Monday, May 26, 2008

How to Convert Me to Your Religion

The Short Version

I want to give some tips to all the people who evidently want to convert me from being an atheist to their particular religion. Each one is expanded upon and explained below.

  • Stop handing out misogynistic or otherwise bigoted material as a way to recruit me
  • Say something intelligent about Homer Simpson's Wager
  • Do not bullshit me about Einstein
  • Do not use personal religious experiences as proof of your faith
  • Come up with some better propaganda regarding evolution
  • Don't use the old "Well, there has to be something"-routine
  • If you presume to know the mind of God, be prepared to answer some questions
  • Don't try to convert me to Scientology
  • If you talk about love, peace, understanding and the betterment of mankind, have something to back it up with
  • Say something positive instead of telling me that I have no morals or no reason to live
  • Explain why your particular god is more probable than other gods

The (way too) Long Version

I am an atheist. This is not some big, profound statement in my country, where a majority of the people are non-religious. It is not something I think about a lot, nor is it anything that seems to have any big impact on my life. However, a surprising amount of people seem intent on changing this state of affairs. They want to convert me to whatever particular religion and denomination that they themselves favor, for reasons that they hopefully at least understand themselves.

I must say that these people often bother and annoy me. I have nothing against their religions, nor their desire to speak of them. Actually, I would probably defend with my life the right for people to believe in what they want and say what the want; freedom of religion and freedom of speech are of uttermost importance to me. Therefore I do not want to stop people from preaching to me, but they still annoy me.

There are two primary reasons for why they annoy me so much. One is how they seem to appear almost anywhere with great tenacity.

The other reason for me being so annoyed is that these people never change their tactics. They seem to be perpetually using the same arguments with the same boring rhetoric, again and again (and again, and again) and I just get bored. Never do they actually succeed in making me consider their position, simply because their sales tactics are so bad.

Since I am the helpful type I now post this list of some common faults that I've had to live through many times, as well as some possible improvements the would-be converters could do to their shtick. All for the betterment of mankind, or at least for a bit less boring conversion attempts.

Stop handing out misogynistic or otherwise bigoted material as a way to recruit me

Seriously, I really thought that this would be a no-brainer. As sales tactics go, bigotry must be one of the most outdated and least successful. With tactics like that you would immediately turn away the entire population of the group you are bigoted against, as well as anyone who just doesn't like bigotry. But despite all this, people still seem fond of using it. It is in fact what made me think of doing this post, because when people use such stupid methods they do seem to need some pointers.

For example, recently I was once again visited by a couple of Jehovah's Witnesses. The come to my door once in a while, smile and talk to me in a friendly manner about the end of the world. Once they are sufficiently satisfied that I have an idea about what "the last days" are all about and know about the return of Christ, they usually leave me with the latest copies of The Watchtower and Awake! and leave me to read them.

Nothing strange about that, I guess that's how they usually operate. What might be a bit unusual though is that I actually read these magazines pretty carefully. I guess most people who aren't interested in the religion merely politely accept them, then unceremoniously throws them away. I, however, find them quite amusing to read, though I guess that's not how the publishers would like me to take them.

This time I laughed at the blatant lies and contradictions in a relatively well-presented article about evolution, sighed and shook my head at a tremendously uninformed piece about computer games and was thoroughly disgusted at an article about men and women.

If I was a superhero sidekick I would probably have exclaimed something along the lines of "Holy male chauvinism, Batman!" and if they would have still been there I would have politely told them that they should seriously rethink their recruitment tactics. They are really not maximizing their potential clientele with their current methods.

The article in question pretended to be about protecting the rights of women, but in reality it was just defending husbands wanting to control their wives. It was full of beautiful sentiments like "as the head of the family the man has the responsibility to make the final decisions" and "the wife should follow his leadership and respect him."

Sure, the article also had parts telling men to respect their wives. I guess that's something. However, they are still saying that men should have a God-given authority over women and to me that is just evil. I do apologize for not "respecting their beliefs" there, but that's the only way I feel that I can put it. Going door to door giving out material telling women that they must be submissive to please God and telling men that God wants them to control their wives...

I don't believe that every relationship has to be one hundred percent equal in decision making and everything. This isn't about that. It's about every man, every woman and every gender-confused individual doing what is right for them, regardless if that fits the stereotype for their gender or not. If for instance one person in a relationship rather does housework while the other makes various important decisions, and if their partner is fine with that division of responsibilities, I see nothing wrong with that. But I get angry when people demand that one person must take on one of the roles based on gender. And getting me angry is not a good way to make me listen to you, so please try to stop that.

And while we're on the subject of bigoted material, what's up with Sweet Aryan Jesus? Why do so many of the Christian cults insist on handing out pictures of a blond and blue-eyed Jesus? They do know that he is supposed to have been born in the Middle East, right?

Not that I have anything against blond and blue-eyed people; I am one of those myself. Neither do I think it matters what he looked like. I would however feel that there would be more historical accuracy if Jesus was portrayed with the darker skin color, dark hair and eyes characteristic for the region. Not to mention that he would be plenty more attractive that way.

Say something intelligent about Homer Simpson's Wager

Many try to use some variation of Pascal's Wager as a way to coax me and others into their faith. For those who do not know about it; the French philosopher Blaise Pascal formulated his Wager in the 17th century and it uses decision theory to show that believing in God is a better "bet" than not believing.

Although not convincing me, his original writing was well thought through and parts of it pretty interesting. The people using the Wager today tend to use a highly simplified form however, in essence saying something like:

"If there is no God it doesn't matter if you believe or not. However, if God is real you will be punished forever if you don't believe and infinitely rewarded in heaven if you do believe. So obviously the only sane choice is to believe."

Many seem to see this as some profound statement of great wisdom, and an absolute proof that we should all believe in God. However, even a total dimwit like TV's popular Homer Simpson can poke giant holes in the argument.

In an old episode of the Simpsons, Homer is justifying not going to church with the statement "Suppose we've chosen the wrong god. Every time we're going to church we're just making him madder and madder!"

This line has been dubbed "Homer Simpson's Wager" and is something you must address if trying to use Pascal's Wager.

You see, what Homer has apparently realized, and many others haven't, is that there are many other religions out there apart from the one you grew up with. Various incarnations of Pascal's Wager might tell you that it would be advantageous to believe, but they tell you nothing about which God or Gods to believe in.

That is a major problem. As anyone who has studied some major religions knows, most gods worshipped throughout history are but highly jealous and vengeful. This changes the original premise; believing no longer have no potential bad effects, as believing in the wrong God would potentially give you a harsher punishment than not believing at all.

To me it rather feels like that if you do not believe, then any possible Gods out there would have to judge you for your actions instead of your beliefs. Hopefully, if your actions are just, you will be judged fairly, regardless of your faith in things that haven't been proven. And if there is a God out there who will punish me forever even if I am a good person, but will let me be by her side in heaven if I merely ‘believe', then that God isn't the kind of entity that I would like to spend eternity with anyway.

Do not bullshit me about Einstein

Lying for Jesus is still lying. Still, many Christians seem to be fond of claiming that Einstein was a Christian and posing questions such as "Do you think that you are smarter than Einstein?"

I am rather fond of reading atheist blogs and forums. I generally find that there is a lot of clever discourse and funny articles and discussions on places like that. There are also a surprising number of visiting religious zealots.

These zealots often seem utterly appalled by the mere existence of atheists (something that truly makes me wonder about their reasons for visiting such web pages) and they are fond of posting comments and discussions trying to convert people to their religion. The Einstein thing is very popular in discussions about science.

The same kind of people often come to such places to claim that Hitler was an atheist, that the American Founding Fathers were evangelical Christians, that Darwin recanted the whole theory of evolution on his deathbed, or that Stephen Hawking believes in God.

I would think that the people who frequently make arguments like that would have been informed of many resources showing that they are in fact mistaken; therefore it would seem that they either willfully shut their eyes to the truth or willfully deceive others. Now tell me, would you feel good about it if you manage to sucker people into belief through lies?

Truth be told though, it is probably not often it works anyway. I really do not care if some smart and/or honorable people are Christian, or if some evildoers are atheists. I am fully capable of looking at the world for myself and making my own decisions.

Do not use personal religious experiences as proof of your faith

This is very popular among certain people. They tell us that they have seen angels, so we must believe, or that they have spoken to God, so we must believe, or that they have had a near-death experience that opened their eyes so we simply must believe.

They also often use guilt in conjunction with this. If their claims are contested in some way they call people liars and saying that we don't "respect" them when if we don't believe that their experiences were the real deal.

There is a big problem with that though. People of every religion on the planet makes claims like that. Most religions don't mix very well, so some people must be lying or mistaken. We have no way of knowing who, if any, have had real experiences.

So, when you tell me "Oh, but don't you see, Christians having their prayers answered is absolute proof that you must join the second reformed advent church of latter day tea-sippers [or whatever strange denomination they're trying to convert me to] immediately!", I just can't accept that. If I were to accept it you would also accept that should become a Muslim, because a little Muslim girl had a personal encounter with the great prophet Mohammed himself, or that you should become a Hasidic Jew because a whole roomful of them felt the presence of the Holy One of Israel, and so on for every religion.

Come up with some better propaganda regarding evolution

I could talk about evolution until the cows get home. Then, when I've stopped being surprised by the sudden cow population here, I guess I could bore the cows with it instead. Suffice it to say though; I like the theory of evolution. It's both simple and very complex and it's a beautiful theory (yes, I'm a science nerd) that has a wide impact on many sciences, including my particular area of expertise, computer science. I like reading about it, I like discussing it, I like learning about it.

Lately evolution has for some reason become a hot topic among many groups. Many see it as the frontline of a perceived war between religion and science and some zealots from both sides think that the theory of evolution and religion are irreconcilable and this has created a lot of debate. Therefore religious people of different kinds often come to scientific websites that I like to visit and spew misinformation that is supposed to "debunk" evolution.

These people often rather adamantly claim that we are all going to hell for all eternity for "believing" what they often eloquently call "EVILution". They have conspiracy theories about how devil-worshippers have constructed a highly elaborate lie to make children turn away from God and onto science, which apparently is her worst enemy.

They usually believe that if they just can point out some flaws in the theory of evolution, people will drive people in droves away from the evil of science and towards God. This usually fails miserably, for many reasons.

First of all, people should understand that scientists and scientifically minded people do not mind if the theory of evolution is challenged. That's actually one of the fundamental staples of science; it's supposed to be critically examined, questioned and improved upon.

Questioning a small detail of the vast theory of evolution is not going to make it fall. But that is often the creationist approach. They take a small detail, saying something like "Hey, this thing looks like it might be wrong! Obviously the theory is flawed and thus completely worthless (and thus, creationism must be true, so God obviously made the world in six days and consequently listening to rock music is a sin)".

In real science details of theories get questioned all the time. Sometimes it is apparent that some changes must be made (and that can be a very exciting thing indeed) but most of the time solid theories like the theory of evolution can be shown to fit quite well with new discoveries and new data, and even when some change is made to a detail that doesn't mean that the theory as a whole was wrong.

Take an example. A long time ago most people would have said that the earth is flat. Later, most believed that it is spherical. Now we know that the earth is not really spherical, it bulges out a bit around the equator and is very close to an oblong spheroid. So, the "spherical earth theory" was wrong and it has been improved upon. Does that mean that it was worthless to think about the earth as a sphere? Does it mean that thinking it is a sphere is just as wrong as thinking about it as a disc? No. A sphere is very close to the truth, and it has been very helpful in various sciences to think of it as one; it's close enough to the truth for that.

It's the same thing with evolution and many other theories; they are not one hundred percent perfect, we do not have "perfect knowledge" about anything. But they do provide very helpful insights and the rigorous scientific method tells us when we are close to "the truth". The theory of evolution has mountains of evidence in favor of it and it is not going to be completely overturned, even if details might be challenged.

And even if you were able to topple the entire theory of evolution on its side and expose it as a big, giant (and purposeless) fraud, then you still wouldn't have proven Creationism or Intelligent Design. Intelligent Design isn't even a well-formed scientific theory and it can't be "proven right" simply by attacking evolution.

Then again, most people trying to convert people in scientific discussions about evolution seem to have very little knowledge about science at all. They often ask the same questions again and again, sounding just as stupid every time they ask "Why are there still monkeys?" or claim that evolution violates the second law of thermodynamics.

Also, even if you prove that a creator is necessary, there is again the problem of proving that it is your favored deity. Just saying that "there must be a creator" won't lead me to the fold of your particular church or make me believe any silliness from your holy texts about how to behave.

Don't use the old "Well, there has to be something"-routine

Many ask the question "How can you not believe? Surely you agree that there has to be something."

I think that it has been quite conclusively proven that there doesn't have to be anything. Even though the natural world is beautifully logical and coherent, it sometimes defies what we would call common sense.

Common sense tells people a lot of strange things. People in ancient times knew that there had to be a Thunder God, because, well, there was thunder so obviously there must be a God to create it. And most people knew that the earth wasn't round because we don't fall off from the underside.

Today some people just know that there must be a divine creator, because, well, there's a whole, wonderful Creation all around us. But maybe, just maybe, those people are wrong too.

Maybe I am wrong. But I'm not sure either way, so "arguments" like that won't make me join your little club of believers.

And please stop telling me that complex things like the universe need a creator. If it is true that complex things need a created, then who created the creator? Don't just tell me that she always existed, or that she just spontaneously appeared, if you can't at the same time explain why the universe can't be granted the same ability.

If you presume to know the mind of God, be prepared to answer some questions

Many seem to think that they know exactly what God is thinking. At least that is what they tell me. They tell me that I have to convert and follow their leadership because God wants me to this, or God wants me to do that.

If questioned why they know exactly what God wants us to do, these people often inform me that she has answered their prayers and given them divine inspiration so that they know what to do.

Now, if that's true, there are many questions that I want to have answered. Primarily, why does God love you and hate starving children? Your God apparently answers your prayers, gives you personal tutelage in important matters and you claim that he blesses your life with his love and wisdom. Yet million of innocent children are starving to death in the poor areas of the world, even though there are certainly many of them who pray every day for God to help them out of their misery.

Until you can give me a good explanation for why God would act that way, I will not believe that you can speak God's will to me. If you have no answer for an important question like that, why should I believe that you are right about the little things?

Don't try to convert me to Scientology

I sincerely apologize to any Scientologists out there, but I really must say that if people want to convert me, believing in Scientology is a really bad start. I sincerely doubt that no matter how hard you try, you won't be able to convert me to a religion as unbelievable as that.

And seriously, even if the claims of Scientology sounded even remotely plausible, I do not think I would ever believe in the claims of a religion that is founded by a man who has been quoted saying "You don't get rich writing science fiction. If you want to get rich, you start a religion." Especially not if the religion in question is famous for costing a lot of money. I kind of see some kind of connection there, and it isn't pointing towards credibility for the Church of Scientology.

If you are a scientologist and want to convert me to your religion, there is one very simple thing that you must do first: Convert to another religion yourself first, because you will never get me to be a Scientologist.

If you talk about love, peace, understanding and the betterment of mankind, have something to back it up with

Many who talk to me about religion will smile wide smiles and tell me about how utterly nice their religion is. They will tell me that their God teaches to love your neighbor, help the helpless and so on. And that's great. Enough of that and I might be willing to join you without actually believing.

However, when they are asked about what they actually do they tend to talk excitedly about their wonderful intensive bible study groups, their nice little prayer circles or something else that doesn't really make any difference. They just make me feel like they are all talk and no actual action.

They should realize that they are talking to a non-believer. I do not believe that prayer does diddly-squat. I do not think that reading the bible over and over again will make you a better person. I do not believe that a church picnic will help those in need. To me, it all just feels like wasted time.

I am happier spending my time actually doing something for other people or the environment. I'm not a terribly good person, but I do try. I try to be there for my friends and family when they need me, I try to help my fellow man when there's something I see can be done and I give money and time to organizations trying to save the environment we all need to survive. I could do more, of course, but I do not think wasting time praising to a deity too busy to even show us she exists is going to help me be a better person.

So, if you want to use the good Samaritan-argument and tell me to be a better person, I think you should actually come up with some good arguments why I actually would be a better person by joining your particular cult.

Say something positive instead of telling me that I have no morals or no reason to live

See, here's a great idea for any salesman. Just start out by deeply insulting your potential customers in the worst possible way, that will get them to listen to your message!

No, wait. It doesn't really work that way.

I mean, come on, this is another thing that I would think was obvious; insulting people won't bring you to your side. Every good businessman knows that it is a good business strategy to sweet talk your potential long-term customers a little. Sassiness and insults only works in trendy caf├ęs.

Even so, I've been told such things many times. In discussions about atheism I and others constantly get to hear that the only real reason we are atheists is because we want to live a sinful life without morality. They say that we actually do believe in God, but that we deny our faith in her even to ourselves just to feel better about our sinful lifestyles.

At the same time they often claim that we live our lives in misery, that we are unhappy and grumpy because we don't have God's love in our hearts. They say that we live lives without meaning, drifting without a purpose.

Saying things like that can really turn people away from you, you know? I am usually a truly happy person. I feel that we have many good reasons live, with or without gods, and I enjoy my life. I am quite capable of enjoying life and being a good person even without a belief in any God. If you can't understand at least that much, I will doubt most everything you say.

So, if you want to succeed better, try saying something positive about your religion instead of starting off by saying negative things about me.

So, in conclusion, there are a few things you need to understand.

I still haven't seen any evidence that there is a god of any kind. If you can present evidence that there is a god, I won't automatically start worshipping your god. You need to present evidence for your particular little sect before you get my time or my money. In the meantime I'll just keep on trying to be a good person and a good friend. That feels good enough to me and I feel no need for any gods.

Most people who want to convert me follow the God of Abraham. It is true that followers of that particular God are in a majority in the world today. Many take that as a sign that it's the way to go, but to those I have two things I want to say.

First I must remind people that truth is not a democracy; for example, when a majority of people believed that the sun went around the earth that did not make them right.

Secondly, there are a several competing fan clubs and as far as I can see they are mutually exclusive. The question still remains, which one should I join?

Christians generally believe that Muslims will go to hell, and vice versa. Jews usually feel that Christians and Muslims have entirely the wrong idea, and after living through 2000 years of Christian love they can be understandably wary of other religions. Evangelical Christians feel that Catholics will go to hell for all eternity because of the business with saints and whatnot and certain Catholics seem somewhat fond of believing the same about people who do not accept the authority of the pope.

No matter what I choose, just among people who think that I should worship one particular God, others will think I'll go to hell because of it. I know I've made the point before in this post, but I feel the need to repeat myself because people never seem to take it to heart before trying to convert me.

So before any further attempts to convert me, please try to come up with some compelling evidence for why I should take your particular word for the existence of your particular God, over the word of the rest of the zealots out there.

That would be a good help in any further business between us, all would-be converters. Thank you.