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)

    Get all those who love gaaaaawwwwwd and send them to sambo's house

    September 15, 2013 at 1:07 pm |
  2. thegadfly

    Here's the deal I would make: Free will for everyone. Anyone who would deprive you of your free will is not serving any god worth serving.

    September 15, 2013 at 1:05 pm |
  3. Seth Pascal

    I have to admit, this is the first time I've seen the phrase/label "celebrity pastor" used in print. That's a heck of a phrase, isn't it? Where does it lead? Will we see it again? And ... since this was written by a religious person, is it indicative of the way the flocks view their masters?

    September 15, 2013 at 1:02 pm |
    • tallulah13

      This is America. Celebrity is everything. I imagine the author of this piece likes to think of herself as a celebrity.

      September 15, 2013 at 1:08 pm |
  4. visitor

    I finally broke down and read Dawkins' quote. It is pretty provocative, but I don't see this as a defense of pedophilia. He is saying standards have changed (they did). When I was younger I found myself in a couple of bad situations that today's standards call out much more forcefully but these types of situations were not called out forcefully in past decades.

    I don't think that is unreasonable to understand the context of contemporary societies, know that we are improving the call-outs of bad behavior, and I think and hope that we don't define ourselves and our emotional lives by others acting badly. It only hurts ourselves further.

    September 15, 2013 at 12:56 pm |
    • tallulah13

      There is nothing controversial about Dawkins' quote. He is certainly allowed his own opinion about his own experiences. But he is a controversial figure, so his critics will treat every word out of his mouth as something terrible and wrong. I think they are afraid of him.

      September 15, 2013 at 1:10 pm |
    • doobzz

      It's also important to remember that little was known about the long term effects of pedophilia, psychiatry was for "crazy people" and therapy was for juvenile delinquents.

      The prevailing wisdom at the time, at least in the U.S., was the less said, the better, and for some, that may have been exactly the right thing. For others, like me, symptoms of PTSD didn't start showing up till years later, and it took many more years to connect my symptoms with my early childhood trauma, which I firmly believed had no effect on me and hardly even thought about. Fifteen years ago I would have made a similar statement as Mr. Dawkins.

      That's not to say Mr. Dawkins doesn't know his own mind and can't speak for himself. I'd never presume that my experience is anything but mine, as is his.

      He does not, however, endorse "mild" or any other form of child abuse. Ms. Evans is perpetuating a falsehood with her "conclusions". As a journalist, she has no integrity.

      September 15, 2013 at 1:32 pm |
  5. Francesco

    I am Italian, and a devout Roman Catholic. My wife is Chinese, and a non-believer. We get along just fine; because she doesn't view my faith as intellectually subservient to her own secular belief system; and I refrain from all that your going to hell talk. Atheists are not smarter than Christians; and Christians are not morally superior to Atheists. Now if my wife would only accept the fact that Italian food is far better than Chinese food; our marriage would be perfect. I can deal with her atheism just fine, but her choice in food; that's unacceptable. There is a limit to an Italian man's tolerance.

    September 15, 2013 at 12:55 pm |
    • akis vassilleiou

      you can both admit that greek food is better and solve the issue 😀

      September 15, 2013 at 12:57 pm |
      • Francesco

        Greeks and Italians are Mediterranean brothers, but lets be honest here; Italian food is simply better. Now don't get me upset after I have displayed such tolerance in my previous comment. Like Greeks; we Italians tend to display a rather elevated temper at times. A Christian arguing with an Atheist? That's nothing compared to a Greek and Italian debating a contentious issue. However, it is Sunday, so in the Christian spirit; peace be with my Greek friends. 🙂

        September 15, 2013 at 2:07 pm |
    • wallstreetcrime

      Well said.

      September 15, 2013 at 1:04 pm |
    • tallulah13

      As long as you leave religion out of personal relationships, people get along fine. However, christians seem to be unable to keep their religion out of politics. This is the source of a lot of tension in this country, which should have been avoidable, as we were created to be a secular nation.

      And I have to agree with akis vassilleiou. Greek food is better.

      September 15, 2013 at 1:14 pm |
    • mike

      ^best comment

      September 15, 2013 at 1:15 pm |
  6. Grace

    How about we just not presume that any one person of any belief system speaks for all of the other people who happen to share that belief system? Then perhaps we will not be tempted to judge all those people along with the speaker.

    September 15, 2013 at 12:55 pm |
  7. fishmonger

    Being christian means you take things for truth based on faith, something which anyone who is interested in the actual truth wouldn't do. When it comes to the truth, I'm not willing to "make a deal" or "meet in the middle". Comparing Dawkins to Francis Collins doesn't work either... Besides, his statement about muslims and nobel prizes is probably true, albeit distasteful?

    September 15, 2013 at 12:54 pm |
  8. Matt

    Forgot what I wanted to post. Doesn't matter anyway, this is the fiction section of the website

    September 15, 2013 at 12:51 pm |
    • John P. Tarver

      Pastor Dawkins and pastor Robertson both believe the same science fiction.

      September 15, 2013 at 12:52 pm |
      • tallulah13

        Your statement is utterly nonsensical, no matter how many times you post it. I'm sure it made sense in your head.

        September 15, 2013 at 12:54 pm |
      • truthprevails1

        I see they forgot to give you your meds today John...those delusions are getting bad.

        September 15, 2013 at 1:19 pm |
  9. akis vassilleiou

    i was watching a local evangelist tv broadcast. a nice lady said that she had some financial difficulties and she prayed before bed for god to help her. the next day she opened her front door and found a bag with 5 grand in it. miracle! miracle! she shouted.
    now i'm a believer too.

    September 15, 2013 at 12:51 pm |
    • Kevin

      Two major mistakes: 1.)Watching evangelical television. 2.) Believing God delivered the money.
      If that worked, we would all pray and find money on our doorstep. Who would need a job?? This reference should only make you believe in the human spirit of charity and kindness, not deity.

      It is do hard to argue with a 'believer'. We non-believers expect more substance to the 'truth' than reading chapters of an old collection of human writings.

      September 15, 2013 at 1:14 pm |
    • doobzz

      Maybe Jesse Pinkman was driving through her neighborhood.

      September 15, 2013 at 1:37 pm |
  10. Karin

    Though I respect Richard Dawkins a great deal, I in no way am an atheist because he is. I was an atheist long before I even heard of him. On that note, religious people attempt to intertwine their religious beliefs into our most dear establishments everyday. Religious beliefs that are held solely on faith alone. In some cases, due to one lacking a understanding of what evidence means. Regardless of the cannon one uses to push their agenda, in each case, it doesn't muster with reality. The day religious people keep their religions in their churches, homes... in their head, is the day I will keep quiet. I will not, let me repeat; I will not stand idly by while religious people run havoc over our educational system, our secular mores or wherever they appear in our structural establishments. The day that someone proves that a god exists and where that proof is undeniable, is the day I will respect the religious and sustain my denial when they make their grand assertions.

    Furthermore, this article suggests that we atheists should play nice because of two individuals with differing views. Why? Religion in no way has proven that it holds any footing within reality. Why should religion be taken seriously?
    Which of the following gods do you suspect us atheists should consider valid; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_deities
    Not that any of us do. My point is, religious people hold a belief in their said god due to the region in which they were born, as well as the time period they were born. Simple as that. How any of this ties into the furthering of human civilization is beyond me. As mythology can not and will never be able to create scientist, doctors, lawyers... It will only keep folks ignorant and in the dark ages.

    In other words; nice try. But, a great big fail.

    September 15, 2013 at 12:50 pm |
    • tallulah13

      I like reading Dawkins' books and I enjoy his interviews, but that's because he has a snarky sense of humor I share. My atheism is my own decision, not influenced by the atheism of any other person.

      September 15, 2013 at 12:58 pm |
    • Sam Kincade

      I am sorry to disagree with you. Belief in a creator has produced many doctors, etc. This is my question, why does some ones belief in a deity upset non believers? Many of us who are Christian, believe that ones belief system is up to the individual. I have many friends of many faiths and many friends who do not believe. I live my life as if God exist because of personal experiences which tells me their is a God. My goal is to leave this world a better place than I found it. If there is a God, and I believe there is, then I will stand in front of that God with the knowledge that my life made a difference. If you are right, I will never know it, I will just cease to exist. But if I am right! When I find that one is an atheist, I just say, "well, that is your decision," but when an atheist finds out I am a believer, then I get the earful. So, my question is, why is it so important to some atheist that no one believes and that is the only truth and believers are treated as we are nut jobs. Faith is not a tangible thing and I never want it to be.

      September 15, 2013 at 1:10 pm |
      • truthprevails1

        My issue with it is simply that it is only one of numerous recognized beliefs in this world and it is the one that usually has the greatest influence...demanding respect but no returning it. I do expect that it is kept out of schools; out of the law making process; out of healthcare in the sense of what a person does with their personal body; out of the marriage debate (truly a civil matter based on the fact that the courts issue the license); don't spread propaganda to our children-let them discover for themselves..if you want your children to know about your belief, so be it. Try to put the shoe on the other foot and think of how you would feel...take it to a different level and hopefully we can find some common ground. However, if it is being used for harm or to impede rights, then I think it needs to be called out just as you would anything else.

        September 15, 2013 at 1:30 pm |
      • Karin

        No student of medicine becomes a doctor due to his or her belief in religion. He/She becomes a doctor because he/she made it through school and has demonstrated his/her skills from his/her learned knowledge from his/her years of education.

        As to your question. First off, let me state that I just don't randomly target religious people 🙂 Rather, my responses are targeted at frequent mis-guided religious people. How often I hear that non-believers are less than or, are going to burn for eternity. All in the name of a belief system where it holds no evidence to support its platform. Just last week, on Fox news, I learned via CNN that a broadcaster stated that atheist should leave this country if they don't agree. This was stated in order to protect the 'under God' line within our pledge. Where, ironically the original and the one prior to the current never held any mention of a god. Many uninformed and decisive religious people attempt to curtail our rights on a daily basis. They also spread crazy ideas about non-believers. In all, for me to simply stay silent so religious folks don't get their feelings hurt is purely wishful thinking. I will always protect my integrity and will always question those whom make grand assertions. Doing otherwise would mean I simply did not care about what is true or false.

        September 15, 2013 at 2:42 pm |
      • Unbelieveable

        There's also a rarely-mentioned third option: There is some kind of underlying conscious Intent behind manifest reality but that God/The Great Mystery/ the Unseen and Eternal (whatever) is nothing like the conception put forth by any of the major organized (and human-led) religions.

        In any case the problem with religion has never been "God." The occasional big asteroid notwithstanding, the problem has always been the self-righteous busybodies who shoe-horn their way in between an individual and their personal B.S. (belief system) about God. What we end up with in such a context is basically men in funny outfits telling people what God REALLY meant, which coincidentally always happens to be in lockstep with the clergy's vested interests.

        September 15, 2013 at 6:57 pm |
    • Unbelieveable

      Myth is metaphor (as per Joseph Campbell) and religion happens when people take their myths as literal truth.

      If seen as representative of subconscious archetypes in the Jungian sense, myths are stories that teach the morals and ethics of the culture to its people. In that regard, Professor X from the X-Men (played by Sir Patrick Stewart in the movie versions) is our modern-day Zeus, a character like the Incredible Hulk represents the Id and shows the danger of letting it drive, etc. etc.. We no longer have a formalized mythology that everyone agrees upon like in ancient Greece but the subconscious will not be denied so gods and superheroes are still really popular and likely always will be.

      If there is a "real" God or unseen and eternal intention behind the Universe then it's almost certainly going to be inscrutable to our tiny domesticated-primate brains.

      I always get a kick out of the idea that a bunch of mostly-hairless apes -that's us- who only figured out how to handle fire without killing ourselves (very often) in the last 100,000 years or so, who are STILL fighting over territory by throwing little rocks at each other (aka "bullets") not to mention enforcing our primal alpha-ape territorial imperative via ink secretions on paper (a veritable quantum leap from peeing on stumps!) are somehow going to "figure out" and "understand" this Universe and the nature of reality even as our admittedly-clever math is increasingly telling us we can't (e.g. Chaos Theory, Bell's Theorem, Miley's twerking at the VMAs, etc...).

      September 15, 2013 at 7:29 pm |
  11. Mike Farris

    "So let’s talk about the truth" Why? You obviously don't know the difference between truth and myth!

    September 15, 2013 at 12:49 pm |
  12. Dynan3

    Buddha, after his enlightenment, revealed many things an unenlightened person doesn't know. He experienced these planes so spoke about them from experience not intellect. The gist I get from what his teachings left behind is that there are many higher, and some lower, planes of existence, occupied by many beings that would seem miraculous to us with our limited five (possibly six) senses. But they are not our gods in the sense that they determine what happens on this plane. We are all responsible for our own progression toward the goal of higher consciousness. This isn't a religion. It simply states that there is no single (or multiple) god(s) in the sense we use it..as someone to placate and earn blessing from. Simply do the compassionate right thing in every situation possible. Learn from your mistakes and don't repeat them. This kind of education would make the world a much better place to work on this goal.
    He also said that we will all make the goal of enlightenment...it's just going to take an infinite amount of time as we know it...so I guess it's time we all get started.
    You can claim that this is just another religion, but it is based on experiential teaching, not dogma or obiescence. People claiming to be Buddhists are just another religion with their differing views on "scripture" which can be changed (see Nicean Council). Following the teachings of this great human being is what separates Buddhist and the followers and practicers of his teaching.
    (Sorry that turned into a long op-ed. Thanks for reading.)

    September 15, 2013 at 12:47 pm |
    • william mason

      Si­nce I st­ar­t­ed fre­­el­anci­­ng I'v­e be­en br­in­gin­g i­n $­9­0 bu­ck­­s/h… I s­i­­t a­­t ho­m­e a­n­d i a­m do­in­g m­­y wo­rk fr­om m­y la­pt­op. Th­℮ be­st th­ing i­s th­a­t i g­­et mo­­re ti­­me t­­o sp­e­­nt wi­th m­y fa­mily a­n­d wi­th m­y ki­ds a­nd i­n th­e sa­me ti­me i ca­n e­a­rn en­oug­h t­o su­pp­­ort them... Y­ou c­a­n d­o i­t t­oo. St­­art her­e-­-­-­-­>g­i­­g­­2­­5­.­­­ℴ­

      September 15, 2013 at 12:49 pm |
  13. Karin


    September 15, 2013 at 12:43 pm |
  14. dfasdfsdfs

    God said that he is the Alpha and Omega (beginning and end) a.k.a. time. God created time, and therefore, creator of the universe. Time to God is as a hammer is to a carpenter.

    September 15, 2013 at 12:41 pm |
    • Bob

      Pure conjecture with no support in evidence Now go look up argument from ignorance.

      September 15, 2013 at 12:43 pm |
      • John P. Tarver

        St Johns' description of the nature of the universe is true from a scientific standpoint.

        September 15, 2013 at 12:48 pm |
        • tallulah13

          That is, of course, if your scientific concepts are 2000 years old.

          September 15, 2013 at 12:50 pm |
        • John P. Tarver

          Dawkin's scientific concepts are 19th century, but the nature of the universe with respect to time are modern.

          September 15, 2013 at 12:52 pm |
        • Blessed are the Cheesemakers

          That which can be asserted without evidence, can be dismissed without evidence.

          September 15, 2013 at 12:52 pm |
        • doobzz

          Jill St. John?

          September 15, 2013 at 1:40 pm |
  15. dfasdfsdfs

    "Science is the study of how God creates", once you accept that statement, then you can embrace science and God at the same time. try it.

    September 15, 2013 at 12:38 pm |
    • Blessed are the Cheesemakers

      Prove it, your comment it just a claim with no basis.

      September 15, 2013 at 12:42 pm |
    • Bob

      The "god creates" part is an unsupported assumption. You are requesting that we do science with a confirmation bias for your unsupported premise. I reject that utterly.

      September 15, 2013 at 12:42 pm |
    • Richard Cranium

      "Science is the study of how we see ourselves in the Matrix", once you accept that statement, then you can embrace science and the Matrix at the same time. try it.

      same basic unfounded garbage.

      September 15, 2013 at 12:46 pm |
    • John P. Tarver

      The is no conflict between evolution and theology. The problem with evolution as a means to species is science.

      September 15, 2013 at 12:49 pm |
      • jens gessner

        If your theology teaches you the concept of a divine, intelligent designer, then it most definitely is in conflict with evolution, because evolution clearly demonstrates the absence of a designer – particularly one that is intelligent.

        September 15, 2013 at 1:30 pm |
    • jens gessner

      "Science is the study of how God creates."

      Since you put the statement in quotation marks, I must assume it is a quote. Who said it? – However, regardless of who said it, the statement is wrong, of course. Science is our system of acquiring and organizing knowledge, nothing more, nothing less.

      If we defined science as a means to demonstrate a deity's glory, we would unduly restrict its work and risk falsifying its outcomes. This approach would likely keep us ignorant, because it necessarily dismisses any scientific discoveries – no matter how important – if it contradicts our preconception.

      And finally, when religion had the power to restrict scientific study, it did exactly that. Enlightenment began when scientists were finally able to conduct their work free of religious censorship.

      September 15, 2013 at 1:02 pm |
  16. Jason

    Sorry, no deal. Do some house cleaning in the Christian religion and then maybe we'll talk.

    September 15, 2013 at 12:28 pm |
    • Bob

      Excellent request Jason. And funny that religious dogma is changeable, as history shows.

      September 15, 2013 at 12:33 pm |
  17. Johnny

    You've lost all credibility for compromise the moment you start an article with "...the evils of atheism". To compare Richard Dawkins to Pat Robertson is offensive on the face of it. You get offended because of Dawkin's ability to use fact to make his case regardless of your feelings. Facts can be hurtful when they turn the looking glass inward and he forces people to admit that their 'beliefs' are nothing more than that... a belief instead of a fact.

    I don't 'believe' in facts... I 'accept' facts and the facts are that the religious, including you, are delusional and/or scared of reality. Take your false compromise and keep it to yourself.

    September 15, 2013 at 12:25 pm |
    • Seth

      Amen. You talk about wanting to find the truth like you're seriously interested in it? Then do the reasearch and accept the overwhelming evidence the bible was written by men, inspired by.....men. It's a tough pill to swallow after believing in something for so many years, but that's what reality and EVIDENCE point to. THAT's the truth. So yeah, we evil atheists will unapologetically say "f)ck your compromise".

      September 15, 2013 at 12:33 pm |
    • Bob

      Spot on, Johnny. Well sad.

      September 15, 2013 at 12:33 pm |
    • Bob

      Spot on, Johnny. Well said.

      September 15, 2013 at 12:34 pm |

      Godless Vagabond
      Spot on, Johnny, very well said.

      September 15, 2013 at 12:37 pm |
    • John P. Tarver

      Pastor Robertson agrees with pastor Dawkins.

      September 15, 2013 at 12:50 pm |
  18. EvinAR

    How about no deal? Religion is a distraction from the truth; literally leading a blissful life where you look at everything around you and DON'T wonder what it is–nothing else. People who are scientists and religious thankfully have taken advantage of cognitive dissonance and DESPITE their religion (or maybe inspired by, who cares) study nature in more detail... but in the end nature is awesome enough and pure mechanics a subject capable of consuming generations of people to come with.

    Religious people will never know the absence of the need to ask questions like 'who created it' and 'how did something come from nothing'; questions SO irrelevant at this point in science that they need to be ignored in favor of things like 'what happened to cause the Big Bang' and 'what IS nothing'–questions that can be answered, not questions that lead to naive texts written thousands of years ago.

    September 15, 2013 at 12:24 pm |
    • EvinAR

      *generations of people to come with wonder and awe.

      September 15, 2013 at 12:26 pm |
  19. darth's daughter

    What I have learned from the Kennedys and this administration, if they god bless you, watch your wallet for free political presents aka as the red line!

    September 15, 2013 at 12:19 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.