This post contains the final section (Part V) of Mending Fences, my attempt to grapple with how to handle religious differences (here is Part I of this series).
Where do we go from here?
It doesn’t take a genius to see that religion is deeply important to believers. You can see it in their eyes when a skeptic questions their tenets of “faith.” To me, that “look” is as though the skeptic is trying to tempt them to abandon the safety of a pre-modern community, which would cause them to get eaten by wolves in the forest. That’s the look I often get (or perhaps I’m projecting).
Even if the crazy things believers say aren’t true, they seem important to believers. When skeptics start to circle believers and display their skeptical questions, it seems to believers that we are tying to destroy something that is vitally important to them. Most good-hearted believers change the topic or run away. Other believers become aggressive or even violent. This puzzle some atheists, but wouldn’t you become violent if someone tried to destroy something you believed to be critically important? How, for example, would you feel if someone defaced your mother’s grave? Would you stay calm? Or would become angry? Maybe we don’t understand why believers believe their far-fetched religious stories, but certainly should be able to understand their emotional reactions when skeptics seem to take delight defacing and destroying aspects of religion that (somehow) have value for a believer.
Still, where does this bizarre stand-off leave us?
Atheists are now in the process of streaming out of our closets, and nothing is going to stop us. Nonetheless, it’s time to carefully refine our long-term mission. If religious moderates become convinced that we are obsessed with de-converting them, they will push us back and resist working with us on pressing social causes. This sort of confrontation also tends to harden and exaggerate the positions of both extremes.
In my experience, the anti-religion atheists have needlessly antagonized believers by making it their mission to de-convert them by chastising them and calling them stupid. This approach causes temperatures to rise, polarizing the two camps and encouraging the vocal minorities of both camps to call each other “stupid” and “immoral.” This is not a solution to any conceivable problem.
Although the intellectual work of new atheists is oftentimes commendable, their way of putting their work into practice constitutes ham-fisted diplomacy. Calling someone foolish and telling him what to believe rarely gets a desired result. It’s certainly never worked on you, right? Much more likely, such tactics cause an equal and opposite reaction. In fact, marriage expert John Gottman has scientifically shown that the tactics commonly used by anti-religion new atheists are the perfect recipe for destroying working relationships. See Gottman’s The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, where he demonstrates that there is no better way to destroy a working relationship than to employ the following four techniques, which he labels “the Four Horsemen”:
A) Attacking another’s character or personality;
B) Showing contempt through such things as sneering, sarcasm, cynicism, name-calling, eye-rolling, mockery and hostile humor.
C) Defensiveness that proclaims that “The problem isn’t me, it’s you.” And
D) Stonewalling: tuning out completely.
Gottman points out that these tactics are almost always destructive to a working relationship, regardless of who is “correct.”
I have written this chapter to challenge atheists, insofar as they function as a collective, to focus their primary mission to demanding society-wide tolerance of atheists. This simple but critically important goal would be acceptable, even laudable, for many believers, and it would also win for us much of what we need. Our end game would be to discourage political officeholders, media outlets and individuals from characterizing all atheists as irresponsible and immoral. Rather, we should be judged based on the “content of our character.” We should be able to be teachers, politicians, parents without it being acceptable for people to publicly smear us as incompetent or immoral simply because we don’t believe in imaginary beings.
Perhaps this limited goal might not satisfy to some atheists, because there would still be lots or God-talk, and God-talk confuses us, annoys us and sometimes threatens us. But we don’t write off all the other people who confuse us with their beliefs. For instance, we don’t usually write off our relatives, spouses, children, co-workers or neighbors when they publicly announce that they believe unproven non-religious beliefs. And we don’t write off other atheists who hold views that perplex us (e.g, views on politics or how to raise children). Instead of ostracizing large numbers of people with whom we disagree on a relatively small number of issues, we need to focus on the things most of us do have in common. Earth is a small lifeboat and without widespread social collaboration it seems much all-the-more crowded.
What’s the most feasible alternative to a society that denigrates atheists? In my view, it is not a society that has been cleansed of all religion. Rather, it is a society where people don’t much care about each other’s beliefs (or lack thereof). It would be a place like Finland. According to a study by sociologist Phil Zuckerman, most Scandinavians are unconcerned with religion, even though an overwhelming majority have been baptized, and many have been confirmed or married in a church. Zuckerman found that most Finnish adults deny most of the traditional teachings of Christianity, yet continue to call themselves “Christians.” Instead of fretting about religion, most respondents in Zuckerman’s study concern themselves with simply getting on with their lives and trying to be good. There is no hint that the people in Finland were lectured into being atheists.
Does the kinder and gentler approach I am proposing mean that atheists must respect unscientific and supernatural claims? Must we nod approvingly when believers tell us that one basket of food was enough to feed 5,000 people? Absolutely not. When a believer makes a factually impossible claim, there’s nothing wrong with speaking up (You might respond by saying “It is impossible to feed 5,000 people with one small basket of food.” or “There is no evidence that such a story is true”). At the same time, we are doing ourselves a long-term favor to recognize that far-fetched religious claims resonate deeply and emotionally with believers, perhaps because such stories touch on ancient roots that have been transported semi-intact to modern times through biological and cultural evolution. Rather than letting a disagreement be a conversation-stopper, how about adding something like this: “Even though I don’t believe that miracle, I understand that your religion is important to you.” Even though conversations like this require extra work, isn’t this how we would talk to our mothers, or our elderly neighbors if they told us that they believed that the fish and loaves miracle really occurred? Most of us don’t snap back at people we care about by saying things like: “What an idiotic story! It’s time for you to grow up and admit that there is no god!”
Over the past few years, the new atheists have cranked up the temperature of our arguments regarding religion, but now it’s time to bring the temperature down again. We might need thicker skin to do this, but it will be worth it in the long run. Let’s not declare war everywhere we spot religion. We don’t need to. After all, many atheists celebrate Christmas and other religious holidays (in their own ways). I’ve yet to hear an atheist sound frustrated that many of the days of the week are named after Norse gods. We’ve lived for many years with historical-religious irritants such as “In God We Trust.” As in every other aspect of life, we should pick our battles carefully.
What I’m proposing as our goal is to avoid getting caught up in all the drama of our differences, except where we are truly being attacked. We must defend ourselves firmly, even forcefully, but always with compassion. If religious zealots try to remove our birth control pills from pharmacies, we must use every political and social tool available, dealing with the problem directly but also with focus. We must also have the courage to stay engaged honorably, keeping in mind that the long-term struggle is to educate others as to the honorable people we are by our example, because that is the only way that can create the kind of community where we are widely accepted.