Understanding, Rather than Adversity

Hi guys,

I just wanted to say that I very much appreciate the Biologos attitude toward science, and I think you guys do good work. As an atheist, I have in the past found kindred spirits in those who reject ancient creeds and instead embrace the findings of modern science–evidence. However, I have in the past year or so, become a bit uneasy with the idea of counting myself as a member of the atheist community.

For one, there is outright hostility toward the theistic viewpoint. Now, I agree with many (if not most) criticisms of theistic viewpoints advanced by atheists. For starters, there is no evidence for theism.
Admittedly, the hostility is a two way street. But the whole “we have the right view, you have the wrong one” thing never sat well with me, no matter where it was coming from. It’s something that atheists often criticize when they see it in theists, and it’s one of the things that formerly led me to conclude that theism was somehow intellectually dishonest. But (truth be told) quite a few atheists exhibit the same behavior when they group together. No matter how you slice it, two wrongs don’t make a right.

Neither atheist nor theist can prove nor disprove God’s existence. But (frustratingly) most communiques between the two involve an assumption that it is rational to take a position on God’s existence one way or another. To me, it isn’t clear what one should decide. Some theists say that they take their position on faith. I can accept that, albeit with MANY reservations. But I do not accept that it is more reasonable to take one position over another on faith alone. The only things I can say are: the atheist position relies on fewer assumptions than the theistic one, and that (all things being equal) the atheist position has far fewer problems.

I would be interested to hear from theists who have tried communicating with atheists. What has been your experience? What is your assessment of the atheist position?

I, for one, am through bickering with theists. There was a time when I got something out of it, but that time has passed. I’d rather try to better understand theists than prove them wrong. After all, God’s existence IS something of an unprovable matter. Isn’t it more fruitful to try to look for common ground than bicker over matters that will never be settled?

I support the efforts of many atheist social organizations. But I see little point in hanging around with atheists these days. All we really ever wanted was to live our lives without coercion from religious institutions. We’ve pretty much won that battle, as far as I’m concerned. And if we haven’t won it yet, we soon will. I think that, since the battle for justice is now behind us, we should focus on healing the rift between ourselves and believers. I’d rather understand a theist than win an argument with one.

That’s why I appreciate the BioLogos approach. Even with all I have said, I will still fight tooth and nail to assert that a holy writing has no say concerning scientific fact. You guys get that. And I appreciate it.

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I admit that nearly all of my communication with any known or self-identified atheists has been right here, at least in the last year or two, since I don’t care to always be participating in culture wars and, like you, find the exchanges here to usually involve more light and less heat. As a result, my view of atheists has lately been shaped by the thoughtful sort who hang out here, and as such my view of atheism has become more sympathetic. Not ‘sympathetic’ in a condescending way (as in ‘pity’) but more so in the way that I can understand what they find so reprehensible about Christianity or organized religion generally and even agree with them in many of those critiques. So even though atheists may find this following conjecture mildly insulting, I insist on thinking of them as ones who have turned away from many false gods and as ones who have turned away from many untrue accretions that religions (including Christianity) have used to (unintentionally) obscure the true God. In other words, I’m choosing to take it with a grain of salt that they have actually rejected “all things God”. Even while hard core atheists continue to insist they have. I can respect that even while I retain my suspicion of it. It is impossible for any of us, atheists included, to not be shaped by our culture of immersion and familial upbringing. So in that spirit, I kinda like (and actually see something of a serious point in) Garrison Keillor’s otherwise humorous quip: “Here in Minnesota, we’re all Lutherans. Even the atheists here are Lutheran because, you see, … it’s a Lutheran God they don’t believe in.”

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At the risk of seeming presumptuous, I would guess what you got out of it was settling your own ambivalence since I think religion played a more central role for you growing up than it did for me. I’m less inclined toward argument or debate because I expect less to come from rationality. Though like you I appreciate careful use of language. Personally though, I don’t think faith is ultimately about rationality. In fact I think excessive rationality interferes with intuitive insight, something I rely on less than I do rationality, but probably value more for its scarcity.

For me that involves trying to understand what they get out of it in the sympathetic manner Mervin mentioned. Most atheists are pretty condescending when brainstorming the advantages of faith.

I agree that arguing over God’s existence is futile. But even believing as we do that God as a unified, external agency does not exist, it seems to me that faith may have the capacity to connect us to the depths of ourselves where can be found a lot of latent human potential. It isn’t a matter of fooling oneself into believing a falsehood but simply conceding the limits of our rationality to achieve all things. Rationality does so much real work for us through the sciences, I see no reason to expect it to open every door. The two things we never quite understand are ourselves and exactly what is meant by “God” at least not for those of us who accept no authoritative texts regarding either one.

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At my wife’s 60th coming up to two years ago I met my first PPE - Oxford Philosophy, Politics and Economics graduate - who in arthritic agony engaged with me engagingly. A working class genius from a single parent family who ended up teaching head teachers, my wife being of that ilk. He knew we were ‘religious’. Every point he made I agreed with, which blew him away. Nicely frustrated him. Because it didn’t touch my ‘religion’. Because faith doesn’t trump rationality. Desire does. I was honest. Or so I thought. And I lie, because HAD the adamantine, untouchable proof on top of desire, on top of I want it to be so; I had the Pericope Adulterae (PA). That to me WAS the towering proof of divine intelligence manifested in a human. I played that card and he played ‘It was made up by a priestly class’. I all but snorted in derision. We parted wishing for more and got it a year later. He’d got his hip fixed. I’d lost my proof. Because I set out to prove him wrong. And like any undergraduate theology student, or someone who reads the notes at the bottom of a study Bible, I discovered that the PA, the Woman Caught in Adultery appears four hundred years after the event, with hardly a trace. That gutted me. It seemed he was right. It’s taken another year to do another Heraclitean loop of partial recovery. The stream isn’t the same. I didn’t tell him any of this, we talked politics (Brexit) and eternity, in which I found an extreme postmodern limitation in him, which was disappointing and gratifying.

So it can be done.

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Thanks for this thoughtful post. I echo Merv in saying that participating here has influenced my view of atheists. For one thing I’ve had to make the distinction between an “atheist” being merely someone who lacks any belief in deities, versus an “anti-theist” who is actively opposing religion. In my growing-up belief system, all atheists were seen as anti-theists, so I’ve had to realize that’s simply not true, and I appreciate the interactions I’ve had with and observed from thoughtful people, both atheist and theist.

I’m pretty sure atheists and theists will always disagree at a fundamental level, but it’s wonderful to be committed to gracious and respectful discussions.

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This kind of made me laugh. Why yes, there are several people I care quite a lot about who are atheists, and I try communicating with them on a regular basis. Usually not about God though, but I find them quite delightful communication partners on any number of loves we have in common.

I don’t think the vast majority of people arrive at their place of God-belief or disbelief via rational processes or argumentation. I think life happens to them, they try to make sense of their experiences and feelings, they try to get their human needs met, and in he process people the end up in different places when it comes to faith. I don’t really understand why faith seems to come so naturally for some and God’s existence seems be so self-evident, and for others it’s just not at all.

I think many aggressive atheists have a lot in common with fundamentalist Christians and I find both groups unpleasant at times, because militant dogmatism is just unattractive. But many atheists and many Christians have found a place of equilibrium and peace and aren’t constantly threatened by other people having different worldviews, and they don’t feel the need to successfully argue that they are right all the time. I’m happy to talk about my experience as a Christian with anyone who is interested, but I don’t think it’s my job to convert anyone, or deny, or invalidate, or find a different narrative for the experiences that have brought them to where they are.

I would say, yes, that is generally a good approach to relationships and communication.

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