Chis Stedman and Reza Aslan on experiences shared by Atheists and Muslims

From an interfaith event at Faisal Mosque. Photo by the U.S. State Department.
From an interfaith event at Faisal Mosque. Photo by the U.S. State Department (CC).

In light of the recent controversy between Sam Harris and Ben Affleck on Bill Maher’s “Real Time” and the backlash that followed, Muslim academic, Reza Aslan and Humanist leader Chris Stedman[1. Full disclosure: Chris Stedman is the founder of NonProphet Status.] call for a more civil discussion between atheists and Muslims. They explain that atheists and Muslims may have more in common that one might think:

According to a Pew poll conducted this year, Muslims and atheists are the two least favorably viewed religious or ethical groups in the US. Both communities are severely underrepresented in the general population–roughly 2% of Americans identify as atheists, compared to 1% for Muslims. Both face rising levels of animosity from the general public. And both tend to be defined by the loudest voices within their communities.”

While the experiences of American Muslims and atheists vary greatly, they are at least similar in society’s negative view of them. Rather than argue with each other, these communities may find their time better spent getting to know each other and trying to repair their images. Given the diversity within each community, it should not be difficult for atheists and Muslims to find some areas of agreement. Yet tension still seems to be present, apparent not only in Maher’s show, but also throughout the New Atheist blogging community. Although they acknowledge why there may be some division between the two communities, the authors still stress the importance of personal relationships in bridging the gap between cultures:

Research shows that simply knowing someone from another religious or ethical group often leads to more positive views of that group. That’s why personal relationships are indispensable when it comes to changing how we talk about religion and atheism. When you know and admire a Muslim or an atheist, it no longer makes much sense to make sweeping generalizations about either group as made up of fanatics or bigots. The logic of blanket statements falls apart when you’re confronted with the diversity of lived religious and nonreligious experience. When 46% of Americans think Islam is more violent than other faiths but only 37% even know a Muslim, and when atheists remain one of the most distrusted groups in the country, it’s clear that a conversation between these two communities could benefit both. But that won’t happen until we Muslims and atheists commit to spending less time speaking past one another and more time speaking with one another.”

While Aslan and Stedman admit that this will not end all disagreements, hopefully opening up friendly and charitable communication between atheists and Muslims can reduce the hateful tone of recent debates and help improve both communities. The piece itself is a great example of how a Muslim and an atheist can come together to work toward positive change, only furthering their message of cooperation and mutual respect.

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