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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. If I had a hammer... I'd whack you in the morning

    First remove Terry Jones and the Westboro Baptist Church with "extreme biblical prejudice" then we can talk about the future.

    September 14, 2013 at 9:20 am |
    • mac12311

      Really if you want to equate a group like that as Christians I think you lack the analytical skills that atheists pride themselves on

      September 14, 2013 at 9:37 am |
      • Theo

        Simply because they're not the sort of christians you'd like to be making the news, doesn't make them not christian. Unless you have something to offer as to why they're not christians as opposed to merely not christians you like.

        September 14, 2013 at 7:25 pm |
  2. K3rm1t

    "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?"

    Deal.
    🙂

    September 14, 2013 at 9:18 am |
    • Colin

      Woah, don't jump the gun, buddy! No deal!

      September 14, 2013 at 9:29 am |
  3. One one

    Sorry, no deal. The offense believers impose on non-believers is not limited to an occasional insulting remark. It is the cornerstone of their belief system that states unsaved godless people are filthy sinners who deserve to burn in hell. And believers are just fine with that.

    September 14, 2013 at 9:17 am |
    • Rett

      My brand of christianity teaches that we all are filthy sinners if thatmakes you feel better.

      September 14, 2013 at 5:08 pm |
      • Joey

        No, I actually find that worse.

        September 16, 2013 at 10:42 am |
  4. cedar rapids

    '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?'

    Difference is when Dawkins says stuff like that about pedophilia he doesnt have thousands of followers nodding their heads and agreeing with him like Robertson did after he said gays were responsible for 9/11 or that Haiti's devastation was the result of making the deal with the devil.

    September 14, 2013 at 9:16 am |
    • Jim

      You spew lies, made up fantasies. You have no proof of anything. Not one freaking thing. Keep drinking that flavoraid, maybe that would be a good idea.

      September 14, 2013 at 9:22 am |
      • cedar rapids

        i think you misunderstood my post jim.
        it was a condemnation of robertson

        September 14, 2013 at 9:23 am |
        • Jim

          I know you misunderstood my post, it was a condemnation of ALL religions and churches.

          September 14, 2013 at 9:44 am |
        • cedar rapids

          except your post stated YOU....in other words you aimed your post at me, as if i was religious.

          September 14, 2013 at 9:55 am |
  5. Jim

    All churches and religions are a scam to try and control people and rob them of their money. They have not one shred of proof of anything. Everything written is man made and if you believe in the garbage, then you are a blind fool. Just because some man wrote something, it is not true, in fact, most of the time it is false or made up. The ones that reply to this with their christian views are nothing more then sheeple of the same class as the people from the Jim Jones era. Including those that molest their young people because of their "church" power.

    If you do not have any proof of a devine being, then you have nothing to say about anything.

    This world would be MUCH better off without religion. Nothing more then a scam, period.

    September 14, 2013 at 9:14 am |
  6. robert369

    I don't quite know what to say....this is pretty sad. I really feel that Christians are simply embarrassing themselves for no reason. I will quite agree that beliefs should be judged according to to the merits of the beliefs, rather than according to a spokesperson for the movement. All spokespersons are imperfect. I suppose I can say, yes, let's make that deal. And yes, absolutely, I have no desire to judge Christians at all, let alone based on some foolish extremist nuts like Robertson. Those people simply do not represent what many Christians believe, especially in our contemporary world. Many, and maybe even half of my friends are devoted Christians. They love me and I love them, though I despise what they believe and they most likely despise what I believe. At the same time, I have to vouch for Mr.Dawkins to some extent in this particular case. I'm not sure of the context in which he was speaking in the remarks used in this column. Perhaps they were out of line...perhaps not. I've listened to his thoughts on both subjects many times and they haven't seemed in the least bit immoral, nor false. Like any human, Richard Dawkins is imperfect. Let's stop having idols. At the same time, he has given significant contributions to this world. I know it would be completely futile to suggest that people read some of his books or hear his lectures.

    September 14, 2013 at 9:13 am |
  7. Kevin

    No deal, Rachel. The argument that atheists "do it too" is an appeal to hypocrisy, also known as a tu quoque ('you too') fallacy. You're attempting to take the heat off Christianity by pointing out that atheists can also be irrational, which we don't deny. But it's worse than that, because it's also a matter of false equivalency. The lies of Robertson and other leading Christians are orders of magnitude worse, more damaging, and more insulting than even the most controversial statements leading atheist have uttered.

    September 14, 2013 at 9:12 am |
    • exlonghorn

      Awesome points, and very well said. Funny how a almost never see theists referring to rules of logic. I suppose that should not surprise me.

      September 14, 2013 at 11:12 am |
  8. CJ

    This is a straw man smear campaign. There isn't an extreme bone in Richard Dawkins' body. He's a man who understands that human emotions can often be a vice to thinking clearly and to what's true. Sometimes it leaves him open to being misconstrued by those who lack that understanding. He should heed that in the future.

    Anyone familiar with his work knows that he thinks deeply about morality, and would never dismiss something like 'mild pedophilia' as harmless in all cases. And here's the evidence......

    http://www.richarddawkins.net/foundation_articles/2013/9/11/child-abuse-a-misunderstanding#

    September 14, 2013 at 9:11 am |
    • Kevin

      It is weird isn't it? I mean I'm not a huge fan of Dawkins or anything. I don't read his blog and the only book of his I've read was on genetics, not atheism. But I've watched him from time to time on video and he's like the most soft-spoken person ever. Body language and tone have at least as much of a role in language as words themselves. I think that people who imagine Dawkin's with fire and brimstone coming out of his neck haven't actually seen him speak.

      September 14, 2013 at 9:35 am |
  9. Nordj

    And Christians claim to be "children of god," and act that way.

    September 14, 2013 at 9:11 am |
  10. Theo

    It's a bad sign when an opinion piece starts out with a misrepresentation. Dawkins said that he didn't think that his classmates had suffered any long term effects. Many of whom he has talked to, all of whom seem to have agreed with him. He was talking also about the differences between societal norms of then and now as well as the difference in severity between having been touched, which even after all these decades his can still describe his revulsion, and more serious crimes as forcible sodomy. He further said that he couldn't condemn his abuser in all those decades ago in the same way anyone would condemn them now.

    He never defended it, nor said it was OK either then nor now. If anything Dawkins is guilty of assuming pundits have a reasonable level of reading comprehension. And perhaps, not being the right sort of victim.

    September 14, 2013 at 9:09 am |
  11. Brian B

    Apart from my reply above, I would like to add something here.

    As I read some of the responses, I notice that some of you have a little knowledge of the Bible and some of you are just sad. To those of you who know, what happened? You have enough interest to read the book. I think the atheist movement is a big epidemic today. The economy and lack of leadership in Washington have people asking, "Where is God?" and then turn their backs on him because they expect min to change things for them. I do agree, the church today has become more and more geared toward business than people. But what about the "atheist church"? Really? Is it so you can have a place to worship nothing, or your gather together to hate on other religions?

    People want someone or something to blame their misfortunes on. You can continue to complain, and I will pray for you.

    September 14, 2013 at 9:08 am |
    • What is going on? FREEDOM

      Little knowledge? Many Atheists do have more knowledge on the Bible then most Christians. This is due to the fact that we actually read it, not listen to it come from a priest.

      September 14, 2013 at 9:10 am |
    • cedar rapids

      'But what about the "atheist church"? Really? Is it so you can have a place to worship nothing, or your gather together to hate on other religions? '

      Dont mistake thinking that what one atheist group does is actually supported by other atheists.

      'People want someone or something to blame their misfortunes on. '

      er, by saying there is no god arent atheists actually REMOVING a source to blame?

      September 14, 2013 at 9:19 am |
      • exlonghorn

        Cedar rapids,

        Whether Christians want to admit it or not, the primary reason people engage in church is to meet their emotional and psychological needs for connection and belonging. When you see kids at bible camp, it's not about the bible...it's about hanging with friends, having fun, and maybe engaging in a little flirting and mischief. Church socials are very much the same way. Yeah, a few clearly religious things may be discussed, but again it's about the social interactions. It's no surprise that insurance agents are often regular churchgoers....it's a great place to get clients! An atheist church seems like a great way to provide the social interaction that would otherwise be missing from people's lives if they chose to stop going to a theist church.

        September 14, 2013 at 9:58 am |
    • Joseph Bleaux

      I've read both the old and new testaments cover to cover. I found it interesting, but nothing more than ancient mythology and primitive superst!tious nonsense. No different than any other text of ancient mythology. It boggles my mind how anyone with any intelligence at all could accept this ancient nonsense as fact.

      September 14, 2013 at 9:22 am |
    • bill

      did you really say atheist church really

      September 14, 2013 at 9:25 am |
      • bill

        next you'll say we hate god LOL

        September 14, 2013 at 9:26 am |
    • Cpt. Obvious

      I do not share your mental model nor its inferences, and I don't think that many other people do, either. There are sad Christians who don't know the bible very well, just like there are happy or sad atheists who do know it well or don't, or somewhere in between.

      September 14, 2013 at 9:25 am |
    • Kevin

      Certainly not ever atheist has read the Bible in full. But I would say on the whole atheists have more at-the-ready knowledge of what the Bible actually says than self-described Christians do. This has largely to do with Buffet Christianity. Cherry picking isn't only common in contemporary Christianity, it is actually necessary. Because if you were actually going to live "by the Bible" word for word, and not waver from that practice, then you'd have to do it in prison, or at the very least in utter poverty. There is no way to actually follow the Bible to the letter and live in a modern society. Of course most Christians are *better than their Bible* and make up their own rules about what they think God wants.

      September 14, 2013 at 9:26 am |
    • exlonghorn

      Brian B,

      Your post smacks of condescension, and shows how little you understand the growth in non-theist belief over the past 30 years. The reason for the growth in atheist and agnostic views is the result of education, continued scientific discovery, repeated scandals within the church, and...well...evolution in society's thinking. I love seeing the "ExploreGOD" campaign that is plastering billboards, yard signs, and churches everywhere. Kinda smacks of desperation I think. Look, neither side here knows the truth about how the universe was created. Fine. Then let's continue seeking that truth rather than reflexively reaching back to 2,000 year old dogma to constrain, control, and limit our thoughts. Literally hundreds of religions have come and gone over the eons, and we are no wiser as a result. Scientific theories have come and gone, but with every iteration we learn, we come closer to the truths of the universe. Most importantly, we are empowered to free our thinking, control our personal destinies, and interact with each other in respectful, positive ways without needing to live in fear of a god, or in surrendering action in favor of pointless prayer or religion-driven violence around the world. I am fine with agreeing with Ms. Evans to marginalize the extreme elements of both Atheism and theism. But she needs to understand that the gulf between the two is based on theism itself. You either believe in deities, or you don't. So let's make another deal. Let's agree to exercise our beliefs outside the government, outside public schools, and outside secular workplaces. if we can agree to that, I think we'd really get somewhere.

      September 14, 2013 at 9:49 am |
    • Chettmix

      Brian B.

      First, I don't think it would be an Atheist church but rather an Atheist club. As far as asking what happened to those who put in the time to read the Bible and still wandered away from the faith, I don't think that a majority of those who are Atheist and have read the Bible are Atheist because they question why a bad things happen and god doesn't prevent these events from happening. I think that many "Atheist" rival against Christians, and other forms of major religion, as it is these religions that sometimes make a mockery of their selves and causes major strives in the world. If I had to guess, I would say that I've met just as many "bad" Christians in my life as I have met "good" Christians in my life. I've seen Christians that believe that they can pray and receive special "rewards" and treatment from God from doing so; I've seen Christians judge and condemn, even if they were in the wrong. I believe some of these "bad' Christians, turn some people off and way from Christianity.

      I consider my self a Deist and believe that there is a God and that this God does not interfere in our daily commotion, BUT I find it hard to believe Christianity. I personally believe that the Bible represents what a few people believed many thousands of years ago and that if God had sent his son once to give us a message then why not send a FIRM reminder from time to time and extinguish all doubt.

      September 14, 2013 at 9:50 am |
  12. Tim

    Politicians do not kow tow to Richard Dawkins. Dawkins' opinions are not cited by politicians as justification for war, denial of marriage rights, and other national policy. Trying to equate Dawkins with Robertson is a self-serving way to try to minimize Robertson's appalling influence on our society. The horror of religion is not the people who believe in it – as you say, many of them are well-meaning and kind – it's the effect that religion has on people who either do not believe in it or are somehow compelled to act according to its dictates. How often have people gone to their deaths in war or denied their true selves their entire lives for the promise of an afterlife that will never come? A lie designed to control people?

    September 14, 2013 at 9:07 am |
  13. fmagyar

    May I suggest Googling Tim Minchin's 'Thank You Lord'...

    September 14, 2013 at 9:07 am |
  14. Joseph Bleaux

    How about this deal? Non-believers will stop criticizing Christians when Christian stop trying to force their ancient mythology on everyone else through legislation such as bringing back forced school prayer and the teaching of creationism nonsense as science, denying a woman her right to choose and trying to outlaw birth control. If you want to believe in ancient mythology that's perfectly fine. Just stop trying to force it on everyone else.

    September 14, 2013 at 9:05 am |
    • mary smith

      AMEN! WELL SAID!

      September 14, 2013 at 9:09 am |
    • Jason

      AMEN! oh wait.

      September 14, 2013 at 9:11 am |
    • Peter

      Pray that they bring back school prayer. Without it bullying will not stop. Without God there is Nothing.

      September 14, 2013 at 9:18 am |
      • Jason

        Sort of like when you die there is nothing

        September 14, 2013 at 9:21 am |
      • cedar rapids

        pushing prayer is bullying peter.

        September 14, 2013 at 9:22 am |
      • Joseph Bleaux

        You make the typical Christian nonsense argument that Christianity is the only way to morality. A totally false conclusion. I would prefer Buddhist morals any day over Christian's so-called morality. Or humanist, Unitarian Universalists, or any number of other beliefs/non-beliefs. Christianity is nothing more than ancient mythology and primitive superst!tious nonsense, like all other religions. Anyone with any intelligence at all who uses logic, reason and objectivity understands that.

        September 14, 2013 at 9:28 am |
    • kate

      She's referring to exactly this. I am a Christian. I am not an e-free Biblical literalist nut. I am educated. I do not believe people should be forced to pray, I do not believe birth control should be outlawed. I support gay marriage. Our church works hard to feed the hungry and cloth the poor. I do not try to force my views on anyone. Quit painting me with the same brush as Christians who don't agree with me. THAT'S her point.

      September 14, 2013 at 9:30 am |
  15. Tom, Tom, the Other One

    I suppose if this were a game we could all agree to play fair, shake hands before, and maybe go have a beer after. Unfortunately things can't be that way. Religion is a baseless means of providing false and sometimes dangerous answers to problems that need real solutions, like how to build a sustainable society that is inclusive of everyone and protective of rights that everyone ought to share equally. It persuades people that life is ultimately fair because God makes it so, if not in this life then in the imaginary next. Life is not fair, and we must work together to make up for that as best we can. God as the ultimate authority is also inscrutable and it's will, to be obeyed absolutely, is whatever people feel that it is. People can't reason it out, but must obey it and must condemn anyone who contravenes it. And it's all wholly imaginary – there is no underlying truth that can make it work. There is reality and we need to do some serious work to get people grounded in it so that we can make life work out as best it can be made to work out for everyone.

    September 14, 2013 at 9:04 am |
  16. Nordj

    Her proposal is fine, as far as it goes. I should point out, however, that atheists, being on average significantly more educated and better informed than theists, are well aware that Pat Robertson is a fringe looney who only represents a tiny minority of Christians.

    She should also not fool herself into believing that if her proposal were widely adopted, it would somehow even the field. Atheists remain a discriminated-against minority that is openly treated quite viciously.

    September 14, 2013 at 9:04 am |
    • exlonghorn

      Robertson may be a fringe loony, but let's never forget that he's a fringe loony with his own cable television shows and specials, on a Christian television network, along with radio programs and books bought by millions. No atheist wields that kind of influence...negative and loony as it may be.

      September 14, 2013 at 10:13 am |
  17. Frank

    Someone who clearly does not understand Atheism at all wrote this. As another comment said, we don't "follow" dawkins. Faithful people need to follow things like their imaginary friends, Atheists don't. Dawkins is not a prophet of Atheism, he is one atheist.

    September 14, 2013 at 9:02 am |
    • What is going on? FREEDOM

      You are going to get an individual like that. He has been trolling the comment section denying the existence of evolution and black holes for some reason and they are teaching children so-called failed science and indoctrinating them.

      September 14, 2013 at 9:09 am |
    • jeff Dye

      Nice comment. Atheists are independent in thinking, guided by scientific reasoning. We don't follow any body, but respect people who can intelligently educate us.

      September 14, 2013 at 9:26 am |
    • Nxpunk

      I agree, I find it funny how people look toward Dawkins as the "leader of Athiest", he must represents all Athiest. lol I personally don't dislike Dawkins but I don't always agree with his opinions. I prefer Hitchens if anything.

      September 14, 2013 at 9:30 am |
      • Frank

        Same here, Hitchens death was a great sadness. I'd love to read a reply to this dreck.

        September 14, 2013 at 11:24 am |
  18. joey

    pat roberson ? you are a joke . no deals with any of the children of abraham, never.

    September 14, 2013 at 9:02 am |
  19. Bravol

    You know, when some atheists talk, they sound little better than trained apes... Oh wait! That is what they claim to be.

    September 14, 2013 at 9:02 am |
    • Jason

      so what do you claim to be? brought here by a made up creatue created in a psychopaths rantings in a book 2000 years ago?

      September 14, 2013 at 9:14 am |
      • bill

        GOOD ONE

        September 14, 2013 at 9:28 am |
      • Rick

        Love it!

        September 14, 2013 at 9:28 am |
    • cedar rapids

      i hope you arent hating and bearing false witness there bravol.
      your deity doesnt like that you know, he condemns it.

      September 14, 2013 at 9:26 am |
    • jeff Dye

      Be honest to yourself and ask your self, specifically what your GOD really gives you in the years you praise/follow/donate him? A job, a sick healing, a penny, ..., anything that can be quantified/validated. Don't fool yourself with something subjective as happiness.

      September 14, 2013 at 9:33 am |
    • exlonghorn

      Soooo. your god created the trained apes too, right? And now you're mocking god's creation? Brilliant. I mean, he went through all the trouble or saving the apes and literally billions of other animals, insects, and bacteria on the ark, and now you make fun of them??? You're not particularly logical.

      September 14, 2013 at 10:20 am |
  20. Battleship Agincourt

    '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?'

    No deal. The hypocrisy here is that christians very often portray themselves as being morally superior, and yet their behavior indicates exactly the opposite. I don't agree with everything Dawkins asserts, but I'd not be embarrassed to be represented by him for being a bit too extreme against an ideology that leads to legitimate harm. Christians on the other hand want nothing more than to dissociate themselves from such examples as Pat Robertson, and so they want to make us look equally bad.

    I'm sorry but Dawkins' misdirected criticism in no way compares to the harm that these extreme examples have caused. Our target aren't religious people, but the ideology itself.

    September 14, 2013 at 9:01 am |
    • exlonghorn

      Have Christians not noticed that you literally need to go SEEK OUT anything related to Athiesm...searching on Google, YouTube, the bookstore (haha), media, etc. On the other hand, you can't drive, walk, watch TV, or read a newspaper without encountering Christianity. Churches dot the landscape like lice. "ExploreGOD" signs pepper yards and billboards. Stories about the Pope hit the headlines with regularity. I do not talk about religion at work, and I am the top dog at my site. But I regularly get invited to churches, bible study groups, etc. And I genuinely and correctly an concerned at what would happen if I were to 'come out' to the people I work with. THAT's what is wrong with Christianity.

      September 14, 2013 at 10:41 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.