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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

soundoff (5,916 Responses)
  1. jimatmad

    The problem with today's Christians is that they think they have a right to tell everybody how to live.

    Keep your religion out of my politics, and your politics out of my religion and we'll all get along better.

    September 14, 2013 at 11:48 am |
    • Ryan

      You are a whiner. The point of a democracy is to be representative of the people....kind of hard to argue against voting. It's every individual's right to vote however they wish – even by religion. Accept it or not, it will continue as so.

      September 14, 2013 at 11:56 am |
      • G to the T

        We don't live in a true democracy Ryan – we live in a democratic republic – that's a "representational" government, meaning you don't vote on everything. The founders didn't like the idea of pure democracy and considered it "mob rule" or the "tyranny of the majority". We have a consitution and a bill of rights to ensure just what you are talking about doesn't happen.

        Let me ask you this – which is a better government – one that supports a single religious view (whoever happens to be the majority – which is christians now, but may not be in the future) or one that is neutral on religious issues no matter who the majority is? For me it will always be the latter, no matter who the former happens to be. Vote your conscience, but be aware that not all things should be viewed as a religious issue where it doesn't actually infringe on your religious liberties.

        September 16, 2013 at 3:38 pm |
    • kati

      "The problem with today's Christians is that they think they have a right to tell everybody how to live."

      not as much as fundie athies who vow to end christianity

      September 14, 2013 at 12:01 pm |
  2. FrenchChef

    Face the fact, Christianists, Americans already have a "deal" with you, made in 1789–the Bill of Rights, which guarantees we may ALL be free of your peculiar "religion."

    September 14, 2013 at 11:48 am |
    • deep blue

      Read the first amendment again. It says the government cannot pass any law respecting an"establishment of a religion". "Establishment of a religion" is typically interpreted to mean implicitly or explicitly endorse one over any other, including monetarily.

      September 14, 2013 at 11:53 am |
      • G to the T

        Correct – but take it a bit further – for me, this means the government and religion (ALL religions) should be kept separate because there is NO concensus, so it's safer for EVERYONE if they don't endorse any religious view (and the belief in God is a religious stance and as such, not appropriate).

        September 16, 2013 at 3:41 pm |
  3. Reality # 2

    I see the moderator's gal friend is back. She does bring in more traffic than S. Prothero so "god bless" her 🙂

    And of course, we are reminded of the following Creed when Ms. Evans returns:

    The Apostles'/Agnostics’/Atheists' Creed 2013: (updated by yours truly and based on the studies of historians and theologians of the past 200 years)

    Should I believe in a god whose existence cannot be proven
    and said god if he/she/it exists resides in an unproven,
    human-created, spirit state of bliss called heaven??

    I believe there was a 1st century CE, Jewish, simple,
    preacher-man who was conceived by a Jewish carpenter
    named Joseph living in Nazareth and born of a young Jewish
    girl named Mary. (Some say he was a mamzer.)

    Jesus was summarily crucified for being a temple rabble-rouser by
    the Roman troops in Jerusalem serving under Pontius Pilate,

    He was buried in an unmarked grave and still lies
    a-mouldering in the ground somewhere outside of
    Jerusalem.

    Said Jesus' story was embellished and "mythicized" by
    many semi-fiction writers. A descent into Hell, a bodily resurrection
    and ascension stories were promulgated to compete with the
    Caesar myths. Said stories were so popular that they
    grew into a religion known today as Catholicism/Christianity
    and featuring dark-age, daily wine to blood and bread to body rituals
    called the eucharistic sacrifice of the non-atoning Jesus.

    Amen
    (references used are available upon request)

    September 14, 2013 at 11:48 am |
  4. deep blue

    The author is saying that the two below claims are completely stupid and thus should be discontinued:
    1. Dawkins is stupid, therefore, all atheists are stupid.
    2. Robertson is stupid; therefore, all Christians are stupid.
    Some people on this forum are hung up on her premises. It is ok if you disagree the premises of the false claims she is highlighting. The premises aren't the point. The point is, if you look at the logic that leads from those premises to the conclusions, they employ the same logical fallacy.

    September 14, 2013 at 11:47 am |
  5. LouAZ

    Bumper Sticker: If You Won't Pray In My School I Won't Think In Your Church

    September 14, 2013 at 11:47 am |
  6. kati

    "Just the Facts Ma'am...
    A Christian is a follower of doctrine.
    doctrine: 1. a belief or set of beliefs held and taught by a church, political party, or other group."

    an atheist holds a set of ridiculous beliefs to die for. they are fundamentalists, closed-minded, lazy and vile. they follow sam stone

    September 14, 2013 at 11:47 am |
    • Attack of the 50 Foot Magic Underwear

      Umm – what?

      September 14, 2013 at 11:52 am |
      • kati

        um what what?

        September 14, 2013 at 12:05 pm |
        • G to the T

          I read your comment 3 times and I still have NO idea what you mean...

          September 16, 2013 at 3:42 pm |
    • Jesse Needham

      Too bad for you. We are made of rubber.

      September 14, 2013 at 12:07 pm |
      • kati

        the first scrap of truth to leave the keyboard of an atheist

        September 14, 2013 at 12:51 pm |
        • G to the T

          That's a pretty broad bruch you're swing there kati – way to prove the point of the article!

          September 16, 2013 at 3:43 pm |
    • doobzz

      This troll changes it's name hourly as if no one will notice that it says the same thing over and over.

      September 14, 2013 at 12:17 pm |
  7. Ken

    If Robertson made some lame comment about his favorite football team's defensive game, it wouldn't be worth making a fuss about because he isn't basing his opinion on his understanding of Christianity, but if he commented that New England will suffer God's wrath for cutting Tim Tebow, (and who would be surprised if he did?) then that would be a different story.

    It looks as though every soundbite against Dawkins isn't actually something against his arguments for atheism. That makes them all simple ad hominem attacks.

    September 14, 2013 at 11:46 am |
    • kati

      dearly beloved atheists,
      i am confused. may i ask you for your help?
      why do you feel bad for a christian who loses a loved one? ms. stone encourages xtians to use a weapon to end themselves all the time and no one says a word to her

      you take robertson seriously as someone with an opinion about the bible?

      September 14, 2013 at 11:50 am |
      • Attack of the 50 Foot Magic Underwear

        @ Kati – why do atheists feel bad when a Christian loses a loved one? Well, because we are social mammals who have adapted as a species to be able to feel empathy and compassion toward our fellow humans. Because we have evolved to have "mirror neurone" which fire not only when we act, but when we observe another acting.We see a video of a bad sports injury; we wince. We hear about someone losing a loved one; we feel pity, sadness, and compassion.

        BTW, that has nothing to do with your belief system – atheist, theist, whatever. It; is because of our evolved physiology.

        September 14, 2013 at 11:57 am |
        • kati

          why lie?

          September 14, 2013 at 12:09 pm |
        • kati

          you don't know why you lie? try this. why not rebuke that malignant virus, sam stone? she tells reborners to end their lives violently. you lie because your indoctrination into atheism is your gods

          September 14, 2013 at 12:54 pm |
      • Ken

        kati
        Plenty of people take Robertson's opinion on the Bible seriously, and they are the ones who make political decisions a lot of us find harmful to society, like opposing gay marriage. His voice is really not all that far removed from the others who oppose social change and equality. He speaks out against all the same things that other conservative Christians do, doesn't he?

        I'm really not sure what you're talking about with the other part, sorry!

        September 14, 2013 at 12:01 pm |
        • kati

          jimmy carter

          September 14, 2013 at 12:10 pm |
  8. Imito

    This discussion fails to take into account Agnosticism, which allows for spirituality without dogma. Those who are Christian or a devotee of some religion have likely experienced God's presence in their life. Those who are atheists likely have not had any such experience. Both science and religion are seeking the truth and neither has found a conclusive, irrefutable answer. Most often this search is personal and Agnostics recognize and embrace that the answer may be unknowable with any degree of certainty.

    September 14, 2013 at 11:45 am |
    • Ken

      If you're agnostic, then I'm assuming that you don't believe that any gods are actually real, correct? Sorry to tell you this, but that makes you an atheist, and most atheists are perfectly willing to say that they don't know for a fact that no gods exist anywhere. How could they ever know such a thing, right?

      Some gods however, like the Christian one, are just logically impossible, so you might hear some atheists claim to know that God doesn't exist, but who is to say that some aliens in another galaxy don't actually worship some more powerful being as a god? Even Prince Philip was once called a god by some tribespeople.

      September 14, 2013 at 11:55 am |
    • Reality # 2

      Au Contraire !!

      “John Hick, a noted British philosopher of religion, estimates that 95 percent of the people of the world owe their religious affiliation to an accident (the randomness) of birth. The faith of the vast majority of believers depends upon where they were born and when. Those born in Saudi Arabia will almost certainly be Moslems, and those born and raised in India will for the most part be Hindus. Nevertheless, the religion of millions of people can sometimes change abruptly in the face of major political and social upheavals. In the middle of the sixth century ce, virtually all the people of the Near East and Northern Africa, including Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Egypt were Christian. By the end of the following century, the people in these lands were largely Moslem, as a result of the militant spread of Islam.

      The Situation Today

      Barring military conquest, conversion to a faith other than that of one’s birth is rare. Some Jews, Moslems, and Hindus do convert to Christianity, but not often. Similarly, it is not common for Christians to become Moslems or Jews. Most people are satisfied that their own faith is the true one or at least good enough to satisfy their religious and emotional needs. Had St. Augustine or St. Thomas Aquinas been born in Mecca at the start of the present century, the chances are that they would not have been Christians but loyal followers of the prophet Mohammed. “ J. Somerville

      It is very disturbing that religious narrow- mindedness, intolerance, violence and hatred continues unabated due to randomness of birth. Maybe, just maybe if this fact would be published on the first page of every newspaper every day, that we would finally realize the significant stupidity of all religions.

      September 14, 2013 at 11:56 am |
  9. Jesse Needham

    Pat Robertson is a face for a conservative subset of Christianity. because of this, we have to combat creationism in public schools; stand up for gay rights, women's reproductive rights and separation of church and state. Criticizing this IS NOT "painting all Christians with the same brush." But, when these faith-based ills are examined and rebutted, the issue of believing things without evidence is unavoidable. The more progressive Christians can feel lumped in, because they too share the common element of faith reasoning, which is the foundation of the above problems. By defending it , you, Rachel, are unwittingly supporting a shield for the Christian right,

    September 14, 2013 at 11:45 am |
  10. NorthVanCan

    Hay Rachel , Atheists don't make deals with the devil.

    September 14, 2013 at 11:44 am |
  11. Just the Facts Ma'am...

    A Christian is a follower of doctrine.

    doctrine: 1. a belief or set of beliefs held and taught by a church, political party, or other group.

    An Atheist is not a follower of doctrine.

    When a highly regarded Christians makes a statement, they are speaking as if informed by their doctrine, of which many million may share, and thus can be considered a representative of that doctrine, even if they may push it a bit too far. Pat Robertson has said some reprehensible things, such as Katrina being caused by God because of the sin in New Orleans and the gay parade they had. It may have been poorly said and maybe not every Christians belief, but you know as well as I do that there were a lot of fellow believers thinking it even if they were not saying it.

    When a highly regarded atheist says something icky such as Richards comment on molestation, that came from a guy who was molested as a child, and also happens to be an atheist, but has absolutely nothing to do with his atheism. So why should anyone think they should get to throw that in atheists faces? Why do we have to bargain away your often sick and twisted Christian rhetoric because some guy went through some trauma as a child and has to rationalize that now, and also happens not to believe in God?

    September 14, 2013 at 11:43 am |
    • Iloveignorantpeople

      Hmm I guess your really don't understand what a Christian is.

      September 14, 2013 at 11:48 am |
      • kati

        dig it

        September 14, 2013 at 12:25 pm |
      • Tesla

        "Hmm I guess your really don't understand what a Christian is."

        I would say he has a better understanding of Christians than you do of the English language.

        September 14, 2013 at 12:42 pm |
        • kati

          you said it but it is wrong

          u know what a christian is? go ahead. feel free to tell us your opinion

          September 14, 2013 at 12:46 pm |
    • kati

      "When a highly regarded Christians makes a statement, they are speaking as if informed by their doctrine," true. do you highly regard robertson? what's wrong with you?

      September 14, 2013 at 11:52 am |
      • Just the Facts Ma'am...

        "do you highly regard robertson?" I do not, however many Christians do or they would not keep sending him money. I have never sent a dime to Richard Dawkins and have no affiliation with him other than a shared disbelief in God. You and I i'm sure share a disbelief in leprechauns, does that make us buddies?

        September 14, 2013 at 12:00 pm |
        • kati

          "do you highly regard robertson?" "I do not, however many Christians do or they would not keep sending him money." christians do? why would you say something like that?

          September 14, 2013 at 12:12 pm |
        • Just the Facts Ma'am...

          If Pat did not have wide support, he would have no platform on which to stand.

          September 14, 2013 at 12:17 pm |
        • kati

          of course he has support. so did robert tilten

          September 14, 2013 at 12:29 pm |
  12. SSampson

    First off – we're not atheists for the VERY reasons you want so-called peace – 'atheism' is a word coined by the religious for those who do not believe in an effort to place us all in the same container. Understandably this is because they are so used to putting themselves into containers – so to speak.

    Of COUSE Dawkins says provocative things – and what he said was more sensible than the PC BS coming out of most mouths today. He was NOT condoning pedophilia by any stretch – Nor was he belittling Muslims – the exact OPPOSITE actually... but that I guess is hard to see as once again people attack anything they possibly can. The pedophilia comment was predicated on the fact that society has not always condemned such actions and therefore those from that era cannot be condemned in the same fashion. – YES – I find all pedophilia sickening myself... but remember – humanity has done many things in the past which we now condemn (or at least consider ridiculous)...Context is everything....

    Of course as Dawkins also points out – religious texts value women less than men – and recommend the removal of bits of genitalia (this included the sucking – yes sucking – of the foreskin off baby boys after the incision was made) – then there was the stoning etc etc....

    It is SO hard to have any conversation with religious types – and with understandable reasons – Imagine having a conversation withy someone who insists Santa or the Tooth Fairy is real – of COURSE everything sounds like intentional baiting to them...Now... the believers will say that GOD is real and Santa/Tooth Fairy/Orcs/Goblins/Aliens (and probing) etc aren't – so it isn't the same... And there is the rub. How can you argue with someone who offers NO proof other than a book that is regularly proven wrong and re-evaluated and readjusted constantly to 'cover' these inconsistencies?

    Dawkins was prompting discussion and making some controversial statements – absolutely – but taking it totally out of context is just another silly tool of the religious to make non-points.

    If religious types want to attack Dawkins for what he 'really' said IN CONTEXT, then they must also accept the fact that their religious books are the instruction manuals for his comments.

    But I ramble – typing this with many interruptions – I shouldn't waste my time talking to people that believe in the imaginations of others.

    "So let’s talk about the truth, and with the people who most consistently and graciously point us toward it." – Huh?? How can one talk the truth with those that believe the truth lives in lies – LMFAO...

    September 14, 2013 at 11:42 am |
  13. Reason225

    yeah – you had me till you said:
    "As tempting as it is to classify Dawkins’ views as representative of all atheists, I can’t bring myself to do it."
    If you are truly that stupid to be tempted to group such a large population of humans as having the same views as one man, you really arent fit to write such opinion pieces on CNN – in my opinion – and therefore I stopped reading.
    Thanks for showing your true self and saving me the time.

    September 14, 2013 at 11:42 am |
    • Jim Knowles-Tuell

      That's funny. You call yourself "Reason," but you don't understand a simple rhetorical flourish such as "I was tempted to."

      September 14, 2013 at 12:14 pm |
  14. such blind hypocritical bigotry

    Are you mad!? The doctrine only survives due to the complacency of these cultists, cultists like you ms blogger. The status quo of oppression and murder is all too comfortable and familiar. Death to religion or death to humanity, there is no other option.

    September 14, 2013 at 11:41 am |
  15. exlonghorn

    It's not nearly that simple. I have a 13 yo daughter and get to see the Instagram and Facebook accounts of her friends, along with their tweets, etc. Almost universally, they hold God in very high regard...always giving God a place in their profile, and posting verses and "liking" the religious posts of others. So our daughter believes as well...in spite of having Atheist parents and an non-theist brother. She can't explain any of her beliefs successfully, she hasn't read the Bible, and she can't defend her religion from it's more egregious teachings. It's the social aspect of religion that makes it so powerful. Teens are terrified of not belonging...of being excluded or different. I think the Church has figured this out, and the result is sending a new generation of youth towards another ideological dark age. They'll all head down a path of ignorance, but at least they'll do it together.

    September 14, 2013 at 11:39 am |
    • Jon Price

      Thus you explain why religion is popular: herd mentality.

      September 14, 2013 at 11:47 am |
    • Just the Facts Ma'am...

      Don't worry, i'm sure it's just a peer pressure experimental phase thing, she'll grow out of it.

      September 14, 2013 at 11:48 am |
      • exlonghorn

        I am a huge proponent of letting our kids find their own path when it comes to belief. We invoke humanist principles that are religionless. You don't need to be a Christian to believe that killing, stealing, and otherwise harming others is wrong. You don't have to be Christian to teach children to be respectful, considerate, and charitable. Follow the golden rule, don't harm yourself, and do your best at whatever you do. I need absolutely no god, religion, or book to teach my children how to be good citizens. One day, I hope she will feel the same way. But, I'll love her just the same regardless.

        September 14, 2013 at 12:12 pm |
    • David

      Wow! I hope everyone reads this. This is as insightful a description of why and how most of our youth "get religion" as I have read. I am a teacher and, too, have seen students wear their religion on their sleeve. However, it doesn't take long to see (by their daily actions) that the actual content of what their religion teaches is meaningless to them. They simply want to belong. It's like being part of the football booster club.

      September 14, 2013 at 11:53 am |
  16. jimatmad

    Nearly every religion in the world is, in itself, a beautiful expression of love and justice.....

    ....until people get involved.

    September 14, 2013 at 11:38 am |
  17. jimatmad

    While I am somewhat familiar with his work, I had to look up Richard Dawkins as a reminder as to who he is. That's likely because reasoning people are more interested in ideas rather than personalities. Richard Dawkins' work isn't notable because it is Richard Dawkins' work. It's notable because it has intellectual merit.

    In that sense, Richard Dawkins is much more of a "famed atheist" among conservatives than he is among liberals. Conservatives latch on to the personality rather than the accomplishments.

    Liberals' pursuit of truth and justice for their own sake is a far cry from the intense need of conservatives, especially conservative Christians, to be led.

    September 14, 2013 at 11:36 am |
  18. bk1024

    Considering that the human race would have been much better off if there had never been organized religions, why should should anyone want to make a deal with it?

    September 14, 2013 at 11:36 am |
  19. Jacqueline

    Anyone who thinks Richard Dawkins was defending pedophiles is retarded. Comparing Richard Dawkins to Pat Robertson is a perfect example of false equivalence.

    September 14, 2013 at 11:35 am |
    • Deborah

      Anyone who uses the word "retarded" in 2013 automatically disqualifies him/herself from intelligent debate.

      September 14, 2013 at 11:42 am |
      • SSampson

        Another stupid PC thing – retarded is a word – context is everything....Developmentally Challenged will become a bad word eventually too

        That being said, I would have used another word in this context... However I would have also added context to my reply –

        September 14, 2013 at 11:46 am |
    • deep blue

      She is not comparing Dawkins and Robertson. She is comparing the claims "Dawkins is stupid, so all atheists are stupid" and "Robertson is stupid, so all Christians are stupid." You are getting hung up on the premise, but both claims use the same faulty logic to reach the conclusion. That is the comparison she is drawing.

      September 14, 2013 at 11:42 am |
      • SSampson

        Since she took Dawkins out of context, the comparison is invalid 'directly' (by eliminating a great part of the discussion upon which the comment was based)

        Christians (and all monotheists) believe in ONE God – as such they can be grouped as believers in the 'one' god –

        Atheist is a word coined to put all of those who do NOT believe in God (or Gods) into a container. This is ludicrous as it implies that there actually is something NOT to believe in. It also assumes there is some type of bond between those that do not believe in imaginary beings...

        It is SO hard to talk to true believers – Be they Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Jonestown, Manson.... ALL are collections of people that have been sold a bill of goods without any evidence; with only threats of damnation (of various types).

        Good luck with that

        September 14, 2013 at 11:54 am |
    • Blessed are the Cheesemakers

      People should focus more on the "idea" and less on the "person". Robertson is an idiot because of his immense amount of stupid ideas.

      September 14, 2013 at 11:44 am |
  20. GAW

    One of the marks of extremists (And yes they are on both sides of the fence) is that they want to censor the other side. But being fair to Evans she is calling for a fair reasoned discussion from both parties. Of course many from both parties will believe that this is impossible and should not be done.

    September 14, 2013 at 11:34 am |
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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.