Build the Bridges or Burn Them Down?

An article by Bryan Patterson in the Herald Sun (Australia) juxtaposes two strikingly different ways religious and non-religious people are interacting.

First, we see the methods that just drive us all apart. Like the recent attempts at religious-based video games. In one of them, created by an atheist, you try to violently knock off religious prophets. In the other, created by a Christian company, the “object is to convert or kill non-Christians.”

Thankfully, there are people on both sides who are vocal about their opposition to these games.

The game was bucketed by several major Christian groups, who stated the idea of a violent video game about the message of Jesus was, at the very least, ironic.

So if that’s the bad, what’s the good?

The article mentions my own church journey as well as similar attempts to build bridges:

Mehta’s book resonated with believers and non-believers. He has not converted, but has become friends with many of the Christian leaders he met in his journey and often speaks in churches.

It was that thinking that inspired a Presbyterian church in Texas to allow a self-professed atheist to become one of its members. Both the atheist and the minister, Jim Rigby, came under fire.

Rigby said it was all about “building connections”.

“Such efforts are crucial in a world where there seems not to be a lot of wood to build the bridges we need,” he said.

“And the shame is, while we fight among ourselves, the world is burning.

“Surely the essence of Christianity or any religion is not found in dogma, but in the life of love of which the creeds sing. If God had wanted us to simply recite creeds, Jesus would have come as a parrot.”

And we all know Jesus is not a parrot.

He’s a french fry.

It’s not just those people who think or act violently who are part of the problem.

If your attempt at “dialogue” involves a barrage of insults or a complete misrepresentation of the other side, you’re making it more difficult for others who believe the same way you do to be respected and heard.

No doubt you’ll want to convince others that you’re right. But there’s a way to do it without automatically pissing off the person you’re talking to.

How likely do you think it is that the other person’s going to change his mind?

That being the case, shouldn’t we focus on conversation instead of conversion?


[tags]atheist, atheism[/tags]

  • Richard Wade

    I never try to change another’s beliefs about God. I only hope to change another’s negative beliefs about atheists. I have been able to do that by engaging in respectful conversation, carefully challenging each misconception one at a time. In the process I am not living up to one of the most common beliefs about atheists, that they’re rude and hostile.

    Unfortunately while I’m doing that, several other atheists are doing a good job of living up to that belief by squandering their talents for articulate, clever argument on invective, insults and rants.

    To the atheists who seem to think there can be only appeasement or antagonism with theists, I say grow up. Grow above the level of the people you so self-righteously despise. Your belief or lack of belief is not a virtue. Only your conduct with others shows the depth or shallowness of your character. Constructive dialogue is not appeasement, and antagonism is not a mission in life worthy of someone who fancies himself a rational thinker.

  • Ben

    in the life of love of which the creeds sing

    I’m used to the Nicene and Apostle’s creeds. Neither of them fit this description.

    That being the case, shouldn’t we focus on conversation instead of conversion?

    Why can’t I do both? It all depends on the topic.

  • Darryl

    Your belief or lack of belief is not a virtue. Only your conduct with others shows the depth or shallowness of your character.

    Richard, I take your point and I assent to the truth in your assertions, but just to muddy the waters a bit, I would add a qualifying “may” to each of them. My lack of belief has come at a cost to me. The easy path would have been to let sleeping dogs lie. I paid a price for my unbelief. For me it is a virtue. I am a better person for it. Also, I believe Jesus is given to have said “because you are neither cold nor hot, but lukewarm, I will spit you out of my mouth.” Acceptance as vapidity or weakness is not good character. We denigrate cowards who go along to get along as much as we castigate brutes that would rather fight than reason.

  • Seth Pollack

    As the U of Illinois Champaign-Urbana student org showed with their joint trip to New Orleans with Campus Crusade for Christ, I don’t think dialog about belief is necessarily as important as simply existing side-by-side. Even the most casual debate very rarely has a winner. Unfortunately, it’s often difficult to have a conversation on faith that does not ultimately tend towards an attempt at conversion.

  • Jonsi

    I don’t think militant atheists have anything for which to apologize. If efficacy is your goal, being militant may not be the best course, but sometimes it is, or at least the most satisfying. It’s difficult to have a conversation with someone who you feel believes in extremely irrational things. I’d say the important step is to have a conversation to gauge how irrational you feel someone is. If you feel they are stone cold crazy, then no, you do not have to respect them. I completely reject the notion that I have to respect someone’s dogma. Militant atheists play a necessary role in my opinion, in making the rest of us feel comfortable discussing our atheism.

    I do not have to approach a conversation about faith pleasantly and with respect. I do not respect the belief that a man was born of a virgin, died, rose from the dead with all bodily functions and mental capacity intact, could walk through walls, levitated into the sky, and that his mother also ascended into heaven, and that Thomas who was in India at the time was transported back to Palestine to witness it, and that a cracker literally becomes the body of Jesus and wine his blood, and that Simon Magus could fly, and that if I don’t believe those things, I will suffer for eternity. I do not have to respect it nor the messenger. I am allowed to be militant about it.

    I think the appropriate course is to build our own bridge parallel to theirs; we shouldn’t burn theirs, but we should throw some thumbtacks on their pavement so they get some flat tires.

  • Richard Wade

    Darryl, I take your point as well, but I am not willing to qualify my two statements in light of your argument so far. Most certainly you are a person of strong principles and ethics. However, the fact that the path you chose was difficult is not a virtue in itself, if that is what you are saying. Keeping in mind that I respect you, I have to ask so what that you paid a price for unbelief? I have too. That does not automatically qualify you or me as better persons. That shows up later, maybe. From our difficult paths we could go either way. You or I could just as easily have become bitter, hostile jerks in response to our tougher path. Many have, and I am speaking to them when I say frankly but still respectfully to grow up.

    We make our choices and we pay the price. Some people have tough lives, some have it easy. Some chose their way, some did not. Some have ended up hostile, self-centered and self righteous, and some have become courteous, compassionate and respectful. Every possible combination of those exist. Of all those things, only how we interact with others is a measure of our character. The difficulty or ease that we have had getting to this moment is beside the point.

    As for the go-along-to-get-along thing, that is appeasement and not the honest, straight forward kind of interaction I am talking about. Simple good manners is not a sign of weakness or lack of conviction. It’s a sign of confidence and maturity.

  • http://skepticsplay.blogspot.com/ miller

    I don’t believe that it is impossible to change people’s minds. After all, I’ve changed my mind plenty of times. However, it is statistically unlikely that you will be able to change any one person’s mind about a deeply held belief. Furthermore, if they do change their mind, it must be of their own accord.

    In the mean time, I think it’s far preferable that we all get along. That is, we criticize and persuade only as far as generally good relations allow. As tactics, hostility and ridicule have questionable effectiveness and high risks. It’s just not worth it. Even if they were effective, they’re basically appeals to emotion, and thus antithetical to rationalism.

  • Josha

    I just had a discussion with a friend today who invited me to go to a Catholic fellowship. I told him I no longer was a Catholic and we had a long, online, discussion about God.

    In no way was I ever trying to convert him and I never thought I would actually change his mind. I just wanted to say honestly what I believe and I explained to him how I see the world as an atheist and why I chose to leave religion. And I tried to find common ground. I was blunt with my views about his beliefs (hell, prayer, god, etc) but I think you can be both intellectually honest and civil to someone.

    A dialogue is important and finding common goals so that we can relate to each other. What I’d really like to see is respect for atheists and for faith to not be put on such a pedestal. I think we all know how much atheism is looked down upon in our society and that is something I hope to change.

  • Maria

    I agree Hemant.

  • http://mattstone.blogs.com Matt Stone

    Jonsi, you said, “If you feel [others] are stone cold crazy, then no, you do not have to respect them,” but that is exactly what a militant theist (aka “fundamentalist”) would say too. If you adopt that position you justify their militancy even as you rally against their theism. Yet from what I gather its the militancy of militant theists, their warlike tendancies, that atheists often find most objectionable so I have to wonder to what extent you’ve thought through the full implications of your stance? Or are you truly implying their militancy is less of a concern to you than their theism?

  • http://www.skepchick.org writerdd

    I think it’s sad that so many people refuse to even try to get along with those who have differing beliefs.

    All of you who think every religious person is a deluded a-hole, I have to wonder, do you give your prospective friends a belief test and refuse to befriend anyone who believes in something you don’t? What a sad way to live.

  • stogoe

    Simple good manners is not a sign of weakness or lack of conviction. It’s a sign of confidence and maturity.

    Conversation and debate must be done in good faith – the trust that the other party is being honest and genuine – and I have seen far too much contrary evidence to believe that any religious person is capable of arguing in good faith.

    To put my own spin on Jonsi’s statements, I am unable to respect your silly, hateful, wasteful beliefs. I can respect you as a full, autonomous member of humanity, but your beliefs are not exempt from deserved criticism (at appropriate times).

    And disbelief is a virtue. To seek reality, to question the world around you and not shy from the answers is one of the highest goods in my opinion.

  • Richard Wade

    stogoe, I said:

    Simple good manners is not a sign of weakness or lack of conviction. It’s a sign of confidence and maturity.

    to which you responded:

    Conversation and debate must be done in good faith – the trust that the other party is being honest and genuine – and I have seen far too much contrary evidence to believe that any religious person is capable of arguing in good faith.

    These do not connect. Finding, or in your case prejudicially assuming that the other party is not acting in good faith does not cause, require or justify abandoning civility and simple good manners. To stoop to undignified invective, vitriol or insults, or to adopt a snide tone is only to show one’s immaturity and to suggest that one’s arguments are perhaps not so strong on their own merits. I have never been convinced of something because of the strength of someone’s rudeness, only the strength of their rational argument. Generally I don’t find that a rude person has a strong argument.

    You went on to say:

    I can respect you as a full, autonomous member of humanity, but your beliefs are not exempt from deserved criticism (at appropriate times).

    I’m glad that you can see the difference between treating a person respectfully and not necessarily respecting their belief. Jonsi seems to have those blurred. But then you illustrate the same confusion I have seen here and elsewhere, that treating someone decently is putting them on a pedestal. No, no, no. Theist beliefs, religion in general should not enjoy an immunity from criticism and examination by critical thought. BUT keeping that criticism free of childish and self-discrediting name calling, bigotry and ad hominem remarks does not preserve any of that pedestal or immunity. Those who argue most convincingly argue maturely.

    Finally you said:

    And disbelief is a virtue. To seek reality, to question the world around you and not shy from the answers is one of the highest goods in my opinion.

    No, it aint. Disbelief is not a virtue any more than faith is a virtue. Virtues are defined by action. Disbelief is a mind set, a thought. We are not what we think, we are what we do. People can be believing assholes or disbelieving assholes. The noun they get assigned is determined by their behavior, not their thoughts. Think a thousand murderous thoughts, but you’re not a murderer unless you actually kill. Think a thousand helpful thoughts, but you’re not a helpful person until you actually help. Somebody can constantly tell himself that he values honesty but if he consistently lies, then the reality of what he is is a liar.

    The problem with thinking that one’s mind set is a virtue is that it breeds a powerful conceit. Many people on both sides of the faith/skepticism debate think that their faith or skepticism makes them better, more virtuous, more worthy, intrinsically superior to the others right there, without any action being taken. Coming from that smug stance they tend to be arrogant, tend to waste time justifying their prejudice, tend to build their arguments from their own version of moral authority rather than good evidence and sound logic. Worst of all they tend to strongly reinforce the same symmetrical conceit in the other person, so it is a self-perpetuating mutual defeat.

    stogoe, I understand that you have been disappointed many times because you found a theist was not conversing or debating in good faith. You can walk away from all such encounters forthwith but if you choose to stay engaged, then it only matters that you keep conversing or debating in good faith with the honesty and genuineness of which you spoke and the common decency of which I speak. The only side of the street you can keep clean is your side.

    I’ve seen two kinds of atheists come to these blogs: Those who want to make a positive change and those who simply want to vent their anger and hurt. I’m appealing to the former to not adopt the bad habits of the latter because they are counter-productive. I’m appealing to the latter to go take it out on a punching bag in the gym instead of here because they are making life harder for the rest of us.

  • http://mattstone.blogs.com Matt Stone

    Richard, well spoken.


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