Do Atheists have anything in Common with Believers?

My latest thoughts on these things that agitate … mostly in a good way …

What Atheists Have in Common with Believers

Writing about topics and issues of faith and secularism my hope and intent is that people across the spectrum of religion will find something to connect with or relate to. In the responses I’ve heard, I find it interesting that nonbelievers and believers often have more in common than they know or admit. The use of different language or expression doesn’t mean there are no shared fundamentals in terms of life experience, or limitations of that experience.

On one hand we may hear some people say things such as “Muslims are dangerous,” “Jews control banking and entertainment” or “Catholic priests are pedophiles.” On the other hand we may hear, “Religious people are delusional,” “The Church is only concerned with money” or “Faith is senseless and irrational.” These uninformed statements really tell us important information about the one who expresses these personal opinions. Almost as if we need a “Spiritual Snopes” to fact-check wildly exaggerated claims about religion.

Some atheists say they enjoy listening to sacred music played in a cathedral or still appreciate a few Jewish family rituals or Christmas traditions such as trees and lights. I’ve heard believers who say they don’t much like Christmas and sacred music can be uninteresting to them.

I often use my own short list of questions to ask people, religious or not, in order to understand their stance on faith concerns:

1-What is your personal experience and what are the limitations of that experience? This seems the wisest question to ask ourselves and others, especially in opinions about religion. If someone was raised or served in leadership within Fundamentalist or Evangelical communities, they might concede they don’t know that much about other faith perspectives. If they were to make statements or judgements on other faiths or communities it would be wise for them to reflect on the experience.

2-Have you ever been a teacher? I find it instructive (excuse the pun) to learn whether a person has an interest in education. If so, what model or models of education have they used? Do they enjoy communicating knowledge to others, or merely passing along their own views? People who are not interested in the learning experience will not be too concerned to have a balanced, informed viewpoint, having little interest in assisting others to learn. Some would rather attack and offend others by taking an aggressive, anti-religious stand rather than open up dialogue where different sides could potentially learn from each other. All they seem to care about is putting down, hitting back—it’s really not about convincing or converting for atheistic apologists. They almost act like secular shock troops, but who’s commanding the battles? Who’s listening? Who actually triumphs?

Here again, if their experience is limited and mostly negative (see Q1) that might explain disinterest in open communication where education becomes possible.

3-Have you ever been a part of a multi-faith (interfaith) coalition or endeavor? This can have immense influence in shaping one’s religious views. If someone has shallow experience relating with and working beside people of other faith perspectives, they may be very restricted in their knowledge of the world of Faith or Religion itself. Friendly inter-religious activities offer broader educational as well as relational opportunities invaluable to growing more balanced views.

Those who have little or no direct experience with others who may not share the same beliefs might be inclined to make generalized comments or hold stereotypical views of those persons or their communities. When they assert their claims and conclusions, their bubble is apparent and transparent. We’re back to these questions again and again.

4-Do you currently have colleagues, friends or family who are people of faith? This is critically important, at least in my mind. Those who say they do not have these relationships, can easily jump to judge, ridicule or meme-slam others who have a faith position, regardless of the theistic views others hold.  They can conveniently ignore the array of beliefs from conservative to liberal to progressive to heretic!

Those of us who have left communities of faith but who retain valued relationships with people of faith, see no threat from or need to win arguments with those we care about. We recognize and respect the varieties of religious experience that include the likes of Thomas Paine, Lucretia Mott, Frederick Douglass, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, the Dalai Lama and many others, famous or not.

Even difficult or uncomfortable conversations can lead to healthier relationships. It takes some effort, and yes, relationships can break down. But I’d vote for keeping the connections if at all possible rather than giving up and putting down.

It’s informative to consider examples of “orthodox” thinking emerging from some secular circles.

-The Bible contains nothing respectable or practical for our day
-Jesus was a myth; he never even existed (therefore nothing he is claimed to say is worthwhile)
-We need to do everything we can to eradicate Religion from the world
-People need to be told there is no god … faith is nonsense
-“Spiritual teachers” have nothing important to say to our world

As a secular freethinker, I view these statements as problematic for several reasons. They sound dogmatic and close-minded. They shut down or shut off any real chance to communicate let alone educate (the other, or ourselves). They show limited knowledge of a wide array of thought on these matters. They reveal a kind of “evangelical atheism” that shares commonality with evangelism itself—a rather arrogant, self-righteous certainty that closes down any opportunity to learn, grow or have conversation. This is “debate baiting” where both sides have already decided their positions and no one is interested in changing their minds. After all, what’s the purpose of debating? In an educational environment, it’s about learning to articulate as well as learn from an adversary … in order to learn.  To debate as a game or battlefield in order to win one’s argument– this is evangelistic fervor at its most defensive and defiant. Personally, if it’s not about education, and a two-way openness to learning or constructive relationships, it seems a pointless waste of time to me, even destructive, especially to Reason and perhaps to common sense.

This brings us to some examples from faith circles that raise parallel questions.

-The Bible should be the rule of life (by whose authority and interpretation?)
-Jesus was divine and everything he said we must believe (everything?)
-The whole world must one day believe the same as we do (what would that mean?)
-Everyone needs to hear the good news and believe in our God (will you listen to the “good news” of others?)
-Our spiritual teachers have the only Truth to live by (what about the other teachers?)

Much of this of course circles back around, time and again, to one fundamental: listening. Are we willing? If not, why speak? One says: Faith is the only way. Another says: Atheism is the only way. An agnostic says: I’m not sure so I’ll stand in-between and think about it. A true, honest freethinker, I would suggest, would say: Yes, let’s listen to an array of perspectives with the intent to learn, to build relationships of understanding, grow and create circles where communication and questions are valued rather than winning; where people are willing to admit their ignorance and limited experience; where communities are possible, not centered on unanimous agreement but on treasured diversity, humanity and a higher vision perhaps than religion has ever presented.

Of course, if a person has a lack of experience or limited education in these matters, they will sneer, scoff and return snide remarks.

It’s important to note this is not about idealism, imagining an “end of religion” or “end of atheism.” This is based on the critical need we have, especially now, to connect the wiring rather than cut the lines, to be willing to own up to our experience and lack of it and to live our lives with integrity, generated by those core questions stated above.

If we can take the chances necessary to do these things, we might be able to be o.k. sharing more in common with those we most disagree with, who believe and think so differently. Progress can emerge from fighting, but we don’t always have to choose to fight since we all sit in the same classroom, all students determining our future.

This is all our free choice. I think the questions presented here are a reasonable choice for reasonable people to reason—together.

Chris Highland
2020

7 Thoughts

  1. This is also true of politics. Unfortunately the news media gets in the way of people truly trying to understand each other’s stances and each other’s reasoning for their political support for their favorite candidate.

  2. Atheism is such a broad spectrum. The way god is defined basically makes atheism a disbelief in the Abrahamic gods (they’re really the only ones we know enough about to discredit). I find if I can get through the stereotypical accusations that we do share some common ground. For me, Atheism was just a clean slate, an awakening that god is not “it”, but pure atheism may not be the last stop in the tracks.
    With the clarity of unbelief we begin to see the universe in its phenomenal varieties. I see something, but it is not god in the traditional sense, but us as a massive happening. There is no boss or bosses, but the universe itself that is one as every thing. It’s us. It’s so obvious it can’t be so simple. The mystery is there is no mystery.

    1. Thanks for the response. There is a broadness to non-belief, as there is with belief. Recognizing that seems a natural step forward in finding, or creating, any common ground. Many aren’t interested in that common ground out of prejudice, ignorance or basic fear of facing the other or oneself, I suppose. I admit that I quite often feel the closest in thought to some on the edges of the faith community as well as fearless freethinkers.

  3. Thinking on question 1. When I was growing up I wanted to be like all my friends and go to church – any church! However, my dad said, ” religion is for people who need a crutch, it’s for the weak”. After leaving home, I tried every kind of church out there but due to my own indoctrination (or anti-indoctrination) – I just didn’t fit in anywhere. During sermon, I kept wondering what Judaism would say on the topic, muslims, Buddhists? Hindu? Where’s the meeting point – I knew there had to be one. Forty years later, I guess I fit in everywhere- every religion has something to offer me. Unfortunately, I also still fit in nowhere because every meeting group seems to focus on one religion and I’d like to focus on their similarities instead. But I’m thankful (now) that I was not brought up in a specific faith; it’s allowed me to rest on any and all faiths. What I once perceived as a deficit I now appreciate. For me, the ‘not knowing mind’ has been a God send. Who can know what is good or bad?

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