Two Pillars of Religious-Atheist Dialogue

Walking through the UC Berkeley campus last semester I caught a glimpse of a young woman proudly holding a sign that said "God does not exist" in big bold letters. It stood out like a sore thumb even amongst the dozens of fraternities, clubs and bake sales that were vying for students attention on the sun filled Sproul Plaza.

By the time I got to her table she was engaged in a heated conversation with a devout Christian who was passionately arguing that God had a plan for her life. She was challenging his every point with references to science, history, biblical criticism and comparative religions. "Jesus didn't even exist," she proclaimed. "God sent his only son for you," he countered. Needless to say it was a heated conversation. It was clear that neither was going to "win" the argument.

As much as I love a good debate, I began wondering what, if anything, may be a foundation for dialogue between atheists and the religious. Was there any possibility of listening to each other? What was beneath the particularities of each side? Could there be something beyond the fighting?

It should be mentioned that these identities are of course complex. Many atheists are indifferent to religion and others like Chris Stedman are doing excellent work to bridge this cultural divide. There are also lots of atheists within religious traditions such as Buddhism and Unitarian Universalism. Furthermore, there are several terms that atheists and religious people use to describe themselves. In other words there is no simple "atheist" or "believer." Some religious people are theists while others reject a interventionist God and are panentheists. Many non-believers identify as agnostics, atheists and skeptics or a combination of these. It's a complex landscape for sure.

The existence of pro-religious atheists and atheists who are religious is evidence that religion and atheism don't necessarily have to be in conflict. However, the mainstream sentiment, fueled by the most vocal New Atheists and ardent religious fundamentalists is still one of hostility and animosity to say the least. Unfortunately, short slogans like "religion is evil," and "atheists are going to hell" still frame the discussion.

Having engaged with these issues for several years now I believe we can evolve the discussion beyond the knee jerk responses that currently define it. Hopefully the following suggestions can help lay the foundation for future dialogue.

The Religious Task

From my perspective the most appropriate religious response to atheism in America is to genuinely engage with atheists and ask questions. What's it like to be you? What challenges do you face living in society that is predominantly religious? How are your values, perspectives and practices marginalized in the larger culture where religious language and thinking dominates? What would you never like to hear said to you again? These simple inquiries should be foundational for people who are immersed within traditions that emphasize compassion, empathy and understanding.

Living in a society of Christian and religious hegemony means that the language, customs, practices and beliefs of believers are privileged over atheists or agnostics. Even Buddhists, most of which are actually atheists, or others affiliated with a religious tradition are seen as more moral than self-described atheists.

Religious and spiritual people need to understand that atheists face discrimination and are marginalized in America. Until recently they were the most disliked group nationwide, a title now owned by the Tea Party. Polls indicate that Americans are more likely to vote for a Muslim for president than they are an atheist, which is telling given the current state of Islamophobia. Many believers see atheists who don't accept their God as immoral or tools of Satan and thus quickly dehumanize them.

For those who are unaware, two recent cases are prime examples of how atheists can face intense discrimination.

In January, Rhode Island State Rep. Peter Polombo publicly called Jessica Ahlquist, the atheist teenager who challenged the constitutionality of a large prayer that hung in her high school, an "evil little thing." She received hate mail, rape and death threats and was told to get out of Rhode Island by angered citizens.

When Damon Fowler challenged the constitutionality of his high school sponsored prayer during his high school graduation commencement he faced similar attacks. A teacher publicly demeaned him, his parents threw him out of their house and cut off financial support and he was physically threatened.

The atheist community rallied behind both of these teens by setting up scholarship funds and writing and speaking passionately in their defense. However, outside of the tightly knit atheist communities there was little support.

I know it may seem like an oxymoron to ask religious institutions or leaders to defend atheists who call for the removal of God language from government. However, so many progressive religious communities are on the front lines of battling economic injustice, racism, poverty, homophobia, sexism and other forms of marginalization. There's no reason that we as progressive spiritual or religious leaders can't address the dehumanization that atheists face -- regardless of whether we agree with their views about God. Furthermore, these issues intersect. For example, a religious community concerned about racism shouldn't ignore the complexities of racism in the case of black atheists.

One of the leading conservative Christians, John Hagee, recently angrily preached in a sermon that atheists should leave the country and that the United States is a Christian nation. This is of course offensive to many. If progressive religious communities stood up to this type of harassment and began taking the concerns of atheists more seriously it would be a positive step towards creating dialogue with atheists.

The Task of Atheists

Rather than attacking "religion" en mass as the many vocal New Atheists do, it would be helpful to understand the complex cultural and sociological forces that define someone's relationship to religion. Thus, in order for dialogue to occur more atheists will need to abandon the "either/or" dichotomy that so often frames the discussion.

While PZ Myers is certainly one of the more divisive and antagonizing voices in the New Atheist movement, he demonstrates an important point related to this topic in a recent post.

Myers wrote about Sikivu Hutchinson, author of "Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics & the Values Wars." He described how some in the new atheist community asked him to write a rebuttal of her call for a social and racial justice lens in the fields of science and atheism. Myers states, "She also makes the argument in that book that the black community's affiliation with religion has been an advantage for them -- it's been a 'bulwark against white supremacy and institutional racism.' He continues, "Unfortunately, I can't write a rebuttal...because she's right..."

Myers, one of the most vocal contemporary critics of all things religion, is admitting that religion is actually advantageous to communities in certain contexts. That's incredible.

If Myers and other New Atheists were to genuinely develop this further true dialogue could actually occur with religious people. Why? Because of course African Americans resisting racism isn't the only reason why religion can be advantageous to communities. There are lots of good reasons why people participate in religion -- both out of resisting oppression and in the name of building community, finding love and strengthening work for justice. Understanding these reasons and learning how to respectfully dialogue about them in relation to religion should be a central task of atheists.

Myers is unwilling to treat African-American Christianity in the same simplistic and critical way that he is willing to treat other faiths like Islam. He's stated, "Come on, Islam... It's bad enough to be the religion of hate, but to be the religion of cowardice ought to leave you feeling ashamed." I'm suspecting you won't hear any of these crude generalizations from Myers about African-American Christianity because he has now developed a sensitivity and awareness to the complexity of powers and privileges that affect it. Why can't this openness be developed in relation to Islam or other religions?

It's really not a far leap from Myers' position to embracing a more complex understanding of all religion. In the larger global context why treat African-American religion any different? Aren't religions worldwide filled with hypocrisies and revolutionary potential just as African American Christianities are? Aren't these institutions often on the forefront of resisting poverty? Providing much needed social, communal and relational support to people? Defending against the worst aspects of capitalism or other forms of oppressions all over the world? Providing safe haven for queer people in certain progressive communities? What about liberation, feminist and post-colonial movements and theologies? Can't any religious expression, in certain contexts, be advantageous to some degree?

Perhaps religion is best understood like Ibuprofen, it can cause both severe stomach bleeding as the label warns and be a tremendous aid in times of difficulty. Navigating the complexities of when and if to take it requires an open and inquisitive perspective. Questions need to be asked about context, background and history. Religion needs to be examined from a similar perspective.

Furthermore, if Myers or other New Atheists are genuinely interested in confronting issues of white and male privilege in society it necessitates working with religious communities to some degree. Why? Because in many places, as here in the U.S. in African-American communities, the Church is a central institution in the fight against those things Myers is decrying. There isn't the luxury to avoid dialogue or interfaith engagement with religious people and institutions.

At the end of the day, both religious people and atheists of all varieties have important stories to share about their experiences. These can themselves be the foundation for dialogue. However, I fear that the current landscape may be too filled with stereotypes, misunderstandings and down-right anger. If each "side" is willing to step back and listen, self-reflect and open themselves to broader positions based on what's needed then I believe we can lay the groundwork for genuine dialogue. We can all benefit from asking, "What's it like to be you?"