I have commented on this topic in various posts here and there, but I do not believe that I’ve devoted an entire post to this topic. “People will never change their minds” is a phrase I hear quite often that might be the number one reason for apathy*, but this sentiment is profoundly mistaken. While it is the case that some people will not change positions, this is not the case for everyone. Even if it is the case, which it is not, that all people will never change positions on issues, this still does not take away the need for activism whether it be supporting and attending local atheist groups, having conversations with people, or whatever a person feels is important and effective.
Many people have had dramatic cognitive shifts from being an evangelical minister who traveled to countries in order to convert people to leaders of atheist organizations. While everyone may not necessarily make these cognitive shifts, this does not mean that being an ‘activist atheist’ is a waste of time. It is quite possible that the positions of many can be ‘moderated’ in a sense of literalistic young-earth creationism to something else such as a theistic evolutionist. Perhaps some may understand that some of their positions relating to their religious belief, such as abstinence-only education or opposition to homosexual rights, are faulty.
Much of the disappointment atheists might face stems from the fact that people will often not have an overnight cognitive shift or walk away from one conversation realizing that certain arguments are faulty. This, though, should not deter atheists. Many former religious believers, I would wager, would say that their ‘de-conversion’ was a slow and gradual process that stemmed from some challenges to their beliefs whether they be from their own reflections or from others.
Many religious people simply haven’t heard and/or considered arguments against their positions. As an activist atheist, you’re bound to meet many religious persons like this. For example, about a week ago, I met a theist who told me that not believing in God is worse than murder. After a conversation that followed this statement, the theist mentioned that she never heard or considered much of what I said and hopefully will think twice before uttering phrases that she never really considered, but rather are more of reflexes in what even some religious people would call an ‘immature faith.’
Having discussions with theists about perhaps any matter, when the theist knows you are an atheist, can leave a positive impression and counter the myth of atheists being horrible people. If some theists resist talking to atheists because of a stereotype they have and later realize that their stereotype is false, they may be more open to considering what the atheist has to say about religion. Several former co-workers of mine admitted that they hated me because they knew I was an atheist, but after talking to me, their impression was falsified and they realized that I was a good person.
Discussion can plant the ‘seeds of critical thinking’ and challenge many of the assumptions theists have such as faith is an admirable thing, inability to disprove God means that belief is justified, since we can’t know God exists it is better to believe just in case, etc. These common assumptions are horrendous arguments and some of the most common I hear from theists, but these points are non-starters that must be countered. If, after argumentation, these assumptions are questioned, they may not be used by theists anymore.
Being ‘out there’ gives available resources for theists to read just in case they actually want to consider objections to their beliefs. While a face-to-face conversation may be threatening or simply ‘not for’ someone, this same person can simply visit online websites and hopefully feel less threatened. I have met some theists who admitted that do not want to have face-to-face discussions because they feel that they do not have the expertise to do so, would get angry, etc. If face-to-face is out of the question, online resources are available.
The excuse of “people will never change their minds” is not a good one. While it may be the case that some people will never change a certain position, this does not justify inaction or entail that atheists’ efforts are a waste of time. While a one-on-one discussion might not be very fruitful with some people, discussions with ‘audiences’ can be very productive and might ‘do some good’ for onlookers who have not considered some objections, heard some arguments, etc.
I’m not sure if atheists actually believe that either all people will never change their minds or debating religion is a waste of time. Perhaps this is an excuse that some people make for not debating religion or really doing anything. If debates ‘aren’t your thing,’ this does not stop a person from supporting/attending local atheist organizations or posting online under a pseudonym. Coming out can tremendously help the ‘atheist movement,’ so those who are able to should do so. If some people can’t (and I understand this), anonymous support is always welcome.
* When I talk about apathy in this post, I’m talking about atheists who think that my work is a complete waste of time, there is no reason for activism because my efforts won’t actually accomplish anything, etc. Atheists have told me that they aren’t activists because they believe that people won’t change their minds. I’m not talking about atheists who don’t contribute a significant amount of time to ‘the movement,’ but still do something to help whether it be merely coming out, having conversations when they are called for, etc. Everyone can do his/her part.