From the Mailbox – 4 Questions From a Theist
Well this has been an eventful couple of weeks. After writing the post “I Quit“, I was approached by Slate to modify the post and have it posted on their website. Of course I jumped at the opportunity, who wouldn’t? To be published in the same journal that featured the great Christopher Hitchens? With an apparent readership of over 8 million people per month I would have been mad not to. But with this level of popularity among readers comes an equally proportionate level of feedback, both positive and negative, and that I surely did receive.
One of the biggest things I noticed after posting to Slate was the general level of outrage I experienced from the readers, both atheist and theist, and the fact that most people thought that the atheist and theist positions are irreconcilable. I did expect there to be some reaction, but nothing prepared me for the amount of vitriol, nor the general rudeness of most of the detractors. As if to prove the point of the article, I was even hounded on Twitter and Facebook for my post. Some of the points were valid. Most were not.
The biggest point people took issue with was the road brush with which I apparently painted atheists as “bullies”. This was not my intention at all. I merely wanted to point out that several sections of the “atheist” community do engage in the behaviour I described, and was sating that I wanted no part in it. To some extent, I agree with this criticism; my words were overly generalised for such a platform, but as I was advised by the editors of Slate, brevity makes for a better publication.
However, among the yelling and cajoling I received there were some small gems of praise which I really appreciate. (Not that praise is something I am after, I am simply here to offer an opinion, but it’s better than condemnation by a long-shot.) Among the support I received, I was also asked by a man named James, a Christian, if I would answer a few questions for him for a book he is putting together, which deals with some of the aspects of humanism that I have talked about in the past.
Below are my answers.
1) What are the three biggest mistakes that Christians make when discussing faith, or life in general, with atheists?
I don’t think it’s a question of what Christians do, but rather a question of how any of us approach the discussion of faith. We have to understand that faith is, for the faithful, something that is beyond reason, and is “felt” rather than “intellectualised”, and therefore is subject to emotional reactions rather than ones that are analysed and scrutinised.
So the first mistake would be not understanding that those who have arrived at atheism have done so with a great deal of questioning. Atheism, for many, is not only the most reasonable position to hold, but the only position to hold, all things considered. To tell an atheist that they “hate god” or are “simply rebelling” misses the whole point of how a person arrives at an atheistic view of the universe. Talk of spirits and gods really is akin to talking about leprechauns or Santa Claus for the atheist. The position if special pleading because “god is different” holds no water, because it is simply unprovable, unobservable, unlikely, and irreconcilable with the universe we see.
The second mistake is to describe the bible (or any religious text) as written by god. It is historically proven that the bible was written by men, crafted by men, to help to preserve the belief of both Judaism and Christianity, and to say otherwise is just plain ignorance. Many atheists despise ignorance more than they dislike the beliefs themselves, so in order to go into a conversation with an atheist about the teachings of the bible, I would suggest researching outside of the bible itself and beyond the words of biblical apologists such as William Lane Craig, and look into empirical studies about history and the nature of the universe. A good debate can only arise if both parties are well versed in knowledge at a level beyond faith.
Thirdly, believers (not just Christians) need to understand that atheism is not a position designed to hurt them. Atheists, for the most part, don’t want to make Christians suffer, but rather want them to look at the world from a less blinkered state. Not everything translates through the bible, and from an atheistic standpoint, nothing is translated through the bible. This is key for debating, and to quote passages from the bible to try to convince an atheist of anything is futile, for the bible (or Koran, or Bhagavad Gitaa) have no relevance in the daily lives of an atheist. Likewise, threatening an atheist with hell is like threatening to “punch them in the aura”, as the old adage does.
2) Of course a Christian does not want to back off from their beliefs, but how does one draw a line while at the same time not offending a non-believer?
Like I have said, faith is a space which exists beyond reason. If it were a reasoned position it wouldn’t exist. Having said that, it is possible to have faith and to believe that humanity can get about looking at the most important things in life, like lives of dignity and personal meaning, or sustaining communities, or helping to cease the endless waste of modern societies. So, ask yourself, “What is the one most important thing in your life?” If the answer is “god” then your priorities are slightly askew. The most important thing in your life is that you have healthy, loving and meaningful relationships with others around you; with your family, your friends, your community. If you can achieve this though faith, then by all means, use faith. However, if belief in god means that you are causing harm to others in the process of trying to achieve an afterlife, expect atheists to pull you up on it. This is not a way to conduct a civilised relationship with anyone.
A believer can still have a reverence for their god, and do whatever it is that they believe their god wants, but as soon as this crosses the line into telling others how to conduct their lives, this is when problems start, and is a reason many have moved away from religion into a secular lifestyle. The cognitive dissonance the position of following the word of the bible, yet conducting a non-judgmental life is difficult for many, and it is much easier to ignore it and lead a “good Christian life”, but depending to what degree a believer follows the bible’s teachings, inevitably there will come a position that is at loggerheads with the well-being of a non believer, or the believer of a different faith, or a woman, or a child, or of all of humanity. If the bible is simply a series of lessons in the form of stories, then there are some stories that are simply outdated in a modern society. If it is literally a historical account of ancient Israel, be ready to have to defend this standpoint, and don’t be hypocritical about which parts of the bible are to be followed and which aren’t.
3) A Christian wants to start a relationship with an atheist, what would be a good start to gain that trust? For example, what could be three steps?
Firstly both parties have to be willing participants. This may sound trite, but without an actual want to have a civilised discourse or relationship, then the whole process is doomed from the start. The key is to have respect for the person first and foremost. A person is not their beliefs. A person is who they are, how they conduct themselves, how they interact with others.
Secondly, these relationships need to be approached with an open mind. An open mind does not mean “accept everything you are told as truth”, rather “listen to what is being said and analyse that against what you know.” The secret is to really think, and to reason.
Thirdly, don’t bring god into every conversation. You have more in common with the person with whom you are talking than whether or not they believe in god. Find common ground, find similarities, find something you both love, and use that as a platform to build from, rather than arguing about the efficacy of Isaiah 45:7. We all have more similarities than differences, so to recognise this means you can get on with this thing we call “life”.
4) How do we steer society back towards civil discussion? (Now that you have stopped laughing) Parts of society are still involved in good discussions, but online and in the general media there is a strong belief that it’s OK (an expectation even) to fire off a hateful comment. How do we wean people off this idea?
It’s certainly true that the online world can be a dangerous and disgusting place at times, but I think people are starting to get the message. Be it through laws enforcing the punishment of bullies, or through education in schools, people are beginning to get how we interact online, and what we should and shouldn’t do. The online world has made the offline world so much smaller, and we all occupy this space now. I think a key consideration here is the immediacy of social media. People fire off ideas, questions and retorts at lightning speed because the world is now so interactive, yet people fail to consider the consequences of such actions. I have done it myself too, and the “trolling” I referred to in my Slate piece was examples of this. Rather than saying the first thing that comes to mind, maybe step back and ask what the person you are replying to was actually trying to say, and answer that, rather than stomping home a point that is irrelevant to either party.
In an offline world, I think it is important that we realise the differences in belief, and that belief when utilised on a populace will always leave some people out. in some cases it can be actually harmful, like in places where it’s illegal to be non-religious. The problem arises when people’s religious beliefs are foisted upon others because “that’s the way it should be”, according to the believer. And this causes a problem, because one of the many tenets of religions is that those who don’t follow the religion are “bad”, “evil” or “unclean”. It’s self perpetuating, and can cause a disconnect between people that is harmful to rational discourse.
Hateful commentary comes from a space in the psyche where either the person making the comment has been hurt by an institution, in this instance, religion, or where a person walks into a situation without the level of respect that would normally be afforded in in an offline world. Preconceptions, biases and prejudices make a lousy platform from which to start any conversation. I’ve written before about the nature of respecting the person, but being under no obligation to respect their beliefs. This still holds true, and if you remove the beliefs from the conversation it makes for a much easier road to true communication.
I hope my answers don’t come across as “preachy”. These are my opinion only, but hopefully can act as a conversation starter for theists and atheists alike. If it weren’t for the publication in Slate, I would never have been introduced to people like James, who thanked me for the article. I’m not the only one out there that thinks that a methodological approach to humanism is not only possible, but also a good idea.
Thanks to James for the opportunity to answer these questions.