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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. drinky

    Yeah, that would almost be a fair trade...Except for the fact that we have do deal with you and your belief in fairy tales just for you to be willing to accept some sort of a level playing field. Um...no, no thanks. Keep your hokey religions to yourself. If you want some sort of morality code, then create your own. Don't bother claiming that you have some sort of moral superiority or inside knowledge because you have "faith" in a fraud.

    September 14, 2013 at 10:15 am |
  2. Boo

    Richard Dawkins' statement was not related to his religious view. He didn't say "there isn't a god, which makes mild pedophilia ok." Whereas Christian and Muslim and Jewish leaders constantly justify severe injustices and acts which would otherwise be crimes with the appeal to god.

    September 14, 2013 at 10:14 am |
    • Ray

      Boo. I agree with your first statement. What Richard Dawkins said was not really related to faith, except to show the moral decline of the culture within which he was raised. I think his statement was a much broader brush stroke of the adult population of that time, and that should be decried. I wish he had not experienced such events.

      As for your second statement, that is an pretty broad statement in itself. True Christians will acknowledge there have been mistakes over the centuries. These wrongs were made by people that claimed to be Christian. I cannot judge their hearts or motives, but they were wrong. Still, the greatest contributions from the Christian community has been for the betterment of the world. It is Christian organizations that have reached out to the worlds hunger needs, Christian organizations started many of the hospitals and universities in the world, it was Christians like George Mueller who have started many of the orphanages. Many Christians have given their lives to protect and defend others.

      Are there Christian extremists? Yes. But, I would rather be a fool for Christ than a fool for nothing. I would challenge you to really search to see what a true Christian is. There are many people that call themselves Christians, but are not. If you asked Hitler, he would have claimed to have been a Christian. Yet, he was making every effort to eliminate the true Christian leadership. Meanwhile, Bonhoffer was the true example of what a Christian should be. Yet, he was one of the last executed in Germany before the end of World War II. King Phillip the Fair of France was a member of the church, but it was through his greed that he killed the Knights Templar. They were men that fought for those in need, and they did it through their faith in Christ. Paul also stood against pseudo Christians. So, they are out there. Don't judge Christians by an individuals actions. Learn what a true Christian should be, and you will be surprised. The best way to do that is through serious study. After all, if you think Christians are your enemy it is still good to really know who your enemy are. As for me, I would rejoice to sit down one day in Heaven with you.

      September 14, 2013 at 10:38 am |
      • G to the T

        These wrongs were made by people that claimed to be Christian.

        Here's the problem Ray – you don't get to decide who is or isn't a christian. The Phelps family ARE christians, they may not be your "type" of christian, but they all derive their philosophies from the same font.

        I've known Christians who were very nice people, right up until they asked me what church I attended. I know that may not be representative of many christians out there, but it doesn't change that christianity, by it's very nature, encourages you to believe that people who aren't christian are morally inferior and that people who are morally inferior can't really be christians.

        September 16, 2013 at 11:57 am |
  3. DJ

    We athiests never convened a conclave to elect Richard Dawkins our Pope. We have no spokesperson. We tend to speak for ourselves. You should try it some time it is truly refreshing...

    September 14, 2013 at 10:13 am |
  4. Hodor

    While I appreciate the some of what the author says (decrying hateful rhetoric, engaging the most reasonable views, that sort of thing), there are some problems with this piece. Sure, Dawkins can come off as a dick sometimes and might say some borderline inappropriate things, but I certainly cannot blame him for being fed up with religion and using his celebrity to his advantage, and it's insane to consider him to be the Pat Robertson of atheism. There is no Pat Robertson of atheism because atheism is not a religion. Pat Robertson is a nonpareil tool, a delusional bigot like no other.

    I particularly enjoy this bit:

    "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."

    That's ADORABLE! If accepting some ancient book about a sky lord and his escapades in the middle east as the ultimate truth is not taking the easy way out, I don't know what is.

    September 14, 2013 at 10:13 am |
    • Neo Agnostic

      The only WORD you are allowed to used when you have that name is Hodor.

      September 14, 2013 at 10:25 am |
  5. mac101

    Hmm...christians vs atheists. Newsflash – many of us are neither christians nor atheists – and we aren't impressed with the typically American need to classify, polarize, and divide us into only two choices.

    Time for a third – and fourth and fifth – party.

    September 14, 2013 at 10:10 am |
  6. Kerowack

    It's an interesting idea that could work if in a vacuum, but the reality is it won't work in present times. You are asking atheists to back off and leave you be, and in return you will do the same. When, in the history of Christianity has that precedence ever been set? Has it occurred to you that the reason atheists are pushing back so much is the feeling of oppression they are getting from the church and it's intolerant morals? Atheists, by nature, would rather not be discussing religion at all. That's the whole POINT. As long as the church continues to infect the political landscape of this country, and to ignore the separation of church and state, there will be atheists, as well as other religions that will stomp and yell and call foul. If you want this to work, the hard truth is you have a looooong way to go before it's even.

    September 14, 2013 at 10:09 am |
    • deep blue

      Speak for yourself. I enjoy hearing from people about their religious beliefs.

      The freedom of religion just means that the state cannot implicitly or explicitly sponsor a particular religion. It does not prohibit politicians from campaigning on a religious platform. It does not prohibit people, including congressmen, from voting according to their religious beliefs. It does mean that Tennessee cannot pass laws against Sharia law, and that public funding cannot be used to teach a specific religion in school.

      September 14, 2013 at 10:16 am |
      • Neo Agnostic

        With the way some politicians and their followers seem to think that is how it should be. American is based on Christian principles and so we should reflect it in our laws. Then you alienate those who are not Christian and when called out on it they accuse you of being Anti American and tell you to stop shoving your views down their throat.

        September 14, 2013 at 10:24 am |
    • Carrie Harry

      Well said.

      September 14, 2013 at 11:07 am |
  7. Rett

    Que?

    September 14, 2013 at 10:07 am |
  8. Eric

    I'm compelled by these comments to say what a bunch of confused logic! They are "so 2000 and late." Many of these comments suggests people are angry at a God who they don't believe in, or angry at other's belief systems assuming they don't have one, or just angry at people's arrogance toward the truth from a position of superiority. These writers seem to have walked into modernity 100 years late, still confident that humans can create knowledge that will either save the day or permit the ointment of apathy. These writers brazenly wave the philosophy of 50 years ago.
    Here is the message: "Why do you look at the speck that is in your brother's eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? "Or how can you say to your brother, 'Let me take the speck out of your eye,' and behold, the log is in your own eye? "You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother's eye. Matthew, chapter 7.

    September 14, 2013 at 10:06 am |
    • Neo Agnostic

      Yeah, quoting the bible is going to convince atheists you are right. Good luck with that.

      September 14, 2013 at 10:22 am |
      • Vic

        If you set aside where the quote is from, for a moment, and think about what it says, don't you think it makes sense?

        September 14, 2013 at 10:47 am |
  9. Scott

    The earth is the center of the universe. Humans are special. One of us was the son of God. It's great growing up narrow minded, never investigating "why" and believing whatever was taught, because certain texts "spoke to me" and ignorance is bliss. -What an arrogant view. I do not care what Christians or atheists think, just respect the fact that people can have other view points and do not push yours on others. I prefer to be an open-minded agnostic who believes in evolution.

    September 14, 2013 at 10:06 am |
  10. Bill Moser

    I think all the bitterness is just a cover for not being so sure of one's belief.

    September 14, 2013 at 10:04 am |
    • Justin - The Athiest

      Unsure of our faith? We have no faith, or belief without evidence. But you should know this, most atheists were of "faiths" once, until someone showed us how to think for our selves, and use reason instead of science fiction.

      September 14, 2013 at 10:12 am |
    • mandarax

      I don't think so, and I think it's a cowardly and self-serving position to take. It's like saying that Civil Rights activists were bitter because they were not so sure they were equally worthy human beings.

      September 14, 2013 at 10:16 am |
  11. blind obedience.

    There is way too much politics involved in religion for religion to seem even a little bit sincere.

    September 14, 2013 at 10:04 am |
  12. Dave

    The author bashes atheism early in the article, calling it "evil"...nice. Millions of Christians have killed in the name of their religion, segregated populations, and still try to both chemically and physically make non-believers believe as they do. Pastors and preachers everyday get on tv everyday to tell millions how to hate and judge those that don't believe the same. Richard Dawkins....really? "Atheists" don't follow him, and most atheists don't even know who he is, because atheism is not something you buy into from someone else. "Atheist" is a definition, not a club membership...apparently if you don't believe in fairy tales, you need a label that defines that lack of belief to those that do.

    September 14, 2013 at 10:04 am |
    • Vic

      in the feat for unity, one can afford to be called names. Christianity has been called that constantly by opponents!

      September 14, 2013 at 10:52 am |
  13. Pitdownman

    "You can't handle the truth."

    September 14, 2013 at 10:03 am |
  14. lexslamman

    Atheists aren't interested in truth, we're interested in fact. And you should throw Richard Dawkins into our face, what he said was factually correct, we'll gladly pit Richard Dawkins against Pat Robertson.

    September 14, 2013 at 10:02 am |
    • John P. Tarver

      Atheists are interested in a fascists social political agenda.

      September 14, 2013 at 10:17 am |
      • sybaris

        Really?

        Bibles in every motel room
        God on our money
        Prayer before public events
        Christian cable networks 24/7
        Discounts on insurance for being christian
        Churches every 6 blocks in every city over 100,000
        Laws that prevent non-christians from holding public office
        Christian bookstores in every town over 12,000
        God in the Pledge of Allegiance
        Televangelists 24/7
        Christian billboards along the highway advertising Vacation Bible School and “Repent or go to He.ll”
        Federally recognized christian holiday
        Radioevangelists 24/7
        Religious organizations are tax free
        75% of the population claims to be christian
        National day of prayer
        God in the National Anthem
        Weekday christian education for elementary students.
        Christian clergy led prayer at Presidential inaugurations

        I'm thinkin' the religionists in the U.S. have put together quite a fascist agenda of their own.

        September 14, 2013 at 10:22 am |
      • G to the T

        There go again – conflating "atheist" with "liberal", "socialist", "Marxist" and/or "leftist" are all pretty ignorant (as if any of those statements could really be the sole definition of a person's view). I'm not a democrat or a republican.

        I'm a skeptic – in all things. For me, that the only intellectually honest stance I can take.

        September 16, 2013 at 12:03 pm |
  15. gregski

    "So let’s talk about the truth, and with the people who most consistently and graciously point us toward it." – YES!!! THAT'S EXACTLY WHAT ATHEISTS WANT TO TALK ABOUT !!! TRUTH!!!! HOW TRUE ARE YOUR RELIGIOUS CLAIMS!!! SHOW US THE EVIDENCE!!!!!!!

    September 14, 2013 at 10:01 am |
  16. Brisancian

    And the extreme statements of Jesus or Moses or Paul? Are they off the table too?

    September 14, 2013 at 10:00 am |
    • Carrie Harry

      Good point.

      September 14, 2013 at 11:11 am |
      • Brisancian

        🙂

        September 14, 2013 at 11:40 am |
  17. Vic

    In summary, let's all follow the "Golden Rule." I second motion that.

    September 14, 2013 at 10:00 am |
  18. Doug

    Well, here's the thing:

    Of the two statements Dawkins is said to have made that the author is using, the first is his opinion, and the second is factually correct.

    Meanwhile, mountains of illogical rubbish have been piled on for centuries by the adherents of religion, who, after all's said and done can only stridently defend their illogical position of believing in the supernatural.

    September 14, 2013 at 10:00 am |
    • Carrie Harry

      Thank you for pointing out that the second statement was factually correct. I can't believe this author thought that quote was damning in any way.

      September 14, 2013 at 11:14 am |
  19. gregski

    "I’ve seen my fellow Christians seize the opportunity to rail against the evils of atheism." – is this a joke? can you also rail against the evils of non stamp collecting? When will you people learn that not participating in something cannot lead you to do anything evil.

    September 14, 2013 at 9:59 am |
  20. SixDegrees

    How about your religious zealots agree to keep your religion out of my public school classrooms, and in return I agree to keep my brain out of your church?

    September 14, 2013 at 9:58 am |
    • Rett

      religion is by and large already out of the public classroom

      September 14, 2013 at 10:09 am |
      • SixDegrees

        Been to Texas or Louisiana lately? Try taking a biology class there some time.

        September 14, 2013 at 10:14 am |
      • John P. Tarver

        Dawkins' religion of outdated "science" is still in the classroom.

        September 14, 2013 at 10:16 am |
        • Hodor

          science is self-correcting, so not outdated, and is not a religion

          September 14, 2013 at 11:11 am |
      • sybaris

        Uh no, several states have weekday religious (Christian) education in public schools. Look it up.

        September 14, 2013 at 10:18 am |
        • Rett

          On school grounds? Led by faculty membrs? I know Bible clubs have been upheld in court and i know of elective courses on the Bible as literature. Are these what you are talking about.?

          September 14, 2013 at 3:32 pm |
    • Glenn Parker

      So what would you say to a world-class astrophysicist who is a committed Christian? Would you say he's just not as smart as you?

      Perhaps you're just more enlightened. It must be your humility.

      September 14, 2013 at 10:11 am |
      • SixDegrees

        I have no problem at all with anyone's personal religious beliefs.

        I have very serious problems when they try to jam those beliefs down other's throats, and even more problems when they attempt to leverage the state's enormous power to do so.

        September 14, 2013 at 10:15 am |
      • sybaris

        an anomaly

        September 14, 2013 at 10:18 am |
      • Hodor

        selectively rational

        September 14, 2013 at 11:08 am |
    • Carrie Harry

      Nice one. I second that motion.

      September 14, 2013 at 11:15 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.