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We Have an Unfair Advantage

When it comes to debating the merits of religion, we atheists have an unfair advantage.

Lately, almost every day when I go to work, there are Jehovah’s Witnesses in the subway station. I see them in the morning and the evening, two or three of them sitting on folding chairs in the sweltering, grimy heat, holding up Watchtower magazines and pamphlets to the rush of disinterested commuters. I think I’ve seen someone engage them maybe once or twice, either to talk or to debate, but 95% of the time or more they’re utterly ignored by the passing crowds, as if they’re invisible. Despite all the time they’re willing to endure this, I can’t help thinking that in terms of return on effort, it’s a remarkably ineffective method of evangelizing.

The same goes for the Mormon church, which has vast for-profit holdings most likely worth billions of dollars (“most likely” because, like all churches, it has the legal right to keep its books entirely secret). They use this revenue to fund evangelism on a massive scale, but again, how many Mormons are there in the United States? The answer is about 1.4% of the population, a number which hasn’t budged in the last twenty years.

The common thread here is that churches have to invest enormous amounts of effort and time to win even one convert, but if they don’t do this, they’ll get no new members at all, because no one ever spontaneously converts to a religion they’ve never heard of before. People only convert to religions they’re familiar with, usually religions in whose cultural milieu they’re thoroughly immersed.

But by contrast, anyone can become an atheist, and it doesn’t have to take any effort whatsoever from us. People in every culture can and do reject supernatural beliefs, using nothing but their own inherent skepticism and common sense. Usually this begins with rejecting the dominant belief system of that culture, but that awakening is easily generalized to all the other competing faiths out there.

And the numbers bear this out. The number of non-religious people in America is still growing, now up to 19% according to one recent poll. Our numbers are increasing in every region of the country and every state, unlike every other religious affiliation. Atheist organizations like the Secular Student Alliance are experiencing a boom in the number of affiliates, far outpacing the growth of competing Christian organizations.

Plainly, this isn’t because we’re sinking vast amounts of money and labor into spreading the word of atheism. We don’t have people passing out literature on street corners, going door-to-door on Sunday mornings, or sending missionaries overseas. We don’t have anywhere near the budget or the political pull of many of these large religious establishments. And yet, we’re winning the battle of ideas.

When you look at the situation with fresh eyes, it’s not hard to see why this should be true. Every religion has its share of absurd, arbitrary, or outright immoral ideas – for example, the Jehovah’s Witness doctrine that God permits every other kind of modern medicine, but demands that believers refuse blood transfusion even at the cost of their own lives; or the Mormon belief that the Native Americans are descended from ancient Jewish colonists who sailed across the ocean or that the Garden of Eden was in Missouri. Long indoctrination or repetition may make these bizarre ideas seem familiar and normal to members, but getting an outsider to buy into them requires huge amounts of effort and persuasion. By contrast, atheism requires belief in nothing more outlandish than the real, ordinary, physical world we see and experience every day.

The real advantage of religion is its power of social bonding and peer pressure: enticing people to join with the offer of a supportive community, coercing them to stay with the threat of separation from one’s friends and family, or worse. But this power is fragile. If there are secular alternatives, the appeal of religious communities that require uniformity of belief is greatly diminished; and if people defy the peer pressure to conform and are seen to defy it, it can quickly evaporate. I suspect there’s a critical mass of atheists which, if we reach it, will result in the collapse of religion a lot more quickly than anyone would have ever anticipated.

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