Dialogue or Debate: Does Exchange Lead to Change?

February 21, 2010

atheist nexusThe other day I began a conversation on the Nonreligious social networking website Atheist Nexus that I (admittedly cheekily) titled “I love religion.” In my initial post, I identified what I saw as a disconcerting amount of religious prejudice taking place on the website and attempted to offer up a perfunctory defense of some of religion’s positive attributes. My intent was two-fold: primarily, I was seeking out other secularists who were sympathetic to religious aims, values, and people; secondarily, however, I hoped to prompt a thoughtful dialogue around the issue of Nonreligious attitudes toward religion. Unsurprisingly, a robust debate followed.

With a looming thesis deadline, I’ve unfortunately had to abandon the conversation. But I wanted to share some some selections from the ensuing debate. It is not my intention to give a lopsided representation of the exchanges; however, I didn’t want to just copy and paste the entire thing (because that would be extremely long). I hope these selections will give you a sense of what transpired. The portions I’ve chosen are, in my opinion, the most provocative counter-arguments to my initial post, and my responses. After the selections, I’ve offered some concluding reflections.

For starters, one poster offered the following statement:

There is some art, music, architecture, etc that was inspired by religion although if religion didn’t exist, it could have still come about.

My response:

Couldn’t you say the same about the “delusion, mind control, bigotry, murder, hate, racism, manipulation” some here claim religion inspires? That it would occur with or without religion, and people just used religion to propagate those things because it was convenient? In my opinion, religion in and of itself is not innately bad or good; like anything, it can be abused or used for good.

In another vein, one member of the website offered:

You could probably summarize your essay fairly succinctly as “I am atheist but I find atheists intolerant and theists are nicer”. I could just as easily say, “I am atheist and I find atheists nice and theists have been intolerant”. Opinion is opinion.

Similarly, another said:

I’m glad to read that you’ve had a much more positive experience with religious folks than I’ve had… I do, however, think that your opinion about atheists seems based off of one experience, while your opinion about the religious seems based on years of experiences.

My response to them both:

I just wanted to highlight one specific incident as an example, but I’ve actually had many more positive experiences with secular folks than negative ones, and have continually bumped up against discrimination from religious folks based on my sexual orientation or secular identity. I’ve been beaten up in public for holding a man’s hand while the perpetrators quoted Christian Scripture at me. I was told by my own minister I’d get AIDS and spend eternity in Hell for my “lifestyle choice.” My first boyfriend’s parents cut him out of my life when they found out because they believed he was suffering from a “spiritual sickness.” But for as many such incidents as I’ve had, I’ve also had wonderful relationships of mutual respect with people of faith. And I choose to let those inform my optimism that religion can be a catalyst for good in the world, because I’ve seen it happen with my own eyes, and because they inspire me to work for justice rather than dwell on the negative encounters I’ve experienced.

The latter of the two rebutted:

While your story of being abused by Christians does demonstrate that not all of your experiences with Christians have been positive, it doesn’t demonstrate that you’ve had many experiences with atheists outside of one meeting that didn’t go very well. You also seem to be focussed entirely on what you see as negative attributes within our community while completely ignoring the positive. For instance, if you’d grown up in a more secular community you wouldn’t have had to suffer all of those abuses. I challenge you to get to know the secular community better, and not solely from the perspective of this thread. Walking into the room and announcing immediately, “I think you’re all crap,” is generally a bad way to get to know what people really are about, beyond how they behave when put on the defensive.

I continued our exchange:

[As I’ve stated,] I’ve had plenty of experiences with secularists, and they’ve been mostly positive. However, I’ve been discouraged to find a strong anti-religion streak in many of my conversations. I will of course continue to try to get to know the secular community better, as I have been for years now, but I will admit that it is difficult for me when every other thread on sites such as this contains things that are just plain offensive to me. When 80% of what I read (and believe me, as a part of my thesis on Narrative, New Media and Non-Religiosity, I’ve trolled a lot of this site and many others) is crack shots at religion, I’m offended both in my intellectual sensibility (there’s no reason a “reason”able critique of theology shouldn’t be respectful — it is much easier to make cheap jokes, but it is just lazy if you ask me) and on behalf of the religious people I care deeply about. That kind of insular, exclusivistic attitude isn’t going to make it any easier for our community to interact with religious people, and whether we like it or not, if we are engaged citizens we will have to. So, I appreciate your challenge, and I hope to make good on it. I also hope I didn’t put anyone on the defensive — it was not my intention. I certainly didn’t mean my between-the-lines to read “I think you’re all crap,” and I’m sorry if it came across the way. I’m just seeking out like-minded secularists, and tried to lighten my tone by being (what I thought was) a bit goofy. Guess I don’t have a future in comedy after all…

Another poster said:

How do you propose to deal with Islam which is the bigger headache than Xtian fundies? Don’t kid yourself.

To which I responded:

If you want to hold all of Islam accountable for its extremists, would you like to accept responsibility for the Atheist extremists of the world? Because I don’t.

That response was met by:

Atheists extremists? Oh, no please not again. Do you remember the Danish cartoons and how the Muslim world reacted? That wasn’t even extreme. That was essentially mainstream… You really don’t understand Islam. Have you lived in a Muslim territory? I have.

To which I responded:

No, I have not, but I don’t think that disqualifies me from having any insight on Islam. My last boss was a Muslim, as have been many of my co-workers and dearest friends. I’m wrapping up my Master’s in Religion (after having gotten a Bachelor’s in Religion) and have studied Islam and engaged with Muslim communities both socially and for my degrees. Though I’d never claim to be an authoritative scholar, I do have some footing for my perspective in personal experience.

You may not agree with me here, but I believe our attitudes shape the world around us. We search out negativity in the world, we will find it. I believe that it is much easier for folks to insulate themselves with simple like-minded bigotry (a strong word, sure, but I think it applies to some of the talk I’ve seen about religion on this website) than it is to engage with people who believe differently than we do, but it contributes to a world that encourages fundamentalism — religious and Atheistic alike. By sitting around bad-mouthing religion, we’re actually fostering a world in which religious totalitarianism thrives.

You want to see the end of Islamic extremism? Start asking why some Muslims in the world are manifesting their frustration at years of Western subjugation through their faith instead of latching onto the less nuanced “it’s their faith’s fault” argument.

Additionally: don’t try to tell me there aren’t people perpetrating violence in this world under the name of godlessness. I’ve seen it with my own eyes. They may not be beheading anyone, but not all violence is so obvious.

Another poster responded to that comment:

I have yet to see an atheist beat a theist half to death simply for being a theist. What I have seen is people turn there back on me for being an atheist. What I have seen is a gay guy beat to hell and back in a bar for being gay by a theist whom I have known for twenty years (and of course backs his bigotry up with scripture). So, no… I am not so pathetic as to praise the thing that I see the most evil from. Religion should never be taken seriously as anything other than a threat to our future as a species. Of course, ‘m not saying one should not tolerate religion. I do it every day and will do so for the rest of my life and when I have children I will teach them to be the same way, but I will NEVER accept theism as a good thing. Because. It. Is. Not.

I offered:

I hear your critique, but where we have the most authority is in how we choose to respond to such violence. We can either respond in kind with violence (which transcends physical manifestations to include words and attitudes), or we can – dare I say it – “turn the other cheek” and look for the good in our religious brothers and sisters and in ourselves.

I’m sorry that you see my perspective as “pathetic” and religion as “evil.” I’m even sorrier that you’ve had such negative encounters with religion — as I mentioned in an earlier response, I was once beat up as a group of men shouted Christian Scripture at me, simply because they saw me holding another man’s hand, so I obviously sympathize. But for as many bad experiences as I’ve had with religious people, I’ve had transformative experiences of mutual respect and inspiration. My hope is that, as you continue in life, you will meet people who offer you a different way of being religious, and that these encounters might touch your heart. Thanks for taking the time to respond.

After a moment’s thought, I added another bit:

And RE: “tolerance”… Who wants to live in a world where we all go about superficially “tolerating” one another? I sure don’t. I want deeper, richer relationships than that. And so I try to empathize with folks who see the world differently. It’s not always easy, but it is always rewarding.

That was met by a response from another member of the site:

Of course we’d all love a rich, deep world. But we have to start somewhere as far as baseline expectations go. When it comes down to it, I would love for the fundamentalist to delight in my atheism, but I know they are okay with me burning in hell. And they’re entitled to be okay with that, as long as they keep out of my personal life. That’s what tolerance is all about.

I don’t go into their churches telling them that they’re evil (and I did go to a Christian church this Sunday with atheist friends, actually, and we were painfully polite to them – it wasn’t till after we left that we started tearing our hair out in frustration). They don’t need to go into the secular arena telling me that I’m evil. Then we’re both tolerating each other, and we’re set for our separately-lived peaceful existences. But honestly, I don’t even know if peace is a realistic expectation. It’s just my hope that we could achieve it in my lifetime.

To which I responded:

I feel you, and yet my counter-argument grows out of my lived experience. I work with religious people day in and day out around issues that matter to us both, such as malaria eradication. We aren’t just tolerating one another; we’re collaborating and engaging in mutually-inspiring relationships. I believe this is the quickest way to rid the world of fundamentalism: through the act of respectful encounter with the “other.” Are all encounters going to be positive? No, but that doesn’t mean we should give up.

In the aforementioned conversation around Islam, another poster said:

I’d agree with [you] if not for one thing: [Muslim extremists] are following their religion. They kill homosexuals because it’s the law of their faith. In Islam, homosexuality is considered a crime against god and nature and is punishable by death in some countries because of their RELIGION. I understand the point you’re trying to make but the problem is it’s their faith that drives them to do these things. Extremists are guilty of misinterpretation, the men you see killing homosexuals are following the laws of their faith. An atheist’s argument against religion couldn’t be any clearer.

In turn, I offered:

The claim you’re making is hermeneutically lazy. That is one interpretation of Islamic code; one that many Muslims I know find erroneous. It is not only unfair to say that all of Islam is dictated by a particular interpretation, it is dangerously false. A Muslim friend of mine has a career that centers on advocating for the rights of LGBTQ folks, and she is just as motivated by her faith as the extremists you’ve highlighted. Why do we only condemn the twisted faith of extremists? Can we not celebrate the radical faith of my friend who is making a positive impact on the world?

Another member responded to this:

Interpretation, interpretation, interpretation. Why would someone have faith in something that can supposedly be interpreted a billion ways? Couldn’t god in his infinite wisdom have given the writers of religious texts a little better info? What about the bible? Every copy of the bible I have ever read has condemned homosexuals to death, and treated women as objects. And what I have read of the koran is no different. Why people insist on adopting the ignorant and fucked up ideology of bronze age goat herders who knew NOTHING about ANYTHING I will never know. And why people who know better even defend it is even farther beyond me.

I replied:

I am not here to argue theology — I’ll leave that to the religious (and believe me, there are MANY religious people who will say the Bible and Koran have nothing to say on homosexuality in its modern form). What I can say is that I appreciate a variety of things that others do not. I am informed by all kinds of books and music and films you have probably never read or heard of seen. And the inverse is true — it is likely that your inspirational “canon” is different than mine. I do not expect that the texts that inform others’ worldviews will be the same as mine; in fact, I hope they are different, because I don’t have time to read every book or see every movie but I do have time to have a relationship with people who have seen and heard and read and experienced things I have not.

And by the way, I don’t think its fair to say that the people who were involved in the creation of traditional religious texts knew “NOTHING about ANYTHING”… As a secular individual, I’ve still found the parables and stories and commandments of those texts inspirational and formative. Are some portions of them problematic? Sure. But I also don’t really care for the sixth track on the Noah and the Whale album that came out in 2009, but that didn’t stop it from being one of my favorite records to spin last year. You don’t have to agree with everything in a text to find some merit in it. You know what they say about throwing the baby out with the bath water…

Finally, a poster offered this critique of my commentary:

You know, you remind me of a guy I knew who wrote an ethics paper proposing that it was better to be ‘good’ than ‘right’. Poppycock.

In response, I reflected:

That’s probably a fair comparison. My mom occasionally recounts a story about me as a child, a time I corrected a kid at a birthday party for calling sherbet “ice cream.” She always laughs when she tells it, and says she is glad I’m “lightening up” with age. As you might guess, in my youth being “right” held ultimacy. I corrected everyone who I felt was “wrong.” (Kind of echoes some things said by extremists, both religious and otherwise, eh?) With age and experience, my perspective has shifted. I do believe it is better to be “good” than to be “right.” Of course, a greater explication of what “good” and “right” mean is certainly in order here, but in the limited context of this conversation, I can affirm that I do believe that.

I think that last bit nicely sums up my overall stance in this conversation. At one point I offered the following response to a critique on religion: “We can criticize the negative impact of others on our world until we are blue in the face, but isn’t the more productive move to focus on what good we have to offer (and how this good can overlap with the positive values of others, including the religious)?” I say this because that is where I would rather direct the limited energy I can access; in seeking out points of communion, not dividing lines of difference. It is my firm belief that with the latter operating mode we will make of ourselves isolationists and actually contribute to a world in which fundamentalism thrives. This is not some wishy-washy, “we’re all the same” outlook; rather, it recognizes that it is in our nature to notice the ways in which we are particular — and the reality is that we are and should not try to deny that — but that since it is innate to notice our individuality, it suggests that we should try to direct more of our energy toward seeking shared values.

I hope you, too, will take a moment to ask yourself: “Where does my energy go? Where can it best be used? Is it in critiquing the differences between myself and others, or is it in looking for points of shared humanity?” Asking this of ourselves does not mean we ignore the oppression in our world; in fact, its result is the opposite. By focusing on our authority as collaborative change-makers across lines of difference and seeking out points of reciprocity, we have the best shot at ending the oppression we see. This is my heartfelt belief, anyway, and it is one that I know I share with many people, religious and secular alike. I know this because I’ve experienced such collaboration. All it took was opening myself up to the “other” — in this case, religious people — enough to discover that, despite our differences, we had shared values and mutual ambitions. And though I didn’t quite achieve this desired discovery in these exchanges on Atheist Nexus, my hope is that the dialogue may lead to greater understanding in my Nonreligious communities and in the wider world. And so I offer you a challenge: try not to close yourself off from “the other.” You might be surprised at what you discover. I continue to be.

[Thank you to the posters at Atheist Nexus for engaging me in civil dialogue; I greatly appreciate and respect your contributions.]

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3 Responses to “Dialogue or Debate: Does Exchange Lead to Change?”

  1. scaryreasoner said

    In the end, the claims of religion are true, or they are false.

    I think they are false. I am not afraid to say so in ways that are not nice. If I have to say “fuck you,” I will.

  2. […] generally this blog, we’ve been getting some critical feedback as well. In the spirit of my exchange on Atheist Nexus, we’ve received emails saying that religion isn’t worth respecting, that we’re […]

  3. jpjesusss said

    Just discovered this site, and I wanted to say how much I appreciate this article. I also wanted to add that I think there is room for a variety of opinions within the “secular” communities–while I wouldn’t want to live my life as somebody like Christopher Hitchens (or, really, hang out with him for very long), I can completely appreciate where he’s coming from, and I’m glad that he’s out there, even if my own views aren’t as consistently full-of-anger as his seem to be. Similarly, I think there is plenty of room for secularists who befriend religionists on some level, at least some of the time, in part because of understanding individual differences of opinion.

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