We atheists and agnostics often have a lot in common with you religious moderates

December 23, 2007 | By | 29 Replies More

I struggle to see through the rampant commercialism, the over-consumption and the glazed-eyed happiness of the holiday season.  But maybe I’ve had a break-through.  It keeps recurring to me this month that kind and thoughtful atheists/agnostics have an immense amount in common with millions of kind and thoughtful people who believe in God. 

Too many of us have too much in common, in fact, for me to stand by silently while the “new atheists” (led by Richard Dawkins) repeatedly belittle Believers.  Most of these new atheists claim that religious moderates, by their silence, are enabling the social destruction wrought by fundamentalists.  I think that is often true.  By the same token, moderate atheists/agnostics are adding unnecessary fuel to the belief/non-belief wars when they fail to speak up during the new atheist hyper-scoldings of believers. 

I suspect that many of the new atheist criticisms of religion underestimate the function served by the type of religion practiced by most religious moderates (I think that David Sloan Wilson has it right on this point) and that they over-estimate the ability of science to provide substitutes for whatever it is that religious moderates get out of their practice of religion (on this point, see this Salon.com interview of theologian John Haught).

In fact, many of the new atheist scoldings smell of schadenfreude and vengeance.  I agree that much of criticism is warranted on an intellectual level, but it seems like we really need to sit down and figure out how to get along with each other, for the common good.  Is that possible?  Absolutely.  We’ve got a country to turn around and we need the help of the many smart and good-hearted believers who line up with us well on so many issues.  It always has been possible for us to work with each other and it always will be, as long as we limit membership in our “club” to people who are kind and thoughtful. 

Before I continue, I need to define who I’m not including by use of the phrase “kind and thoughtful.”  I’m leaving out fundamentalists.   Yes, the fundies often show common courtesies—they hold doors open for others and they say “please and thank you.”  The social, political and intellectual damage that they have brought, however, means that they don’t qualify as either kind or thoughtful.   Who are these people I’m scolding?  I’ll refer to Jimmy Carter’s definition of “fundamentalist”:

A fundamentalist believes, say, in religious circles, that I am close to God. Everything that I believe is absolutely right. Anyone who disagrees with me, in any case, is inherently wrong and therefore, inferior. And it violates my basic principles if I negotiate with anyone else or listen to their point of view or modify my own positions at all. So that is what has permeated this administration. 

One more explanatory note before moving on:  There are religious organizations that are entirely fundamentalist and there are other organizations that are not, but that include sub-groups of fundamentalists.  To really get it right, each person should be judged individually.  My quick test is whether a person is strongly motivated to impose his or her own image and likeness upon the rest of us.  If so, we’ve got ourselves a fundamentalist (of one flavor or another).

Setting aside those fundamentalists, then, what do the rest of us have in common?  What do kind and thoughtful believers have in common with kind and thoughtful atheists and agnostics?  The list is almost endless.  Every day is a good day for all kind and thoughtful people to remember this.

We recognize a rampant dysfunctional sense of community.

We notice moral incontinence abounding—too many people who are all-too-willing to unquestioningly submit to their immediate materialist and biological urges.

We recognize conspicuous consumption that is so dramatic that it keeps many of us from participating in the community building we desperately need.

We recognize the critical importance of raising thoughtful and sensitive children in safe neighborhoods.

We all believe in redemption; We know that lending desperate people a helping hand is something we should

We believe strongly in the value of cultural institutions such as libraries, museums, and universities, especially when they challenge us.

We believe in elementary schools that teach our children to think critically and to continuously reevaluate who they are and who they should be as individuals and as a society.

We support strong science guided by a wide-open sense of wonder.

For every agnostic or atheist I know who ascribes to these sorts of principles, I can name a person who is “spiritual but not religious” who agrees and two additional supporters who regularly attend some sort of church.

If the above principles aren’t enough, consider the hundreds of important and basic things that all atheists/agnostics have in common with all Believers.   Reading this list compiled by Donald Brown, should dampen the enthusiasm of anyone who claims that the odd religious assertions of moderates should always be front and center when we atheists/agnostics are trying to figure out who these folks are.

I’ve certainly heard objections to getting too cozy with believers.  I am well aware of the strange things that kind and thoughtful Believers say, especially on Sunday.  Yes, these things are unsubstantiated and often creepy.  But guess what?  Kindhearted and thoughtful religious moderates don’t usually say such things outside of their Sunday services and they really (really) do see eye to eye with many of us skeptics on many of the things that really count.

If saying strange things disqualifies us from respecting other people, also consider the many bone-headed things that other atheists/agnostics say and do.  There are many atheist/agnostic Neocons out there, for example.   Also consider the atheists/agnostics who believe in astrology, nihilism, the free market as an all-purpose Savior to human ineptitude, or that science somehow provides all the answers to those who ponder the human condition (I’m not suggesting that anyone has all the answers). 

Let’s make sure that we atheists/agnostics are not making it too much of a priority to bond and work mainly with those who happen to be atheists/agnostics when we might have a whole lot more in common with those people who like to give a weekly nod to Jesus-the-hippie-philosopher.


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Category: Communication, Psychology Cognition, Religion

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (29)

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  1. Martin says:


    Personally, I'm with Christopher Hitchens on this one. I only offered the proof, which requires no quotation marks since it is a valid proof, because grumpypilgrim appeared to be unaware of its existence.

    Should you not be familiar with the work of Hitchens, the quote to which I refer goes something like this: what can be asserted without evidence, can be ignored without evidence.

    I also deeply regret that Bertrand Russel beat me to this one: Apart from logical cogency, there is to me something a little odd about the ethical valuations of those who think that an omnipotent, omniscient, and benevolent deity, after preparing the ground by many millions of years of lifeless nebulae, would consider himself satisfied by the final emergence of Hitler, Stalin and the H Bomb.

    You ask why (some) intelligent folks feel compelled to "slight" believers. It is quite simply because it is only an accident of history that it is considered normal in our society to believe that the creator of the universe can hear your thoughts, whilst it is demonstrative of mental illness to believe that he taps messages with raindrops in Morse code on my bedroom window.

    Or what about one of the central tenets of the catholic church. If you say a few words in Latin over a cracker it turns into the body of a man who died two thousand years ago. Not just representative of his body, but his actual body is physically in that cracker.

    Can there be any doubt that if you were the only one who believed this you would be completely mad. That tens of millions of people believe this is just totally beyond bizarre.

  2. Vicki Baker says:

    Martin, you attribute to Haught beliefs about creationism which are polar opposite to what he actually believes. Yet you apparently believe you still have the right to lecture others about intellectual honesty.

  3. "If you talk to God, you are praying; If God talks to you, you have schizophrenia. If the dead talk to you, you are a spiritualist; If you talk to the dead, you are a schizophrenic."

    –Thomas Szasz

  4. Martin says:


    I am not "lecturing others". All I'm doing is what everyone else is doing, offering my opinion. And my opinion on this matter is that Haught is not being intellectually honest with himself.

    If, out the maelstrom of contradictory irrational beliefs this man has about the creator of the universe I chose the wrong one to use as an example then that is to be regretted, but it does not in any way devalue my argument.

    There is, I trust you are able to appreciate, a world of difference between on the one hand a netizen making an innocent error of attribution and on the other a christian theologian setting out to deliberately deceive people who have paid money to read his words?

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