I have noticed from time to time that Christians become very angry with atheists or other skeptics in debate simply for being and saying who they are. Many regard any questioning of their faith positions as impolite, and some even regard such discussion as a form of persecution. It has always seemed odd to me.
When I discuss theology with an atheist, for example, I expect that he or she will:
- Deny the existence of God
- Deny the truth of substantial portions of the Bible
- Find miracles vanishingly unlikely at best, and most certainly denying the virgin birth and the resurrection
- Find the idea of the atonement fairly silly
- . . . and many, many more obvious differences of opinion
These seem so obvious to me, but I’ve encountered some Christians who become offended when a skeptic expressed each of those positions. I’m not sure how one can fail to be offended when someone says he’s an atheist, and yet suddenly become offended when he also mentions that he believes God’s existence is about as probable as that of the tooth fairy. It seems to me that one implies the other.
So if I wish to have a conversation with such a person–and I’m pretty much interested in dialogue on philosophy and religion with most anyone–then I have to realize we will differ on these things, and accept that in order to dialogue, we will both have to express our differences. Since I believe in God, and an atheist by definition does not, he will have to tell me in one way or another that he thinks I’m wrong. He might use words like misguided, deluded, or something similar. He may well explain all my spiritual experiences as the result of physical causes, and call them delusional. He might point to the doctrine of hell (in the form in which many accept it) and describe God, were he to exist, as a mass murderer.
To put it bluntly, I’m quite happy with any or all of those options. If that is what someone believes, that is what I’d like them to express to me. I’m not saying they don’t need to consider the public relations angle in general. But I would like to know what they actually think.
This little post was inspired by Duane Smith’s post Thoughts on Richard Dawkins at Cal Tech. I have to confess that I really enjoy reading Richard Dawkins. He writes wonderfully well and explains difficult topics with great clarity. I can read and enjoy him, and appreciate his writing, and yet disagree profoundly. It sounds like I would have enjoyed his presentation as well, as I have enjoyed hearing him interviewed on TV. In fact, while he is often vilified as the true example of an over-the-top atheist, I have found him to be very careful and precise in stating what he does and does not belief. He’s not unaware of the nuances in theology, even though he doesn’t choose to give those of us who “practice” those nuances much room to maneuver.
Having said all of that, I still should make clear that I disagree with Dawkins in a substantial way. I’m a theist, and he’s not. I’m in the crosshairs of some of his remarks. But why should I not be?
It seems to me that in much of what passes for dialogue in the public forum we have gotten whimpy about ideas. I’m not talking about name-calling, ad hominem attacks, and diversionary tactics. Those detract from the issue. But I’d really like to know where it is that Richard Dawkins has behaved in this way. I can and do get somewhat heated about his comments about providing a religious education for children. But based on the remainder of his beliefs, I have a hard time seeing how he could avoid the conclusion that children would be better off without any form of religious indoctrination.
In fact, I would ask my fellow Christians to look and see whether the shoe does not fit all too well. Often religious education is not education, but is really just indoctrination. I hear complaints from church leaders all the time about young adults leaving the church, but often those same church leaders are looking for teachers who will “teach the young adults the truth” and keep them from going astray. When I had the opportunity to plan curriculum for youth, I went out of my way to let them hear about other faiths. There was a field trip to a synagogue, I invited an Imam to come in and talk about Islam, we read materials about positions other than those of our own denomination.
Do I still disagree with Dawkins on this point? From what I’ve read thus far, I very much do. But I don’t think he has stepped over any sort of line in saying so.
If we, as Christians believe that there are things that are true and things that are false, and that it’s worthwhile to accept the truth and reject falsehood as much as we are able, perhaps we need to encourage each person to express his or her understanding of what is truth, and let’s test this in open discussion. If we are to do this, we have to drop the notion that a particular view is by nature impolite. And while I’m at it, for the same reason we can’t cut off discussion from the conservative side of the spectrum. If we try to shut up those who believe that homosexuality is an unacceptable lifestyle, or that all abortion is evil, rather than engaging in discussion, we will make it harder to find good policy positions.
Courtesy is good, but when courtesy is interpreted as a demand to cut off expression, then it can easily become a danger.