Thursday, February 21, 2008

10 Things Christians and Athiests Can Agree On

Not my work. I wish it was. It says a lot of things that I think need to be said more often and more clearly in this debate.

I've edited somewhat to highlight the basic points; the full text can be found here.

I've been asked why I'm always attacking Christianity. From my point of view, what I'm doing is better described as being a proponent of rationalism. Being born and raised in a society where the major religion is Christianity, most of my arguments tend to be constructed in respect of that religion. Had I been raised in an Islamic society, I would probably construct my arguments in reference to Islam, and so on for any other religion you care to name.

Being in favour of rationalism, however, does not mean that I disrespect Christianity or Christians. I'm married to a devout Christian, and I count many good Christians among my friends. However, I count them as friends and respect them not for their Christianity, but because they are good people. (They would naturally argue you can't have one without the other, but I'm not so sure. You can't make a silk purse from a sow's ear, and I have also known many Christians whom are even more petty and judgmental than the common ruck of mankind.)

So why am I speaking out so much now? Well, for much of my life, religion was a non-issue. My parents were carefully non-religious - "carefully" as they brought my sister and I up to respect the various belief systems, yet to keep an open mind. I acquired critical thinking from the vast amount of science fiction I read, and I learnt an enormous dislike for fuzzy thinking. And slowly I came to the realisation that rationalism - science - is fundamentally incompatible with religion.

I met my wife, and through her good graces came to know many Christians, to the extent that many of you reading this would be in that circle. I go to church every (well, most!) Sundays. I do this because I like to make my wife happy, and it makes her very happy to see me in church - she hasn't given up on converting me. So I have many people around me whose company I like, and respect and admire, and who attribute every success and failure to God's mighty hand.

Now, to directly take issue another's belief system in social conversation is about as polite using their best furniture as your toilet. Standing up in church to denounce Christianity would be so far beyond "rude" you couldn't see it from there.

But I need to be true to myself. And this is what I do here.

Enough rambling; on with the show.

1. You Can Do Terrible Things in the Name of Either One

All I need from you is agreement that it's entirely possible for either an atheist or theist world to devolve into a screaming murder festival. The religious leader sends his people into battle because he thinks God commanded it, the Stalins and Maos of the world do the same because they see their people as nothing more than meaty fuel to be ground up to feed the machinery of The State. In both cases, the people are equally dead.

2. Both Sides Really Do Believe What They're Saying

Christians do this thing that drives atheists nuts, where they talk like God is patently obvious to all mankind, and that atheism is therefore just petty, intentional rebellion against Christians. In other words, that atheists don't honestly believe what they say, and just say it because they're jerks.

But atheists do something very similar, particularly when a Christian says:

"Only the saved go to Heaven!"

...and what the atheist hears is:

"I want everyone else to go to Hell!"

You can say they're wrong. You can say it all day, you can etch "YOU'RE WRONG" into the surface of the moon with a giant laser. But you'll have a lot less angst if you remember that the thing they're wrong about is something they honestly believe, down to their roots.

3. In Everyday Life, You're Not That Different

You Christians, if the transmission in your Camaro explodes, are you going to use prayer to reconstruct it? No, you'll call a mechanic. When your tooth hurts, you don't assume it's possessed by demons. You look for a cavity. Basic, everyday troubleshooting.

Well, at the very worst, the atheists are just applying the same common sense, real-world troubleshooting to the God question. At the creation of the universe and in the heart of mankind, they expect to find the same physical, tangible answers they'd find inside a burnt transmission. If they're wrong about God, they're only wrong in that they've taken the tried-and-true troubleshooting we all practice one step too far.

Atheists, even if you reject the idea of God completely and claim to live according only to the cold logic of the physical sciences, you all still live as if the absolute morality of some magical lawgiver were true.

When some guy hustles you out of eighty bucks in an eBay scam, you don't nod and say, "Interesting! This fellow lacks the genetic predisposition toward equitable dealing that generations of sexual selection in favor of social behavior has instilled in the rest of us! A fascinating difference!"

No, you think what that guy did was wrong. You want justice. You think he should have acted differently.

4. There Are Good People on Both Sides

This is an easy one. I shouldn't lose anybody here. All you need is examples.

Atheists, you can despise a Falwell or the gay funeral protesting guy, but you've known Christians who did it right. Famous ones like Martin Luther King Jr., or just common ones you've run across who seem to have an inexaustible well of generosity and good cheer. You know how many charities have crosses on their logo.

Christians... look. I understand the concept, that all morality comes from God and thus those on the outside are vulnerable to temptation and the devil and all that. But you know good people who aren't believers. I know you do. You can't miss them.

5. Your Point of View is Legitimately Offensive to Them

You see a friend holding a newborn baby and you say, "You know, there's a chance he'll die tomorrow." Or you stand over the casket at your uncle's funeral and say, "He'll definitely be consuming fewer of the world's natural resources now." Both statements completely, 100% factually correct, and can be defended to the end of time by cold, undeniable logic. And both are incredibly offensive.

To say such things, and to be surprised when the hearers take offense, would show such a profound misunderstanding of human nature that everyone will assume you were raised by wolves.

So Christians, knowing what we just said about how it is possible to be a true, honest atheist, that people walk around every day and truly see no evidence of God, can you understand why it's offensive to them to hear that they, and their family, and their children, and their friends, are going to burn for eternity for it?

Atheists. Same deal. It's irritating to you when they say you and your friends aren't going to Heaven because of your beliefs. But it's just as irritating to them when you say they're not going to Heaven because there is no Heaven. And the irritation happens on the same grounds, which is, injustice. You hate the idea of all non-Christians burning for eternity, but you're telling them that the mass murderer and kindly grandma will draw the same eternal reward (or lack of).

Now, again, both of you are saying, "But I'm factually right in what I'm saying!" And that's fine. For this, all we're doing here is understanding why they're offended by what you say. That's it. Putting yourself in their shoes. Basic human empathy. That's all.

6. We Tend to Exaggerate About the Other Guy

Anybody can memorize facts. But you remain a clumsy, intellectual oaf of a person as long as you keep looking for sheer black and white in every situation. That's what's so frustrating about politics, the way everybody wants to paint the two parties as angels vs. devils. And if you just said to yourself, "Yeah! Those evil ________ are always trying to polarize us that way!" then, guess what, you just did the same thing.

So please, please, please, when we get into these atheist vs. Christian arguments, can the atheists stop acting like Christians want to abolish all science and live in grass huts? Just because some Christians reject the science on evolution, doesn't mean they reject all science.

And Christians, will you please, pretty please, with sugar on top, stop implying that the atheist lifestyle is one long drug-riddled blood orgy? You take a country like Japan, where just 12% of the people say religion is important to their lives and yet have some of the lowest crime rates in the world.

7. We Tend to Exaggerate About Ourselves, Too

If you're like me, there's this weird process that happens when you encounter somebody who believes the opposite as you, especially when they're really pushy about it. You actually go the other direction. I secretly think the Yankees are good enough to win 80 games this year and maybe make the playoffs, the other guy snorts in my face and tells me they'll be lucky to finish last. I roar back that they're going to win 100 and take home the title.

It's like that other guy is so irritating, I want to position myself further away. Or maybe it's like haggling over the price of a used car, you start low so that once the compromise happens, you'll be closer to your end than his.

It's often the same thing here. It looks like this:

"I believe the Bible is true."
"There is no evidence that this one religious text is any truer than other texts like it."

In reality, there are very few Christians who do or even try to follow the Bible exactly, including all the obscure rules about church women staying silent and hatted. Word of God or not, the faith changes, adapts with the times. That is, in fact, the entire point of Christianity. Jesus was a reformer, and set that precedent.

Now Christians hate to admit that, because it opens the door for the other guy to say, "See! If it's not the word of God then you admit it's all a big pile of fly-ridden crap and that atheism is the one true belief system!" So, the Christian digs in and pretends they've never experienced a moment of religious doubt in their lives.

Conversely, atheists like to pretend they're islands of pure, rational thought in a sea of wild-eyed craziness. But we all have a little crazy in our world, and we all depend on some fantasy that floats outside the boundaries of cold reason.

Atheists still tell their girlfriends they "love" them, and not that they simply feel a psychological artifact of a biochemical bond generated by the mating instinct. They still refer to their "mind" as if it's something more than chemical switches. And remember what we talked about with "justice" and "right" and "wrong." None of it is scientific.

8. Focusing on Negative Examples Makes You Stupid

That guy, the "God Hates Fags" guy? Fred Phelps? His church (Westboro Baptist) has become world famous for those demonstrations.

Which is amazing, considering that the "church" is made up entirely of Phelps' family and a few friends. That's it. And they're world famous, mainly because atheists looooooove to hold them up as an example of what dicks Christians are. When you need an icon of intolerance, they're as useful to have around as Hitler.

The White House and Congress and the Supreme Court are full of Christians, always have been. If all Christians thought like Phelps, American gays would be in concentration camps. There'd be nobody to stop it.

Smearing all Christians with Phelps' bile is a cheap shot, like saying all atheist schoolkids are potential Columbine shooters. At worst, that kind of stereotyping is dehumanizing and divisive. At best, it's a recipe for mediocrity.

9. Both Sides Have Brought Good to the Table

Christians, I'm not saying that atheists have brought good things to the world by telling people not to believe in God. I'm talking about the thing that drives atheism, the philosophy behind it.

I'm talking about rationalism. I'm talking about the philosophy that started saying, centuries ago, that it's not demons that cause disease. It's microbes, and genetic defects, and chemistry. And that we can find those causes and we can find cures. Cures in the physical world, without consulting the priest, without going through a ceremony.

Think about what I said before. If atheism is wrong, it's only wrong in that it takes rationalism too far, beyond the edges of the universe. But you don't have a problem with the rationalism itself. There are people you love who would not be alive without it. You can pray that grandpa's heart holds out for another year, but rational thinking invented the pacemaker.

Atheists. You hate wars. You hate genocide, you hate iron-fisted dictators who line up peasants and jump over them with monster trucks. You hate it when corporations steal your money, and when fat suburbanites will let a million Africans starve before they'll donate. You hate guys who treat women like lifeless sex dolls, guys who lie and leave.

You hate all of that, because you know that the ability to have empathy for other humans (even those who don't benefit us) is the only thing that separates us from the cockroaches. And when that fails, it's terrifying and awful in countless ways.

In the middle of a religious debate, you may say that religion and superstition are the prime evil in human society. But you look behind it, and you'll find that other monster is bigger. Humans doing the opposite, acting like animals. Treating other humans as nothing but engines for their own pleasure.

Religion - whether it was handed down by God or just invented by a bunch of guys - serves mainly to fight that. It makes humanity sacred, and the moral law moreso. You can hate the methods it uses, you can say that there are other ways, you can say that it only replaces one cancer with another. But most of what it's trying to get you to do - treat other humans as sacred and put morality above your own impulses - you already do. And you criticize religion mainly for not doing it.

You're going to say that you're not criticizing that part of religion, the concept of things being sacred, or morality, or any of that flowery stuff. It's the intolerance and manipulation and superstition and ignorance you hate, the zealots demanding evolution be stripped from the textbooks.

But from the Christian's point of view, when you attack one, you attack the other. The story of Christianity (or mythology, if you prefer) is bound to the morality. Humanity is sacred because were were planted here in a six-day act of divine intervention. Lying is wrong because God said so. You should work to preserve a marriage because God made that bond sacred with Adam and Eve.

So when you attack that mythology, Christians hear you attacking the morality along with it. And that is why they fight so hard for it.

Seriously, what did you think the creationism thing was about? It's about keeping humanity sacred. They think that once you dash the idea of a created humanity, then there'll be nothing to stop strong humans from treating weak ones as cannon fodder.
After all, you know as well as I do that there are two kinds of people who attack Christianity: those who love rationalism, and those who just have a knee-jerk reaction to being told what to do. You've got people who are right for the wrong reasons, and others who are wrong for the right reasons, and some who are right for the right reasons and others who are wrong for the wrong reasons.

It's like all my friends are with me on the beach, looking out at the ocean. Half of them look at the water and say:

"This is Oceanis, the living Blue God! He is sacred!"

While the other half say,

"Here is a convenient place to dump our sewage."

The truth has to be something more than either.

10. You'll Never Harass the Other Side Out of Existence

People are not convinced that way. The sarcasm, the disdain, the laughter. It makes you feel better, and rallies your friends, but it does exactly nothing to change minds on the other side.

No, in reality, if changing minds is your thing, there's only one way to do it:

Lead by Example.

There's a thing the church has been doing for centuries, that I don't think it can do any longer. It goes like this:

"Jesus is the son of God."

"How do I know that?"

"Because if you don't know that, then you will burn in Hell for eternity."

No. Uh-uh. If you want people to live their life in a certain way, based on a certain fact, you can't substitute a threat for evidence.

You have to lead by example.

Atheists, same thing. you want to show me that atheism is the key to a balanced, satisfying, confident life? Show me.

Trust me, if they introduce a new energy drink tomorrow and I observe that everybody who drinks it suddenly can dunk a basketball from their knees, I'm going to notice. So will everyone else.

That drink will be unstoppable.

So if you want to criticize the Christians' intolerance, then be tolerant. Show them how it's done. Shame them with your tolerance. You won't have to say they're awful. They'll look awful by sheer comparison to you.

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