This is Part IV of a series of post titled “Mending Fences.” Part I begins here.
The many things we have in common
Drawing stark lines to divide people into groups often invites suspicion and hostility. Instead of bifurcating humanity into two mutually exclusive groups–believers and atheists—we should carefully reconsider the degree to which atheists and believers are different. To the extent that we discover that we actually share interests, including a mutual interest in better understanding our differences, we dissolve big hurdles to working together.
Whether we see each other as essentially similar or essentially different depends on whether we are focusing on our similarities or our differences. When we consider the ways that believers and atheists are similar, we can quickly think of enough things we have in common to fill encyclopedias. Most of us enjoy good food, good music and fresh air. We contribute to flood victims together. We throw muggers in jail together. We want our children learn to appreciate Shakespeare, mathematics and history together at school. We shop together, work together, celebrate most of our holidays together (even religious holidays) and we all struggle to understand how it was that we ended up on this spinning planet. Most believers and most atheists have another thing in common: they are both attacked by religious fundamentalists. We are so much alike in so many ways that a Venn diagram illustrating the overlap of atheists and believers would present itself as an eclipse.
Truly, a Martian anthropologist who carefully observed the day-to-day behavior of most believers and most atheists would be perplexed to hear us grumbling about our differences. For that anthropologist, trying to differentiate humans based on our outward behavior would be as difficult as it is for humans trying to discern differences among the worker ants in an ant colony. Well, except for one hour per week when the believers went into a building with a steeple on top. Except for that hour, though, it would be almost impossible to tell who is who based on the way we live our lives.
Well, consider another exception: When a politician or a zealot loudly announces that there is a “war” raging between believers and atheists believers and non-believers tend to publicly take sides and our conflict-obsessed news media blows it up into an even bigger deal in order to sell ads. Nature has rigged us to have our antennae up for conflict of any sort, plus humans are also extremely creative symbolic animals. Thus, whenever we are motivated to find an ontology of difference, we’ll create one. And history repeatedly shows that even a concocted minor difference is good enough to justify a war between two groups of highly similar people. As an aside small differences have often set up major fissures within a single religious group. One entertaining example (entertaining for me) is the dispute over whether Adam had a navel.
I’ve become wary about the claims that the crucifix is a stake in the ground that divides atheists from believers. It is true that when someone brings up the topic of the crucifix, it often means that I’m about to hear someone preach at me. But that doesn’t mean that we need to fight a “war” or even have an argument. We all disagree with each other about thousands of things, but we can often still get along. The crucifix doesn’t divide us, unless we allow it to divide us. Far more than any religious differences, my experience tells me that the things that really divide us are things like pig-headedness, arrogance, ignorance, aggression, sloppy line-drawing and proud ignorance.
Here is an article of my faith: Atheists can discuss anything with religious moderates, even potentially contentious religious differences, as long as we take care to discuss these topics with compassion. This is an important foundational principle, in my opinion. It is clear that people in healthy relationships and societies build up reservoirs of good will on which they can draw during those moments when there are bumps in the road. I assert this principle based upon repeated personal experience, including cordial discussions I’ve had with religiously devout “pro life” protesters at abortion clinics (I am pro-choice).
We need to be disciplined enough to restrain ourselves, even when we are tempted to be snarkish. Sometimes, we need to be creative and diplomatic enough to engage believers in meaningful conversation. For instance, in certain situations, effective diplomacy might suggest that we inject the emotionally-charged, widely-misunderstood word “atheist” into our discussions only gently and gradually. There are other synonyms available (e.g., “skeptic” or “I don’t believe in God”) for getting the idea across at the beginning of any discussion of religion with believers. In my experience, this minor-seeming move goes a long way toward trust-building. It delays using a word that is widely misunderstood to mean “immoral” to believers. This allows a meaningful conversation to unfold before dropping the “A-bomb.”
The degree to which we can work with believers will depend on how we communicate at least as much as what we communicate. In the best traditions of civil rights movements, we should always keep the focus and never take the bait. We mustn’t stoop to the level of fundamentalist bigotry, even when they scream that we are “immoral” without having the faintest idea of how we run our lives. When attacked, it is my belief that we should exhibit the composure of Atticus Finch and always explain ourselves with precision and dignity. Like it or not, we are constantly enmeshed in a public relations battle to convince tens of millions of nervous believers that atheists can be trustworthy and decent. We need to maintain our composure and patience when fighting this constant battle, even when unfair attacks drive us to wit’s end. Marriage counselors have assembled a list of additional communications errors we should especially strive to avoid if our goal is to maintain any sort of meaningful working relationship.
We further the cause of mainstreaming atheists when we work together with religious moderates to realize the many social goals we hold in common. All good-hearted people do this because we desperately need each other to solve the many pressing issues facing us. In the aggregate, those many issues constitute a “common enemy” that present a huge opportunity to knit a social fabric. Unless, of course, we have become obsessed with abstract differences of religious beliefs to the complete exclusion of the many real life challenges believers and atheists both face. It is my opinion that when we choose to let the world rot because we’d rather focus on banging heads over our abstract differences, we cease to be honorable.
But how much do we have in common? Atheists have so much in common with believers that to focus on our articulated religious differences is to allow the tail to wag the dog. What do believers and atheists have in common? Consider Donald Brown’s extremely long list of human universals from his book, Human Universals (1991). For example, with regard to speech, Brown lists the following characteristics all humans share:
Value placed on articulateness. Gossip. Lying. Misleading. Verbal humor. Humorous insults. Poetic and rhetorical speech forms. Narrative and storytelling. Metaphor. Poetry with repetition of linguistic elements and three-second lines separated by pauses.
Here’s something else that believers and non-believers have in common: skepticism. Most “religious” people are skeptical (or outright dismissive) of many religious claims, including many of the official teachings of their own churches. For example, 90% of married Catholics use birth control. Atheists don’t always hear believers disagreeing with their own churches, but you will hear these doubts when you stop sniping at the religious talk of believers and take the time to develop meaningful relationships with them.
I’ve heard doubts pour out of the mouths of so many believers that I can only assume that most “religious” Americans are closet atheists who go to church for a wide variety of reasons having nothing to do with the official teachings (e.g., to experience a sense of community or to enjoy the music). For instance, in The Human Story: A New History of Mankind’s Evolution (2004), evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar (p. 173) writes that rituals impose “low but persistent levels of stress on the body, and it is precisely this kind of persistent low-level stress that is particularly effective at stimulating the production of endorphins.” He suggests that religious practices are designed to “give us that opioid kick that makes us feel so much better able to cope with the vagaries of the world and, perhaps just as important, so much more at peace with our neighbors.” There is also evidence that regularly stimulating the endorphin system activates the immune system, thus protecting the body.
Over the years, four priests have told me that they sometimes wonder whether there is a God. The bottom line is that skepticism is something atheists have in common with many believers, even “professional” believers.
Not only do all believers have doubts; all skeptics and atheists fervently believe things that they cannot prove. Many atheists claim as a certainty that there is no God, something not even Richard Dawkins is unwilling to assert (In The God Delusion, Dawkins places himself as only a “6” on the 7-point scale where 7 represents “strong atheism.”). Most atheists believe that life is “meaningful,” even though we flounder when asked what “meaningful” means. Most of us believe that we have “free will,” a concept fraught with ambiguity and lacking of proof. Most atheists have faith that the world would run more smoothly without the threat of hell to keep other people in line. The very concept of “certainty” is fraught with uncertainty.
Consider, also, the 2005 annual question of Edge.org: “What Do You Believe Is True Even Though You Cannot Prove It?“ Dozens of prominent writers and thinkers responded with these sorts of thought-provoking answers:
• “I believe in moral progress” (by physicist W. Daniel Hillis);
• “There is no God that has existence apart from people’s thoughts of God” (by anthropologist Scott Atran), and
• “Consciousness does not play a role in human behavior” (by psychologist/neuroscientist Robert R. Provine).
Therefore, at Edge.org, one can find dozens of bright minds admitting that they believe things they can’t actually prove. But didn’t Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris claim that evidence-free belief gives encouragement to religious extremists? Aren’t skeptics also guilty of the supposed sin of religious moderates? Just because we love the scientific method doesn’t mean we are immune from arrogantly invoking science.
Believing in and basing one’s life on articles of faith isn’t something that’s done only by religious people. Science writer Tor Nørretranders sums up this idea well:
It is important to have faith, but not necessarily in God. Faith is important far outside the realm of religion: having faith in other people, in oneself, in the world, in the existence of truth, justice and beauty. There is a continuum of faith, from the basic everyday trust in others to the grand devotion to divine entities.
Each of us believes deeply in things we don’t really understand. We believe in love. We believe in Einstein’s general theory of relativity, even though most of us can’t explain it with confidence. Almost all of us strongly rely on the concept of self, whether or not we are justified in this belief. Many high-functioning non-churchgoers also believe absurd things such as homeopathy, astrology and the alleged importance of rooting for one’s hometown sports team.
My point is that all of us believe many things, even in the absence of compelling evidence. We are constantly tempted to do so because we must constantly choose to act despite being ignorant about many things of critical importance. Why, then, should we point our fingers at religious moderates any more than we should point fingers at ourselves? All of us sometimes lie in our beds at night wondering what life is about. Although some of us choose to utter the word “God” in the process, this doesn’t justify drawing sloppy lines so that we can ostracize them.
Consider also Albert Einstein’s version of “God,” which he explained to be a subtle, intangible and inexplicable non-sentient force beyond anything comprehensible. Equally difficult to categorize would be Stuart Kauffman’s plan to “reinvent the sacred,” a concept he discussed in a book he titled “Breaking The Galilean Spell.” Kauffman would do this by recognizing a fully natural “God” and a new “emerging scientific worldview that would reach further than the current conception of science, to include art, ethics, politics and spirituality.” According to Kauffman, “God is our chosen name for the ceaseless creativity in the natural universe, biosphere and human cultures.” Another well-known scientist who is difficult to categorize is E.O. Wilson, who considers himself to be a “provisional deist” (see Wilson’s discussion in his book, The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth (2007)).
Given that it’s so difficult to draw lines in the first place, the way that many atheists draw their thick black battle lines is especially counterproductive. We need to carefully do our homework to properly distinguish among those people who simply puzzle us and those who threaten us. Are particular believers merely annoying or dysfunctional, or do they truly present a danger to us? Blithely declaring that all of those people who claim to be religious are dangerous is both over-broad and under-inclusive. It’s over-broad because (as described above) it attacks people who are our social and political allies. The religious/non-religious distinction is under-inclusive because it fails to consider many types of potentially dysfunctional people who proclaim mind-numbing, aggressive or dangerous beliefs, but who don’t profess any belief in God. Many political groups fall into this category, but I would also include nihilists, as well as Scientologists.
We need to be careful when drawing lines, because people who draw lines tend to act on the basis of those lines. Recklessly drawing lines can have devastating real-world consequences. Consider that, if treated with a bit more deference, today’s believers might be more willing to become tomorrow’s skeptics. Uber-skeptic Michael Shermer and bible scholar Bart Ehrman were formerly Christian fundamentalists. Another example is Brain Flemming, who created the documentary, “The God that Wasn’t There.” All of these men were devout believers who both morphed into skeptics, but not because an atheist barked at them or pummeled them with scientific evidence allegedly proving that God didn’t exist. Rather, each of them questioned themselves out of religious complacency. Their stories are not unusual.
Sometimes I contradict the advice I’m giving here. I get frustrated with a Christian who is trying to convert me. I pull out what I consider to be a fascinating and compelling argument developed by Earl Doherty: the Epistles—the only Christian writings for the first 40 years following the alleged death of Jesus–almost completely fail to mention Jesus (it is only about 70 A.D. that the first Gospel was written). When I explain this to Christians (I try to explain it in a soft-peddled matter-of-fact way), they tend to look stunned. I usually follow up by urging them to go home to read their Bibles to see for themselves. Here’s how Doherty explains the issue at his site, Jesus Puzzle:
In the first half century of Christian correspondence, including letters attributed to Paul and other epistles under names like Peter, James and John, the Gospel story cannot be found. When these writers speak of their divine Christ, echoes of Jesus of Nazareth are virtually inaudible, including details of a life and ministry, the circumstances of his death, the attribution of any teachings to him. God himself is often identified as the source of Christian ethics. No one speaks of miracles performed by Jesus, his apocalyptic predictions, his views on any of the great issues of the time. The very fact that he preached in person is never mentioned, his appointment of apostles or his directive to carry the message to the nations of the world is never appealed to. No one looks back to Jesus’ life and ministry as the genesis of the Christian movement, or as the pivot point of salvation history. The great characters of the Jesus story, Mary his mother, Joseph his father, John his herald, Judas his betrayer, Pilate his executioner: none of them receive a mention in all the Christian correspondence of the first century. As for holy places, there are none to be found, for not a single epistle writer breathes a word about any of the sites of Jesus’ career, not even Calvary where he died for the world’s sins, or the empty tomb where he rose from the dead to guarantee a universal resurrection.
What Doherty is suggesting is that the stories regarding a “divine” Jesus were invented more than 70 years after “Jesus” alleged died on a cross. Most Christians I have spoken to don’t know this problem regarding their own sacred writings, yet most of them don’t seem to care. While I explain the problem, they typically look stunned, but never has any Christian ever told me that he or she went home to read their Bible after we talked and, lo-and-behold, they saw for themselves that Jesus of Nazareth wasn’t discussed in the first 40 years of Christian writing. As good skeptics know, this evidence is the tip of the iceberg. There are hundreds of Bible contradictions. There are hundred of vague phrases and teachings in the Bible, as well as scientific and mathematical falsehoods. None of this seems to matter to most Christians. The facts seem to be irrelevant to their religious beliefs (even though they are often highly skeptical in other areas of their lives).
In my experience, then, reciting undeniable facts doesn’t convince believers to relinquish their religions. That doesn’t stop me from occasionally trying to test the faith of a Christian, however. I tend to get in this mood when religious folks knock on my door and try to convert me. When I find myself in the mood to subtly serve as an atheist “missionary,” I plant a few seeds of science and skepticism here and there. It is part of my “faith” that even a tiniest impulse to be skeptical, once it takes root, might work as a cancer to rot away elaborate unsubstantiated belief systems. But appreciation of the scientific method and skepticism is only half the battle. The journey away from religion is not purely an intellectual exercise, which makes sense because people don’t usually become religious as a result of hearing intellectual arguments. The journey to full-throttled skepticism involves an emotional journey that requires courage. How do you give another person courage? I don’t know.
To those who insist that we can turn believers into skeptics by hurling intellectual arguments at them, the stories of former believers should give us pause. The ultimate step allowing one to break away from supernatural beliefs is an inner battle in the mind of believer. Skeptics cannot fight those battles for believers. We can only support them as fellow human beings by taking a genuine interest in who they are, supernatural warts and all. In my experience, this often requires painful and patient listening.
One of the bigger things that believers and non-believers can ever have in common is the willingness to talk about their differences. This willingness can forge a relationship that opens the possibility of further meaningful conversation. But how can non-believers meaningfully discuss religion with believers, even then they are interested in talking about religion? Aren’t we eternally destined to offend each other, causing such attempts to end in failure? Not always. I use the following strategies:
• Don’t go into such conversations intending to convince the believer to abdicate his or her religious beliefs on the spot. That will never happen.
• Remind yourself that matters of faith aren’t always simplistic, and that some things seem important to others, even though they are not literally true.
• Keep in mind that there are many social benefits to attending church; it is not socially irrational to attend a church service.
• Don’t assume that all believers are foolish or un-curious (though many of them certainly seem to be).
• Remind yourself that science doesn’t (yet) offer clear guidance for all of our pressing complex social problems.
• Remember that many believers continue to stand up and fight for our rights, including our right to freely declare ourselves atheists.
• Take lots of deep breaths when fending off obnoxious believers, keeping in mind that we are waging a non-stop PR battle. Don’t take the bait.
• You have no duty to take personal abuse. When that happens, tell the other person that he/she is being disrespectful and feel free to walk away.
• When attacked, fight back smartly, but always with compassion. Your good character and your sense of empathy are powerful weapons. If you become angry and it seems to the believer that you are attacking the person rather than the ideas, you will be seen as a member of the outgroup and your ideas will have little change of taking root.
• Let the other person have a chance to talk, even where you don’t understand what they are saying, especially where you are hearing a stream of religious platitudes. But also remind the believer that you, too, have a right to be heard. If a conversation is to be a meaningful, both sides should come away feeling that the other side tried to listen and understand.
• To score bonus points, occasionally restate the points made by the believer. This is often much appreciated. Quite often, Believers look surprised that I’m actually listening and able to restate their points. It often seems to lead to a more productive conversation.
• When discussing religion don’t feel a need to withhold your reasons for disagreeing, but take care to express your reservations in a gentle way rather than sounding accusatory. You will be amazed at how often concessions can be made when sincere and good-hearted believers discuss religion with non-believers. These concessions, including mutual admissions that the parties don’t actually know various things, form the basis for future productive interactions.
What I’m suggesting would require a lot of work. You might not be interested in spending time talking religion with Christians. I fully understand, because I’m often not in the mood either. Sometimes, I’d rather just live my life. But I repeatedly find that living my life compels me to become socially active to try the change something in my society. Since I am in a minority of 10%, getting anything done tends to require that I work with Christians, who often advertise their “Christianity” on their sleeves. And thus we come full circle.