Mending Fences – Part V – the Final Installment

July 15, 2010 | By | 12 Replies More

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.

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Category: American Culture, 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 (12)

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  1. Pat Whalen says:

    You clearly put a lot of time into this series and feel passionately but I can't get pass the first few paragraphs where I see strawmen and hyperbole. Perhaps later in the various pieces you get into specific cases of prominent atheist speaking or acting inappropriately.

    At the end of the day facts are facts and there really is no way to sugar coat them. The bible is clearly written by men who had a much more limited view of the world than we do now but many of the same fears and prejudices. Of course if the bible is the infallible word of God that would be a fact too.

    I don't see anyone being called "stupid", just wrong. And pointing out that this mistake has consequences.

    So without identifying specific instances I don't think you are addressing a real problem

    Pat

  2. Erich Vieth says:

    Pat: I'd recommend that you Google religion + idiot or + stupid for thousands of examples of people calling believers stupid or idiots.

    My series was aimed at non-believers, but it could equally be aimed at many American Christians (and other types of believers) who hurl invective at those of OTHER religions, especially Muslims.

  3. Dan Klarmann says:

    Pat: If any of us put up strawmen, please specifically indicate them, so that we can learn. I can't find one in this post.

  4. Erich Vieth says:

    Looking at this series of posts in retrospect, it does seem to sum up as a Rodney King moment: "People, I just want to say, you know, can we all get along? Can we get along?" http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rodney_King

  5. Erich Vieth says:

    Just so I'm clearer. I'm not suggesting that everyone has some sort of obligation to try to get along with EVERYONE ELSE. There are many people who hold beliefs (including religious beliefs) that would make a meaningful relationship extremely difficult. Here's a recent example from the U.K. Guardian http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/jul/15/vatic

    "[T]he Vatican stoked the anger of liberal Catholics and women's groups by including a provision in its revised decree that made the 'attempted ordination' of women one of the gravest crimes in ecclesiastical law."

    I really don't enjoy spending time with bigots, no matter how nice they are to me. To the extent there are people who would exclude women from things they are clearly capable of doing, just because they are women, I will usually avoid them. I find bigotry much more difficult to deal with than belief in an invisible supernatural being that tells people to be nice to each other (which is how most people think of God).

  6. Erich Vieth says:

    The Positivity Blog Suggest that we should go into conversations with strangers "assuming rapport." What is that?

    "Basically, instead of going into a conversation or meeting nervously and thinking “how will this go?” you take different approach. You assume that you and the person(s) will establish a good connection (rapport). How do you do that? You simply pretend that you are meeting one of your best friends. Then you start the interaction in that frame of mind instead of the nervous one. I have found that this advice is surprisingly useful and easy to implement."

    http://www.positivityblog.com/index.php/2007/12/1

  7. Ben says:

    "Jason Rosenhouse has a short, clear post in which which he briefly examines the polling data to see if New Atheists have harmed the cause of science education, an accusation frequently made."

    http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2010/07/backla

  8. Ben says:

    Erich this may be up your alley:

    Scienceblogs sold a blog to Pepsi, many top bloggers have quit, now even PZ is on strike.

    http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2010/07/pharyn

  9. Ben says:

    AAI Copenhagen 2010: P.Z. Myers – Speaking truth to absurdity

    http://www.youtube.com/user/AteistiskSelskab#p/u/

  10. Roy Sablosky says:

    It doesn’t take a genius to see that religion is deeply important to believers.

    That is an assumption, not a fact. The advocates for religion insist that it is of ultimate importance, but this is a lie. People are deeply committed to their communities; and religion claims to be a deeply important feature of the community; but this is a lie.

    I think it is misleading to say that religion is "deeply important to believers." And even if it is deeply important, maybe they'd be better off if it weren't.

    Even if the crazy things believers say aren’t true, they seem important to believers.

    Yes, they seem important. Or, at least, believers say they're important. But then, that's what one is supposed to say when surrounded by other believers.

    Although the intellectual work of new atheists is oftentimes commendable … calling someone foolish and telling him what to believe rarely gets a desired result.

    We are not telling believers what to believe. The claim is pernicious. It makes me mad.

    there is no better way to destroy a working relationship than …

    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.

    This is even more insulting. Who among us "new atheists" does any of those things?

    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.”

    This is misleading. As person, we should not be judged at all. Our proposition is about the world, not ourselves. Our "character" is irrelevant. We are talking sense, or we are not. No one can discover which is the case by looking at our "character".

    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.”

    This kind of "understanding" won't help anyone. You don't understand belief as well as you think you do. You have been misled by religion's parasitic vocabulary.

    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!”

    A better way to think about this is that since such a "belief" is incoherent, it can't be held. The "believer" doesn't actually believe it. So it's not important to figure out exactly what people should or shouldn't, do or don't "believe".

    I would turn the conversation from her so-called beliefs to her social experience. Does her church really help her with anything, or does it just take all her extra cash and give nothing back but lies and shame? That's how it works for most "believers", and that's what we horrible, nasty "anti-religion atheists" are trying to stop.

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