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The No-Win Conversation
Begin at the Beginning
Debates and dialogues between atheists and theists always have the potential to be heated and contentious. It's the nature of the conversation. There's a reason that many people say that in polite society, you should always avoid conversations about politics, sex and religion - and it's a saying for a reason.
Because these conversations can be so divisive and polarizing, understanding what you're getting into before you begin is crucial to maintaining your sanity - and the sanity of those you're conversing with. No two theists are the same. No two atheists are the same. Approaching people and lumping them in with a certain group without ascertaining their individual beliefs, styles and history can be a crucial mistake, and it should be avoided. Stereotyping rarely, if ever, leads to meaningful dialogue. I see people on both sides of the aisle guilty of painting the other side with a broad brush.
For Atheists, the important thing to keep in mind that theism - especially the Christianity that we're most often familiar with in the Western world - is divisive enough on its own. There are over 40,000 denominations within Christianity, and the number is growing constantly. None of these denominations believe identical things - if they did, a separate denomination would not have been necessary. Before getting into the meat of the conversation, therefore, it becomes necessary to figure out what the person you're talking to actually believes. Using the Socratic Method is most profitable - ask questions. Don't assume the answers before you get them - and refrain from asking, only to override the answers and assert your own.
For Christians conversing with atheists, it's important to recognize one simple, solitary fact. Atheism (or at least the overwhelming majority of atheism) is a lack of belief in any God. That's it. Atheism says nothing about science or evolution. It says nothing about politics. It says nothing about any other position or question - it's simply addressing the question of belief. An atheist does not believe in a God. Not your God, not the Muslim God, not the Hindu gods - it is a lack of a belief in any God or Gods. This lack of belief does not equate to a rejection of said God, nor does it automatically imply a hatred of God. On any other issue aside from the belief question, atheism has nothing to say. It is a single position of a single question, and atheists are every bit as varied as their believing counterparts are.
An Atheist Interview
What Are We Looking For?
There are many different reasons for both atheists and theists to enter into discussions about the existence of God, the reasons for belief, or the impact of that belief on society as a whole. While I cannot speak for anyone other than myself, I'm often asked why atheists would continually seek out these discussions, and I'm often told what my reasons are by theists who know nothing about me, but want to project their ideas onto my motivations out of turn.
To clear the air, there are many reasons for these conversations, but mine have been (and always will be) three-fold.
1. I enjoy the conversations and the subject. It's fun and entertaining for me to enter into various conversations about beliefs and their impact. I do it as a hobby (and occasionally as more than a hobby) because I genuinely enjoy it, and I enjoy learning new things, interacting with new people and opening my mind to other ideas and understandings that vary greatly than mine. I learn from these conversations. I learn how to explain myself clearer and more concisely. I learn how to interact better with people of differing beliefs. I learn what seems to get to me, and then I learn how to stop it from affecting me. I learn a lot from these conversations, and I'm grateful for the opportunity to learn and grow from them.
2. It's a subject that I've been educated and enveloped in from a very young age. I was raised in the church, went on missionary trips with my parents and with a youth group, and went on to attend Bible college and studied them at a collegiate level. Because of my education and experience, I developed a deep interest in the subject itself. This interest didn't vanish when I no longer believed these things to be true. The interest remains, and instead of denying my history and pretending that I no longer was interested in things that sparked my initial curiosity, I continue the conversation and am constantly seeking out ways to learn new things.
3. Theism potentially is able to affect me, my every day life and the rights and liberties of other people - whether they accept or agree with that version of Theism or not. We see this happening undeniably in governmental Islamic countries where Christians and Atheists alike are persecuted for their beliefs that go against the State religion. People are being tortured, and are dying in many of these countries, simply for believing something different than they are expected to. I have seen many sentiments online that if America went back to being "God's Country" the problem of Atheism, Homosexuality, etc. would fade away, and God's justice could be brought back to the land. I've heard numerous people say that America is doomed because God is punishing the country because of the rise of atheism, immorality, homosexuality, etc. If these people got their way (not that I think it's likely), the freedoms that we enjoy in this country could potentially be stripped away one by one. I think it's important to stand up for the rights of the minority as well as the majority - and to recognize that one person's right ceases to be a right when it begins to infringe on the rights of someone else.
I've had many different people tell me over the years I've been discussing these topics that the only reason they, a believer, are here is to proselytize and convert people to Jesus. This is diametrically opposed to my reason for participating. I'm not looking to take anyone's faith away from them by force. I'm not actively seeking to deconvert anyone. I'm not looking to change anyone's mind or force them out of their faith that gives them comfort or happiness. I'm here because I enjoy being here, and hopefully I can give someone the opportunity to examine their beliefs for themselves, and possibly understand an opposing point of view without assuming that they're being attacked or threatened simply by a different opinion.
The No-Win Equation
Let me ask a question, because I'm genuinely curious. These are all things that have been said to me recently, and it seems like no matter what I do, there is no way to appease some of the more vocal members of the fundamentalist movement.
Short of giving believers every concession off the bat and rolling over, admitting that believers were right about everything and pretending to convert, what is it that believers want from atheists?
It seems like no matter what we do, we are somehow at fault. If we try to talk about Scripture, we are told that without the "spirit" we're incapable of understanding it, but if we don't try to talk about Scripture, we're told that we just need to read it.
We're told that without an education in theology, we're a waste of time, but if we get an education and mention it, we're accused of being arrogant and criticized for not getting the "right" one or it was clearly wrong.
If we do our own research, we're accused of not knowing what we're taking about, but if we quote other research, we're accused of being biased.
When we speak respectfully and intelligently, we're accused of being insincere and pretentious, when we criticize the belief, we're accused of persecuting the believer.
These conversations are becoming more and more meaningless if you are unsatisfied regardless of what you get. Believers expect to be treated as an individual and not lumped in with other believers, but atheists are referred to in a lump a large majority of the time.
Believers argue with us about what being an atheist even IS, but if we do the same, we're arrogant, uninformed and rude. What is it you want from us? (Universal you)
We're not going to convert without some kind of verifiable evidence. The Bible is not evidence, it is a claim - and half the time we seem to know it more fluently than many believers do. It's frustrating, understandably. Probably for both sides. I'm just curious.
A recent quote said to me by a Christian
"What you and others are generally offended at from me or other Christians here is our beliefs themselves, which come from the Word of God. The very idea that there is but one God and some have met him offends you. And it goes from there."
The reason this is untrue is blatantly obvious. I'm not offended by anyone's beliefs on their own. I'm not offended by the assertion that there is a God - any God, or that anyone claims to have met him. What I am potentially offended by, however, is the assertion that a relative stranger somehow knows me well enough to judge what offends me, and then assert that judgement as fact - despite the fact that I know it to be false, and have said it to be false. It would be like walking up to a stranger on the street and accusing them of being a murderer, despite their insistence to the contrary.
Understanding the Meaningful Perspective
I think we're all guilty of getting so wrapped up in these conversations that they have the potential to upset us, anger us or frustrate us. Recognizing that taking a step back from these cesspools of frustration is a step that ultimately most people will have to take if they want to keep the conversation going.
The one thing that bothers me to no end, however, is the seeming arrogance of being told what I think, what I feel, what I'm offended by, what I know, what I reject or what being an atheist even means. And I see this as the crux of a lot of double standards. If an atheist were to say "All (or even most) Christians support (insert something insulting here)", the forums would implode. When Christians say similar things about atheists, they are applauded. Many people see nothing wrong with telling Atheists that they are fools (as the Bible says in Psalms for saying that there is no God - not understanding that the overwhelming majority of atheists don't say that at all, and that lacking a belief or something does not mean outright rejection of it.
While sometimes it's best to walk away from these conversations if they get too heated, understanding these simple guidelines can save you from a lot of frustration and keep you from getting sucked into meaningless arguments:
1. Criticizing a belief is not the same thing as criticizing the person who holds it
2. Challenging a belief is not the same thing as attacking it - or the person
3. No one has the right to not be offended.
4. Since beliefs cannot be offended as they are not sentient, if you take a criticism of a belief personally, that is a choice - and a choice that can be overcome.
5. It's rude to assert that you know what's in a person's heart - especially when that person is a virtual stranger on the internet, and you know next to nothing about them.
6. Insisting that I hate God because I enjoy debating his followers when I've told you repeatedly that I don't will not be very productive - for either of us.
7. It's never productive to insist that you know how a person thinks, feels or understands
8. You do not get to dictate to others how they will behave, what they will say, or how they will react to what you say. Understand that misunderstandings are prevalent, and tone cannot be dictated on the internet.
9. Accept that the only person who's behavior you have control over is yourself.
Ultimately, if you treat others and talk to others the way that you desire others to speak to you, you're much more likely to get positive results. Positive results do not necessarily mean universal agreement, but respectful and engaging exchange can make a world of difference, regardless of what side you're on. If you find that the situation is becoming too frustrating, it's okay to walk away - regardless of what your "opponent" says to you. If they want to claim that they "won" because you no longer wanted to continue - let them. Ultimately, the only person that has to live with you is you, and as long as you're satisfied with your behavior and your actions, you don't have to answer to anyone else. If you're not happy with how you've behaved, then make amends. Don't be afraid to admit that you were wrong. Come clean and apologize. While you may not see the impact of your apology immediately (if ever), you'll be able to sleep better at night - and that's really all that matters.