Atheists Aren’t Jerks

Discussion about beliefs is important, but it needs to come from a place of mutual respect.

Toward the end of August, the social media networks exploded with a story: the Richard Dawkins Foundation’s Facebook page posted this image, citing a news story that alleged the Pope had made it illegal to report sex crimes in the Vatican.

The problem was, the story was drawn from a news parody site. Blogs picked up on it, and the obligatory social media mockery followed shortly.

My initial reaction was that New Atheism has come full-circle and descended into the sort of self-parody seen on the fringes of Christian fundamentalism.

One might characterize New Atheism as a largely polemical movement that attacks a particular type of Christianity—the religious and political practices of the “far right”—and conflates the part with the whole of Christendom.

So using the actions and views of the New Atheism movement to broadly criticize atheism is a move that (perhaps subconsciously) conflates a particular group of atheists with the whole—the very accusation one might level against New Atheism. It also distracts from a larger and more important conversation that Christians and atheists should be having.

Most atheists aren’t antitheists, just as most Christians worldwide aren’t far-right fundamentalists.


When atheists in America are distrusted, marginalized and politically underrepresented, it shouldn’t be difficult to understand the frustration behind the New Atheism movement. To blow an instance like the above out of proportion lacks sympathy and class, and it doesn’t lead to a constructive conversation. Rather, it imitates a national media that stokes controversy and gives self-righteous talking heads a platform to argue without resolution.

Not only is this not Christlike, it’s a huge missed opportunity.

Before the finger-pointing, name-calling and blame-laying, we must remember that studies have shown most atheists aren’t antitheists, just as most Christians worldwide aren’t far-right fundamentalists.

The loudest factions of Christianity and atheism aren’t the largest, which presents the occasion for mutual understanding: open, honest, introspective and rational discussion between groups of people who share more in common than not.

The conversation we should have would engage one another on that basis. There’s room for intelligent discourse around some of the most critical questions about humanity—how we relate to the world we share, how our beliefs inform our lifestyles, how we fit into this vast, cosmic scheme of being.

Such a conversation would allow us to “do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than [our]selves” (Philippians 2:3). It would give us an opportunity to “be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger” (James 1:9). It would let us try to “outdo one another in showing honor” (Romans 12:10). Respect begets respect. Can’t we approach interfaith (or “counterfaith”) dialogue using this method?

Consider the relationship of G.K. Chesterton and George Bernard Shaw, the former a Catholic and the latter described as an “involuntary atheist.” Their relationship was distinguished on the one hand by scathing written criticism and intense public debate. On the other hand, their mutual respect for the intellect of the other was plain to see and begot genuine friendship.

Chesterton once quipped, “It is necessary to disagree with him as much as I do in order to admire him as much as I do." Shaw characterized Chesterton as “friendly, easy-going, unaffected, gentle, magnanimous, and genuinely democratic.” Indeed, Shaw’s affection for Chesterton was on full display in a mournful letter written to his widow Frances the day after his death, calling it “ridiculous that I, 18 years older than Gilbert, should be heartlessly surviving him.” He offered to help her in any way possible before closing, “the trumpets are sounding for him,” alluding to Heaven as described in The Pilgrim’s Progress.

The late Christopher Hitchens, inarguably a man of staggering intellect and arguably the finest journalist and critic of our time, was a champion of New Atheism. But his public persona belied the incredible love he had for those he debated, notably evangelical apologist Larry Taunton. After Hitchens’ death, Taunton fondly remembered their meals together, frequent phone calls and visits, and a “civilized, rational discussion” about the Gospel of John, which they’d read together.

The topics atheists and Christians disagree upon are hugely important. But the dialogue needs to come from a place of mutual admiration, respect and intellectual honesty.


When asked his opinion of Taunton before a public debate, Hitchens said, “If everyone in the United States had the same qualities of loyalty and care and concern for others that Larry Taunton had, we'd be living in a much better society than we do.” Later that evening, Hitchens complimented Taunton’s performance. When Taunton dismissed Hitchens as having been gentle with him, Hitchens merely replied, “Oh, I held nothing back,” and then asked if they were still on for dinner.

These two examples illustrate a much larger point. The topics atheists and Christians disagree upon are hugely important, worthy of discussion and even debate. But the dialogue needs to come from a place of mutual admiration, respect and intellectual honesty.

Antagonistic and attacking “conversation” is not only unproductive, it’s incredibly damaging to both parties (and any witnesses). When we take an instance like the Dawkins Foundation’s Facebook post and use it as a chance to poke fun, we slam shut the door of opportunity for meaningful discussion.

Conversation that’s auspicious and sympathetic does the opposite: it encourages. It inspires. It builds friendships.

Christ commanded that we love one another as He loved us (John 15:12). In matters of discussion with those who believe differently than we do, nothing could possibly be more important.

10 Comments

Christy W. Stroud

2

Christy W. Stroud commented…

There's a new book out that talks about this too and includes the atheist perspective on evangelism: "Saving Casper" by Jim Henderson & Matt Casper. It's a much-needed conversation in the church.

Brandon W. Peach

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Brandon W. Peach replied to Christy W. Stroud's comment

Gonna have to check that out - thanks for the tip!

Devon Itspapagcuhcuh Guerrero

3

Devon Itspapagcuhcuh Guerrero replied to Brandon W. Peach's comment

"we must remember that studies have shown most atheists aren’t antitheists, just as most Christians worldwide aren’t far-right fundamentalists."
Love how you guys sourced a study about the atheists, but where is your study for how most Christians are not far right fundamentalists? Is that just an assumption you guys made that you hope your readers can agree on and glance over? In addition, interesting you note "wordwide Christians". If you only included those in the US, your statement would be quite false.
"open, honest, introspective and rational discussion"
If that was truly possible, we would have settled this long ago and everyone would be atheists. It is impossible to have an honest and rational discussion if theists continue to deny the fallacies in their arguments.

andrew morris

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andrew morris replied to Devon Itspapagcuhcuh Guerrero's comment

Dear Sir,

I myself have swayed back and forth from atheist to believer over the course of my years. I have read much and looked at the argument for both sides. And what I have found is that there are intellectual and reasoned arguments on both sides. I have found myself settling on the side of belief that Christianity is the True faith. I have come to this from both an intellectual and experiential process. Although I would not have allowed my experiences to trump my intellect. That doesn’t mean there aren’t intellectual arguments in opposition to Christianity. I simply feel that the intellectual arguments in favour of Christianity are stronger and more robust than those against.

Far-right wing US Christians do not represent Christianity as a Worldwide religion. I come from an Orthodox background which stems back as far as 70 AD. Our faith has not changed and the philosophy of it has not changed. If man has twisted a religion through his belief in his own fundamentalist views and then propagated that to the world, that does not necessarily mean he is representing the real truth of that religion. So the question is, are you seeking truth, or are you simply seeking to be right? I understand why you think the way you do. But understand me when I say there are plenty of valid, intellectual and robust arguments to suggest that Jesus of Nazareth was in fact God incarnate on Earth. As crazy as it sounds, do the research, and you may find the same. But don’t research straw men, and then argue that they are easily toppled. Look for the tried and tested philosophers of the Christian faith and you will find that there is indeed an intellectual case for Christianity, even if you don’t agree with it.

Jason Smith

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Jason Smith replied to andrew morris's comment

Dude ur smart. Lay this intellectual case on udus

Delaney

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Delaney commented…

Agreed. Often we can dismiss athiests as being unable to act with conviction, ethics or morals because they don't agree that they come from the same source as we do. Many of these fundamental truths are (I believe) hard-wired by God into us - both believers and athiests alike. In doing so, we dismiss athiests' humanity and thus any way to even relate to them.

Steve Cornell

218

Steve Cornell commented…

Is it possible that most atheists reject God’s existence not because they lack evidence for God but because of inner revulsion to the thought of such a being? I mean, who wants to answer to God?

Allow one honest atheist to explain: http://thinkpoint.wordpress.com/2008/12/03/i-hope-there-is-no-god-thomas...

Devon Itspapagcuhcuh Guerrero

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Devon Itspapagcuhcuh Guerrero replied to Steve Cornell's comment

The same could be said to you. I could say you have the inner revulsion to the thought of Zeus, and not lack of evidence. But yet I believe in him. I mean, who want's to answer Zeus?

Jason Smith

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Jason Smith replied to Devon Itspapagcuhcuh Guerrero's comment

CHRISTIANS JUST WON'T TO DENY THE TRUTH OF ALLAH SOSE THEU CAN JUST LIVE IN THEIR SIN AND AVOID SHARIA LAW BUT THEY WILL BE PUNISHED

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