How to convert an atheist:
Prepare to make the case

Index | Prepare to make the case | Cause the atheist to believe in your god(s) | Cause the ex-atheist to practise your religion | Supplement - Creationism / Intelligent Design | Discussion


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". This dictates the nature of the logic and evidence that is needed to help the atheist over the hurdles identified later.


Know yourself

What is an atheist?

The only safe generalisation about atheists is:
atheists do not believe that gods exist

Using a different definition obviously doesn't change anyone's beliefs! It simply identifies a different set of people, probably to the confusion of all concerned.


Know yourself

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.


Reconnaissance

You need to tailor your arguments to the particular atheist(s) you are trying to convert. This is a recurrent theme on this page. I'll use myself as an example.

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. For example, although I am an atheist, I normally state one or more of the "beliefs" identified in the following table instead.

Here is a summary of me that reconnaissance would reveal. This provides clues about which arguments may work and which arguments certainly wouldn't work with me. The summary would be different for other atheists.

Type Details Implications
Education I have a degree in Mathematical Physics, I have been reading popular science books and NewScientist for decades, and I recently read an undergraduate textbook on Evolution. Arguments based on logic, mathematics and statistics, evolution, astronomy, thermodynamics, and/or quantum theory have to be sound and non-trivial to be useful.
Religion

Mildly Christian during school.

I understand something of what it is like to believe in God, and to practice a religion.
Belief

After reading about many living religions of the world, and many religious passages, I arrived at the following:

I believe that religions are man-made, without divine input.

There is no point in simply quoting the Old Testament, the New Testament, the Koran or Haddith, the Vedas or Smritis, or other religious texts. You would first have to convince me that they have divine input before I would find them useful. (And I may already have read them).

After studying specific areas of science, I arrived at the following:

I believe that the universe operates solely via unintelligent forces and processes.

Evidence of intelligent forces and processes would be directly relevant to me!

(Nothing I've seen so far by the "Creation" or "Intelligent Design" communities is convincing).

After failing to find useful evidence for various religious claims, I arrived at the following:

I believe that when you pray, you are talking to yourself; that miracles don't happen; and that when our brains die, we will never experience anything again.

These beliefs directly address the concept of a "listening, caring, god".

Evidence about prayers, miracles, and/or an afterlife, is most important of all. It would directly address the second and third hurdles.


Why Wikipedia?

Most references on these pages are to Wikipedia. This does not imply that Wikipedia provides the best resources. Instead, it has a reasonably consistent style, and its pages have further references to external resources.

Arguing by logic and reason

Evidence - good and bad

Refutations to be aware of

Risky arguments

Probably-futile arguments

Logic and reason

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! (There are some useful links on the right).

Some arguments are risky. (See the links on the right). 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. If you intend to use these arguments, you need to assess the likelihood that the atheist will see the refutations so you can be prepared with follow-up arguments.

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.


Evidence

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!
[Discussion: Evidence In Court - a very brief summary]

My beliefs appear to work in a Bayesian manner. One datum is unlikely to out-weigh decades of contrary evidence, unless it survives scrutiny for an extended period. I have the patience to suspend judgment for a while unless there is urgency.

Other atheists may be more flexible or more stringent. For example, many people are susceptible to anecdotal evidence.

I haven't discussed science (including evolution) in this page. "Atheism" and "evolution" are different topics, and there is no causal relationship either way. However, this is discussed further at Supplement - Creationism / Intelligent Design.
[Discussion: Science versus religion]


Experiences

You may want the atheist to get immersed in religious practices in order to obtain some suitable experience, perhaps a revelation. You may need to counter these objections:

  1. Will the atheist consider that this is valuable use of time? Attending church for a year may be excessive. Attending an event or praying for a day or two may be acceptable.
  2. You may need to convince the atheist that the expected experience will be distinguishable from a delusion or hallucination. Does this atheist see similarities between the claims of experiences / revelations of people with different religions and different beliefs in gods? If so, this atheist probably believes that such experiences are a side-effect of the way the human brain works, rather than evidence of an external truth about the universe.
  3. Even if you overcome the above objections, it may still be important to show that the revelation leads to your "listening, caring, god". That depends on how aware the atheist is of other such gods.

[Discussion: "You need to open yourself to god"]