I was in the blogosphere this morning and came across a question:
"Is it okay for atheists to try to change people's minds? To try to convince people that their religion is mistaken, and that they should de-convert and become atheists instead? And is there any difference between that and religious evangelicalism?"
To begin, I'd respond by saying atheists are fundamentally incapable of any form of evangelism. This is because the word itself is inextricably intertwined with positive affirmations of faith. Now this is not to say that atheists can't or don't undertake similar methods as evangelists in getting their points across. Nonetheless, the question the author asks is valid.
A standard theist complaint against atheists is to question their understanding of theological terminology, and I think the post and thread here provide good grounds. For example, one (presumably atheist) commenter said of the adjective evangelical that,
"It seems to me that unless you are going door-to-door or are in another person's face about it, then you are not being evangelical. Even Dawkins doesn't strike me that way because no one forces you to read his books and he is invited to speak to give his views."
I don't know whether anyone is forced to read Dawkins or not, and I'll agree that he is usually invited to give his views, but just what does it mean to be evangelical? By the definition set forth in the above comment, pushy Girl Scout cookie sales folk could reasonably be construed as evangelical. They are certainly door-to-door, and they certainly retain the potential to be in one's face.
In an ID red herring, another commenter said,
"Evangelism is not wrong be it religious, atheistic, or anything else. We evangelise our views every day, in our kids, when we vote based on what we think is right, whenever we express any opinion or any argument not based on a double-blind peer-reviewed scientific study. So let the religious poeple evangelise, and the atheists can evangelise too – in the end, may the best arguments win."
Although I see and agree with these commenter's general points, people are clearly arguing without respect for sound definitions, and towards clarity, we need some working definitions to intelligibly guide our discussion.
The Greek evangelion means 'good news' or 'gospel' and is the source of modern derivatives. Of the adjective evangelical, Wheaton College adds, "…modern usage usually connotes the religious movements and denominations which sprung forth from a series of revivals that swept the North Atlantic Anglo-American world in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries." Wikipedia defines 'evangelical' more loosely but still theist as a theological perspective that identifies with the gospel.
Under these definitions, no version of atheism can be reasonably construed as evangelical, and people commonly misuse the term to denote any promoter or system of belief which attempts to persuade. So, if I were to answer the author's last question honestly and technically correct, I would say there is a big difference between what she calls 'religious evangelicalism' and what she is doing on her own blog. A huge difference! However, words and language tend to evolve from their original meanings, and enough people misuse the word that many dictionaries list the looser definition.
Atheism may or may not be reasonably construable as evangelical, but depending on the context under which it is done, atheist blogging is nearly always construable as proselytizing. Although generally with religious connotation, a proselytizer need not be theist, and all active, blogging atheists who put forth their views from motives of deconversion or planting seeds of doubt are proselytizers. Same goes for publishing, producing, exhibiting and conversational atheists, too. To attempt to change someone's religion is proselytizing, no matter who does it.
At any rate, it seemed most of the discussion in the comment thread was over matters of ethics and degree. Most atheist commenters felt that proselytizing is acceptable when done acceptably, and most also felt atheists to be generally responsible in this regard, while believers, of course, are not. But I say show me a rude, in-your-face Christian that pushes poorly-thought out beliefs onto others, and I'll just as quickly show you an atheist who does the same. Atheists publish factual atrocities, concoct goofy little tropes and promote offensive propaganda too, and when atheist tracts and inferences are as prevalent as their Jack Chick and TBN counterparts, believers might begin to get a feel for the atheist's plight.
What I really wonder is how individual atheists feel with accusations of proselytizing, and how many even consider the question. It's obvious the author of the post in question did, and overall, the author questions her own belief system – a trait both admirable and required in any intellectually honest person. In response to her asking if it's okay to try to change people's minds, or to attempt to deconvert them, I would say most certainly so. She has that right, as does anyone else protected by the Constitution. And I'll add that it's intellectually healthy for people to ethically proselytize and tactfully debate, further noting that anyone who feels strong convictions eventually succumbs to the tendency to express them, especially if they feel they might have something to offer friends and loved ones.
However, under certain conditions, proselytizing can also be unethical, rude and even dangerous, for example, when any proponent misinforms or intentionally misleads their audience. This is as likely to occur in atheist circles as any other. It's fine to argue that a position is mistaken, but extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. To label all religious belief as mistaken in a thousand-some-odd word blog post is, IMO, a clear breach of ethics and responsible writing.
The only other thing that irked me about the post was the polarity of the comment thread. Many times over, atheists are referred to as 'we' and of course the believers as 'them.' Such is the foundation of nationalism, bigotry and war. Ignorance, delusion and refusal to look at the facts are universal human tendencies, and atheists do themselves great disservice in pretending these qualities to be intrinsically theist.