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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. sandalista

    If Atheism is a religion, not playing tennis is a sport.

    September 14, 2013 at 3:53 pm |
  2. jens gessner

    As I see it, the biggest problem that atheists have with religion is NOT that religious people are irrational. – They are deluded, for sure, but why should I care about their delusions? The bigger problem is religion's insistence on influencing public policy based on irrational belief (the most serious issue is competing religious views and their resulting threat to all of humanity, but that is beside the point).

    Rachel seems to be suggesting that we should dismiss extremist voices of 'the other side' in the discourse, because they do not represent the mainstream. But there is a huge difference between an atheist scientist who expresses his own, controversial opinion on a matter unrelated to atheism, and an christian evangelist whose irrational preaching makes its way into public policy. Thus, IF Richard Dawkins' comment about his own childhood experience resulted in people demanding changes in the criminal code, or IF his assessment of the long-term effect of 'mild pedophila' caused proposed changes in public policy and the way we view child abuse, then Rachel would have a valid argument. – But nobody, atheist or not, is making any such proposals. Therefore, her comparing Dawkins with Robertson is nothing more than cheap journalism.

    September 14, 2013 at 3:51 pm |
    • Cricket

      What Jen said. There is a huge difference between the person (the atheist) saying "Leave me alone!' and the person (the religionist pushing their religion on others/the law) saying "We're being picked on by being asked to leave you alone!"

      By all means, if you are of a religion that objects to men marrying men, do not do so. Your religion is *not* a valid reason to make laws concerning whether other people may.

      When laws are based on anything but preventing harm, somebody is getting persecuted to some degree because of another's beliefs.

      September 14, 2013 at 7:43 pm |
  3. Steve

    "how frustrating and unfair it is when atheists point to the most extreme, vitriolic voices within Christianity ..."

    Just as you are now doing by bringing up Dawkins. Put a sock in it.

    September 14, 2013 at 3:49 pm |
    • If horses had Gods .. their Gods would be horses

      Precious few Atheists would point to Pat Robertson as one of the most extreme, vitriolic voices within Christianity We have a lot more to choose from that are much more extreme and vitriolic.

      September 14, 2013 at 3:53 pm |
    • pazke

      Did you read the article? That's the point she's trying to make.

      September 14, 2013 at 3:55 pm |
  4. Atheist

    Who's Jesus daddy? Someone who could violate a carpenter's wife and be powerful enough to have the husband shut up about it. However not power enough to strike down the man who wants to murder his new born with a lighting bolt but be close enough in the royal court to learn of the news and send out warning in time. This person must also had access to Mary an her tribe, but can't just take Mary as a mistress. Come on folks, WHO is Jesus real daddy?

    September 14, 2013 at 3:45 pm |
    • Lilith

      It's just another version of the "toilet seat" excuse, but he bought it!

      September 14, 2013 at 3:49 pm |
      • Atheist

        Na, he didn't buy it. If you are carpenter wouldn't you want to pass on your skill onto "your" son , that would mean many hours of lecture in the shop. Where was Jesus? Where did he get the money to travel to the city to spread his words? Certainly a carpenter doesn't have that kind of money for Jesus to run a political campaign.

        September 14, 2013 at 3:56 pm |
    • blatherskyt

      I'm afraid you're asking questions about which you've done no real studying. The physical and spiritual father of Jesus Christ is yours and my Heavenly Father. It was needful that Jesus Christ be born of an immortal being so that he could conquer death so that all might be resurrected. It was needful for Jesus Christ to be crucified by the Jews, insomuch that they were willing to kill their own God, so that he could descend below all so that all could be lifted up.

      Now I'll ask you a question, when was the last time you read the bible? If you sought for goodness and righteousness and studied the word of God you would not have such a demeanor towards the Gospel… but instead, you neither listen nor attempt to keep those commandments which bring forth blessings.

      Please do not persecute those who know the Jesus is the Christ and worship him and obey his commandments. We do not persecute you.

      September 14, 2013 at 3:56 pm |
      • Atheist

        What is the definition of a masochist?

        September 14, 2013 at 4:04 pm |
      • Cedar rapids

        'It was needful that Jesus Christ be born of an immortal being so that he could conquer death so that all might be resurrected. '
        Why?

        'It was needful for Jesus Christ to be crucified by the Jews, insomuch that they were willing to kill their own God, so that he could descend below all so that all could be lifted up.'
        why?

        September 14, 2013 at 4:08 pm |
      • tallulah13

        I don't know if you're trolling or not, but most atheists know more about the bible than most christians. I don't claim to be one of them. I understand enough of the bible to know that it is filled with inconsistencies, forgeries and flat-out falsehoods. I also understand enough about the bible to know that it's authors are generally unknown, and that it was written and edited by flesh and blood humans. I understand enough to know that the bible offers me nothing I want or need, nothing that hasn't been achieved with simple empathy and humanity. Indeed the bible advocates certain things that I find immoral and ignorant.

        But that is neither here nor there with me. I am an atheist because I know enough of human history to see the pattern with gods and their believers. Christianity at its core is no different than any other religion. The particulars are unique to the culture that invented it, as is the case with every religion, but at it's very heart it is just another human effort to understand and bargain with the unknown.

        September 14, 2013 at 4:08 pm |
      • Atheist

        Stop accusing people not being able to understand if you can't explain it logically. That's the definition of arrogance.

        September 14, 2013 at 4:08 pm |
      • jens gessner

        Oh! Oh! I get it.

        So God impregnates a virgin, and she has a son who is really God. Now humans are sinners, and need to repent for their sins to be forgiven. But repenting requires sacrifice, therefore God sacrifices ... himself (even though it should have been the sinner doing the sacrifice, but never mind). And then his son, who is really the omnipotent God, rises from the dead. That's it, right? – Oh wait....that's not much of a sacrifice, then, when the omnipotent god pretends to kill himself for a few days. Man, Christianity is complicated.

        September 14, 2013 at 4:10 pm |
        • Atheist

          No! Mary was a virgin with a husband!

          September 14, 2013 at 4:16 pm |
        • jens gessner

          Of course. A married virgin. I apologize for the gross omission.

          But how come......Joseph is listed as Jesus' father (Luke 3:23 and Matt 1:16). I mean, lineage was extremely important to Hebrews, this is why there are not one, but TWO (different) versions of Jesus' lineage. And each lists all of Jesus' fore-FATHERS. But Jesus was not related to Joseph, and therefore – evidently – not to David. Oh, oh.

          And then there is another problem: To Joseph, his wife had become pregnant without having been touched by him. This gives – to most critical observers – the appearance of the product of adultery. According to their laws, she should have been killed. It is not getting easier.

          September 14, 2013 at 4:35 pm |
      • Cricket

        Read it twice (skipped the begats, admittedly), and studied on it pretty heavily a third time. Took a year of old and new testament in college.

        My Daddy always said there was nothing that would cure religion like reading the Bible clean through. I didn't have a bad case to start with, but what little there was, that surely cured it.

        I think, again, that what we have here is a case of someone having trouble with the notion that something that means so much to them (and that's fine), is irrelevant to someone else, who *has* studied it. I have a good friend who is a professor of religions – he's, as he put it, "an atheist – on a good day, I'll admit to agnostic".

        To be fair, he's equally agnostic toward a large number of other religions – my point being, don't ever assume that those who do not believe in god, or at the very least, the god of the Christian BNible, have not studied it. Many were raised in churches of various levels of strictness. Not believing in god is *not* a matter of not having read the Bible or studied religion. Often the opposite.

        September 14, 2013 at 7:49 pm |
      • Robert

        No one is persecuting xians. Jeez your martyr gives you people a martyr complex. Non xians have to stomach a constant barrage of legislation in which the authors cite a deity as inspiration and normally those laws infringe on the individual. I read the Wholly Babble. It is not even a good myth. You should look into the history of what "books" were excluded from the Babble and why.

        September 14, 2013 at 10:35 pm |
  5. FifthApe

    "It’s about the truth."

    This rules out religion. Just read the bible or koran.

    September 14, 2013 at 3:44 pm |
    • blatherskyt

      Please tell me what you consider to be an untruth within the Bible and I'll help clarify the doctrine so that you are able to understand where you are going astray in your understanding.

      Please do not attempt to degrade Christians and those who exercise their right to worship as they please. Thank you.

      September 14, 2013 at 3:59 pm |
      • Robert

        If you have eternal life on your side why even care if you are "degraded"? Amazing how little spine xians have. You dish it but sure can not take it...

        September 14, 2013 at 10:39 pm |
  6. Jake

    How can she say that religious people are interested in searching for the truth? Christians don't search for the truth, they have it prescribed to them and then search for ways to ignore rationalize evidence that conflicts with their prescribed truth. Atheists, to the contrary, I perfectly willing to refine their views as new evidence becomes available. They are two very different things.

    September 14, 2013 at 3:44 pm |
    • Reality!

      That is a very broad and biased opinion of 2 diverse groups of people.
      It is cute how you imagine the group you belong to is better. I think that is defined as arrogance.

      September 14, 2013 at 3:47 pm |
      • Jake

        How is what I said in any way a generalization? That's what religion is – a set of views literally written down in a book that doesn't change no matter what new evidence we discover. That's just a fact.

        Atheists don't have any views that they can't change as the evidence comes in. That is also a fact.

        You judge for yourself which of these positions is better. Of course, by definition, I think mine is, which is why I chose it.

        September 14, 2013 at 3:49 pm |
        • Robert

          Exactly; have god show herself and that we need to obey her in order to be a prosperous nation and I will be the first to raise the sword against the opposition. Until then...

          September 14, 2013 at 3:58 pm |
  7. Roger that

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

    I think she just admitted to being an atheist.

    September 14, 2013 at 3:40 pm |
    • lol?? Your comment is awaiting moderation.

      Aaaaaahhh, the pleasure of sellin' books is endless and the same with sellin' evolution. CNN is a member of the tribe of "Clickons" and is actually quite psychopathic, for a man made creature.

      September 14, 2013 at 3:50 pm |
  8. If horses had Gods .. their Gods would be horses

    Pat Robertson extreme? Try Jim Jones or Fred Phelps or even Jesse Jackson .. not to mention historical christian bloodshed on a "biblical" scale. It is obvious that her attempt at comparing "extremism" to Pat Robertson was an attempt to soften the real extremism that exists within the christian belief. Nice try, but we aren't buying it.

    September 14, 2013 at 3:40 pm |
  9. zjmullen2013

    What a novel thought. You're telling me we shouldn't judge an entire group by the worst people in it? Maybe we should think about applying this to things like race and gender too. It's amazing no one has ever thought of this before!

    September 14, 2013 at 3:35 pm |
  10. Reality # 2

    Once again:

    It is very disturbing that religious affiliation, 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.

    Now where does Ms. Evans fit in the "randomness of birth" listing ?. As per online bio, her father has an administrative position at Bryan College. And Bryan College?

    "Bryan College is a Christian liberal arts college in Dayton, Tennessee . It was founded in the aftermath of the 1925 Scopes Trial to establish an inst-itution of higher education that would teach from a Christian worldview."

    Now we know, why she is the way she is i.e. brainwashed in the theological and historical flaws of Christianity.

    September 14, 2013 at 3:32 pm |
    • Doug

      Boom and knowing is half the battle

      September 14, 2013 at 3:38 pm |
    • One one

      If she were born in Tehran, Iran instead of Dayton Tennessee she would be a Muslim.

      September 14, 2013 at 3:38 pm |
      • Reality!

        So would you.

        And if she was born in "Reality #2"'s world, she would be a hostile atheist who writes comments against Christian writers.

        And if "Reality #2" were born in her world, he may be writing Christian articles today.

        September 14, 2013 at 3:43 pm |
        • pazke

          I'm sorry, but that makes no sense.

          September 14, 2013 at 4:01 pm |
        • Cricket

          Makes no sense at all. While I was raised more or less agnostic, the majority of the atheists I know were raised in a specific religion – a couple were preachers kids, surprisingly (or maybe not surprisingly).

          Plenty of atheists have as much education in religion, as much experience with it, and as much early conditioning toward it, as the most religious.

          September 14, 2013 at 8:13 pm |
      • william

        Absolutely no doubt, and she would bet her life that Islam was the only way to Heaven, or whatever those clowns call it.

        September 14, 2013 at 3:46 pm |
    • Reality!

      Thanks for proving you don't have to be religious to sound like a brain-washed looney.

      September 14, 2013 at 3:39 pm |
      • Lilith

        You don't have to be religious to be a brain washed looney .. but it sure helps!

        September 14, 2013 at 3:45 pm |
        • Reality!

          There are some delusional atheists on this board that need help.

          September 14, 2013 at 3:48 pm |
        • Robert

          Delusional about what? What is the greater delusion? Believing that invisible beings in the sky are concerned and involved in human affairs or not believing that? Try again....

          September 14, 2013 at 3:57 pm |
  11. Bootyfunk's Mom

    Honestly, I do believe in God. I don't know why my son lies about me.

    September 14, 2013 at 3:32 pm |
    • Observer

      Bootyfunk was rght. Stealing his name shows how effective he has been and how desperate you are. You use other's names because you are too ASHAMED to take credit for the idiotic things you say.

      September 14, 2013 at 3:37 pm |
  12. Crusty Old Guy

    "Sic gorgiamus allos subjectatos nunc" . . . not just pretty words.

    September 14, 2013 at 3:32 pm |
  13. Hell and destruction are never full

    🙂 No deals. Psychopaths are fearless and punishment has no effect. They are of the tribe of "Bigons". They are big on pleasurable rewards, no matter how warped.

    2Ti 3:4 Traitors, heady, highminded, lovers of pleasures more than lovers of God;

    September 14, 2013 at 3:32 pm |
  14. lksdjflkj

    I don't want to forgive either. Anyone acting retarded in the public spotlight should be called out on it. I don't care what side of an issue they are on.

    If you are speaking in a public light, you have a duty to properly research the topic you are speaking on and stick to the facts.

    September 14, 2013 at 3:32 pm |
    • Robert

      Religiots have god on thier side so they do not have to back up anything. Eighty percent of atheists are blah blah blah. If you believe lies like invisible voices in the sky any lie is good.

      September 14, 2013 at 6:17 pm |
  15. Max

    I appreciate this post and agree with it, for the most part, but I've never seen or heard any Christians saying Pat Roberts is extreme (this article excepted). I've never seen any of them standing up against his call for people like me to die. Dawkins is insulting to believers. Roberts inspires people to go out and kill people. Gay people actually die in hate crimes. To compare the two is a slap in my face.

    The Christian's extremist calls for death and connected or not, people act on that and beat gay people to death with baseball bats.

    Dawkins throws verbal taunts, which in no way suggests that it's god's will for anyone to be harmed and he's kinda mean, get that.

    It's just not the same. When religious folk stop talking about killing me and mine, I'll be much happier with them.

    In the mean time, please don't equate a nasty verbal taunt with a death threat.

    September 14, 2013 at 3:29 pm |
  16. @OD

    Jesus brought a thousand years of misery to Europe until they started to revive the Ancient Greek and Roman cultures, it's true. Yet most religious people don't even connect the dots, and you know why? Because logic comes from Devil, yes, in the Bible it is said that when the devil comes he will be talking in such manner that no one could dispute him. You see, it is a clever way to make people afraid of logic. OPEN YOUR MINDS and the truth will come.

    September 14, 2013 at 3:27 pm |
    • Yahweh

      Science H Logic!! I really (REALLY) hope you haven't reproduced yet.

      September 14, 2013 at 3:29 pm |
    • Yahweh

      Please accept my sincere apology. I misunderstood your point.

      September 14, 2013 at 3:30 pm |
    • Daniel Webster

      @OD,

      Yes. The Devil (Master Deceiver) wrote your whole Bible schtick - and has been cackling with glee over the strife it has caused for a couple of thousand years now! 😈

      September 14, 2013 at 3:34 pm |
  17. Doug

    wait false equivalence ...how about we take away all the witch trials,gay shaming and murder, all the stoning for adultery,all the crusades,all of the inquisition, all of the trials against heresy,all the murder of scientist,every war for God...that alone is countless...all the faith healers...all of the rhetoric that has separated man from nature and his own nature...the moral structure where a woman is sub servant to her husbands will ..and the tax free statues of these BS slingers away first than we can talk about eye for eye in forgiveness ...this woman is out of her freaking kooky mind

    September 14, 2013 at 3:26 pm |
  18. Prayer is harmful .. proven

    Templeton Foundation Prayer Study:

    Results: In the two groups uncertain about receiving intercessory prayer, complications occurred
    in 52% (315/604) of patients who received intercessory prayer versus 51% (304/597) of those
    who did not (relative risk 1.02, 95% confidence interval 0.92-1.15). Complications occurred in
    59% (352/601) of patients certain of receiving intercessory prayer compared with the 52%
    (315/604) of those uncertain of receiving intercessory prayer (relative risk 1.14, 95% confidence
    interval 1.02-1.28). Major events and 30-day mortality were similar across the 3 groups.

    Conclusions: Intercessory prayer itself had no effect on complication-free recovery from
    CABG, but certainty of receiving intercessory prayer was associated with a higher incidence of
    complications.

    **Three groups of people were asked to pray for patients they did not know personally. The congregations came from:
    - St. Paul's Monastery, St. Paul
    - The Community of Teresian Carmelites, Worcester, Massachussetts
    - Silent Unity, which is a Missouri prayer ministry near Kansas City

    Patients were divided into three groups:
    1. Patients who were told people would pray for them
    2. Patients who were not told people would pray for them, but people did pray for them
    3. Patients who were not told anything, and nobody prayed for them.

    Among two groups of patients, one having people praying for them but not knowing, and the other receiving no prayers, there was no difference in their health and recoveries.
    However, the group that was being prayed for and knew about it had more complications after surgery than the other two groups.

    Percentage of Patients Having Complications After Surgery
    52% – Patients who were receiving prayers and did not know this.
    52% – Patients receiving no prayers and not being told anything about prayers taking place anywhere for anyone.
    59% – Patients knowing they were receiving prayers

    According to this study, we may conclude the following:
    - Praying does not help the patient at all.
    - Telling patients that people are going to pray for them does have an effect, but not a good one.

    September 14, 2013 at 3:24 pm |
    • Joepeel

      If I was a Christian I would not believe it. If I was an Atheist I would believe it. I won't tell you which camp I am in.

      September 14, 2013 at 3:57 pm |
    • Cricket

      If I had to hazard a guess, I'd say those who were told they'd be prayed for (if it mattered to them), then took less care of themselves, because they trusted in god to do it. (Perhaps no one ever told them the old saying "Trust in the Lord, but keep your powder dry."... ;>)

      It's been a long time since I took statistics, but while seven points isn't huge, it seems like enough to have some meaning, and if I had to come up with a "Why?", that would be it.

      September 14, 2013 at 8:18 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.