The title is an assertion I hear quite often. You can regularly find it in any number of religious debate threads. Usually, it’s only a matter of time before someone says that you can never change someone’s mind about a religious belief or lack thereof.
I disagree and I think the evidence backs me.
I think our beliefs are formed by our knowledge base. I think religious organizations know this, which is why so many of them try to get children early, before they can be exposed to any other knowledge that would contradict their own. I think there are families out there who home school only because they want to shelter their children from contradicting belief structures or knowledge. Some will even go so far as to ban certain books.
The religious aren’t the only ones guilty of this. To keep it fair, there are probably atheist households who do the same.
Recently, I read a book entitled: Generation Atheist. It’s free on Kindle, if you’re interested. At least it was the last time I took a look a few days ago.
Generation Atheist focused on stories about how people came to their non-belief. I noticed that throughout the book, almost every story started with the atheist believing in a religion. They believed it, doubted it or weren’t exposed to any other thought process other than their particular religion being absolutely true. In other words, some of them had no idea there were people out there who questioned the existence of God or particular religious dogmas.
Many of them described their experience as coming out of a fog. Some said they felt relief once they realized their religion wasn’t true, because they were released from the guilt their religion taught. They no longer had to worry about having a ‘bad’ thought (thought crime) or worry about people they cared about being thrown in a fiery pit of torment. Most of them embraced their atheism because it meant they could explore any avenue they wanted to in terms of spirituality or religion. They felt unshackled, empowered and free.
I think it’s a myth that someone can’t have their beliefs change through debate. I also think this myth is propagated by religion and by people who want to remain PC. Generation Atheist shows that beliefs can and do change. Most atheists you talk to, were religious at some point. Something changed, right? Otherwise, they’d still be religious.
Even in my own blogging experience, I’ve talked to Christians who have told me they’ve never talked to an atheist. Some were even raised to believe that atheists are evil or immoral but changed that belief once they had the opportunity to talk to a real atheist. I consider that a victory, even if they never change their religious beliefs. I feel the conversation was well worth it if they can go back and tell others that atheists are real people and they aren’t evil.
In what other topic do you ever hear someone pronounce that it’s a waste of time to debate something?
Do Liberals or Conservatives shy from discussing politics because they firmly believe that no matter what they say, they have no chance of persuading someone else to see their side of the debate? Should politicians never hold debates, because it’s a waste of time?
The other thing I noticed in Generation Atheist (and it mirrors my own experience) is that minds aren’t changed right away. It’s not like a Christian or atheist will always make a profound point, and the other will just concede, throw up their hands and admit they’re wrong.
These things take time.
It’s planting a seed and encouraging people to do their own independent research on the matter. It may take months or years for someone to change their belief structure and some may never change it.
However, that doesn’t mean those conversations aren’t valuable or important. Others may read those conversations in the future; sometimes you can build bonds between atheists and religious people that make stereotypes harder to hold on too.
Many people in that book went through a slow process. Most describe how they started out believing in a deity, changed to a deist, went through an agnostic phase because it was socially acceptable and then finally realized they were an atheist. It’s not like one particular event changed them completely in one second. It was usually a series of questions, debates, and research that did it.
Here are two examples of what I mean:
Christianity never really made sense to me. Growing up, I would ask questions all the time like "Why would god torture people forever for not believing in him?" "Why did god punish all humanity just because Adam and Eve ate the fruit?" "Why did god have to resurrect Jesus, just to forgive humanity?" "Why did god order such horrible acts?" And many more questions, and I just never got a satisfactory answer. And whenever I would think of these questions myself, my fear of hell fire, prevented me from going very far. Worse yet, everyone around me was religious so I was never exposed to other ways of thinking. As I grew older, was exposed to other types of people and decided to let go of my fears of hell in order to seriously research I realized very quickly that I didn't believe any of this and that it made little sense.
I used to be a devout Christian. A few years ago, I really went through a time of searching myself and looking within and also thinking about how I view the world. Somehow, Christianity, or any religion, just didn't seem to fit. I felt Christianity was a burden that was actually making me less of a "good" person and actually caused me depression. Also, I began realize that I cannot turn a blind eye to the scientific facts (i.e. it's just not plausible to believe in an ark or parting the red sea and many of the other stories in the bible). Now, I just consider myself a humanitarian--I can be a good moral and ethical person without the fear of "hell" or "torment" for an eternity. I used to actually torture myself with the idea of a "hell" and it was not healthy.
In conclusion, I’d like to encourage people not to buy into the myth that questioning, challenging, examining, debating, talking about or sharing ideas is ever a waste of time.