In my opinion, atheists around the world today are doing a poor job in connecting to people’s emotions and subjectivities regarding religion, and more generally to human experience. In sum, we cannot only say ‘God doesn’t exist’; we have to connect to people’s feelings such as the fear of death or the sense of group belonging that go together with the belief in the supernatural. I believe this is the best route to our goal of a society oriented by reason. Let me briefly develop my point.
First, persuasion in not only about rational arguments. There is now a large body of work in Psychology showing that our minds are modular, and that each module can take up our consciousness in different times (Kurzban, 2012). Not only that, our morality and judgement are directly influenced by subjective (and often unconscious) states of our brains. We will try hard to rationalize previously existent emotions in us, and will quickly change assumptions to make our point ’true’, specially when in groups (Haidt, 2013). And very often there is no rational argument that will change our minds, since we have already decided emotionally.
Second, we must understand what emotions are involved in religious activities and in irrational beliefs in general. As you probably know, it’s almost everything! But the first one is certainly the fear of death. As discussed in this video Death and the Present Moment, if we say God doesn’t exist, we are actually saying there’s no life after death, and that we won’t meet our dear relatives in paradise. And this in turn brings us deep sorrow. Also, if we criticize organised religion we are attacking not only the groups themselves, but also people’s sense of belonging in society, their relationships to their loved ones, and their morality. But when we only say “organised religion poisons society”, the message is half-passed and we miss what could cause real change.
Which brings me to my final point. We must be crystal clear on what advances human flourishing (Harris, The Moral Landscape) and cut out what makes no sense, but without ignoring people’s nature and emotions. If we know being part of a cohesive group is a factor of our well-being, we should say ‘love and be loved’, but not ‘create rituals and dogma to hold you feeling part of a community’. Let’s finish the job we began: we must deconstruct the follies, but we must also put something in its place.
So, finally, the possible solutions are simple to state but maybe not to execute. We must foster and re-establish a serious philosophical/scientific debate about death, and what is means to different societies. We must make people come together in groups and communities around activities of interest, that fulfils them without deluding them. Most importantly, we must spread scientific knowledge about the universe and about our own nature (as you certainly agree). Awareness of our inner workings is the first step to taking steps to change.
Ironically, emotions will save reason.