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. robert

    I like this woman's ideas!!!

    September 14, 2013 at 8:29 pm |
    • Tom

      I know this is frustrating for the god believers, but athiests, or anti-thiests, do not have a single person who speaks for us. You god-types can hate on Dawkins as much as you want! Religious types have been hating others for not sharing their beliefs for thousands of years, picking on another for practicing free-thought does not change your mode of operations!

      September 14, 2013 at 8:37 pm |
      • michaelflyger

        I think it frustrates them that Christians don't, either. This is just one of the many things that makes this article silly at best.

        September 15, 2013 at 2:44 am |
  2. gar

    Religions are all ancient myth and folklore, made up stories of long ago. There are no gods or demons, no dragons or unicorns or angels.

    September 14, 2013 at 8:28 pm |
  3. YooperG

    Sorry; one more comment. I work in the science community; when scientists are trying to understand the why and the how of nature, we stay away from the answer, "because God wanted it that way". Doesn't mean we are all atheists; it's just that that particular answer stops the investigation in it's tracks, and then no new answers, no new vaccines, no new life-saving technology, etc. Jonas Salk went thru the Scientific Process almost 500 times to find the vaccine for polio; if he had gone with the "there's polio because that's the way God wanted it" a lot of children would be crippled today. It's not that we dismiss God; we just stay away from using him as an answer for all our questions. Thanks, and have a nice day.

    September 14, 2013 at 8:27 pm |
  4. Gary

    A very rational piece, Rachel. As an atheist who refuses to make atheism a religion, I abhor those who have to prove their intellectual superiority over otherwise sane believers only attempting to do good in the world. Nothing too heavy could fall on the dogmatic hell fire and brimstone crowd ala Robertson et al., but castigating somebody's grandmother who loves Jesus and never harmed a fly benefits no one and nothing. I agree we should come together in peace and awareness and should all shun fundamentalists, no matter their strip, be they Muslim, Christian, Atheist or Zoroastrian. Thanks for a calm and thoughtful proposition.

    September 14, 2013 at 8:24 pm |
    • lngtrmthnkr

      I like your tone Gary,it is reasonable and thoughtful, we can find common ground.

      September 14, 2013 at 9:44 pm |
  5. Time For You To Grow Up...

    There isn't just one god... And there isn't just one god for every religion... Every believer creates a god in their own image, so there are actually billions and billions of gods, each one a unique figment of someone's imagination.

    September 14, 2013 at 8:22 pm |
  6. Bruno

    In general, the "worst" of atheists are not doing bad things in the name of atheism, but are simply doing bad things. The fact that religious people use their faith as a motivation to kill or steal doesn't make it worse (or better) than atheists that kill for money or power. In fact, very frequently money and power is a motivation for both sides. But on the religious arena, the figure of the leader that uses God as the (false) motivation is very clear and that's why many atheists believe religious people are fanatics, easily influenceable or don't possess a free and independent mind. That's fair enough, but it's only part of the story. Soviet and Chinese regimes (amongst others) were capable of terrible things in the name of their interests, and could mobilize lots of people to execute their plans. But I don't believe they mobilized people's mind and heart. They forced the state machine to do it using their power. But note that it's not very different from the pattern of the unscrupulous leader making people do terrible things in the name of a "common good" but in fact being guided by his own individual agenda. These leaders use religions, nazism or even a social utopia to promote their interests. On the religious arena this is specially risky, because they tend to connect to people in profound ways, and people die and kill themselves in irrational ways in the name of these ideals. But I don't think even "rational" motivations to die and kill in wars (like petroleum, disguised as "patriotism") are fair. So........in fact we are in a constant vicious cycle that always fall into false leaders making us do things in the name of their interests. Sadly, religious leaders are specially competent in this field, because they don't promise only a "good, balanced, rational life"....they promise happiness, love, peace, virgins in heaven, the "nirvana". And that's where atheism may have something to teach to religious people...that they need to discern better to where their leaders are guiding them instead of blindly accepting a way of life that are not making them better human beings. But religions also have treasures in the bag for the atheist. A sincere search for a more spiritual life may reveal a deep, true and loving way to understand ourselves that can be perfectly reconcilable with a rational and elegant way to understand life and the universe.

    September 14, 2013 at 8:22 pm |
    • bostontola

      "With or without religion, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil; but for good people to do evil — that takes religion" Weinberg

      September 14, 2013 at 8:27 pm |
      • Bruno

        "Good" and "bad" is a very simplistic way to classify people. Who can go deep enough to classify people with this absoluteness? Maybe the "good" person (by what standard?) that behaved badly "because" of religion was in fact a bad person. Or maybe the "bad" atheist (by the "religious"standard) was in fact a good person, with a sincere search for the truth....

        September 14, 2013 at 8:37 pm |
    • lngtrmthnkr

      Bruno,you bring up good points about people being more critical of the direction and the content of the teacher they listen to.What is their purpose and ultimate goal. By focusing on our individual spirituality and not so much doctrine,we can perhaps move closer to truth .

      September 14, 2013 at 9:55 pm |
  7. bostontola

    Atheists and the religious are looking for truth.

    Religious: thousands of religions and gods. New ones still popping up with all new faith based assertions. More new ones to come. If we started over, a different set of religions and gods would be created.

    Science: just one. If it started over, the same truths would be discovered.

    You choose.

    September 14, 2013 at 8:21 pm |
    • Jake

      Aha, here is something we disagree on Boston.

      Religious people are not looking for truth. They have their truth prescribed to them. They are looking for ways to support their prescribed views. When their is evidence that conflicts with their prescribed views, they look for ways to bend it or their views.

      Atheists, on the other hand, are looking for truth. If there is evidence of a god, I'll believe in a god. Until then, I don't.

      September 14, 2013 at 8:26 pm |
      • Jake

        I hate when people correct their grammar, but I can't stand using their instead of there....oops.

        September 14, 2013 at 8:28 pm |
      • bostontola

        I was paraphrasing the author.

        September 14, 2013 at 8:28 pm |
      • lngtrmthnkr

        Yes but Jake you have to find your own proof,no one else can supply it for you .

        September 14, 2013 at 10:00 pm |
    • james

      wrong; science is constantly changing their "truths".

      September 14, 2013 at 8:31 pm |

        Godless Vagabond
        Give us one example, James.

        September 14, 2013 at 8:37 pm |
      • Jake

        Exactly. And that's why science is superior. Science adjusts with new information. Religion does not.

        September 14, 2013 at 8:41 pm |
        • lngtrmthnkr

          Jake, God and science are one, religion is something else and more fluid and changing. Truth is truth ever and always.

          September 14, 2013 at 10:04 pm |
      • james

        just one? Piltdown man.

        September 14, 2013 at 8:51 pm |
  8. Kenneth

    Well, I believe I will head home now.
    And I have faith my loving wife will have a rum-drink and some recorded college football to share when I get home.

    Ya'll see what I did there, right?


    September 14, 2013 at 8:21 pm |
    • Pardeep

      Enjoy your usual stool sample dessert, Kenneth.

      September 14, 2013 at 8:46 pm |
  9. MuyGuapo

    Lots of intolerance on this page, most of it coming from the atheist camp. Sad. While the vast majority of charitable works in the third world are carried out by believers. The atheists are too busy making money and doing their own thing to ever consider making a sacrifice like that.

    September 14, 2013 at 8:20 pm |
    • lulany

      And the irony is that by spewing so much hate they're behaving exactly like the religious extremists they ridicule.

      September 14, 2013 at 8:22 pm |
    • Jake

      You are right, I am intolerant of the mental abuse of children that comes with religious childhood indoctrination.

      September 14, 2013 at 8:22 pm |
    • Time For You To Grow Up...

      The only thing atheists are intolerant of is intolerance...

      September 14, 2013 at 8:26 pm |
      • lulany

        I disagree because I see at least as much intolerance for believers on the part of atheists.

        September 14, 2013 at 8:42 pm |
        • Jake

          Believers have laws that impact non-believers. What would you think if the pledge of allegiance said, "One nation, with no gods...."? My guess is you wouldn't like that.

          September 14, 2013 at 8:47 pm |
    • james

      they will take away any joy you may have in sharing any "beliefs" you may have since those with no "beliefs" seem to want to plant themselves here and complain about those with real "beliefs". satan must be real happy with his followers since it does not matter whether they "believe" he exists or not. he does and like halloween he has his followers that do not even know it. take it away "believers" and non-.

      September 14, 2013 at 8:28 pm |
      • AON

        Passive-agressive much?

        September 14, 2013 at 8:38 pm |
        • james

          not too, a little.

          September 14, 2013 at 9:09 pm |
    • jens gessner

      Sure thing, MuyGuapo

      Ever heard of:

      Afghan Children's Fund
      American Civil Liberties Union
      Lung Association
      International Committee of the Red Cross (no, it's NOT religious)
      Amnesty International
      Coalition to stop the use of Child Soldiers
      Doctors without Borders
      The Halo Trust (abolishing land mines)
      Lions Club
      Peace Corps
      Planned Parenthood
      Rotary International
      Ryan's Well Foundation
      SOS Children's Village

      ...just to name a few.

      September 14, 2013 at 8:31 pm |
      • Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation


        September 14, 2013 at 8:39 pm |
    • InDogITrust

      How can you ever know the ratio of believers to non-believers who do charity work in the world? I'm an Athiest and I've volunteered both locally and abroad, I just don't do my work in the name of a higher being nor do I push my beliefs on anyone. While abroad, I met several other Athiest volunteers as well. Locally, I actually volunteered with a nearby church to distribute goods to Hurricane Sandy victims. Why? Because I'm not going to let my personal views interfere when people are in need.

      Please don't make stupid assumptions, you're only adding fuel to the fire between Athiests and believers.

      September 14, 2013 at 8:36 pm |
      • james

        so nice you let us know.

        September 14, 2013 at 9:10 pm |
      • lngtrmthnkr

        Indog, helping others in need is the sign of a good person . I'll bet you got something back from the easing of others' pain also.

        September 14, 2013 at 10:15 pm |
    • Uset

      Religion has, as its precept, prejudice.

      September 14, 2013 at 8:42 pm |
      • james

        the difference between religion and Christianity, but a big difference it seems.

        September 14, 2013 at 9:24 pm |
  10. The Reverend

    It less than amusing when people try to intellectually justify their belief in bronze-age myths and fairy tales. It's pathetic, in fact. This is why it should be classified as a mental disorder to believe in gods.

    September 14, 2013 at 8:20 pm |
  11. lulany

    Even though I don't share his views I used to respect Dawkins because he was well spoken, calm and respectful but in the past few years he seems to have gone off the deep end.

    September 14, 2013 at 8:19 pm |
    • Time For You To Grow Up...

      No... Dawkins is speaking about people who have gone off the deep end... Namely, anyone who believes in talking snakes, pregnant virgins, men walking on water or creationism.

      September 14, 2013 at 8:21 pm |
      • lulany

        I'm assuming you're a fan of his. Thank you for proving my point.

        September 14, 2013 at 8:23 pm |
        • Time For You To Grow Up...

          Your point was proven only in your mind... Actually, I proved Dawkins' point.

          September 14, 2013 at 8:26 pm |
      • lulany

        My point (which you clearly missed) was that I don't respect people who are unable to voice their opinion without being insulting and/or condescending to those who don't share it. Your comment clearly shows you to be in that category.

        September 14, 2013 at 8:30 pm |
    • donna

      When his comments are taken in context, there's nothing wrong with them. He is making the argument that not all forms of child abuse have the same impact. As an example he shares the personal experience of him and his classmates, who were touched by a school teacher, one time and they all talked about it. Then he had talked to his classmates years later when the teacher committed suicide and they all shared that they didn't feel any long lasting harm from the event as it had been "mild" and singular.

      Dawkins is making an argument that that kind of abuse is more damaging when it ongoing and/or comes from someone you trust like a relative rather than a stranger.

      I think his point is very valid, but his mistake was being blunt about it and broaching a taboo subject.

      September 14, 2013 at 9:13 pm |
  12. Time For You To Grow Up...

    Atheism is the result of one's desire and ability to think for oneself...

    September 14, 2013 at 8:18 pm |
  13. A guy

    >read something an atheist said, oh my how horrible, atheists can speak!
    >write an article on cnn trying to convince atheists to never say anything again, ever ever
    >list some "Christians" that are popular with libs (Obama isn't a real bible jokey, he just pretends to be down with jesus for politics)
    >hey guys, if you keep talking, these cool people will go away

    The difference between Pat and Richard is, if people take Richard's words to the extreme, noses get up turned and feelings get hurt. If people take Pat's words to the extreme, people like me end up getting linched and the country burns to the ground.

    September 14, 2013 at 8:18 pm |
    • Jeremiah Jones

      If you take Richards words to the extreme, it's ok to touch little boys! No lasting harm.

      September 14, 2013 at 8:44 pm |
      • james

        listen to either and you have wasted quite a bit of time.

        September 14, 2013 at 9:27 pm |
      • donna

        Absolutely not, that's not at all what he said or meant.

        September 14, 2013 at 9:53 pm |
        • Jeremiah Jones

          A little research shows his comments on the subject of child molestation over the years. In different statements he marginalize molestation as if it's not a big a deal. He said, "Child molesting is one of those things — like flag burning, pot smoking, and Holocaust denial — that cause some people to freak out. It’s not enough to say you’re against them; if you oppose them with anything less than hysteria, some readers are sure to assume you favor them...." Although Dawkins intends your focus to be on the hysteria portion of the comment, he actually compare child molestation to "flag burning, pot smoking, and holocaust denial." He also says "...others seem to suffer no permanent or irreparable harm. The vice has been commonly accepted in some civilizations, and most of their members seem to have been pretty normal." Although he says child molestation is not ok, his message seems to indicate other wise. It's not as bad as our society makes it out to be, and proffers examples to support this message. He was fondled as a child himself by a male teacher and he says he would defend this molester against merciless attorneys. What??? He would actually defend a child molester in court? He said it, not me. He sends a very clear message. We should be more understanding and tolerant of child molesters and not look so negatively upon them.

          Do your research he's touched this topic many times.

          September 15, 2013 at 1:12 am |
        • donna

          For anyone who is reading, that quote from Jeremiah Jones is not from Richard Dawkins. How sad Jeremiah!!

          September 15, 2013 at 3:20 am |
      • donna

        Jeremiah Jones, What a shameless troll you are! That's a quote from Joseph Sobran and you attribute it to Dawkins? How weird....

        September 15, 2013 at 3:20 am |
        • Jeremiah Jones

          I did unfortunately attribute a large portion of the quote improperly to Dawkins. It was an unfortunate mistake. Unfortunately, there is no option to edit or delete ones comments. Troll? No, just unfortunately mistaken. However not everything in my posting is incorrectly attributed to him. For the most part you seem to engage in reasonable dialogue, so please don't resort to personal attacks.

          Although, part of the post incorrectly quotes someone else, Dawkins has still made comments that society over reacts to child molestation (Catholic Church). And he did say he would defend the teacher that touched him when he was 9 years old. That's why I advocate doing your own research. If I could edit the incorrect quote from my posting I would.

          September 15, 2013 at 8:10 am |
      • donna

        I understand it was an error, that's no problem. It is a shame there is no edit.

        I have read most of what Dawkins has written. I've been reading him for decades. I actually agree with comments about pedophilia and that entire situation. And I think you are misinterpreting what he wrote if you think he said he would defend a pedophile for hurting kids. He never said that. You should go to Dawkins if you want quotes from him, and not pages that take them out of context.

        September 15, 2013 at 12:37 pm |
  14. Atheist

    I believe that there is just something you would just miss if you are not part atheist. If offer a chance to live forever through the altering of ones gene, would you take it? If you do, you are not following God's plan for you to die. Maybe not forever, how about new medicine that would save your life? How about when scientists recreate condition of early earth and create life from non-life? What then? throw away the result? or embrace the many possibility of new life? Atheist might be discriminated now, but it's the future. Resistance is futile, science always trump faith.

    September 14, 2013 at 8:17 pm |
  15. YooperG

    Sounds good; it's a deal.

    September 14, 2013 at 8:17 pm |
  16. Don

    If the most vocal christians weren't also the dumbest of the dumb, then perhaps we could have such a discussion.

    September 14, 2013 at 8:14 pm |
  17. The-Truth

    Who's fault is it for believing in a fairy tale? Easter bunny? Santa Clause? the mythical day of worship which happens to be named day..., the other thousands of varieties of religions which happen to have the same similarities?

    September 14, 2013 at 8:14 pm |
    • Dippy

      Whose, not who's.

      September 14, 2013 at 8:33 pm |
  18. Jake

    Christians have an vast range of beliefs and feel that they don't have to take the bible literally, but instead can decide for themselves what Christianity really is. So, if there's no consistent definition of Christianity and Christians can decide for themselves what it means, I guess you could be an atheist and still say you're a Christian and that it's just your version of Christianity.

    In other words, religions are so freakin stupid.

    September 14, 2013 at 8:11 pm |
    • james

      Jake, yes religions are as you say for the most part but true Christians not. Now we need to discern the difference. Do you know how?

      September 14, 2013 at 9:30 pm |
  19. Tom

    "Oh no, Richard Dawkins is outspoken. Let's make a deal. Shut professor Dawkins up as well as yourselves and we'll continue knocking on your door!"
    No, I won't. I encourage Dawkins to continue fighting for progressivism and for science and reason. Religion has tethered us down for far too long. If religion can't answer to public scrutiny, it only shows that religion has no real defense. By the way, comparing professor Dawkins to Pat Robertson is very laughable. You should have done your homework before writing this opinion article.

    September 14, 2013 at 8:11 pm |
  20. 'LilRedDog

    No. No deal.

    Those are not extremest atheist view. Those are the extremest views, of an atheist.. No atheist follows Dawaon's lead. He is not our "spiritual leader".

    We dismiss anything he says as easily as we dismiss political promises and the rhetoric of organized religion.
    However, Pat Robertson has followers...

    I will make this deal, however: you dismiss your spokesmen as whimsically as we dismiss those that are like us but think differently and done deal.

    When you are not told what to think, I wont care what you think.

    We're not told what to think and that scares you.

    September 14, 2013 at 8:10 pm |
    • lngtrmthnkr

      Lilred, If I said what I believe, in most churches I"D be shown the door.Although I started in a church, now I have moved further into spirituality . That said , most Churches help people move on to higher understanding . And to that point I was thankful for it .But there comes a time to move on and you alone determine the depth you want to go.

      September 14, 2013 at 10:43 pm |
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About this blog

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.