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Hey atheists, let’s make a deal

CNN News Wire | 9/16/2013, 4 p.m.
Famed atheist Richard Dawkins has been rightfully criticized this week for saying the “mild pedophilia” he and other English children ...
Richard Dawkins

Famed atheist Richard Dawkins has been rightfully criticized this week for saying the “mild pedophilia” he and other English children experienced in the 1950s “didn’t cause any lasting harm.”

This comes after an August tweet in which Dawkins declared that “all the world’s Muslims have fewer Nobel Prizes than Trinity College, Cambridge. They did great things in the Middle Ages, though.”

Dawkins is known for pushing his provocative rhetorical style too far, providing ample ammunition for his critics, and already I’ve seen my fellow Christians seize the opportunity to rail against the evils of atheism.

As tempting as it is to classify Dawkins’ views as representative of all atheists, I can’t bring myself to do it.

I can’t bring myself to do it because I know just how frustrating and unfair it is when atheists point to the most extreme, vitriolic voices within Christianity and proclaim that they are representative of the whole.

So, atheists, I say we make a deal: How about we Christians agree not to throw this latest Richard Dawkins thing in your face and you atheists agree not to throw the next Pat Robertson thing in ours?

Now I’m not saying we just let these destructive words and actions go — not at all. It’s important for both believers and atheists to decry irresponsible views and hateful rhetoric, especially from within our own communities.

(Believe me. There are plenty of Christians who raise hell every time Robertson says something homophobic or a celebrity pastor somewhere says something misogynistic.)

But what if we resist the urge to use the latest celebrity gaffe as an excuse to paint one another with broad brushes?

What if, instead of engaging the ideas of the most extreme and irrational Christians and atheists, we engaged the ideas of the most reasonable, the most charitable, the most respectful and respected?

Only then can we avoid these shallow ad hominem attacks and instead engage in substantive debates that bring our true differences and our true commonalities to light.

It’s harder to go this route, and it takes more work and patience, but I’m convinced that both Christians and atheists are interested in the truth and in searching for it with integrity, without taking the easy way out.

Pope Francis took a step in that direction this week with a letter in a Rome newspaper responding directly to questions posed by its atheist director and inviting respectful open dialog between nonbelievers and Christians.

So, yes, Richard Dawkins is an atheist. But so is ethicist and humanitarian Peter Singer. So are authors Greg Epstein and Susan Jacoby. So is my friend and fellow blogger Hemant Mehta. So is Sir Ian McKellen.

Yes, Pat Robertson is a Christian. But so is Nelson Mandela. So is acclaimed geneticist Francis Collins. So is Nobel Peace Prize winner Leymah Gbowee. So is Barack Obama. So is Stephen Colbert.

And I’m willing to bet that the same collective groan emitted by millions of Christians each time Pat Robertson says something embarrassing on TV sounds a lot like the collective groan emitted by millions of atheists when Richard Dawkins rants on Twitter.

Still, in the end, it’s not about who has the most charismatic or generous personalities in their roster, nor about who has the most “crazies.” It’s about the truth.

So let’s talk about the truth, and with the people who most consistently and graciously point us toward it.

Rachel Held Evans is the author of “A Year of Biblical Womanhood” and “Evolving in Monkey Town.” Evans blogs at rachelheldevans.com, and the views expressed in this column belong to her.

Opinion by Rachel Held Evans, special to CNN.

Rachel Held Evans | CNN