A lot of what I read has an obvious theological or philosophical bent (just check out my blogroll to your right for confirmation), but every so often, it’s nice to get a non-technical perspective on these matters. As it happens, I sort of had one of these pieces fall into my lap.
Recently, I ran into an essay called “The God Fuse: Ten Things Christians and Atheists Can – and Must – Agree On” by David Wong of pointlesswasteoftime.com (the site name alone should be an indicator of the broad audience). Even though I was right on board after reading the title (I’m a sucker for ecumenicalism, even outside of religious boundaries), I have to admit that I was unsure about what the content would entail. I can safely say now that I am not disappointed. For brevity’s sake, here are a few comments on the 10(+) points Wong makes.
In the introduction to his essay, Wong gives a point that could easily have been included in a broader list but which here serves as a jumping-off point for the discussion: “Celebrating the death of somebody you disagreed with pretty much makes you a dick.” Despite the language, I have to agree, and Wong goes on to mention the Westboro Baptist crowd as a Christian example of this. But, as many of us probably recall, there were plenty of instances of this from atheists when Jerry Falwell died, from the lay atheists’ sigh of relief that another fundie was gone to “New Atheist” Christopher Hitchens’ incredibly offensive parting words to the late Liberty U president. Wong laments seeing this very phenomenon on the forums of his own site and points out that it is not the response a reasonable human being makes when someone dies. It is therefore a perfect example of how Christians and atheists can find a common ground, and Wong goes from here into his 10 points.
- You Can Do Terrible Things in the Name of Either One.
Wong points out here what I have oft been tempted to scream out in fits of rage – there is a difference between religion abused and religion used in the way it was intended, just like there is a difference between a knife used to cut a piece of steak and a knife used to stab someone. It’s the same tendency that makes Christians disown Hitler and Torquemada and atheists Stalin and Mao. Wong also points out that, despite claims to the contrary, we really cannot have any idea of what the world would be like right now if either side “had its way” in the world, which I agree with.
- Both Sides Really Do Believe What They’re Saying.
I’m not sure why this point needed to be said, but I’m glad Wong said it. The real point that I think the reader should get from this is that all of us humans are in the same epistemic boat, and if you believe something different than I do, I shouldn’t try to psychoanalyze your reasons for choosing it because you probably believe it is sincerely true.
- In Everyday Life, You’re Not That Different.
Again, this shouldn’t be that great a revelation that, in general, people deal with things in the same way whether they are Christians or atheists (Christian Scientists might be a notable exception here). Here we see Christians’ daily use of rational enquiry vs. atheists’ consideration of justice and integrity, which (despite its obvious problems with the false dilemma) is an interesting juxtaposition of the facts vs. values argument.
- There Are Good People on Both Sides.
This point seems more aimed at the Christian: Guys, atheists can act morally, too. See, that wasn’t so hard.
- Your Point of View is Legitimately Offensive to Them.
Here we see a core point made from the whole thing: “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.” There’s half the battle right there.
- We Tend to Exaggerate About the Other Guy.
Wong mentions a whole bunch of exaggerations here that are made by both sides, such as the idea that all Christians reject science (they don’t) or that all atheists are hedonistic degenerates (they’re not). This is part of that understanding thing he just mentioned: it has to be a correct understanding.
- We Tend to Exaggerate About Ourselves, Too.
Here is another point: Christians aren’t all about faith, and atheists aren’t all about logic. Most Christians don’t take the Bible 100% literally (thank God), and most atheists still believe in things that have no rational basis, like love and free will (or at least act as though they exist). There is a balance to be found.
- Focusing on Negative Examples Makes You Stupid.
Despite the harshness of the statement, this point is one of the best. Looking at the worst an ideology has to offer in adherents will only poison the well, so to speak, of what the ideology stands for. As St. Augustine once said, “Never judge a philosophy by its abuse.” This is sort of a corollary of #4 and #6, but it’s worth repeating.
- Both Sides Have Brought Good to the Table.
Here is one place where I think Wong fumbles a bit: He attributes rationalism to atheism and morality to theism. I think this is doubly wrong, for the fathers of modern science (the epistemological mode from whence rationalism comes) were by and large theists, from Aristotle to Newton, and certainly morality has not been something borne solely on the backs of theistic religions. But that’s not to say that his point isn’t valid, for the very competition of theistic and atheistic ideas has provided us with rich discussion for centuries, and the contributions of both would be significant (although still far understated) in just that alone.
- You’ll Never Harass the Other Side Out of Existence.
And here’s the rub: If you ever want a chance at persuading someone that they’re wrong and you’re right, be civil, for the love of God (or the absence thereof)! Be considerate of the other person’s values and understand that, deep down, they’re a person like you trying to make sense of what at times can seem to be a rather unintelligible existence.
And before you decide that this is good enough, go back and read Wong’s essay. It’s longer and wittier, although a little cruder (but not much). This is something worth reading, and that means you.