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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. Simon Lloyd

    I am an Atheist, I am not part of a social group that identifies, my reasons for Atheism are my own.
    They are rooted in Ownership of Ones actions, in Equality and Honor.
    I rely on no angel or demon to provide me with knowledge of good living.

    Sadly I have no way to relate to 'pious' christians as the idea of owing the nobility of my 'soul' to something else is unfathomable me.
    I act with charity because it is the right thing to do not because my neighbors or some omnipotent being is watching.

    I cannot have a favorable view of a group of people whose entire belief system is essentially a form of bribery for an eternal(Sp.?) reward when you die. I realize that many of you whom follow this religion(and others) might disagree with this analysis but it is the viewpoint I hold.

    September 23, 2013 at 10:30 am |
  2. David

    Everyone has free speech... until you say something unpopular, then you're just "radical". I wholeheartedly disagree with Dawkins (and Pat Robertson, since the article mentioned him), I just don't get myself all worked up over what they say. We need to learn how to take offenses in stride, calmly evaluate what is said to see if there is any truth in it, and move on.

    September 23, 2013 at 9:32 am |
    • Doc Vestibule

      Thanks for being rational.
      Almost every conversation I have with somebody about free speech starts out like this: "I believe in free speech..." and ends up like this: "... but there are some things people just shouldn't be allowed to say!"
      Now, sentence one and sentence two should, by all laws of physics, create a fluttering devouring void into which everything is sucked, when they are combined into sentence three: "I believe in free speech, but there are some things people just shouldn't be allowed to say!"
      :::::bang:::::
      It's a syntactical impossibility. A semantic impossibility. It's also completely indefensible.
      Time and again, people revolve around those two magical sentences, pretending to be liberal and open-minded. But they're secretly advocating thought control.
      No, you don't believe in free speech if you say that. You can't say you do, and then espouse opinions contrary to that. No walking around proud about your ethical and moral fibre. I can't make this more clear: you don't believe in free speech. Say it with me... "I don't believe in Free Speech." Say it with the capitals on: Free. Speech. Don't. Believe. In. It.
      Their rationalisations always start at something like, "Well, would you want your kids to read hate literature?" Or, "But it's degrading!" (not sick, because they're far too liberal to say that). After those arguments don't work, they segue into statements about people "acting on their fantasies," or "having a responsibility not to harm others" or "how easy it is to influence people." There's always an awkward pause when my compatriot realizes that I will keep pursuing my point until I've proven them wrong. Then they look away and say, "Well, that's just what I think."
      Yeah, well, who's letting you think that?

      September 23, 2013 at 9:37 am |
      • David

        Indeed- it is a complete logical fallacy to claim that you support free speech and then suggest that "radicals" should basically be silenced. I'm probably the first in line to say that I do firmly believe in absolute truth, and I believe that those whom I talk to have the right to respectfully disagree with me (and I welcome civility in discussion, especially with those who actually have something to say). In fact, I might even go beyond saying they have the "right" to disagree, and say that they have the obligation to weigh everything in light of truth.

        You mentioned children, and I would say that I do believe that children need a certain level of protection because they are still developing and they are increasingly exposed to content that even most experts say exceed their level of development and are damaging for them to be exposed to. I've seen content being set forward as required reading in schools that I think is less about education and more about agenda, which I think crosses the line of free speech and enters the realm of indoctrination, and we need to be careful to observe that line very closely.

        Although I also will mention this, in the interest of reason, I also think that every individual has a personal responsibility to measure the appropriateness of what he or she is saying and look for the right time and place to voice their opinions. It seems like a lot of people are so eager to exercise their right to free speech that they forget to personally question whether or not what they're saying is worth saying.

        Regardless of how many factors weigh in, the just protection of people's right to free speech is a fundamental property of free society that we are quickly losing!

        September 23, 2013 at 7:28 pm |
  3. wnzmtc

    Religion wouldn't have survived the information age. It's like a ridiculous game of telephone mixed with fantasy. I said "Good day, sir."

    September 22, 2013 at 8:32 pm |
  4. Brian Macker

    No deal. Dawkins was correct in his remarks. Your bible is a pack of lies. Now what?

    September 22, 2013 at 11:28 am |
    • Brian Macker

      What is amazing is that Evans believes that simple statements of fact are "extreme". That goes to show you how twisted Christianity can make the mind.

      September 22, 2013 at 11:31 am |
  5. No Nothing

    If you break the deal you face the wheel

    September 21, 2013 at 7:31 pm |
  6. Salero21

    Atheism is stupidity in Full bloom in any and all seasons. Therefore no deals!! Renounce your stupidity period. 🙂

    September 21, 2013 at 10:38 am |
    • Troll Buster

      Salero21 in Full Bloom:

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I0-04VDrCbM

      September 21, 2013 at 11:47 am |
    • Brian Macker

      You haven't the brains to understand what is or is not correct.

      September 22, 2013 at 11:29 am |
  7. Anon

    No deal, tell your mythological piece of shít desert god to go fúck himself.
    On a second though he already did.

    September 21, 2013 at 9:15 am |
    • Ed

      Yes. Among ALL Pantheons is the basic principle "Incest is best." This is followed by the Catholic "That's what altar boys are for."

      September 22, 2013 at 5:38 pm |
  8. Everett

    NO DEAL... Science will eventually bury religion. I'd rather wait and watch ignorance die. But thanks for the offer anyway.

    September 21, 2013 at 2:35 am |
    • Salero21

      Your ignorance will survive you.

      September 21, 2013 at 10:40 am |
  9. Amazing

    It's amazing to me that someone who speaks of tolerance and real improvement of our human condition can be responded to with such ignorance and hate towards the 'other' whether that be Muslims, Christians, or Atheists.

    Rachel Evans, I am truly sorry that your open minded and progressive (in the non-political sense of the word) opinion received so many comments of the us vs them variety.

    My own religious beliefs are that I don't have the ability to perceive nor the mental capacity to deduce the presence or lack of presence of a higher power. I attempt (and often fail) to live my life according to the morals that I can work out for myself. One of those includes a solidarity with the whole of the human race; Christians and Muslims, Believers and Non-Believers, Women, Men, and Children. I believe your opinion is much needed in trying times when it is easy to ignore the plurality of the human race, and instead consider matters of fraternity vs the world.

    As far as Dawkins' recent remarks on Muslims and their international recognition, it was hardly a truly controversial remark. His rhetoric may have been sharp, but the lack of international recognition is real as is the historical 'greatness' (in relative terms) of the Muslim Caliphates. It is a real shame that the anyone is forced (through sheer luck, economic immobility, and political barriers) to live in areas of the world that have been through a century of war (WWI, WWII, decolonization, the cold war, the first gulf war, the second gulf war (aka the war on terror), and a wave of revolts and revolutions which have yet to finish playing themselves out.

    The majority of Muslims are not radical, nor are they inherently violent except for when it is their liberty at stake (which is the fortunate nature of all humans). The terrorism that some would point to as being contrary to this point is truly ruled by the few among the many. These men and women are willing to act and harness the powers of anger and want of freedom that many Muslims carry with them in order to gain power through violence(for more watch this TED talk http://www.ted.com/talks/loretta_napoleoni_the_intricate_economics_of_terrorism.html).

    As a final and really the most important comment I have. I hope that the tolerance you want between Atheists and Christians is mimicked the world over and spread among all foundations of thought.

    September 20, 2013 at 9:55 pm |
    • HH

      Your exactly right! Why don't people stop being Prejudice, its making us look bad.

      September 20, 2013 at 11:45 pm |
      • Webby

        HH,

        Speaking of making us look bad:

        * you're (meaning you are), not your
        * prejudiced, not Prejudice (one *has* a prejudice – they *are* prejudiced)
        * it's (meaning it is), not its

        September 21, 2013 at 11:22 am |
        • alandeon2

          @Webby

          Have you ever thought he might not be a native English speaker yet still doesn't need the help of the spelling police?

          September 21, 2013 at 5:32 pm |
  10. jj

    Muslim scientific progress WAS great during the Middle Ages.

    September 20, 2013 at 6:45 pm |
    • Gridjack

      Muslims are still as genetically-stupid as they've always been.
      The only reason Muslims seemed to "be smart" during the Middle Ages was because they were raiding the lands of India (mass-murdering over 127 million Hindus, Buddhists, Christians, Jainists, and other smart people from India) and for a brief period, the low-functioning low-intellect Arab lands had thousands of genetically-smart people from India in it.

      That was the only reason that the moron-Muslims were "smart" during the Middle Ages.
      Once the Muslims finished murdering their smart slaves from India, the Arabs were exactly the same morons they've always been (and genetically will always be).

      September 20, 2013 at 8:07 pm |
      • La di da

        You do realize that Muslim isn't a race or ethnicity, right? That it's a religion? You know that, right?
        In other words, one can be a German Muslim. Or a French Muslim. One can be a black Muslim. Or a white Muslim. You get my drift, I hope.

        September 21, 2013 at 1:09 am |
  11. Joe Rockbottom

    "Still, in the end,...” It’s about the truth."

    Yes, and religion does not have "the truth." And you know very well it is all mythology, so why do you keep talking?

    September 20, 2013 at 4:25 pm |
  12. Joe Rockbottom

    Why do you all keep supporting the ultra right wing ultra fundamentalist loonies in your church? they are making millions off those who watch them. If you want us to stop putting them in your face, then get them off TV. Simple as that.

    BTW. Dawkins has minuscule audience compared to the right wingers. So, what he says is pretty much not even heard anywhere, and probalby would not have heard these comments if you hadn't broadcast them. So, if you don't want people to hear them, don't broadcast them. Again, it is you doing the the damage.

    September 20, 2013 at 4:23 pm |
    • Brian Macker

      You are doing this wrong. Dawkins has quite a following, and is actually correct in what he said.

      September 22, 2013 at 11:33 am |
  13. Steve

    Nope, I'm not ashamed of Richard Dawkins at all. His comments on Islam are spot on. The whole of Islam has less Nobel prizes to their name than most major universities. That isn't bigotry, it's just a simple fact. The Muslim religion, despite dwarfing all other organized religions in population, has claimed a staggering 2 Nobel prizes in scientific fields. One of those two is an American Muslim who grew up in secular society. Dawkins is simply pointing out the intellectual collapse of Islamic culture. He is hardly the first notable scientist to do so, so I don't understand why everyone is so upset about it. Neil Degrasse Tyson has lectured at length on the topic, and no one makes a peep about it. But, they are both right, Islamic culture has near totally rejected secular science and naturalistic study. This is not an insult to point out. I think Dawkins takes heat for it because he is an avowed atheist, where Dr. Tyson plays the part of coy agnostic.

    September 20, 2013 at 4:22 pm |
  14. Kevin

    I don't subscribe to email follow-ups, so I close with this:

    There is a God, Jesus Christ died on the cross for all our sins, even atheists. Atheists: when you die, you will discover this truth. But unfortunately, it's impossible for God to allow sin into heaven, so I guess you know where you're heading? You were "warned", given the opportunity to choose. Good luck! 🙂

    September 20, 2013 at 4:05 pm |
    • 10centsworth

      Why thanks, Kevin, and you DO realize you are alive, a person with a brain. You are a person who thinks you will ascend to sit at the feet of a "god", to orchestral accompaniment, while your neighbors children burn to death.

      You DO believe that, right Kevin? Why don't you say that to my face, Kevin. You are insane.

      September 20, 2013 at 11:24 pm |
    • webbdillard

      Kevin, you said "When you die (atheists) you will know the truth." ummmmm...my question is how are you responding to this article, are you dead? have you seen god and heaven? By your words you must have, holy crap...it is true kevin...you are an angel. demented believer.

      September 23, 2013 at 9:54 am |
    • Bridget

      The truth, sure, and you know this how? Anyways, any God that sends good people to hell for not believing in him is no just God, and I sure as hell won't follow something like that.

      September 29, 2013 at 12:57 pm |
  15. Kevin

    I would rather believe in God (which I do) and find out that it was all a "fairytale", than to not believe, and find out that it was all true. Better to be safe, than sorry. In the end, those of you who are atheists, better hope you're right. Many of stated that Christian's are born into it, because their parents made them go. That's pure nonsense. Sure, I went to church, because of my parent's and grandmother, but I chose to be a Christian and a follower of Jesus Christ, on my own.

    September 20, 2013 at 3:46 pm |
    • Just the Facts Ma'am...

      I would rather believe in Leprechauns and spend my life chasing rainbows and find out it was all a fairy tale, than to not believe, and find out that it was all true...

      Sadly, Kevin here apparently does not understand Pascals wager. The fact is Kevin, the possibilities for what may be "next" are unlimited so it is not a 50/50 chance. It's not just your version of God versus no God, it's every version of God ever invented plus all the ones people have yet to invent vs no God.

      September 20, 2013 at 3:53 pm |
      • Kevin

        But...I have a better chance.

        Atheism:
        A consoling delusion for people who can’t handle the reality of God’s existence.

        September 20, 2013 at 3:57 pm |
      • Kevin

        Blaise Pascal also knows the truth. I guess we'll all just have to wait, huh?

        September 20, 2013 at 4:00 pm |
        • pg13

          Big words, Kevin. Did you Google 'Pascal's wager' after it was mentioned? It won't surprise me if you did. But I am glad you did.

          But what 'truth' are talking about Pascal's wager? Which part of wager do you not understand? It is a bet. It is a chance. A probability. As was already mentioned it isn't a 50-50 chance.

          But if Pascal's wager were to be applied to other things in life, one would go crazy. For example: It is better to accept that we are controlled by some aliens and pray to them. If we are wrong about it, we should come out better because those aliens will go easy on us.

          The reason why we don't take those lousy bets is because doing so would be 'intellectually dishonest.' Think about it.

          September 21, 2013 at 12:01 am |
    • Sara

      Maybe the gods only reward those who weren't gullible enough to fall for silly stories. Better safe than sorry? Maybe we are a child's science project, and only the logical ones go on to the next round of experiments, while the others are flushed down an alien toilet. Better safe than sorry?

      September 20, 2013 at 4:20 pm |
  16. dangeroustalk

    Hey Rachel Held Evans, No Deal! – http://bit.ly/1a9tNdo

    September 20, 2013 at 1:47 pm |
  17. eric conde

    I very much agree with everything this man says with the exception of one thing, Obummer is not a christian, he is an absolute muslim. Everything else I strongly agree. We have differences but we can get along. That is what makes the US the greatest nation on earth.

    September 20, 2013 at 12:56 pm |
    • Dyslexic doG

      sad troll

      September 20, 2013 at 1:24 pm |
    • alandeon2

      @eric coned

      How do you know Eric? How do you know who he prays to or even if he prays at all? have you been following him or know someone on his Secret Service detail who's told you he secretly has a prayer run in the oval office?

      No, because you're just a conspiracy theory nut-case troll aren't you?

      September 21, 2013 at 5:59 pm |
    • John

      He is no Muslim. He is a killer of Muslims.

      October 11, 2013 at 9:40 pm |
  18. Kenneth

    Day six, the insanity continues. People still find their way to this isolated article.
    Author must be feeling a sense of justification.

    Will continue to monitor.

    September 20, 2013 at 12:12 pm |
    • La di da

      What's the frequency, Kenneth? Since you're monitoring, and all.

      September 21, 2013 at 1:17 am |
      • Kenneth

        Wow, haven't heard that in 20 years or so!
        The frequency actually seems to be slowing down quite a bit.
        I guess people are starting to realize their inane comments are neither original nor relevant.
        People are going to believe what they choose to believe and all of the childish name calling in the world won't change that.

        Although I have to give some of these people credit for the amount of work they put into their comments. Some could be mini-series.

        September 21, 2013 at 11:41 am |
        • La di da

          I hope you didn't take offense. I meant none; I just couldn't resist. Having just listened to Monster helped, also.
          I totally agree on your analysis. It's futile to try and change people's minds once they're made up.
          I have never read one comment on here that would sway me one way or another. This is just a way for me to pass the time while waiting in line, in traffic, on the train, etc.

          September 21, 2013 at 3:32 pm |
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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.