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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. Andy

    I don't know about frighten but ... "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." Well, that last part, well, the truth of the matter is that there is no evidence that god exists, 0, none, not one scrap. Theists can be nice, like you, or mean, like the ones that control the Republican Party, but that doesn't change either the lack of evidence or the need to point out that religion is the emperor with no clothes. RHE also seems to want to gloss over that Christianity as a movement is doing quite a bit of harm in the US from teaching intelligent design (and religion itself) in schools, heavily restricting abortions, impeding advances in medicine and direct and active "achievements" to the negative and corrosive effects of promoting a system based on activity ignoring evidence and promoting it as a virtue (faith that is) while attacking science as a method of defending itself. So, yes, Pat Robinson is a nuttier and doesn't represent all Christians, but that doesn't mean that Christianity is benign, let alone true.

    November 1, 2013 at 9:38 am |
    • trip

      it never is or was about what you consider evidence. Its about ones life experience as it relates to what one believes or doesn't believe. what I consider as evidence may not even exist in your mind set

      November 25, 2013 at 4:58 pm |
      • Lou

        Or what you consider to be evidence may exist only in your mind.

        November 26, 2013 at 8:58 am |
  2. Ginny Bain Allen

    Yes, Rachel, let's do talk about truth. Truth is a person named Jesus Christ.

    October 26, 2013 at 12:40 pm |
    • weevolved

      Jesus is simply a fiction, with precisely the same evidence for existence as Harry Potter.

      October 27, 2013 at 2:11 am |
      • J

        It is humourous how atheist/satanists cannot spell.

        November 18, 2013 at 6:41 pm |
        • weevolved

          No. What is humorous is watching a make believer have no substance at all left to remark.

          November 18, 2013 at 11:17 pm |
        • Observer

          J

          "It is HUMOUROUS how atheist/satanists cannot spell."

          It's always HUMOROUS to hear people who cannot spell criticizing people who cannot spell. Well done.

          Obviously, believers CANNOT SPELL, too.

          November 18, 2013 at 11:25 pm |
  3. Pete Zanko

    No deal. When I see something's wrong, I strive to fix it to make the world a better place. And religion is wrong. So, no, no deal.

    October 13, 2013 at 11:27 am |
    • jinxmchue

      I feel the same way. Except atheism is what is wrong.

      October 25, 2013 at 5:14 pm |
  4. Dan Lewis

    Let us not forget that prayer is begging.
    Sickly, it's most used to represent the child begging help from the parent.
    'The Parent', as described in the bible, was one sick, twisted being; one willing to murder ALL the first born of an entire nation. If you could love such a murderous maniac, you need help.
    Religion comforts...and cripples. Seek the Truth, not bronze and iron age fairy tales.

    October 11, 2013 at 8:38 pm |
    • jinxmchue

      You couldn't be more wrong on all counts.

      October 25, 2013 at 5:25 pm |
  5. Dan Lewis

    "...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?"

    NO DEAL! Pat Robertson has lied and lied to us over the decades, daily poisoning the minds of millions!
    Do you really think such a deal would even be remotely fair? If so, you need help. Please get it.

    Christianity is a parasitic set of memes. Wake up and start helping humankind get free of it! You have an obligation if you truly care about others.

    October 11, 2013 at 7:11 pm |
  6. Lou

    Alex – "And if public prayer really offends you so much..."

    This is a straw man argument. Public prayer itself doesn't "offend." If you want to pray in public or on public school, then pray to your heart's content, but don't interrupt and take time from time in the classroom or government meeting.

    Why is it that imaginary god can only hear audible prayers in the classroom, government meetings, and high school football games? If he was what is claimed, then he doesn't need prayers at all, much less those I just mentioned. No, public prayer is all about forcing religion on people.

    October 10, 2013 at 7:46 am |
    • CommonSensePrevails

      Nicely put =)
      And also, why do people need prayer anyway? Doesn't "god" have a plan for them, so why try to change "his" plan?
      And, did you ever hear an amputee getting their limb back by prayer?

      October 10, 2013 at 6:34 pm |
  7. Lou

    What Ms. Evans fails to understand when she writes "[Y]ou atheists agree not to throw the next Pat Robertson thing in ours?" is that her or any theist belief in an imaginary god is just as absurd and ludicrous as what Pat Robertson believes. She IS Pat Robertson and he is she.

    October 9, 2013 at 6:18 pm |
  8. DANIELLE

    RELIGIOUS PEOPLE AND DRUG ADDICT HAVE ONE THING IN COMMON, THEY LOVE TO SEE IMAGINARY THING THAT DOES NOT EXIST

    October 9, 2013 at 10:34 am |
    • Bryan

      Wow, way to be respectful of other peoples beliefs, wasn't that the whole idea behind the article, to be respectful of others, even though we may disagree.

      October 9, 2013 at 6:11 pm |
      • Lou

        Apparently, you aren't respectful of his belief. (See how it works?)

        October 9, 2013 at 6:14 pm |
      • weismonger

        How is it possible to RESPECT other people's religious beliefs.....such as Christianity that says if we don't believe in their imaginary gods we will suffer in hell for ever and ever.

        Or, how can we respect Christians and Moslems both of whom wish to take over the US govt and force us to live in a religious police state?

        Or how can we respect Christianity and other so called religions that demand that they have a right to pray at us during sports events, and worse, force our children to listen to their inane stupid, and magical prayers and be preached to in public schools?

        The same argument could be made by the Black Panthers, or the Neo Nazis who also demand that we "respect" them. There is no respect due when crazy people demand that they have a right to take over our lives, preach to and brain wash our children and create a police state to enforce their insane religious and political beliefs.

        The religious deserve NO respect, none...because you have no respect for the rest of us, who you perceive as sheep, sinners, born evil, and who are less than you. Go fly a kite.

        October 9, 2013 at 8:39 pm |
        • Alex

          Perhaps you should read through your post and try to identify all the contradictions therein. I, for one, am not religious, but how is it that you can decry Christians "forcing" their beliefs down people's throats (via prayer, whatever) and not then complain about schools teaching evolution and "forcing" that belief down people's throats? Get a clue. Just because you're an atheist (or so I presume) doesn't mean you're automatically smarter than Christians or those of any other faith. And if public prayer really offends you so much, perhaps you have some sort of latent religious guilt? Because when I hear people pray or see them practicing their religion, it really doesn't affect me.

          October 10, 2013 at 3:17 am |
        • Lou

          Alex – " not then complain about schools teaching evolution and "forcing" that belief down people's throats? Get a clue." – says the clueless. Evolution is no more a belief than is germ theory or theory of gravity. Evolution is a fact. Natural selection is fact. Faith, BY DEFINITION, is not a fact.

          Alex, don't try to argue against belief in imaginary beings by arguing about evolution – that's mixing apples & oranges.

          October 10, 2013 at 7:32 am |
        • Lou

          Alex – "Just because you're an atheist (or so I presume) doesn't mean you're automatically smarter than Christians or those of any other faith."

          And just because you're an aleprechaunist doesn't mean that you're automatically smarter than anyone who believes in leprechauns.

          October 10, 2013 at 7:39 am |
        • CommonSensePrevails

          Alex, so if other people's public prayer does not offend you (or others), why do people have to pray in public in the first place? Isn't a person's belief something between them and their god? It makes me very uncomfortable when anyone is praying in public. Public space is for all people, religious or not, and religious people should show respect to people of other religions or people with no religion by keeping it to themselves.
          If praying in public is not a way of forcing their believes down others' throat, then what is it?

          October 10, 2013 at 6:45 pm |
      • CommonSensePrevails

        I respect people; I do not respect belief in imaginary gods. See the difference???

        October 10, 2013 at 6:38 pm |
  9. Al

    Seems pretty clear that the author is proposing something pretty basic and not difficult to understand. How about people of different beliefs at least try to be respectful of other people's beliefs? Also don't stereoptype. Not all "believers" or "non-believers" believe the same way. And not all tend to shove their beliefs in other people's faces.

    October 8, 2013 at 10:49 am |
    • Lou

      Why is anyone required to "respect" everyone else's belief? False beliefs should be challenged and ridiculed for what they are. If you believe in leprechauns, then I'm going to ridicule you. Same with imaginary gods, especially when that delusion is forced upon me, subsidized with tax dollars, and influences public policies.

      October 8, 2013 at 1:16 pm |
    • SLSN

      The problem isn't the existence of extremists. It is how much power is given to those extremists.

      So I think the "deal" should be that we won't give Dawkins undue power if Christians don't give Robertson undue power.

      What's that? That deal's already been broken? Sigh.

      October 8, 2013 at 8:55 pm |
      • TRIP

        I HAVE A FEW FRIENDS WHO CLAIM NOT TO BELIEVE IN DOD, BUT STILL HPOLD CHRISTIAN VALUES OF HONISTY, COMPASSION, KINDNESS, FORGIVENESS & GIVING BACK, & YET SOME PEOPLE WHO CLAIM TO BE CHRISTIANS I'M AQUAINTED WITH IF NOT HIPICRITSARE NARCISTIC AND SELF CENTERED

        October 9, 2013 at 8:39 am |
  10. Lou

    Yes, let's make a "deal." All religious people shut-up about their delusion, and all we atheists will shut-up about not believing in your delusion! Deal?

    October 8, 2013 at 10:40 am |
    • Al

      sigh...

      October 8, 2013 at 10:42 am |
  11. NOTA

    At least Dawkins and others are speaking for themselves and not claiming to speak for god.

    October 7, 2013 at 7:50 pm |
  12. Q

    Rachel hit the nail on the head. I've written a similar (while not as articulate) proposal for everyone, everywhere. I would love to hear your thoughts! http://lellowhead.blogspot.com/2013/10/why-dont-we-all-make-deal.html

    October 6, 2013 at 1:05 pm |
  13. H. B.

    With the exception of Judaism, religions are in the BUSINESS of proselytizing. That means pushing their faith on others. I don't see how separating out the most egregious fanatics, like Robertson, is going to do much good, although it's somewhat helpful to do it.

    I don't paint people with broad brushes. I know that the Catholics who burn abortion clinics and kill the people in them are a miniscule group of fanatics. Aside from dealing with their crimes, all that's left is to ignore them.

    I live in Mexico. It's a very Catholic country. Two people I've known for many years are some of the most thoroughly good people I've ever met. One is the domicilia (cleaning lady) who has taken care of me (I'm very disabled), and who has never stolen so much as a peso, and has never tried to convert me to her faith. The other is my regular taxi driver, whom I've entrusted with large amounts of money to help pay bills. My domicilia has worked for me since I arrived in Mexico. That's 20 years ago. She knows I have no faith, but doesn't hold it against me at all. We get along like sisters.

    I can broadly say this much about religion. When it encourages hate, it is a false one. Most of our religions do it, though, some overtly and others more subtly. But whatever form it takes, it is wrong, and the religion doing it is therefore false.

    All religions should promote helping, not hating, others. Not just those of the faith, but helping wherever it's needed. Some people do this. And as long as they're not involving their faith in politics or pushing their faith into other peoples' faces, they're fine by me, because they're like me that way.

    Most aren't like that, sad to say.

    October 4, 2013 at 3:18 pm |
    • CommonSensePrevails

      Nice story, H.B. =)
      True, many religious don't try to convert you, and thank goodness for them.
      Problem is, you remove one lunatic, like Pat Robertson, and you have another million or more who are as crazy or worse.

      October 10, 2013 at 6:52 pm |
  14. Martin Bazinet

    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.”

    Why is this tweet provocative? Because it is true?

    October 4, 2013 at 3:02 pm |
  15. Kate

    Dear Ms. Evans,

    It's a deal.

    October 4, 2013 at 2:58 pm |
  16. Shawn

    You know what I wish? I wish we all could just get along and let everyone practice what they want. I'm christian and to read some of the comments on here just baffle me and are quite hurtful to see such angry towards others. I ask you not throw all Christians in one basket. You want to be an atheist, be an atheist. That's great its your decision, you wanna practice different religion, do so, its your choice. The last thing is to be badgering each other for the choices we make. For mankind to survive is to accept other peoples choices without forcing your own choice on them

    October 3, 2013 at 8:19 am |
    • Ted Ferguson

      I agree with you 100%. You know, though, our Congress has put Christianity into our laws – which is forcing their choice on others. Why we can't have a government void of religion is beyond me. Christians act like their religion is being outlawed or something. No one is saying that. They are just asking that you stop forcing your religion on others – just as you would push for if Christianity wasn't the "religion-in-charge".

      October 3, 2013 at 9:53 am |
    • CommonSensePrevails

      Shawn, I agree with you as well!
      I grew up in Europe, and people keep their faith (mostly) to themselves, and they get along (or used to) better. When I moved to this country 20+ years ago, I was shocked when I was ousted in the town I lived when people found out I was a non-believer. People would not stand close to me. It was very hurtful, and I became angry with time. So I understand why non-believers can be angry and at times hateful – because we're treated as if we have a disease. I know this bad behavior does not include all Christians (in this case). But rarely, very rarely do Christians stand AGAINST other Christians when they behave badly. Look at Republican politicians; they are held behind people's backs. The same idea goes for Muslims. Rarely do I hear/read about Muslims speaking out against extremists, and when religious people don't speak out against their religious brothers and sisters who are extreme, they are in silence accepting their bad behavior.

      October 10, 2013 at 7:03 pm |
  17. weevolved

    Here is the broadest brush that can accurately paint all Christians: All Christians believe and assert a reality in a living, willfully invisible Jesus, and they do so without even the thinnest thread of evidence that the being exists. There's not even evidence that such a being has ever done ANYTHING. Modern atheists, without ever officially organizing, or orchestrating some decided doctrine, uphold this glaring fact and call out religions to come clean. After that, we can all truly dialogue on what it means to be human beings.

    October 2, 2013 at 11:31 pm |
  18. Sol Deus

    The fact that religion is all made up and yet holds considerable sway over people's lives that makes some clear thinking individuals feel a need to push against it.

    A few hundred years ago, there would have been scorn towards those would argue that fairies, witches, and other imaginary creatures were also fake.

    Teaching children to believe that imaginary things are actually true can be seen as mild child abuse.

    October 2, 2013 at 3:28 pm |
    • CommonSensePrevails

      Exactly my thought! My parents-in-law took my spouse to Assembly of God over the years as a child, and the types of videos and propaganda that was shoved down my spouse's throat (and other children's) is shocking and absolute child abuse. If a parent has to force a child to believe in imaginary things as opposed to teaching basic common sense until the child is old enough to use critical thinking skills and then share the religious teachings, it shows that brainwashing children young has perhaps better chance of making them religious as adults. However, it did not work for my spouse who is a very happy non-believer today.
      Children are supposed to be taught common sense and how to function in our society. In schools, they are also supposed to learn how to compete in the grown up world, but religion creeps into politics and all aspects of society and hinders sound education.

      October 11, 2013 at 10:47 am |
      • Lou

        Yes, it would seem obvious to anyone what religion did for the Middle East, and that's what xtians want here in the US – mob rule.

        October 11, 2013 at 11:24 am |
  19. SeaTurtle

    At face value, I'll say, sure. But keep in mind that Dawkins is not an atheist "priest," so it's a lot easier to say he only speaks for himself than it is for Robertson, who is an ordained minister. Dawkins' comments do not come with some supposed celestial "stamp of approval."

    Dawkins has fans, but Robertson has FOLLOWERS. That's potentially a huge difference.

    October 2, 2013 at 8:45 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.