Jason Rosenhouse over at Evolutionblog tells this tale of an encounter with some true believers (three teens and two older women) while waiting in line for lunch at an Intelligent Design conference. I found it a typical example of what it is like being the long atheist in a group of true believers. Jason recounts:
"I've attended quite a few of these creationist gatherings and at virtually every one of them I have found myself involved in a conversation of this sort. As long as there is only one atheist among a large number of creationists, they tend not to feel threatened and instead treat you like some sort of zoo animal, or perhaps someone from a different planet. I'm still uncertain as to the best way to handle the situation."
I've been in that situation many times myself. My strategy is to remember that my target audience is the bystanders of the debate, not the people I am actually engaging. Most people, regardless of their views, tend to get defensive and competitive when debating in front of a crowd, and thus getting them to admit defeat is an unreasonable expectation, even in the best of circumstances. With views as deeply held as religion, this is even more true.
The key is to be polite, and stick to one's logical guns, even in the face of absurdly poor arguments or personal attacks. Let the observers see the atheist being surprisingly (to them) polite, and let your interlocutors reveal their closemindedness and rudeness. You might be the first living breathing atheist these people have encountered, for reasons Jason points out:
"I suspect that a lot of the fire-breathers, like Mary, live in very insulated communities and simply don't often come into contact with people who think differently from her on these kinds of issues. So let them see an atheist who on the one hand is completely unafraid of any challenge they might throw his way, but who also has no desire to be insulting or aggressive."
Exactly. Sadly, many Americans still think of atheists as baby-eating, immoral reprobates. This comes from the many ignorant rants they hear from Sunday pulpits, combined with a lack of personal experience with atheists. This is also a good reason why it is important for unbelievers to "come out of the closet" as it were, and let people see us for what we are, normal everyday people with all the same feelings, dreams and desires that they have, only with a lack of belief in gods.
It is also important to remember the nuclear bomb you can drop on these people when they get very strident and unreasonable like this:
"Then I asked her, 'If you think God explains how the universe came into being, then tell me how he did it.' 'He spoke the world into existence.' 'Just like that?' 'Just like that.' 'He said let there be light and there was light.' 'Yes.' 'And you find that easy to believe?' 'Yes.'
I guess she won that round."
Jason's sarcasm aside, she did win it in a sense, but the solution to this sort of retort is to bring a scientific view into the picture. Allow them to show their closedmindedness to your audience by asking a simple question: Is it possible they are wrong? Make this point and don't allow yourself to be distracted until they answer. I once demolished a coworker at a lunch debate with this one simple question, because after several minutes of flailing and sputterring, he could not bring himself to admit that it was even possible. Game over. It didn't matter what he said after that, our audience of 4-5 people had been swayed.
After all, no matter what we believe, regardless of the topic, there is always a chance we are wrong. Only a totally unreasonable person would claim otherwise. That's the achilles heal of the true believer, regardless of the topic. They make no account of that possibility. If they admit that there is (or at least are smart enough to lie to save face), followup with "Isn't it important to know how to recognize this possibility when it occurs?" They pretty much have to admit this, but then you have them, because the next step is to get them to describe a scenario that would qualify, and they usually won't be able to. That will paint them, rightfully, as closedminded, and the debate is won.
Sadly, Jason's summary description of the encounter was too familiar:
"Several things were clear. First, that the two women did not have the slightest interest in anything I was saying. Second, that they had complete and total confidence in every word in the Bible, and regarded it as utter impertinence to challenge them on any such point. Third, that they had very little concept of what science is or how scientists approach their work. And fourth, that they tended to view me as an object of pity, and generally behaved very condescendingly toward me."
It has always fascinated me how condescending supposedly loving Christians can be when confronted by a doubter. Suddenly, that nice old lady feeding the pigeons becomes a pompous bitch, with little but snide remarks elevating her ignorance to a place of unquestionable dogma. They act as though we were born yesterday, confronting us with poor arguments we dissected as teens, as if they were something profound (ie, Pascal's wager, the ontological argument, etc.). Some are so isolated in their homogenous world that they cannot even wrap their minds around the fact that we truly do not believe, pretending instead that we are merely being rebellious and are "mad at God".
So speak up when you get a chance, let people see that atheists are people too, and if your interlocutors are rude and closedminded, let that show through to your audience. Nothing is more persuasive than sincere truth-seeking in the face of intolerant dogmaticism.