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September 14th, 2013
08:01 AM ET

Hey atheists, let’s make a deal

Opinion by Rachel Held Evans, special to CNN

(CNN) – 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.)

READ MORE: Why millennials are leaving the church

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.

READ MORE: Why millennials need the church

So, yes, Richard Dawkins is an atheist. But so are authors Greg Epstein and Susan Jacoby. So is my friend and fellow blogger Hemant Mehta. So is Sir Ian McKellen. So is ethicist Peter Singer, who may or may not be the best example.

And 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.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Atheism • Christianity • Faith

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    November 22, 2013 at 6:15 pm |
  3. J

    The only common ground I can find with Mr Dawkins- is if he as a "so-called bilogist" truly wanted to use his 'work' to help those suffering from Cancer and AIDS and terminal illness. That's his only angle. But nowhere in the context of any of his arguments- has this ever been considered or presented.

    And until then, he's just another Hilter crying because he doesn't get his way- and that's pretty sad.

    Next thing he'll be doing is saying anyone who is a christian scientist- who studied and got a PhD in a scientific field... that their logic is flawed because they believe in a supernatural creator who is bigger than themselves and mr dawkins' inflated ego.

    There's already been a Physicist or two that has debunked a couple of Dawkins words, but people can look that up themselves.

    November 18, 2013 at 6:56 pm |
    • Lou

      First of all, you're confused about the definition of biologist.

      Second, Dawkins isn't a biologist, per se.

      Last, your comment has no cogent point.

      November 18, 2013 at 10:21 pm |
  4. Andy

    I don't know about frighten but ... "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." Well, that last part, well, the truth of the matter is that there is no evidence that god exists, 0, none, not one scrap. Theists can be nice, like you, or mean, like the ones that control the Republican Party, but that doesn't change either the lack of evidence or the need to point out that religion is the emperor with no clothes. RHE also seems to want to gloss over that Christianity as a movement is doing quite a bit of harm in the US from teaching intelligent design (and religion itself) in schools, heavily restricting abortions, impeding advances in medicine and direct and active "achievements" to the negative and corrosive effects of promoting a system based on activity ignoring evidence and promoting it as a virtue (faith that is) while attacking science as a method of defending itself. So, yes, Pat Robinson is a nuttier and doesn't represent all Christians, but that doesn't mean that Christianity is benign, let alone true.

    November 1, 2013 at 9:38 am |
    • trip

      it never is or was about what you consider evidence. Its about ones life experience as it relates to what one believes or doesn't believe. what I consider as evidence may not even exist in your mind set

      November 25, 2013 at 4:58 pm |
      • Lou

        Or what you consider to be evidence may exist only in your mind.

        November 26, 2013 at 8:58 am |
  5. Ginny Bain Allen

    Yes, Rachel, let's do talk about truth. Truth is a person named Jesus Christ.

    October 26, 2013 at 12:40 pm |
    • weevolved

      Jesus is simply a fiction, with precisely the same evidence for existence as Harry Potter.

      October 27, 2013 at 2:11 am |
      • J

        It is humourous how atheist/satanists cannot spell.

        November 18, 2013 at 6:41 pm |
        • weevolved

          No. What is humorous is watching a make believer have no substance at all left to remark.

          November 18, 2013 at 11:17 pm |
        • Observer

          J

          "It is HUMOUROUS how atheist/satanists cannot spell."

          It's always HUMOROUS to hear people who cannot spell criticizing people who cannot spell. Well done.

          Obviously, believers CANNOT SPELL, too.

          November 18, 2013 at 11:25 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.