I feel civility is right, and I try to be as nuanced and as fair-handed as possible, although my occasional thirst for sarcasm sometimes makes my message be misrepresented.
If people are convinced by my arguments, I’m happy, but I would never adjust a letter simply for convincing people, because ultimately trying to win the most people would mean the quality has to drop.
And by the way, one of those simplistic annoying catch phrases is “you catch more flies with honey than vinegar”.