Aug 122011

 This is a brief summary of my set of 6 articles with the same title, which are much more comprehensive and have lots of citations to support its assertions.

I have long realised that I don’t believe in gods, and that I believe that the universe is controlled by unintelligent forces and processes. If I am wrong, I want to find out. But I feel that most conversion material insults my intelligence. Authors typically don’t try to understand how individual atheists think and so use irrelevant arguments, they often use fallacious logic, and they rarely provide suitable evidence.

This is an attempt to help such authors avoid insulting the intelligence of atheists in future. It isn’t complete. I don’t know everything needed for conversion, otherwise I wouldn’t still be an atheist. But this should enable people to demonstrate that they have done their homework, and combined with other material it may provide the basis for making a convincing case.

The Framework

There are 5 more pages, accessible from the following links.  Each of these pages is summarised in turn below. (Or you can just go directly to each page in turn).

Link to Prepare to make the case

Link to Cause the atheist to believe in your god(s) Link to Cause the ex-atheist to practise your religion

Link to Supplement - creationism / intelligent design

Link to Discussion

Link to index: How to convert an atheist

Your objective is to cause the atheist to genuinely believe something for a long time. It isn’t to collect self-awarded debating points, nor to win votes from third parties. This page is about “conversion”, not “debate”.

It is hard to convert someone to your point of view if you don’t actually understand what that is. I assume this is obvious to you, so I won’t insult you by pursuing this further. But it may be useful for you to understand why you want to convert these atheists. The reason is for you to determine. This may decide how much personal resource you are willing to expend, and what constraints, if any, you apply to the task.

You need to tailor your arguments to the particular atheist(s) you are trying to convert. This is a recurrent theme in these pages. It is unwise to generalise about atheists. We typically arrived at that position in different ways. We have different related beliefs. What would be sufficient to convert one atheist may not work for the next.

Atheists vary in their command of logic. Some are naive and/or gullible, while others can detect typical fallacies immediately with little effort. You need to decide whether to stick to sound logic on principle, or whether you are willing to use fallacious arguments in order to convert a naive atheist. Perhaps you believe that saving the atheist’s soul is more important than using sound logic? Perhaps you don’t know the difference!

Some arguments are risky.This is not a judgment about whether they are “right” or “wrong” (whatever that means), but whether they are likely to work. Any frequently used arguments are likely to have been frequently refuted, and those refutations (good or bad) may be easily accessible to the atheist, for example in books or on the web.

A few types of argument are probably futile. “Presuppositional arguments” start with the position that the religion concerned is true. This is not a position that the atheist will accept, so the process may not even begin! “Transcendental arguments” combine pseudo-logic with “presuppositional arguments”. They may be useful for winning debates by wrong-footing opponents who have never encountered them before, but I doubt whether they ever convert moderately intelligent atheists.

There is no standard of evidence that would work for all atheists. (Except, perhaps, for a god to part the clouds, speak simultaneously to everyone on the planet in their own languages, then demonstrate what he/she/it has just said!) For example, rather than identify specialist standards, I am willing at least to study the sort of evidence that would be accepted in scientific journals. Or if that is too esoteric, the sort of evidence that would be acceptable in a court of law in the UK. To change my beliefs and so cause me to spend lots of time and money practising a religion, the evidence must surely at least be good enough to send a person to prison for a month or fine a person £100!

Here are three hurdles that apply to me and probably to many other atheists. You can help the atheist over them one by one, or more than one at a time, or even all three together. If you have sufficient resources to help the atheist over hurdle 3 these may also be sufficient for the first two hurdles.

Diagram showing the 3 hurdles

I am using the term “listening, caring, god” to mean a god that does one or more of the following:

  • observes actions and/or listens to thoughts and/or prayers and sometimes acts accordingly
  • sometimes performs miracles to reward and/or punish you or mankind in general
  • provides an afterlife, such as heaven and/or hell, or reincarnation

Many religions identify their own type of listening god(s). I assume your listening god is special, so you need to help the atheist believe in those special characteristics in addition to the generic characteristics of all listening gods.

A technique that might first be used is “Negative theology”, identifying what may not be said about god, in order to cleanse the atheists’ minds of misconceptions. Then the positive features can be expressed.

Hurdle 1

You need to decide whether to help the atheist over hurdle 1 the easy way, even though this may cause extra problems with hurdles 2 and 3. If you don’t care about hurdles 2 and 3, hurdle 1 is easy! For example, if you simply define “god” to mean “the basis for the laws of physics”, or “whatever was needed for the universe to exist”, I already believe in that god. I believe there is a basis for the laws of physics, and I believe something (in the most general sense) was needed for the universe to exist.

But such a definition does nothing whatsoever to help an atheist over hurdles 2 and 3, and in fact is likely to make things harder. How can you convince an atheist that “the basis for the laws of physics” performs miracles?

Hurdle 2

I can’t supply you with the resources (arguments and evidence) you need for hurdle 2. You must identify for yourself the resources you need.

Helping an atheist over hurdle 2 still leaves a variety of possible gods, for example Yahweh, the Christian God, Allah, Vishnu, etc. (There are 100s of gods currently being worshipped in the world).

An ex-atheist who has been helped over hurdle 2 now has the mental basis for a range of religious beliefs. Perhaps this is all you want, but my observation is that religious people who want to convert atheists typically want to help the atheist over hurdle 3. A Christian is likely to want the atheist to become a Christian, not a Muslim or a “don’t know”.

Hurdle 3

I can’t supply you with the resources you need for hurdle 3. You must identify for yourself the resources you need.

Hurdle 3 uses arguments and evidence specific for your god. For example, an obvious special feature of the Christian God is that he had a son who was resurrected. Sufficient evidence of this resurrection wouldn’t itself demonstrate that all aspects of Christianity were true, (what would?), but it would cater for all of hurdle 1 and much of hurdles 2 and 3.

An ex-atheist who has been helped over hurdle 3 now has the mental basis for a specific religious belief, for example Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, etc. This person is a believer.

It is probably rare that people convert to a religion one hurdle at a time. It is an option available, but other combinations are more common. This page describes all the possible combinations.

Remember: you can practise a religion without believing in its god. So this page can apply to atheists as well as ex-atheists.

You may not care whether the ex-atheist (the new believer) prays, goes to church, sings hymns, donates money, visits Mecca, fasts or obeys other food-laws, obeys dress-codes, etc. You may feel it is sufficient that they have been helped over hurdle 3 and believe in your god.

If you are convinced that they should act in certain ways, you need to make the case. Probably this will be in the form of a (simple) cost/benefit analysis for each practice. You may need to distinguish between the benefits to the ex-atheist and benefits to others, such as the religious organisation itself or other religious people. (Many atheists believe that religious practices exist primarily to benefit religious organisations, or to reduce defection, and this ex-atheist may still suspect that).

Are all of your religious practices necessary? Can they validly be cherry-picked by the ex-atheist? The questions on this page are those that an ex-atheist may ask. (Earlier reconnaissance may have indicated whether any of these are likely to be important to this person).

This page applies if you have adopted a specialised version of a religion, especially Islam and Christianity, that has views of the universe that contradict the views provided by science. You necessarily refute those aspects of science that contradict your specific religious views.

I’m not sure how Creationism (including Intelligent Design) should fit into this framework. The hurdles described elsewhere were primarily concerned with adding to what the atheist believed. We all add to what we believe occasionally.

I think that for a scientifically-illiterate atheist, the “3 hurdle” method may work, because no (scientific) beliefs have to become unbelieved – none are believed!

But, for a scientifically-literate atheist, becoming a Creationist (including the Intelligent Design variant) is likely to mean subtracting from what the atheist believes. The classic example is that at least Evolution has to be rejected. But how does someone disbelieve what they already believe, without good reason? And if the “good reason” normally needed by Creationists is “God” or “Allah”, how can that apply to atheists?

I speculate here about an extra hurdle:

4 hurdles model

This hurdle is associated with one of the main 3 hurdles, and combines both the conversion to believe in a specific god with the hurdle of losing belief in some area of science. Presumably you will need extra resources to help the atheist over this hurdle, probably in the form of evidence refuting that area of science.

Some topics:

How much material “out there” is intended to convert atheists?
Could I be converted?
Is this framework fair?
Where are suitable arguments and evidence?
“You need to open yourself to god”
Do people ever believe in exactly the same god?
Are the gods of the Abrahamic religions the same?
The “burden of proof”
Evidence In Court – a very brief summary

Link to page: How to convert an atheist: Discussion

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