How to Win Friends and Influence People to Atheism

I have said that I try to persuade believers by overwhelming them with a plethora of arguments, and I am vilified for it. But given the fact that believers must be convinced their faith is nearly impossible before they will ever consider it to be improbable, this is what their faith forces me to do if I want to convince them they are wrong. You see, I know a lot more than I can tell. Based on everything I know, I know Christianity is a delusion. The only thing left to do at that point is to convince Christians they are wrong. And they are. In the September/October 2009 issue of American Atheist (pp. 18-20) David Eller argues this is what Christians have been doing on behalf of their faith. They seek to persuade. And they have been doing it a lot longer than atheists. I've just learned from what they are already doing.
How to Win Friends and Influence People to Atheism, by David Eller

In 1957 William Sargant published Battle for the Mind, on the current understanding of techniques for “indoctrination, brainwashing, and thought control.” Twenty years earlier, Dale Carnegie offered advice on How to Win Friends and Influence People. Since then we have learned a great deal more about how beliefs and attitudes are formed and changed—and theists at least have put these methods into practice, long before the 20th century. They fully appreciate that religion is not a matter of argumentation and certainly not a matter of constructing convincing cases. It is, rather, literally a battle for the mind, as numerous Christian websites clearly illustrate: “The Battle for Your Mind” (, “The Battle of the Mind” (, “The Battle in Your Mind” (, “The Battle for the Mind” (, and “The Battle of the Mind” ( to name but a few. Apparently, we atheists are in a battle for the mind, whether we fully know it or not, and that reality calls for a new orientation as well as new tactics.

As rationalists, we value facts and logic and we expect everyone else to respect them. However, all of the research into belief/attitude change indicates that facts and logic are not the decisive elements in bringing people around to a new way of thinking. We love to argue, and we think that arguing is effective, but experience supports the conclusion of Carnegie: “You can’t win an argument.” Instead, “Nine times out of ten, argument ends with each of the contestants more firmly convinced than ever that he is absolutely right.” While we do not have to follow all of Carnegie’s suggestions, we must take seriously the possibility that our current approach is not the best approach—if, that is, we want to actually change people to our way of thinking on the god-question and not merely entertain ourselves with our cleverness and outrage ourselves with the purported stubbornness and stupidity of our opponents. In a word, we need to learn what works and apply it, to treat the theist/atheist encounter as an exercise in applied psychology, of persuasion, of influence.

Atheists are obliged to educate themselves on the most successful techniques of attitude-change, what Robert Cialdini in his book Influence: Science and Practice calls “compliance tactics” or “weapons of automatic influence.” I can hear many atheists objecting already, complaining that persuasion or influence is beneath them, even dishonest, akin to advertising or indoctrination. Indeed, the techniques that Sargant, Carnegie, Cialdini, and many others advocate are akin to advertising, but that is beside the point: they work. We can be noble and unsuccessful, and wallow in our frustration that people don’t get our finely-crafted arguments, or we can be practical and successful. I assure you that, despite all their high-minded rhetoric, theists employ all of the possible tactics of influence and reap the rewards thereof. In the battle for the mind, atheists have so far been unarmed and disorganized, and our results speak for themselves.

Accordingly, in this short article I want to share Cialdini’s six-part plan for effective attitude change. His and all such analyses start from the same premises: first, the human mind functions in specific ways that make some approaches effectual and other approaches ineffectual (and frankly, it is stupid to persist in ineffectual methods), and second, people tend to think and act along what Cialdini calls “fixed action patterns.” This “automatic, stereotyped behavior is prevalent in much of human action,” precisely because “in many cases, it is the most efficient form of behaving” (7). Fixed action patterns are “short cuts” of thought that frequently work well enough to get by. When they are supported by a power structure and an organized community, they are all the more powerful and unshakable.

Cialdini’s six tools to loosen people from their preconceived thought and action patterns and to lead them toward the ideas and behaviors that you want from them begin with reciprocation, give-and-take or exchanging favors. People are more likely to do or think what you want if you give them something first. Giving creates “a sense of future obligation” (20), making it difficult to refuse the supposedly generous giver. That is one reason why religions focus on doing “good works” or handing out free things like bibles: once someone has done a good turn for you, it is harder to deny their requests. Cialdini specifically mentions the Hare Krishna practice of distributing flowers; Christian theists offer everything from free soup to child care and marriage counseling. The point is to get people through the door and then to get them to feel some debt, which they repay with loyalty and increasing commitment.

The second tool, then, is commitment and consistency. “Once we make a choice or take a stand, we will encounter personal and interpersonal pressures to behave consistently with that commitment” (52). Getting people to commit themselves to any part of a position makes them more inclined to accept the rest. Getting them to commit verbally and in person is good; getting to them to commit in public and in writing is even better. Merely evoking a positive response (saying something nice about the group or position) without a full commitment is better than nothing. More subtle aspects of the technique include getting a general or small commitment and working up to a specific or large commitment. Commitment and consistency operate together, for “If I can get you to make a commitment (that is, to take a stand, to go on record), I will have set the stage for your automatic and ill-considered consistency with that earlier commitment” (59). This is why churches encourage people to come down to the altar, to introduce themselves to each other, to attend meetings regularly, to contribute financially to the group, or to perform extreme and demanding acts like tithing or attending sunrise services or undergoing physical and mental ordeals. Like a fraternity initiation or a boot camp, “the more effort that goes into a commitment, the greater is its ability to influence the attitudes of the person who made it” (73). Atheism’s much looser structure—making no demands on people, allowing them to come and go as they please, often letting them be anonymous and passive—results in weaker commitment to groups and to the cause.

Social proof is the third tool, which holds that “We view a behavior as correct in a given situation to the degree that we see others performing it” (99). People are persuaded by other people, not by facts—or, other people’s belief is a fact. “The greater the number of people who find any idea correct, the more a given individual will perceive the idea to be correct” (108-9). Here too religion has the edge, since they are in the majority, and they regularly encourage members to only consult other members as models for behavior. “Cults” with their own isolated compounds are only the most extreme version of a general religious tendency.

An obvious but important facet of influence is liking: people are more inclined to think and act like people whom they find pleasant and agreeable. Liking can be based on physical attractiveness, similarity with the target person, flattery, cooperation (hence the double value of reciprocity), familiarity, and positive associations between things (e.g. between getting free food from some group and feeling good about the group). Not for nothing do churches and many otherwise non-enjoyable activities feature lunches and potlucks and pizza parties. It would behoove atheists to be nice.

Fifth is authority, which has been demonstrated again and again. We are more likely to follow and to comply with people in authority, who have power and/of expertise. Humans are, as well as imitative, inherently obedient. And this authority could and should be symbolized with titles, official-looking clothing, and the other “trappings” of status and knowledge. This is why religions include elaborate robes or decorative altars or imposing architecture.

Finally, Cialdini mentions scarcity, because “opportunities seem more valuable to us when they are less available” (200). People are motivated when something is limited in supply and time, or when they are afraid of losing something they already have, or especially when something is in high demand. Religions of course often claim to be dealing in scarce goods, like salvation or remittance of sins. If there are more people than can get into heaven, the (alleged) fact inspires competition for the few remaining spaces.

Atheists will notice that theists have some distinct advantages in these areas: we are, among other things, a minority with few goodies (like eternal life) to offer. And some of these recommendations are easier to implement than others. But we are “at war with the exploiters” (233), in this case the religious exploiters, and we have no choice but to accept the challenge to fight the influence they have over people and to try to influence them to what is, happily, the correct, atheistic conclusion.