The Elephant in the Room

Recently a Christian replied to one of my comments on a Christian blog by saying, “Why doesn’t the Bible make sense to some people? Pride. Foolish pride…Please study the Bible. Beg our Creator to reveal His Truths to you.” I replied by stating that I used to share his beliefs about these so-called “Truths,” that I rejected them, and that it wasn’t out of pride but out of simple observation.

I found that it illustrates nicely what I wanted to discuss today: hidden assertions both sides have and sometimes refer to in the ongoing dialogue on faith between Christians and Atheists. To be fair, I’m going to talk about both sides’ assertions. But I think some of what I say might surprise you.

The Christian Elephant
There are a couple of unspoken things going on when a Christian is presented with someone who doesn’t believe in God or used to believe and now rejects the concept of God. The first is that because the person refuses to believe in God, that person’s beliefs warrant an eternity of torture in Hell. That’s right. My rejection of God warrants an eternity of damnation. One eternity of punishment for one lifetime of rejection.

That is something I can deal with. Since I don’t believe in Hell it doesn’t threaten me anymore. What frustrates me is the second unspoken assertion that Christians tend to rely on: that an Atheist is spiritually misguided. This can be for the reasons of: (1) God already determined that I won’t believe in Him; (2) some devil or demon is causing me not to believe the Word of God; (3) some personal failing is causing me to reject what should be an open and obvious truth; and (4) I don’t actually disbelieve God because some part of me just has to know.

Notice a theme going through these reasons? That’s right, it’s that these reasons attempt to devalue the Atheist’s position without having to address it or even recognize it as valid. They lack common courtesy, and more importantly they lack even the attempt at actually defending any position promoting faith. All they do is attempt to end the discussion by saying the other person isn’t worth listening to.

If you’re a Christian that actually wants to treat people with respect, this should disturb you. I know it used to disturb me when I had faith. Showing people respect and love does not include claiming they are worthless. It doesn’t include making unsubstantiated claims about a person’s personal values. And most certainly it doesn’t include ignoring someone’s position simply because it is uncomfortable to acknowledge it.

The Atheist Elephant
Likewise Atheists also have an unspoken assertion that sometimes hangs over discussions on faith. Since some Atheists rely on observation and lack of evidence of the divine to support their conclusions that God doesn’t exist, another conclusion that can be reached is that people who believe in God are relying on evidence that is false. Or, to put it even more bluntly, Christians are deluded.

This also isn’t a very nice thing to say about other human beings, and it isn’t very nice to imply it either. Sometimes other Atheists will even resort to this assertion expressly, simply declaring all people of faith as mentally incompetent by sheer fiat. No evidence is provided, no reasons are given. And if it’s wrong for Christians to dismiss Atheists out of hand, then it is equally wrong here.

However, and this is a big one, when an Atheist is listening to a position on faith and provides evidence and support against it, that is not the Atheist being unfairly prejudicial. And this manner of taking beliefs and providing justification for why they are wrong is not an attempt to marginalize Christians. It’s actually a sign of respect.

How can this be respectful? Because first and foremost it shows that we Atheists are listening. Not only are we listening, but we are paying attention and taking notes. And then we go out and find evidence to support our assertion, evidence that can be independently tested from different perspectives. Then, we present our findings to you in a manner that you can read and deliberate over.

Simply because we disagree with you that an invisible deity is out there does not warrant a belief that we devalue you as a person. Rather, all it means is that we disagree and we want to share with you why. It’s a respectful invitation to treat people on grounds that are even and equally skeptical. I can’t make you abandon God, but I can use persuasion to convince you that not all your beliefs are healthy. That may not make us friends, but at least it makes me honest.

What to do with these monstrosities.
By now I’ve reached a conclusion that unfair use of these unspoken assertions results in a barrier to communication. I want to respect people, to treat everyone equally. It’s frustrating when I’m dealing with people who dismiss my point of view because of some dogma rather than on the merits of my own assertions. It’s even more frustrating when people reach to accuse me of failings without even bothering to ask if I have them first.

All hope isn’t lost though. I have had meaningful conversations with Christians and other people of faith that did not resort to some dismissive doctrine. And I’d actually like to thank them for being respectful of my ideas. Hopefully as things move forward, more and more people will see that engaging people is more productive than refusing to come out of one’s intellectual shell.

Some of these assertions cannot be avoided. But by recognizing that someone is coming from a point of view that listens first, reasons second, and expresses an opinion based on objective evidence third, it can mitigate some of the hurt feelings that come from an honest discussion.

5 thoughts on “The Elephant in the Room

  1. I am religious with a faith based on the Christian tradition, but I believe that atheism is a valid philosophy, with as much worth as my own.

    I find myself attacked from both sides whenever I come to the defence of the one side over an outrageous claim made by the other. Many atheists tell me that if I have a faith based on the Christian tradition, it’s necessary for me to believe that the bible is THE word of God, because apparently my “sky daddy” says so, and quote bible passages to back up their claim. This is almost the same argument as some Christians use. Neither side seems to be able to accept that it doesn’t have to be an “either or” situation. It saddens me that there is so little tolerance and acceptance of those who hold different beliefs.

    • I agree that there is little tolerance and acceptance of different beliefs. It’s difficult to separate the idea from the person holding it, and attacks against the idea can take on personal character assaults.

      With regards to statements made about the Bible, I thank you for bringing up that point. If one believes the entire Bible, then others can bring up uncomfortable verses and dare them to defend them. If one believes in an amalgamation, then there is usually a follow up statement of “you’re a bad Christian.” Either way, the argument does little to actually further an Atheist viewpoint and seeks only to frustrate others. And, from the converse side, the Christian view on Biblical infallibility is commonly used to marginalize those who do not share it – Atheists and Christians alike, I might add.

      But, Lutheran habits in me are not easily slain, and now I must try to provide some good news along with discussing the bad news. The fact that we can have this particular conversation is a great sign that respect for people can happen, no matter what the philosophical underpinnings of that respect are.

      Thanks for stopping by, Barry!

  2. From my own experience the concept of biblical infallibility is not widely held in this part of the world, and in hindsight that may be why discussion with mostly American atheists has not always been fruitful.

    One other observation that has just occurred to me is that the most strident atheists I have encountered have come from evangelical or fundamentalist church backgrounds, where religious independence was discouraged. This may explain their hostility to anyone who claims a religious affiliation.

    • I think coming from a fundagelical background is a factor in open hostility. There’s a good friend of mine that I’ve known for over a decade now who came from such a background, and he was very quiet about his lack of faith. I’ve also known one vocal Atheist who never had any faith. What I’d be most interested in is to see if there’s a link between vocal Atheists and Christians in their background.

      Perhaps they’re just people who like to hit other people with their ideas instead of discussing them like civilized persons. Or it could just be that we here in the States foster an environment that is more adversarial than is found elsewhere.

      • I get the impression that there is a more adversarial environment in the U.S. than many other places. It seems that Americans tend to see things in black and white instead of infinite shades of grey. Just a personal experience, so it’s quite likely inaccurate.

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