Can Believers and Atheists Work Together?

I haven’t had a chance to listen to the full audio, but the Rationalist Society of Australia recently released a conversation between interfaith supporter/atheist Chris Stedman, his biggest critic PZ Myers, and ethicist Leslie Cannold in which they discussed the question “Can believers and atheist work together for the common good?

As always, if you hear anything we should all pay attention to, please leave a timestamp in the comments!

(Of course, most of you won’t do that and you’ll just argue about how interfaith activism is bad for atheists without even hearing what Chris said in the discussion… *sigh* I tried!)

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the chair of Foundation Beyond Belief and a high school math teacher in the suburbs of Chicago. He began writing the Friendly Atheist blog in 2006. His latest book is called The Young Atheist's Survival Guide.

  • SomethingCompletelyDifferent

    Without having had a chance to listen to the entire clip yet, my instinct is “No, not a chance.”  I am torn about the idea of each side living and let live.  On one hand, I really want nothing more than to be left alone to be an atheist in peace.  That being said, I don’t think I will ever feel comfortable knowing that there are child brides, sexual mutilation, misogyny, and the denial of science based on religious “truths.”  I just can’t work with groups who do and think the thinks religious communities do.  It seems too much like silent approval.  

    To me, the idea of both sides working together seems to play into Gould’s NOMA idea and I think Dawkins did a good job of explaining how that doesn’t seem to work.  We can pretend to say science and religion don’t interact, but that doesn’t keep one or both sides from trying to break that barrier down.  

    • http://twitter.com/AchronTimeless Achron Timeless

      From a base position I really have to agree here. Religion insists that reality is an opinion, and that anyone’s is as good as another. That can’t ever work.

      At every turn they distort scientific research (need I point out the gay “reparative” therapy scandal of late?) to support their claims when the very papers they’re waving around say the exact opposite. The sad thing is, the general public is too lazy or uneducated to follow up on their claims. They take them at face value, and they depend on this ambivalence to continue their work. I think we all have had our fill with the so called “intelligent” design idiocy and the constant misinformation campaign they run for it. They lie constantly, either from ignorance or malice, and you expect me to play nice? Not likely.

      So that’s where I am before listening to this recording. Thought it might be interesting to register my opinion before and after hearing it. Have to make a run to the store, hear it out, and I’ll follow up with what I think after the fact. Ya know, for science and all that =)

      • http://twitter.com/AchronTimeless Achron Timeless

        The entire argument is summed up at around 50:30ish (didn’t get the exact timestamp) where they say people can believe whatever ridiculous things they want so long as they don’t impose them on anyone else. That is the very issue. They impose.

        Everything from the recent Amendment One in North Carolina to the boycott they’re trying to do to GAP clothing because they have gay men on a billboard, to blocking improvements on healthcare for EVERYONE because they can’t get members of their own church to stop using condoms. Every chance they get, they demand we play along with their fantasy. They do not keep it to themselves, and we do not have to tolerate that behavior.

        At 56:51 Chris invoked Carl Sagan, but if Sagan were alive today I think he would have different thoughts on the matter. It’s gotten worse since his time because we did try to ignore it and hope it would go away.

        But the most telling thing of that whole recording? They mentioned at the beginning that there were a lot of religious people present. And at 47:12 Leslie starts talking about religiously themed breakfast get-togethers among politicians. Then she says that they’re starting to happen in Australia. At 47:43 one person in the audience starts to applaud, but stops after 2 very enthusiastic and close together claps after their brain had time to kick in. They were happy about what everyone else in the room saw as a threat to freedom, and they didn’t have the common sense to realize that until they noticed very quickly that no one else was clapping. Actually, I don’t even give them that much credit, I think the person next to them stopped them.

        If anything, I’m more steadfast in my earlier opinion after listening to this.

        “Soppy interfaith wanker” indeed.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100001627228091 Alexander Ryan

    I personally adore the idea of people putting aside each other’s differences and looking at the person rather than what someone might dislike about them; disregarding bias. But it really all comes down to the way people think. There’s no doubt in my mind that someone religious and someone Atheist are almost 100% guaranteed to have a different mindset. Though I suppose it depends on what is defined as common good… a lot of people have a lot of different ideas on the ‘common good’.

  • http://twitter.com/splodie splodie

    I volunteer for a homeless shelter.

    Down on the street, when I’m feeding people in a soup kitchen, trying to distribute clean needles to addicts and convincing them to go to the hospital for the festering wound on their leg, and translating for the immigrant who can’t speak Engllish but whose son just fell off a bluff and landed on his head, if you are beside me I don’t care what you believe as long as you help. 

    Just saying.

    • SomethingCompletelyDifferent

      It’s a response like this that really reminds me that my belief on this issue (see above) isn’t so black and white.  You’ve got a great point.  

      I’ve spent a week in Haiti years ago working on a medical trip.  There were a few doctors, a bunch of nurses, and a few of us grunt people helping out with everyday things.  I painted a few churches and helped with two surgeries.  In general, I think people’s lives were made better by what we did, even though our trip was organized by a Catholic church. 

      But as much as these warm fuzzy memories make me happy, where do we draw the line?  So my trip did no harm (that I know of), but could we have done more good?  People spent a few hours in church services and a few more hours praying.  Couldn’t that time have been better spent on something actually beneficial?  

      I’ve also worked in a needle exchange, mine funded with city, state, and government monies and in no way associated with religion or spirituality.  I appreciate the efforts of anyone working with such a difficult and needy population, but I would still rather that work and effort come with a realistic basis, not a hope that god is facilitating the healing. 

  • Peter White

    I have lived and worked with many religious people. As long as they STFU about their beliefs I have no problem with them. Unfortunately, they insist on trying to convert anyone who doesn’t share their beliefs unless they belong to some minority religion and know they’re outnumbered. I wonder how they would feel if I asked them “Have you rejected Jesus?” or “You know all gods are mythological” or maybe “Your god doesn’t exist so you really believe in nothing”.

    • Renshia

      ” I wonder how they would feel if I asked them”……

      Well…..Like their heads  are going to explode.

    • Nordog6561

      Your questions would not have been “the first rodeo” some of us had been to.  But then some of us aren’t out there shoving the “you need to convert” message on to others.

      • Isilzha

         So what?  Many of you ARE out there actively trying to convert people.  Some of you even show up at my house at 9am on a Saturday morning to shove your religious pamphlet garbage on me.  I can say that, as an atheist, I have NEVER rung someone’s door to confront them at home about the good news of science and insisting that they abandon their present belief system for something based on reality.

        • Nordog6561

          That’s nice.

        • http://www.zazzle.com/atheist_tees The Godless Monster

           I get what you are saying and feel your frustration with those theists who do proselytize.
          I do have a problem, however, with referring to all Christians as “you”.
          Yes, many do bug others, but the overwhelming majority DO NOT. It’s really a tiny, vocal minority that are out there giving the rest of the world grief.
          I’m an atheist, but I don’t consider myself to be in line with everything that most atheists want to push on others. My fiscal and social leanings tend to be centrist and in some cases right of center. In other areas, I might be considered to be far left. In other words, it’s difficult to pigeon-hole me. I think the same goes for most people, regardless of their theistic inclinations.
          For me, the ideal would be for everyone to just respect the rights of others. Atheists (in general) provide a good example of what it means to be a good neighbor. Theists definitely have a long way to go in the area, but we can encourage more of them to make progress by approaching this in ways other than making blanket statements or blaming the whole for the idiocy of a few.

          • MV

             I’m sorry, but have you bothered to watch the news in recent decades?  It’s not a “tiny, vocal minority”.  It’s a majority.

            Proselytizing is much more than ringing a doorbell. 

            • http://www.zazzle.com/atheist_tees The Godless Monster

              Again, I disagree with your assertion that it is a majority doing the trouble-making. The problem is a disproportionately powerful and vocal minority being enabled by a passive and silent majority…who could go either way with the proper motivation and/or leadership. Most people just want to get through the day in one piece and keep a roof over their head and food on the table. This is what really motivates the rank and file.
              Not all Germans were Nazis during WW2. Not all Russians were members of the Communist Party during the Cold War.
              I’m in no way minimizing the problem. I just think it would be more effective and helpful to have a better understanding of the dynamics at work here.

          • Isilzha

             And…as I said, “many of you [xians]“.  I didn’t say “all”; I didn’t say “majority”.

            tone troll much?

            • http://www.zazzle.com/atheist_tees The Godless Monster

               Point well taken. I was out of line and you have my very public apologies.

    • BlazeL

      If the STFU will you do the same?
      Thanks in advance.

  • Ndonnan

    Working with anyone in any capacity or position can be achived as long as there is one thing in place and that is respect.If it is a work enviroment then there is nothing to say, your there to do a job then go home.If that was all your day consisted of it would be for me a boring,horrible place to work.Whats wrong with people talking about what they do on the weekend without people being offended,from my expirience christians sharing their faith is like pulling teeth. After the reason rally if someone asked what you did on the weekend and you told them and why you went and they said STFU,they would be total tools right,same in reverse.I guess the other issue is when people are working in a volenteer capacity,if its for a christian organization there would probably be protocols that would need to be respected just like if you went to Saudi Arabia you wouldnt wear a G-string on the beach,and if i asked an atheist why they didnt belive in God and he said he didnt want to talk about it the same would apply,respect!

    • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

      I can generally agree with you here, with one adjustment in differentiating respect from respectful treatment. If I find someone’s beliefs absurd, I can’t respect those beliefs, but I can and I do still treat them respectfully as persons. As long as they don’t try to take the stand, “Well, I am my beliefs, so you are disrespecting me if you disrespect them,” then we can usually get along fine. 

      Somebody tried that on me, and I called him on it. He was trying to shield his beliefs from criticism by equating them with himself, because he knew I would be very reluctant to treat him disrespectfully as a person. I told him I wouldn’t fall for that, that if he puts his ideas out there to challenge my ideas, then his ideas are just as subject as mine to scrutiny, challenge, and if they’re fallacious, dismembering. I will still follow my own ethic of treating him respectfully as a person as I dismember his ideas. If he didn’t want to take that chance, then he should share about what a nice time he had with his church friends on Sunday, but he should not try to use his beliefs to challenge my views. If your sword stays in its sheath, fine. If you pull it out, en garde!

      The main value that I see in interfaith work toward some common goal is that it’s an opportunity to see the humanness in the individuals of a group that is often demonized when only seen at a distance. I can see that they’re not all entirely moralizing prigs obsessed with conformity, and they can see that I’m not an immoral, amoral, unethical, nihilistic, depressed, etc. etc. degenerate.

      • Ndonnan

        Here,here,i can live with that

      • http://www.zazzle.com/atheist_tees The Godless Monster

        I have someone in my life who equates what she believes with who she is and I find your response/approach quite helpful.  A day without reading one of your comments is like a day without sunshine.

  • Michael

    You might want to look at http://reformsection5.org.uk which makes a big thing that both religious groups and the national secularist society are supporting their calls for free speech.

    Everybody except most Labour MPs in fact.

  • Dubliner

    I find PZ so obnoxious that I don’t like to listen to any debate he’s involved in. Chris Stedman is a decent sort so I might make an exception. In my experience  once normal balanced people living in modern civilised societies don’t make a big deal out of what they do or don’t believe problems rarely arise. It’s those who are ‘passionate’ on either side that create tension and disharmony but fortunately in Ireland I don’t come across those too often these days – at least not south of the Border. 

    Dawkins himself works well with normal religious people. He seems very friendly with some of the hierarchy in the COE. It’s the fundies that are the problem and for them the approach must be education, education, education. I’ve always thought that if the Americans positioned a communications satellite over the Middle East instead of military satellites and dropped Iphones/Ipads instead of bombs they’d make serious progress in promoting civilisation through education instead of always going for the ‘bomb them back to the stone age’ approach.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=553145445 Gordon Duffy

       I’d reverse those positions personally. I find Steadman incredibly frustrating to listen to but will probably make an exception to listen to PZ.

      • Akpowles

        I have worked with Theists successfully. I do not even mind a slightly didactic lecture of their beliefs. I always deply resent the view that Athiests cannot be moral and good. However the only way to shake their ideas on this is by example. I try to give one. Anne

  • Itareski

    Stedman comes off as an awkward adolescent, not an adult.  I think people of his perspective are helpful, but let’s get a better spokesman. P. Z. didn’t help by focussing too much time on the incident of having the previous event held in a church.

  • DG

    If the question is can we, then it’s depending on the individuals.  If the question suggests more ‘should we’, then I would hope the responses would be a resounding ‘yes!’ 

  • Onamission5

    I have worked for a couple non-profits. I would have to say the answer is yes, we can work together, providing there is an atmosphere of mutual respect and that people’s private religious beliefs do not overtly invade the work space. The fact is, atheists work with believers all the time, we just don’t always know that is what we are doing. Common goals and common values matter much more to me personally than a person’s private thoughts regarding deities.

    Then again, I am not one who automatically equates religious with fundie. I wait a few minutes and see what pops out of someone’s head before placing them in that category, same as when I find out they’re vegan, or conservative, I wait to see if they’re the everybody-who-eats-meat-is-the-enemy kind or the liberals-are-the-source-of-all-ebil kind before I decide if we can  share space.

    • debbiedoesreality

       I agree. The less religiously obnoxious a person is, the more lenience I have in being tolerant of their religious notions.
      However, the knowledge that a good many Christians choose to accept and even worship a deity whom they fully believe will send me to burn eternally for my mere “crime” of not accepting the irrational tales of the bible tends to put a damper on my being able to work alongside them, even if they are not outwardly vocal about these beliefs, they still adhere to them and I find that disturbing. Sure I can ignore it in order to accomplish something good, but I’d rather I didn’t have to.

  • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

    Also can’t listen now, but atheists and believers DO work for the common good in Americans United.  IMHO that organization does more than any other to advance the common good of protecting BOTH the establishment clause AND the free exercise clause.  I’m happy to lay it down for religious freedom, as long as that also means my freedom from religiously based policy and regulation.

  • AndyTK

    Yes we can, and yes we should, assuming that it is something that both agree should be done and they can agree on how things are presented to the press and those that they are helping.  For example, we can help feed the hungry, but must also agree not to promote religion, offer a prayer before the food is handed out, etc.  This may make it less likely that we can work with the theists on areas of common ground, but on the other hand Atheist efforts shouldn’t be used to promote religious delusions.

  • Cutencrunchy

    It sounds reasonable to focus on the aspects of religion that impose upon others and leave the rest alone.  Let all the voices be heard. The problem I have with that is that religion manifests as inherent to it’s core the ideology and need to impose the belief on others. The belief is imposition – you can’t separate the result from the process – because the process (the belief) is to impose.  

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/SH5Y2EVWTCTIZM4HQSMC2Z4IWQ Nicholas V

    I don’t recall the details but it seems to me that this sort of thing was debated recently and the reasonable point made was that when theists and atheists seek common ground in order to do charity work, what it really means is the theists coming all the way over to our side. We’re not going to meet them halfway on praying, or proselytizing, so what common ground is their which atheists don’t already occupy? 

  • Chris Slaby

    I think the problem for me (and yes, I listened to the whole talk) is exactly what was brought up at some point, this label of interfaith. I think it’s stupid, absolutely stupid, and I don’t see the point of it. If a group of people share a common goal, say separation of church and state or legalizing gay marriage, then what on earth should religious affiliation/identification have anything to do with it? As many others have said, I don’t necessarily mind being grouped together with people who happen to belong to a religion, but I don’t want to be connected to their religion via a group affiliation. Interfaith suggests two levels of identity: 1) the goal(s) of a group, and 2) the idea of people from multiple/different religious backgrounds working together towards that/those goal(s). I understand #1; that’s the point of having some sort of advocacy or activist group, to make a positive change. But what does #2 have to do with it? I just don’t see the point of invoking any sort of religious identity. You want civil rights? Okay, form a group of people who believe in and want to work toward civil rights. Why should religious affiliation play any role? I think this idea, intentionally bringing religion into specific issues/problems that are not necessarily religious, is the thing that bothers me about the whole idea of interfaith. If there’s a cause or a goal, I am far more comfortable supporting or working with an organization that simply doesn’t make any mention of religion or religious identity, and just focuses on the goal. If religious individuals really care about certain goals, why should they need to invoke their religious identities? I think at least part of the problem is that certain religious individuals don’t want to recognize the idea that we (human beings) have the capacity to be (or do) good without god (maybe this isn’t it at all, but it’s just a thought). Like I said, if people really cared about world hunger, then they should form a group to do something about it. Why should religion and religious identity play any role? At best it’s a minor waste of time (and a muddling of the message). I think it’s because at least for some religious people, doing good and being religious is connected, and so when they’re doing something that they think is good, they connect that to their faith. That’s fine (not really, but it’s fine in terms of helping fix problems in the world), but again, why take that extra step and identify it as such, why this label, why do we have to talk about or mention religion? If your motivation for doing good is your religion, sure, fine, whatever, we can work together for progress, like I said, I certainly don’t mind that, so long as you don’t feel the need to talk about, to publicize that you’re doing good because of/in connection to your religion. Do you see the problem, Hemant? Am I being unreasonable here? 

  • Guest

    I’m commenting as a guest as to avoid any personalization to this request. I do comment on ‘Friendly Atheist’ from time to time. Mostly I enjoy reading all of your points of view.
    I have a friend who is in dire need. This friend is a Christian and I am atheist. She’s a loving, caring, non-”fundy” type who has never once damned me to hell. (Otherwise I’d not call her a friend.)
    I asked Hemant’s permission before adding this comment/link, and appreciate his approval.
    I have contacted several religious organizations, including Catholic Charities, in her area and have not even received a response from any of them, much to my dismay.
    I thought posting her donation site to this forum might achieve better results than the other attempts I’ve made to try to get her and her husband some much needed assistance. Any little amount any of you could spare would be a wonderful example of the religious and atheists working together, though admittedly the religious have been zero help thus far.
    If  you are not interested or can not afford to help with a donation, any ideas for ways of finding physical aide (volunteers for cleaning, running errands, etc.) for my friend would be much appreciated. They reside in the Tampa area. Here is a link to their story and the donation site that has been set up:
    http://www.gofundme.com/lxga0
    Thank you for your time and in advance, any help you might be willing to provide… and as always, thank you, Hemant for all you do.

    • Guest

       In all fairness I should clarify and say that none of the religious organizations – that I have contacted – have been of any help. There is a comment from a donor on the site who mentions that they are praying for them so I have to assume they are religiously affiliated thus my comment saying “the religious have been zero help thus far” wasn’t exactly correct. Just no religious organization that I have contacted has even bothered to acknowledge my requests for information and/or assistance.

  • http://twitter.com/fester60613 Fester60613

    Yes. Believers and Atheists CAN work together. Fighting fires, saving lives in an ER or OR, digging people out of landslides and avalanches, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked. YES YES YES YES.
    It’s motivation and assigning blame and taking credit that causes the problems.

  • http://wading-in.net/walkabout Al Denelsbeck

    Okay, listened to the whole damn thing, and felt it could have been half as long if anyone participating was much more capable of explaining their standpoints. And no, it did not change my perspective on interfaith activities, nor even address them.

    This is precisely why I have never agreed with Stedman, nor believe what he claims to be promoting. Secular activism is, quite simply, activism – it needs no other label, and it takes place on a constant basis. The “common ground” that seemed to be the focus of the discussion is whatever you want it to be, since it’s the very thing you decide to get active about. Human rights? Animal rights? Feed the starving? Raise awareness of sexism? Somebody kindly explain to me what faith has to do with any of this.

    So, “interfaith,” by the very use of the term, implies that people’s faith has some connection to their activism, their good deeds, and their attitudes. Stedman attempted to divert away from this by claiming, repeatedly, that it wasn’t about faith, yet he also repeatedly made a point that atheists need to be acceptable to theists. And to do so, atheists need to make allowances  for theists. Now, this is a different kind of activism entirely, since those who see the myriad difficulties with theism being inserted where it serves no purpose are not going to make allowances, nor see any purpose in perpetuating the idea that someone deserves respect because of their beliefs – that’s the root of the entire problem. Stedman, having been reminded of this multiple times, still resolutely refuses to acknowledge it, and always tries to pretend that the situation is something else. He has, on several occasions from my experience alone, misrepresented the push for secularism as atheists refusing to cooperate with theists on non-theistic issues.

    Myers, on the other hand, has become far too proud of his label as a curmudgeon, and has been getting much more slack on explaining his viewpoint – he didn’t show much rationality until the latter parts of the discussion. I can’t agree with his ideas about creating “in-groups,” and find that to be much more problematic than simply addressing the countless issues with active theism. It’s far too easy to see his actions as promoting intolerance for the sake of disagreement with religion, rather than pointing out that numerous religious practices should be viewed as intolerant by society, and our failure to do so stems from continuing to believe “respect” has a higher value than, for instance,  human rights.

    Cannold hasn’t really thought out her position very well. She seems to believe that the media portrayal of atheists is what secular humanism is about, and that Gnu Atheists just want to call others stupid to buck themselves up. The belief that the “moderately religious” outnumber the fundies continues to get disproven at the polls and voting booths, making the distinction rather trivial. But the primary issue, as far as I’m concerned, isn’t the level of fundamentalism or the participation of the religious in proscriptive legislature – it’s that religion still isn’t seen as being the self-indulgent emotional crutch that it is. As long as it continues to be considered respectable or reasonable, we’ll continue to deal with issues surrounding it.

  • tjcronin

    1:24:10

    Cannold (and Myers gives way to this to a certain
    extent) appears to be saying that one
    needs a special reason to state publicly that a certain religious belief
    is probably false – a special reason other than that you think it is
    probably false. This is unacceptable. If I hear any claim, and I think
    it is probably false, I will say so. No other reason is needed.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Helmsman-Of-Inepu/100002281476991 Helmsman Of-Inepu

    Atheism looks like 


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