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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. Just the Facts Ma'am...

    The fact is that Christians have a doctrine they can and should be smeared with. They get angry when one of their fold comes out and says what they are all thinking because it exposes them. When an atheist says something that has nothing to do with atheism, they are not representing anyone or saying something already on the minds of fellow atheists. Do you think there were any other atheists who nodded in agreement as Richard talked about being molested as a child? Like that's some prerequisite to disbelief? No. But when Pat Robertson says things like:

    "You've got a couple of same-s e x guys kissing, do you like that? Well that makes me want to throw up,"

    "I know it sounds cruel, but if he's going to do something, he should divorce her and start all over again, but to make sure she has custodial care and somebody (is) looking after her." in reference to a spouse with Alzheimer's.

    "Males have a tendency to wander a little bit. And what you want to do is make a home so wonderful he doesn't want to wander."

    "I would warn Orlando that you're right in the way of some serious hurricanes, and I don't think I'd be waving those flags in God's face if I were you ... It'll bring about terrorist bombs; it'll bring earthquakes, tornadoes, and possibly a meteor."

    "I know this is painful for the ladies to hear, but if you get married, you have accepted the headship of a man, your husband. Christ is the head of the household, and the husband is the head of the wife, and that's the way it is, period."

    "The feminist agenda is not about equal rights for women. It is about a socialist, anti-family political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians."

    The Haitians "were under the heel of the French, you know, Napoleon the third and whatever. And they got together and swore a pact to the devil. They said, 'We will serve you if you will get us free from the prince.' True story. And so the devil said, 'OK, it's a deal.' And they kicked the French out. The Haitians revolted and got themselves free. But ever since they have been cursed by one thing after another."

    This is garbage Pat says and that many Christians believe.

    Richard Dawkins – “mild pedophilia” “didn’t cause any lasting harm.”

    This is Richards personal opinion that virtual NO atheists believe.

    There is no comparison...

    September 15, 2013 at 11:28 am |
    • John P. Tarver

      Dawkins preaches a doctrine that was proven false as science 40 years ago, by the global geological record, but Pat Robertson agrees with Dawkins.

      September 15, 2013 at 11:29 am |
      • Just the Facts Ma'am...

        Which "doctrine" is that? We know no global flood happened, we know that humans have been around for hundreds of thousands of years, much longer than any Genesis myth can account for and our DNA says we did not descend from a single pair of perfect humans and that we interbred with neanderthals. The life spans of our ancestors from the burial sites uncovered show they had life spans roughly the same as ours, not 800 to 900 years as Genesis claims. None of that fits with Genesis and thus Genesis IS wrong and therefore Adam and Eve never actually existed and there is no inherited sin which means no need for a ransom or savior.

        September 15, 2013 at 11:38 am |
        • truthprevails1

          You should see Tarver's facebook page, it's eerily psychotic...he's a conspiracy theorist who hates everyone from women, to Dems, to blacks, to gays, to all but his imaginary friend. He claims to have an engineering degree but is rather stupid in so many others ways.

          September 15, 2013 at 11:45 am |
        • Just the Facts Ma'am...

          Yes, he is a class A nut job.

          September 15, 2013 at 11:48 am |
        • truthprevails1

          Frightening to think they allow people like him to own guns and wander the streets freely.

          September 15, 2013 at 11:51 am |
        • Just the Facts Ma'am...

          I would vote for a law banning guns from those that admit they believe in an invisible being that they pray to and would kill another human if they believed that invisible being wanted them to.

          September 15, 2013 at 11:55 am |
    • One one

      My favorite is the one about the earthquake in Haiti . He is saying the devil freed slaves and god killed thousands.

      September 15, 2013 at 11:52 am |
  2. hubert39

    I love religious discussions. It's like discussing which color is the best ? What is the best food to eat? What is the best car to own? Which is the best university or sports team? What's the best country to live in? Their is no real or true answer.
    With around 1000 plus religions the discussion will never end.
    Religion is fun to discuss, just don't take religion to serious.

    September 15, 2013 at 11:27 am |
    • John P. Tarver

      The difference being that the religion Dawkins preaches has been false as science for 40 years.

      September 15, 2013 at 11:32 am |
      • ironman59

        Excactly where is the proof of your little sky fairy?

        September 15, 2013 at 11:36 am |
      • Alex

        What religion is that?

        September 15, 2013 at 11:45 am |
    • Just the Facts Ma'am...

      "I love religious discussions. It's like discussing which color is the best"

      It is more like discussing which color is magic. It is not something you can't prove because the truth is one of the many opinions, it's that they can prove none of their colors are magic. None of them work as advertised and they know it which is why they have to hide behind the fallacy that real truth is immaterial and thus requires no proof.

      September 15, 2013 at 11:33 am |
  3. Jim Price

    How is pointing out Muslim's lack of Nobel prizes offensive? It is a simple statement of fact. A large portion of the Muslim population is threatened by science, as it invalidates their world view. Many other Muslims have embraced science and adjusted their beliefs accordingly. Same goes for Christians, but the numbers are a little better because Muslims are more likely to live in impoverished countries.

    Feel free to assume that my views are the same as those of Professor Dawkins, I would be honored. Far better than being associated with the 1/3 of American Christians who believe that the Earth is less than 10K years old.

    September 15, 2013 at 11:24 am |
    • John P. Tarver

      Science is a sorcery to a Muslim, but Dawkins is religious pastor like Roberts and not a scientist.

      September 15, 2013 at 11:27 am |
  4. John A. Kozura

    Unfortunately you just did it by naming names. Stick to the issues, like why most of the problems in the world (past and present) are caused by religion and why none of the religious explanations make any sense. If you would just admit that it is blind faith with no logical backing, we could agree. Jesus said, be nice to other people (and I'm the way). Mohammed said, be nice to other people (and I am the way). Buddha said, be nice to other people (and you are the way).

    September 15, 2013 at 11:23 am |
    • John P. Tarver

      atheists caused the deaths of more people in the last century than all religion for all time.

      September 15, 2013 at 11:28 am |
      • ironman59

        Nothing like through out hot air, with no facts. Lets start with the 6 million jews killed in WWII all because of religion. How about the 55 years of direct conflict in the middle east, all because of religion. How about the current terrorism all because of religious differences? So, where are the facts to back up yours statement or like all religious nuts are you just spouting off garbage?

        September 15, 2013 at 11:38 am |
      • Just the Facts Ma'am...

        Dictators and despots caused much death, whether they were atheist or not makes no difference. Hitler was a Catholic and many others held firm religious beliefs. Religion has been the perverted vampire feeding off the poor, unsuspecting and uneducated masses for centuries. Some day it will get a wooden stake through its black heart and vanish in a swirl of ash.

        September 15, 2013 at 11:44 am |
      • Alex

        Hitler had a mustache. According to your own logic, all people with mustaches hate Jews and want to exterminate them.

        In other words, you're an idiot.

        September 15, 2013 at 11:47 am |
      • Hey! You!

        There were lots of christians in Hitlers army.

        September 15, 2013 at 12:02 pm |
  5. Bill Kilpatrick

    We are all divided by ideological differences, but those differences are often overstated and overemphasized. If Christians, Muslims and Jews have competing narratives, so do Atheists, Agnostics, Igtheists and Apatheists. It's a huge mistake to see distinctions and then assume they run all the way through, isolating us all into ideological boxes that don't touch or overlap.

    Most of what Atheists believe is shared by Christians, Muslims, Jews and others. What distinguishes them, as Atheists, is a lack of belief in a god. God is not part of their backstory. But that doesn't mean they won't stop at a red light, pay their taxes, save a drowning swimmer or give to charity.

    The same could be said of the religious. There used to be a day when a Methodist wouldn't marry a Lutheran. Baptists didn't marry Presbyterians. Catholics and Episcopalians were at war. But these are superficial, ideological differences about doctrine. They don't make much difference when it comes to waiting in line, taking your turn, playing by the rules, etc.

    There are valid differences across the spectrum, but let's not make them more than what they are. An Atheist and a Muslim are not going to have identical lifestyles or beliefs, but it's amazing how much and how often these radically different ideologies give way to surprisingly identical practices – within a very large overlap. There never was a country or a people where it was okay to kill your neighbors or steal their stuff.

    September 15, 2013 at 11:22 am |
    • ABridges

      Well said.

      September 15, 2013 at 12:18 pm |
  6. Rath R. Weird

    So we agree not be labeled or libeled – by the nonsense issued by often self-appointed representatives of what may be isn't even a movement? Great. I guess I'll just go and use those stakes and firewood I got prepared for the next atheistic witch-burning for the next home-improvement project, Seriously, it's awfully nice to see some Christian to step as far outside as to exhibit a sign or two of common sense dawning on, but frankly it's not what the Christians or other religious nuts are known for. So thank you for that moment of lucidity, enjoy it while it lasts.

    September 15, 2013 at 11:22 am |
  7. Greg

    I agree that groups should not be generally painted with a broad brush. I also think that there is a responsibility for a group’s members to speak out when one of its members does a “Pat Robertson” (says something stupid, hateful and ridiculous). When there is silence there is an assumption of agreement. My feeling is that the problem stems from the audacity to think that one’s opinion is the only one that matters. Evangelicals have been pushing their rhetoric that their Jesus is the ONLY way and that their views should be reflected in American government and local lawmaking. Had Evangelicals not been so forceful, the push back would not be as vigorous. An agreement is a good idea but just WHO will agree? You have a highly organized, publicized and “motivated” group of individuals that wear the moniker of “Christian” and then you have a diverse group that has general disdain for organization. When you throw animosity around you’re going to be met with like. If “Christians” would practice what they claim to stand for then the world would be a better place for it. The problem rests with the believers that ….don’t.

    September 15, 2013 at 11:21 am |
  8. Toby

    Pat Robertson has about a 35-year head start on Dawkins in terms of making completely idiotic statements. When it comes to absolutely embarrassing cringe-worthy gaffes (remember when Fat Pat said the Haitian earthquake was caused by "voodoo"?), nobody beats Robertson.

    September 15, 2013 at 11:18 am |
    • Just the Facts Ma'am...

      Also Pat is speaking from a position of power in his faith and speaking directly about his religion and thus should be judged accordingly. Richard is speaking on a personal matter having to do with childhood trauma and it has NOTHING to do with his atheism. It's really quite sad this author even thought this was a fair comparison as her entire premise is flawed.

      September 15, 2013 at 11:24 am |
    • John P. Tarver

      Pat Robertson is in complete agreement with Dawkins.

      September 15, 2013 at 11:25 am |
  9. D MURDOCH

    NOW

    September 15, 2013 at 11:17 am |
  10. D MURDOCH

    I SAID NOW AND I'M IN CHARGE

    September 15, 2013 at 11:17 am |
  11. sqeptiq

    Someone please explain what is incorrect about what Dawkins said.

    September 15, 2013 at 11:16 am |
  12. D MURDOCH

    NO MERCY.

    September 15, 2013 at 11:15 am |
  13. D MURDOCH

    NO EXCUSES

    READY?

    WHO IS WITH ME? WE'LL SHOW EM WHAT HATRED IS

    VENGENCE IS MINE

    September 15, 2013 at 11:15 am |
  14. Tanker

    When did Dawkins every put on a funny hat and say he was infallible?

    September 15, 2013 at 11:13 am |
  15. D MURDOCH

    WHO IS WITH ME? SAMBO? DOC? OBNOXIOUS? AKIRA?

    September 15, 2013 at 11:09 am |
    • D MURDOCH

      BUT PUNCH SAMBO, WHERE YA B?

      September 15, 2013 at 11:11 am |
      • D MURDOCH

        SAMBO, HOW MANY 12 GAUGES U GOT? SIDEARMS?

        BUT PUNCHES?

        September 15, 2013 at 11:12 am |
        • sam stone

          Big, big, big lawsuit

          How's that coming?

          September 15, 2013 at 11:34 am |
        • sam stone

          pretty much what i thought

          get back to us when you are going to court, cvnt

          September 15, 2013 at 12:45 pm |
  16. D MURDOCH

    COMMENCE NOW

    September 15, 2013 at 11:06 am |
    • D MURDOCH

      U NO WHAT 2 DO. IF U C ANYONE LOVING GOD, THAT'S IT. NO MERCY

      September 15, 2013 at 11:08 am |
  17. D MURDOCH

    NO EXCUSES. WE START NOW. DONKEY PUNCH PALEN'S BUT INFRONT OF RETARDO

    September 15, 2013 at 11:05 am |
  18. Chiil Out

    Right, choosing to not believe in something that billions of humans have believed in since the dawn of time, choosing to ignore countless testimonies that simply "suggest" that there is another plane that exists beyond our world, beyond our abilities to comprehend – to ignore aeons of belief in deities by unrelated cultures all over the world is a close-minded and arrogant stance....especially when atheists have nothing besides their own "disbelief" to rely on. It's arrogant and short-sighted to assume that humans are the only, and most evolved, form of life that exists when we've barely begun to search beyond our own atmosphere, much less our own solar system.

    Atheism is nothing more than another religion, less creative and near-sighted than any other religion I've heard of, a religion based on belief.

    September 15, 2013 at 11:04 am |
    • PleaseDontLabelMe

      We have science. And the natural world is so full of wonder that we don't need to make up fantasy lands run by invisible puppet masters to understand it.

      September 15, 2013 at 11:15 am |
    • ME II

      @Chill out,
      Should we ignore the generations of belief in a flat earth?
      Should we disregard the centuries of belief in geocentrisn?

      Popular opinion and belief does not make something true and there is no positive evidence of anything supernatural, as far as I'm aware.

      September 15, 2013 at 11:15 am |
    • Just the Facts Ma'am...

      "Atheism is nothing more than another religion, less creative and near-sighted than any other religion I've heard of, a religion based on belief."

      You don't have to be creative when you are doing actual research. Also, I am an atheist but I do not KNOW that there are no Gods/gods, as that would put the onus on me to prove that there aren't. However, not one single shred of evidence FOR God/gods exist therefore I do not believe in any of the claimed Gods thus far. It is the religious who claim there is a God so it is their responsibility to prove it which they have not, all they have proven is that mankind is gullible especially when they are uneducated.

      September 15, 2013 at 11:17 am |
    • Damocles

      An eye-witness account of a plane that you just said was beyond our ability to comprehend? Why, yes, I would find that a little supsect.

      Who cares how many people believe a thing? If there's a group of a hundred people and 80 of them believe that you have to die, I highly doubt you are going to continue to trumpet the virtues of majority belief.

      I can't recall any atheist on here saying that we are the end result of evolution. I rather hope not because that would be pretty darn sad.

      September 15, 2013 at 11:17 am |
    • Big Daddy

      Sounds just like the argument that was used when someone said the earth wasn't flat. Of course, if people believe it, it must be true.

      September 15, 2013 at 11:22 am |
    • nataliabasiat

      The Dawn of Time? So, are you saying that Animism is the truth? Or Ancestor worship? Or how about the tens of thousands of years of Goddess worship? So which God? Doesn't it make more sense that as we became self aware, that awareness came with the burden of our own deaths and that was too much to bear. So to cope, we developed a mechanism of belief in various systems for 'eternal life' because we couldn't handle the idea of nothingness.

      September 15, 2013 at 11:45 am |
  19. Jesus H Christ

    I have a better idea. Instead of agreeing to keep quiet after one of these people misspeaks how about getting in their face and telling them how wrong they are? Atheist or Theist it makes no difference. Religious people are taught to keep quiet when their leaders misbehave, this is no the solution to the problem. I would have no problem telling Dawkins he's wrong to his face.

    September 15, 2013 at 11:03 am |
    • That's just crazy talk

      You'd better have some pretty good arguments with your or he will slice into pieces after you do.

      September 15, 2013 at 11:08 am |
    • God

      Son I am dissapoint

      September 15, 2013 at 11:10 am |
  20. D MURDOCH

    DON'T WAIT. WHERE R YOUR SIDEARMS?

    September 15, 2013 at 11:02 am |
    • D MURDOCH

      COME ON SAMBO. LET'S HIT THE STREETS RIGHT NOW. WHO IS WITH US?

      September 15, 2013 at 11:04 am |
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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.