Christians and atheists – towards a better understanding

It’s no secret that the cold war between Christianity and atheism has been heating up a little in the past decade or so. Some high profile atheists have written rather scathing books about religion in general and (in most cases) Christianity in particular, some of them well researched and well argued, some less so. A whole host of Christians have responded, some carefully and persuasively, some abusively, some with several rounds of scripture fired from the hip.

There are gentler voices out there, working to build bridges and increase mutual understanding, but they tend to get shouted down. I for one have appreciated the more eirenic tone taken by Gurdur, who, while a committed atheist, has also taken the initiative to reach out to us Christians and engage us in civil discourse. On a much higher academic level, philosophers J. Haldane and J.J. Smart have demonstrated in their book Atheism and Theism that it is possible for the two sides to engage with each other’s arguments in a respectful way, without resorting to caricature, abuse, or character assassination.

I do not consider myself to be an intellectual, but I have spent the summer trying to engage with the books and ideas of the new atheists and I would like to think that I have some helpful suggestions to make to improve the relationship between us.

First, let’s make friends with each other. I’ve been rather fortunate here in that I know a couple of atheists personally (in the flesh, not on the internet), and find them to be excellent (and highly ethical) people, so when I read the abuse that some atheists dish out to Christians in general, I can stop and think “I’m sure that so-and-so would be a bit embarrassed by the tone these people are taking”. Relationship makes all the difference.

Second, let’s accept the fact that neither side has arguments that are entirely compelling to the other. For example, the brilliant geneticist and former atheist Dr. Francis Collins became a Christian through reading the works of C.S. Lewis, but other atheists (Christopher Hitchens, for example) find Lewis’ arguments entirely unconvincing. We Christians need to be honest and admit that very few of us were argued into the faith; reason is fine as far as it goes, but it doesn’t take us the whole way. And at this stage of the game, the chances that one side is finally going to find the one utterly convincing argument that will irrevocably demolish the other are very slim.

Third, let’s engage with the best of the other side’s thinking, not the worst. I have to say that, after a couple of months of reading the new atheists, I was getting a little tired of having arguments against fundamentalism lobbed at the entire Christian church. Quite frankly, I know that large parts of the Old Testament fall short of the teaching and example of Jesus, and Christian  theologians have developed a fairly sophisticated biblical hermeneutic to deal with this fact. I expect atheists to do their homework here. And in the same vein, perhaps Christians who want to argue about Darwin should actually bother to read The Origin of Species?

Fourth (and this follows on from the third), let’s listen before we speak. And perhaps we can help each other here. Perhaps we Christians can go to our atheist friends and ask, ‘Can you point us in the direction of the people who you see as being the best and most important exponents of atheist positions, so that we can read and try to understand what they say? And when we’ve read their books, would you be willing to sit down with us, answer questions and discuss their ideas together?’ And perhaps atheists would come to us and say, ‘Okay, you want us to engage with the best thinkers in Christianity today – who are they? What have they written, and why are they so important to you?’

Fifth, let’s agree that all coercion is entirely inappropriate. I think we should enthusiastically embrace the difference between pluralism and relativism. Pluralism says that in a modern society everyone is free to choose their own beliefs and not have someone else’s ideas imposed on them by force. Relativism says that all beliefs are equally valid and it doesn’t matter what you believe. No atheist that I know is a relativist (they all think that religion is mistaken), and as a Christian I certainly think atheists are mistaken. However, I rejoice that in a pluralistic society I am free to be a Christian and they are free to be atheists, and if one of us wants to change our position we can do so on the basis of thought and conversation, without worrying about (for instance) state-imposed laws against apostasy.

Finally, let’s accept the fact that, within the parameters of pluralism, it is entirely appropriate that each of us should attempt to change the minds of the others. Atheists believe that their position is true to science and reality, and they believe that truth matters. I as a Christian believe that the existence of God and the revelation of his nature in Jesus is the ultimate reality. It is entirely consistent with each of our philosophies of life that we should advance arguments in favour of our views. But we will do so in the context of genuine relationships, after careful listening, and without a hint of coercion.

I’m sure there’s more to be said, but that’s it for now!

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