There is one thing that bugs me about many atheists when they talk about religious issues. Well, perhaps there’s more than one thing, but the one on my mind right now is the casual disregard for “liberal” religious believers. I find this an odd stance. I have often come across statements like, “Yeah, but liberal Christians aren’t really Christians,” or, “How can you call yourself a Christian if you don’t even believe that the Bible is true?” And to repeat myself, these statements are coming from atheists. I’d like to discuss this for a little bit by explaining my own views on the situation and then move into a few words about tactics. This, then, is a post intended primarily for fellow atheists, although as usual, comments from anyone and everyone are welcome.
Picking One’s Battles
First off, like I always say, I have nothing against religion. I think it’s wrong, but I recognize that there likely is not a human on the face of the earth who has 100% correct beliefs. I also think that it is important to allow for the maximum breadth of beliefs—people should be allowed to believe whatever they want. I don’t advocate thought police. But at the same time, I think that there are beliefs which are damaging to society. For instance, dogmatic ideologies that are rigid and unyielding in the face of change, or time, or reality. Or beliefs which advocate death or harm (whether physical, psychological, emotional, or financial) to others. Ultimately I support the right to hold these beliefs (though I don’t support the right to act on them), but these are the sorts of beliefs against which I am most motivated to fight. I argue against religion as a whole because I think it is false and I think truth is important, but I reserve my most passionate tirades for those beliefs which cause real damage. At the end of the day, I would much rather have 100 religious people who are harmless and kind than 1 atheist who is cruel and selfish.1
I also no longer feel a need to enter intra-religious disputes anymore, except perhaps for my own morbid amusement. I don’t care to have an opinion on whether Calvinists are more correct than Arminians; or whether Catholics are right when they say that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son, or whether he only proceeds from the Father, as the Orthodox claim. I really couldn’t care less whether dispensationalism is right or wrong, or whether Orthodox Jews should or shouldn’t push elevator buttons on the Sabbath, or which caliph is the true successor of Mohammed, or any other points of doctrine. I’m an atheist—I don’t believe any of it is true. It seems to me like arguing about details of superhero comics. If you’re into that sort of thing, go right ahead, but it’s not a necessity for anyone who doesn’t believe that the claims are true to begin with.
A Question of Interpretation
So I’m baffled by these atheists who seem to give more weight to fundamentalist Christians (or believers of other religions, for that matter) by implicitly accepting that the literal interpretation of the Bible is the correct way of reading it. But there is no “correct” way to interpret a book. It all depends on context. When I’m reading literature, I might want to interpret the book as the author intended it to be read. However, if I’m an art critic, I might want to interpret it in terms of major themes of the book. If I’m an historian, I might want to look at the book as a product of a broader time period. If I’m religious, I might be searching it for divine inspiration. And if I’m a numerologist, I might just be circling every fourth letter to look for hidden messages. There are two points to pull from this: a) all literature is interpreted, and b) there is no “correct” way to interpret literature.
So, what do liberal Christians do when reading the Bible if they don’t necessarily believe it is the inerrant, infallible word of God? Well, perhaps they read it much like you or I would read Aesop’s fables: We don’t interpret them literally, but we look for the underlying meaning or message behind the stories. Or perhaps they view it as an ongoing narrative of humanity’s search for the divine. These are not “wrong” ways to read the Bible. They are merely different ways, based on their different beliefs about God and Christianity and the world. And I see no reason for atheists to say, “Well, obviously the writers meant for it to be taken literally, so it makes the most sense for people to read it literally.” Regardless of whether this is in fact the case, why does an atheist feel it necessary to dictate how religious believers use their own religious texts? It seems more fitting to ask them how they use it, and then engage with them on that level. But maybe that might involve actually having to understand people first before making blanket statements about what they do or don’t believe. And we wouldn’t want that!
From Theory to Tactics
Why am I making a big deal about what seems like such a small point? Well, because I believe it has very real implications. First, by implicitly accepting the literal view as the “correct” view, atheists immediately isolate potential allies. Here’s a newsflash: Many liberal religious believers are just as disgusted with young-earth creationists and Muslim extremists as we are! And even moreso, they might be in an even better position to have a dialogue with these people than complete outsiders to the faith.2 But when we whitewash our statements to lump moderates in with extremists, or we refuse to accept that there could be non-literal ways of reading religious books, we turn our backs on these people. They feel marginalized, and then not only have we lost a potential ally, but we also have less ability to dialogue with them on disputes that arise. Atheists and liberal believers can often have much in common, and it can be useful, from a merely strategic point of view, to acknowledge that.
Second, by implicitly accepting the literal point of view as the “correct” view, we give greater authority to fundamentalist believers. This seems to me like the opposite of what atheists are typically trying to do. I have heard many atheists state that their goal is to reduce the damage done by religion—but then why would they turn around and immediately imply that these damaging people are doing things right? Instead of saying, “You’re doing terrible things in the name of your religion, so drop your religion,” why not say, “You’re doing terrible things in the name of your religion, but look at how these other religious believers interpret this passage. See? You don’t have to do these terrible things to be religious!” This seems like a more straight-forward strategy. We are reducing the harm, and okay, so perhaps we still believe that the religion as a whole is incorrect, but as far as I’m concerned, that is the lesser of the two evils. Instead of trying to force everyone to make the jump from one extreme all the way to the other, why not encourage them to take baby steps toward a more correct and less damaging set of beliefs? By implicitly talking about things in black-and-white terms, you are only encouraging these fundamentalists who already see things in black and white. If you instead introduce them to the shades of grey, perhaps we can have more success at making the world a better place.
So why don’t more atheists take this strategy? I can only speculate, but from my own observation point, let me offer a few ideas. First, many atheists who have left religion themselves have come from fundamentalist beliefs. Since this is what they understand, this is how they engage with religious people. In some senses, it seems as though some of them simply replaced religion with atheism, without getting rid of the underlying black-and-white thinking that makes fundamentalists what they are. Second, giving credence only to literalist interpretations makes for better rhetoric. It’s much more forceful to say “Religion has caused wars and genocide, so it’s evil!” It’s much less compelling to say, “Well, some religious people have done pretty terrible things, but others live happy and peaceable lives.” The first statement rallies the troops; the second statement is more honest. Third, the simple, literal-only view is just easier. By doing this, atheists can argue with religious people without actually taking the time to understand the other person’s views first. Of course, such debate is no longer dialogue, but rather talking past each other. But doing so is easier. What seems like the more effective approach, though, would be to understand that “religion” encompasses a dizzying variety of viewpoints, and thus first to ask the person what they believe, and then engage with their actual beliefs rather than one’s own impression of their beliefs. Even if not more effective, it seems to be the more honest approach.
I say these things not to condemn atheists for generalizing or for contributing to the “culture war”. Certainly some atheists engage with religious people well, and others do not. (See how I didn’t generalize there!) But if one truly wants to effect change, it is first important to assess one’s priorities and goals, and then examine what strategies are most effective for achieving them. As I stated, my highest priority is damage control—reducing the amount of damage done to others—and then my secondary concern is correcting wrong beliefs (or at least, what I perceive to be wrong beliefs). Some atheists may have different priorities, and so their strategies will be and should be different. But for those who share these goals of mine, I think that it is important to be mindful of the fact that literalism is not the only way to interpret religious texts, nor is it the “correct” one. I believe it is important to be aware of the underlying implications upon which our statements rest, and to make sure that these line up with our goals. And then, of course, I think it is also important to get beyond simple rhetoric and shallow arguments and really engage with people on an individual level to understand what they believe, find common ground, and then work from there. I’m not trying to turn the atheist grizzly into a teddy bear; I’m only trying to help us more honest with the reality of the world out there so that we can be more effective in making the world a better place.
- I’m not in any way saying that all religious people are harmless or kind or that all atheists are cruel and selfish. Both types fall into both camps. I’m merely saying that I place a higher emphasis on being a decent human being than on holding 100% correct beliefs. [↩]
- Not always, but sometimes. [↩]