Reading Updates and Can Christians and Atheists be Friends?

Good morning everyone. Here’s an update on the book selections. Because it’s Christmas season, I’ve shuffled the schedule a little bit to keep it light. I know most everyone will be busy until after Jan 1.

December: A Friendly Letter to Skeptics and Atheists by David G. Myers.

A short and inexpensive book that is subtitled “Musings on Why God is Good and Faith Isn’t Evil.” Please don’t judge the book by it’s subtitle. Although I don’t agree with everything in it, I think it’s a great book to read this time of year and maybe to spur some friendly discussion with friends and family. God knows we can use more friendly discussion and less family feuding at this time of year. Really, in the spirit of Christmas, and in response to the friendly tone of this book, please try to not write the book off without reading it and don’t be obnoxious about it in the comments. I don’t want to be embarrassed that I invited this author to have a discussion with us.

I’m sorry I feel like I have to say stuff like that, but I’ve been struggling with my feelings about skeptic and atheist blogs since summer and I’m really, really, really tired of the constant bickering, arguing, belittling everyone who believes in anything, and refusing to even try to befriend anyone who is different that I see so often. There is a better way.

Recently I got in touch with a few of my old friends from my fundy days. And you know what? I still like these people. They are nice and generous and happy. Yes, one friend said “I was disappointed and appalled to see that you have become and atheist,” but after we talked a little more she said, “well, our friendship was cemented a long time ago and it’s OK that we’ve gone in different directions.” (And, before you get your panties in a wad because of her reaction, I will admit that I initially felt “disappointed and appalled” when I found out that she was still a Christian.)

I think it’s time that we all start overcoming the initial fear of “otherness” that is so easy to fall into, and try to actually communicate with people who are different than we are. Yes, that means that sometimes we have to listen to them tell us about something we think is bunk and we are not interested in. I have a friend who tells me about homeopathy every time I get sick, even though I have repeatedly told her that I am not interested. But I value her friendship for other reasons, so I just shrug it off. We don’t have to convince anyone of anything and we don’t have to let them convince us of anything. But we can still communicate.

Unbelievers complain a lot that we are looked down on so much by religious people. But we so often do not come out of the closet or, if we do, we come out with a vengeance and try to debate everyone and immediately convince them that they are wrong. It’s no wonder that we leave a bad taste in people’s mouths. This is no different than evangelicals asking us if we’ve “accepted Jesus as our personal savior” every time they see us. If we really want people to think better of us, we need to get out there and be friends with people who hold different beliefs — without the agenda of trying to convince them at every turn that we are right and they are delusional.

Most people fear what they do not know. I would wager that many of the people who voted for Prop 8 in California do not know any gays or lesbians. I believe that most people who think atheists are evil or amoral and to be feared do not know any atheists. Many of us who fear evangelicals and fundamentalists don’t know any, at least not well. Granted, there are some religious idiots who could never befriend an unbeliever without the agenda of converting them. And there some atheist and skeptic idiots who can’t respect anyone who believes in anything. I think it’s pretty even. But most of us can be more flexible than that.

So, if you are worried about fundamentalism, become friends with some fundamentalists. If you are worried about atheism, become friends with some atheists. If you are worried about socialism, become friends with some socialists. If you are worried about homosexuality, become friends with some gays and lesbians. No doubt you will disagree on many things, but you will probably agree on many things as well. And, in the end, both sides will see that the people they were afraid of are not really so scary after all. I believe this is the only way to spread tolerance and understanding.

Thanks to Hemant for inspiring this discussion on his blog and for encouraging me to write about it. I’ve written a different, but related post on The Atheist’s Way.


Back to the topic of books. Here are the titles we’ll kick off 2009 with. Let me know if you have any suggestions for other books to look at.

January: The Age of American Unreason by Susan Jacoby

February: Christian No More: On Leaving Christianity, Debunking Christianity, and Embracing Atheism and Freethinking by Jeffrey Mark 

P.S. I mentioned Christmas exclusively above because I want to see if we can get Skepchick on Focus on the Family’s “nice” list by doing so. (That’s sarcasm for those who so frequently miss my attempts at humor. Besides I completely love Christmas and I even have a Baby Jesus ornament to hang on my tree.)


Donna Druchunas is a freelance technical writer and editor and a knitwear designer. When she's not working, she blogs, studies Lithuanian, reads science and sci-fi books, mouths off on atheist forums, and checks her email every three minutes. (She does that when she's working, too.) Although she loves to chat, she can't keep an IM program open or she'd never get anything else done.

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  1. The tagline of your blog implies that creationism is b.s. I agree completely, but how does this fit with your call for tolerance? It seems like a line can be drawn somewhere, doesn’t it? Should we be tolerant of something that is irrational and harmful? If so, I’ve yet to see a compelling argument.

    I’m perfectly content to place the line so that it includes religious fundamentalism in the b.s. category too. Having said that, there are things I admire about fundamentalism and fundamentalists. I have little difficult being tolerant (and even friendly) toward a great many believers, but I cannot justify tolerating their belief.

  2. Amen to that.

    Most of my meatspace friends are believers, though not all of them necessarily practice. And I do have a few deeply religious friends. Unfortunately, we don`t always have opportunity to hang out as much as we might like. But in spite of that, we get along quite well. And we all have our boundaries. We know where each of us stands, and we don`t try to `convert` each other. The topic of religion doesn`t come up very often, but it`s never off the table.

    Fact is, I don`t really want my religious friends to stop believing. I want them to find their own way, and be happy with whatever path they find personally agreeable.

    I was surprised to learn a few months back when an Anglican friend of mine mentioned that he`d stopped going to church. He had his reasons, but it really seemed odd for him. But it`s his choice, so really all that means to me is that we can hang out longer on Saturday night.

    So yes, absolutely I believe that we should be able to get along with believers. In fact, that idea has sort of been the premise of a project I`ve been working on for the past few months.

    Thanks for the book recommendation. I`ll be sure to check it out.

  3. @vjack: I don’t own this blog. I am just one correspondent here. We all have different viewpoints but we do agree that beliefs should be based on evidence and reason. I don’t believe that ridicule or derision or debate are the best ways to deal with irrational beliefs. I believe we have to come at these things from a different angle, touching the hearts of the people who hold these beliefs, rather than trying to convince their minds. That doesn’t mean we can’t present rational information, but the debate or argument format will cause very few to change their minds. I think a more tolerant and friendly approach will lead to much better results, not to mention a more peaceful and positive atmosphere.

    I think it’s more important to tolerate the people themselves than to tolerate their beliefs, per se. I really hate the word tolerance because it seems to emply “put up with”. I don’t think that’s a very lofty goal. I think we should reach higher. We should embrace people, even if we cannot embrace their beliefs.

    Fundamentalists are, for the most part, very frightened. If we come at them with swords (even metaphorical ones), we just prove that their fears are valid. If we come at them with plowshares, we can show them that their fears are not justified. Maybe we can make them feel less frightened. One step in the right direction.

  4. emply = imply. I know how to spell, I just can’t type. :-)

    Wouldn’t it be ironic if atheists became better at following Jesus’s advice about being Good Samaritans than Christians are? (Luke 10:25–37)

    I think I might work on a project on that topic. I like the idea.

  5. @writerdd:

    Wouldn’t it be ironic if atheists became better at following Jesus’s advice about being Good Samaritans than Christians are?

    Funny you should mention that. The parable of the Good Samaritan in contemporary context has taken on a meaning of just anyone who happens to stop and help someone in distress. But the often forgotten (or maybe just glossed over) context, as I remember from my Catechism classes, is of someone who`s an outsider, or a minority. Someone the listening audience wouldn`t like, like a rival tribe. Someone who sets aside his grievances to help someone in distress. (if I`m wrong, about that, then I`m wrong. It was 2nd grade, so I`m not shooting for accuracy.)

    If Jesus were alive today, he might even use an atheist in the parable. So it`s not really ironic. It`s almost spot on.

  6. @Peregrine: Yes, I believe you are right. That’s what I think is interesting about the story, too. The insiders did not help, but the despised outsider did. You’re right. Maybe with that in mind, it would not be ironic at all. What’s ironic is that many Christians seem to have forgotten the real moral of the story: the “other” is your neighbor.

    P.S. I tried to email you but it didn’t go through. What’s this project you mentioned? Is it still secret?

  7. There’s one thing I absolutely hate about the skeptical community, and it’s the lack of compassion some of us have for those that believe. I do not agree, in any way, that is okay to make fun of another person based on their beliefs. Fine, laugh in your head – that hurts no one, but don’t patronize those you are trying to help, it only makes them angry. I grew up a believer, and in some ways still consider myself to be spiritual, and there is nothing that turns me off more than anti-religion people trying to turn me into one of them (or vice versa).

    I think the book is a wonderful idea. Perhaps it can help those that are less accepting of difference into becoming more balanced people. We should all be open to new ideas, and anything that brings people closer together is a good idea in my opinion.

  8. @writerdd:

    Boxbe e-mail addresses work that way. I’ve approved you, so that address should go through now.

    The project I was speaking of is a work of fiction, and yes, I’m still keeping the details close to the vest. My wife hasn’t even seen much of it yet. But the moral of the story is going to be some variation on “hey, let’s all be nice to each other for a change” or some sappy sentiment like that.

    It would be nice to have it published this time next year, but I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it.

  9. Thanks for suggesting this book; it looks intriguing, and I’ve added it to my to-be-read list.

    Skeptics are still vastly outnumbered by theists IRL, and any resource that helps us understand them is a good thing. (Now, if we could only get theists to read a book subtitled “Musings on Why Godlessness is Good and Skepticism Isn’t Evil”…)

  10. I’m really, really, really tired of the constant bickering, arguing, belittling everyone who believes in anything, and refusing to even try to befriend anyone who is different that I see so often.

    All online communities are like this. I ran into it first in software development. Back in those days, there was (and still is) a usenet group for every conceivable purpose. I read newsgroups that focused on c, c++, ada, fortran, lisp, java, perl, …
    The members of these groups had a fair amount in common – same or similar majors in college, same or similar sorts of careers, all geeks, etc, but we argued and fought and insulted each other constantly. If anyone was involved in muds and muck in 1990s, the same phenomena occurred. It happens on mailing lists and blogs too.

    So it’s human nature. If someone’s face isn’t visible – and it never is online (sorry, a ‘gravatar’ isn’t a face) – you’ll say things you wouldn’t say to their face, even knowing they’ll read it. The internet subverts our normal diplomatic inhibitions. Also – people interpret statements made online much less charitably than statements made in real life conversation. This is especially important given the propensity of people to say something they don’t quite mean.
    It’s nothing to do with atheists or religious people in particular. It’s just an intrinsic flaw of online text-based communication.

  11. @llewelly: I agree to a degree. I am in many other online groups — mostly about knitting — where this rarely, if ever, happens. So maybe it’s just a geek thing. Maybe we have digital asperger’s or something.

  12. @writerdd: I absolutely LOVE the concept of “digital asperger’s”! That is a truly insightful comment with many interesting ramifications for online communications.

    Great post, as usual. I agree with your premise 100%. It’s one of the reasons I “hang out” here, as I try to demonstrate that not everyone who calls themself a Christian is a raving, atheist-bashing lunatic. I try to do the same in my church by defending atheists as being good, moral people who just don’t happen to believe in God. Not sure I am effective in either role, but you never know when you’re going to reach someone.

  13. @ Peregrine That’s exactly right. Samarians and Jews were enemies, so it was the enemy that was the one that helped. The direct modern equivalent would be a Jew and a Muslim on The Gaza Strip.

    It seems to me that this country has become more polarized over the past 25 years or so, and people are less willing to “live and let live”. That’s a recipe for disaster. All the previous cultures where this happened became fragmented from within and fell part. Classical Athens (430-420 B.C.E.) is a perfect example. They lost the perspective that the human race, by its own nature, has a wide variety of beliefs and ideas. There will always be people that disagree 100%, so we just need to get over ourselves and accept that simple fact. While difficult, that’s what I’ve always tried to do.

    I find this post quite refreshing

  14. I absolutely appreciate your conciliatory sentiment. We in internetland probably need a chance to step back and take a deep breath and think about how we present ourselves.

    However, I have to take issue with some of your premises. That blogs and forums represent in any way an accurate picture of the every day thoughts and feelings of the skeptical community and that skeptical and superstitious intolerance are equivalent is pretty inaccurate.
    Those that blog already have the strength of message and the clarity to put their message out into the sphere. What you see on PZ’s blog is a distillation of compounded frustrations into a clear, focused, often necessarily impassioned rebuttal. I have no reason to believe that he’s that cranky in his every day comings and goings. But that’s what the internet is for, the broadcasting of a message with lost gulfs of nuance. If you’re shocked by the bickering and infighting in the skeptical community, I suggest you look into the internet presence of heavy metal or comic books (whos subjects I adore but whose communities I avoid like the plague) to see how good we really have it.
    Also, I kind if balked at the suggestion that any significant number of skeptics have no contact with religious fundamentalists. Cold hard numbers suggest that all of us have religious people along the vast, volatile sliding scale of belief in our lives. I have a single (count it, one) friend here in Savannah who identifies as a skeptic. My rich circle of friends is populated by all kinds of religions and nonsense and kookery.
    Skeptics are aware more than anyone about the brain’s ability to compartmentalize. Most of my friends and family have no hope of living up to my rigid personal criteria. I love them anyway for their charity, their goodwill, the basic goodness, the seeds of which I understand to be intrinsic to all people. It is not their decency, their civility, their honor that I am skeptical of. It is the factors that undermine this basic goodness toward which I direct my unmitigated hostility. On the specific subject of religious faith, in which I am asked to extend some civility or charity or deference, sorry. I will be as decent as my mama taught me how to anyone I come across, because that’s how I think people should be treated, but I will not play nice when addressing a belief that I see as an immoral and potentially dangerous foundation for living one’s life and a subversive element to all the things I would like and respect about that person in the first place.
    Because I reject violence as any resort to solve a problem, and because believers in woo refuse to come to the table of a rational argument, the jeering, mocking tone is my only tool for addressing these subjects without my head popping open. Ridiculous beliefs should expect to be met with ridicule, and I ask their bearers to keep the mindset that I’m not necessarily personal, and that I’d be perfectly willing to sit down to tea any time. But I joined the club and got my badge, and in calling myself an open skeptic I gave up my life of polite deference to dangerous beliefs.

  15. Nothing like putting our worst face forward, huh?

    I don’t disagree with everything you say, but I am talking about how to get results. If you don’t care about getting results, go ahead and continue to ridicule people who disagree with you. You will fail every time. There is truth to the old saying that you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.

    If we really want to see change, I’m suggesting that we have been using the wrong tactics.

  16. @Knurl: Thanks for the comment. I agree with your premise. I hope we can reverse the polarization trend. It’s weird because so many people say they want old-fashioned community, but then they isolate themselves in little groups that are focused on single ideas or interests. I think maybe the internet and cell phones and all kinds of modern technology have helped create this trend (along with other social and political issues). A long time ago, you were friends with your neighbors, whoever they were, because they were the only people you could communicate with regularly. Now we can talk to people around the globe instantly and even visit in a very short period of time. It creates different kinds of communities, which are good, but sometimes it is bad because the new communities are often too homogenous.

  17. I can be friends with anyone who is skeptical, at least slightly cynical, and has a questioning mind. This excludes all the fundamentalists I have ever met, and about 1/3 of other religious people. By my calculations this still leaves a few billion people I can easily be friends with.

    There are people I’ve known for years who I cannot say for certain whether they are religious or not. The topic quite simply hasn’t come up. Since I find the topic of religion somewhere between boring and infuriating this suits me just fine. This is one of the many topics including interpretive dance and throat singing that I am equally unlikely to bring up. What interests me more is what we do talk about. Oh, and funny. I like people who bring the funny.

    I think the premise of this book is a little silly, however. If you respect other people then getting along with them should be a skill you already have. Religion is just one of one of the topics that divide people. Do I also need to read books on how to get along with NASCAR fans, Morris Dancers, and hunters? I think common courtesy and the golden rule serve quite well in almost all social situations. I don’t need a book to tell me this.

    I won’t speak for all skeptics/atheists, but I believe that faith is a character flaw It’s not necessarily the worst character flaw someone can have. Certainly we have to be friends with people with character flaws because we all have them. It’s just a question of finding people whose pros outweigh their cons. Religion is not a show-stopper; it’s just one strike.

    I would wager that many of the people who voted for Prop 8 in California do not know any gays or lesbians.

    I would change this to “most people who voted for Prop 8 don’t think they know any gays or lesbians.”

  18. I agree. I’ve noticed the same thing, but I largely let it go. My only problem with the faithful is when faith is the justification for some form of bigotry or when my family is pressuring me. I love my mom to bits, and she and I discuss her faith and my lack of it with perfect respect. We don’t shy away from that conversation. We would each like to change the other, for sure, but neither of us think any less of the other for it. Religion has a place in her life, and in many ways, it makes her the person that I am so damn grateful to call my mom. I can only hope that my skepticism will define me in such a positive way.

    I’m not saying religion and atheism are equal or two halves of the same coin. I don’t think that’s true. I think there’s a lot to say about religion and the role it plays in the lives of people, because it’s not always good. People often hide behind spiritual leaders and slogans to visit their insecurity and hatred on others.

    But obviously not everyone is like that.

  19. @writerdd: We should really test that. My aunt used to catch flies in her stable by putting horse manure in a big jar with a really narrow neck. I forget how it worked, but they’d go in there and get trapped.

  20. Mistake: I meant 430-400 B.C.E. They lost The Peloponnesian War in 404 and put Socrates to death a few years later.

  21. “So, if you are worried about fundamentalism, become friends with some fundamentalists.”

    Sounds like a good idea, why not become friends with a Racist to see what they’re all about, or become friends with a Neo-Nazi or Islamist?

    It isn’t like being friends with someone who likes coffee instead of tea or wine instead of beer. A Bapist and a Catholic could easily be friends as they share common beliefs, like a Marlbrough Man and a SuperKings man.

    Atheism isn’t just another brand of religion (which is how a lot of religious people see it). The common ground is so small that any issue worth mentioning would be out of bounds. You’d be limited to Shared memories, cookery, interior decoration and some sports!

    And don’t forget, the traffic of ideas would be in both directions.

  22. Thank you for a very thoughtful and well-written post. I’m definitely going to have to look up that book.

    Having grown up a Preacher’s Kid in a progressive/liberal Christian family that respected real science and encouraged my scientific curiosity, I’ve never considered the two incompatible. They deal with different aspects of life. No religious text is a science book, and science has nothing to say about the existence or nonexistence of a god or gods. Certainly there’s a great deal of tension between the two world views, but I can’t imagine myself living entirely in one or the other.

    In my 55 years, I’ve seen a lot of bad religion, but having also seen my share of good religion, I can’t simply write off “religion.” I’ve become an agnostic myself, but I still draw on the ethics of the Golden Rule and the Sermon on the Mount. So do countless other people who have involved themselves in liberal causes, often making those causes their life’s work, not in spite of but because of their faith.

    Having said that, I’ll also say that I loathe, abhor, despise, detest, and abominate Fundamentalism in all its ugly manifestations, and I often have a hard time being around Fundamentalists. It’s as if I have nothing at all in common with them.

    OTOH, I find “pure” reason and logic inadequate for anything beyond the concrete. Human beings aren’t entirely rational by nature. Unlike Vulcans, we all have plenty of emotion and intuition in the mix, and that makes us pretty messy much (if not most) of the time. I don’t entirely trust logic in and of itself, because it’s only as good as the underlying assumptions – garbage in, garbage out – and because too often it tends to veer off into the hypothetical. At that point, I don’t think it has anything useful to say.

    When all is said and done, I think the business of theists and atheists sniping at each other – labeling each other as “sinners” and “idiots” – is largely counterproductive. All it does is polarize the issue even further. But all other things being equal, I prefer to hang out with atheists and agnostics rather than with conservative Evangelicals or Fundamentalists, because I don’t have to wear myself out keeping a lid on what I’d like to say. And I’d like to see more atheists and agnostics in public office. We need a hefty dose of reality to undo 30 years of Religious Right bullshit.

    That’s way too many brass farthings’ worth from the mixed bag of contradictions that is me – and frankly, for the most part I like being a walking contradiction. It certainly makes life interesting, to say the least. If nothing else, it keeps me from taking myself too seriously. YMMV. AWYSB. =^..^=

  23. My daughter is an atheist, I”m a Xian. We love each other dearly.

    My other daughter is a Buddhist, but hey, sometimes we don’t get along!! But usually we do.

  24. Sure. As long as we stay off the subject of religion and evolution. It’s called “polite behavior.” Look at the old rule, “Don’t discuss sex, politics, or religion in polite company.” It’s not that hard.

    I take the “Belter’s” idea for answering people that are too nosy about my affairs. (Read your Larry Niven, everyone?) When pushed , I tell them that I’m a member in good standing of the “First Church of Rodney.” I.e. “It’s none of your business.” You could also use Hawkeye Pierce’s answer: “Druid – reformed.”

  25. So at what point does “being polite” turn into “let yourself get walked on”? I don’t go hunting for fights, but when someone says something hateful or ignorant about atheists, we’re gonna have a chat.

    Smiling politely and not pissing anyone off didn’t work so well for african-americans, I don’t see it doing much for gay people, and the current attacks against non-theists aren’t because we’ve all turned into hateful, argumentative assholes.

    But about this book. Donna, did the author successfully claim that faith is a good thing? I can go as far as “faith isn’t *necessarily* evil,” but I haven’t run across a solid argument that belief without (or in spite of) evidence is some kind of virtue.

  26. I haven’t finished the book. I’ve been an atheist for a long time, but I’ve never been walked on by any believers. I know there are some people who have had bad experiences, and I certainly think stronger tactics are required if say, you’ve been fired from your job because of your beliefs or something like that. I’ve never experienced anything worse than my friend being appalled to find out I became an atheist.

    Someone saying something ignorant about atheists? So what. Tell them that they’re wrong. Doesn’t call for rudeness. And act in a way that does not reinforce their ideas. Hateful is different. But atheists don’t seem to think there’s any problem saying things that are hateful or ignorant about believers. They say stuff like that all the time, and pat each other on the back. It’s like a contest for who can be rudest.

    I really think all the “they started it” stuff is incredibly immature.

  27. Well, you’re lucky. Maybe you live in a tolerant neighborhood when it comes to atheism. Not all of us were so lucky. But since you’ve lived in that nirvana, I have to wonder if you’re the best person to tell the rest of us how to react.

    From my POV, we’ve been (and continue to be) insulted, marginalized, and walked on. They get vicious and go as far as death threats when you suggest that maybe we shouldn’t spend taxpayer money on plastic mangers and stone tablets for courthouses.

    But so what. As long as we’re not rude and don’t raise a fuss, the world will be happy and you won’t have to spend an entire book review lecturing us on manners.

    If anyone gets to the end of the book, I’d like to know if he manages to make faith sound like a good thing.

  28. @phlebas: So are you advocating “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” or “two wrongs make a right”?

    I’ll be posting a review of the book after I finish reading it, a long with an interview or a guest post by the author.

  29. I have a number of theistic friends. We get along fine. The fact as that none are fundies. All accept evolution so I have have no problems with them. subjects we tend to avoid are sex, religion, war & politics.

  30. @writerdd:

    Nope. An eye for an eye would be if we made death threats.

    But I am advocating standing up for your rights and not being a doormat when someone is attacking you. I’m all for being friendly, but rolling over won’t teach tell them anything except “atheists don’t stand up for yourselves.”

    There are probably tons of theists who thought all those anti-Prop8 demonstrations were rude, too. Hey, the people spoke, we should just let it go, right? I don’t know if you went to any protests, but if you skipped out because you didn’t want to rock the boat, then I kinda feel bad for you.

    I look forward to your review.

  31. @russellsugden “A Bapist and a Catholic could easily be friends as they share common beliefs, like a Marlbrough Man and a SuperKings man.”

    Really? As someone raised as liberal Catholic to believe in the social gospel and evolution, I shared little with bible thumping, literalist Baptists. If you don’t appreciate the great divides even within Christianity (even within some denominations), then take a look at Sarah Palin – baptized once as a Catholic, later as a Pentecostal basically suggesting that Catholic baptism didn’t count. Catholic baptisms are real baptisms according to other Christians. I know – you probably don’t care, but there are differences between denominations that tore Europe apart for centuries and persist to this day. When I was still a practicing Catholic, it wasn’t uncommon for Protestants to tell me I wasn’t Christian and that I worshipped statues.

    And yet, you equate befriending event the most, open-minded, rational, moderate theist as becoming pals with a neo-nazi.

    I would suggest that you seem to have more in common with the Campus Crusade for Christ crowd that condemned me as a papist than I did.

    If someone treats you with dignity and respect even after discussing politics and religion with them, I’d say they’d make for a good friend regardless of theological or philosophical stance. The question is – would you?

  32. @ Mark Mulkerin:

    “As someone raised as liberal Catholic to believe in the social gospel and evolution, I shared little with bible thumping, literalist Baptists.”

    As someone raised as a liberal Baptist to believe in the social gospel and accept the scientific theory of evolution, I’ve never had much in common with bible thumping, literalist Baptists either, except the name “Baptist.” To me, that literalist stuff is a Very Strange Planet – if not a Very Strange Universe.

    I could go on, but it’s 2 am and I’m not thinking straight, so I’ll just leave it at that except to repeat the old saying that Baptists are such a diverse, ornery bunch that if two Baptists were stranded together on a deserted island, chances are they’d organize the First Baptist Church and the Second Baptist Church. =^..^=

  33. @ themadlolscientist

    Apologies – perhaps it was the Second Baptist Churchgoers that were certain I was part of the global, papal conspiracy to enthrone the Antichrist. I may have been too busy praying to statues and waiting for the Virgin Mary to appear on a tortilla to make the distinction. Nice to meet you and again, apologies.

    Psst, I still think that Russellsugden would consider us to be akin to Neo Nazis … or perhaps, reformed Neo Nazis.

  34. @phlebas: Please explain how being nice to people is being a doormat. You keep using that term, and so do a lot of other people. I’m not advocating being a doormat. I am advocating not being an asshole.

    Protests are not rude. That’s political activism.

    What’s rude is saying “You are stupid because you believe X and I am smarter than you because I don’t” or “I know everything about you because I read about Fred Phelps and Islamic terrorists and you must be just like them because you attend a church or mosque.”

    If someone says something rude or stupid to you, you don’t have to sit back and nod and smile as if you agree. I am encouraging conversation. Tell them what you think and why you disagree. But there’s no need to be obnoxious about it.

    I see the same “holier than thou” attitudes on atheist blogs that I experienced in certain churches. It’s as if we have this superiority complex and we constantly have to prove that we are better than everyone else, but by saying it, not by acting better. I’m endorsing backing up our words with actions.

  35. As a liberal Christian, most of my friends including some of the dearest and closest ones, are atheists. We share much of the same views of the world, they may not understand my interest in religion but I’ve never found it to be an actual barrier. We are all using the tools we have (beliefs, traditions, practices), in making sense out of and living well in this world of ours. So conversation can be had.

  36. @writerdd:

    You have already said you have been insulated from the hostility that other atheists have experienced. I think you’re very fortunate, but I think you have a skewed view of how to act in the face of that.

    As for your examples of what rudeness is, I’m surprised to see you set up such obvious strawmen.

    You can’t be the arbiter of what other people find to be rude. I encountered plenty of people who were offended that we would have protests at the results of a democratic vote. I have known people who have been offended that I don’t pretend to pray with them before meals. To some, it is just awful of me to want evolution taught to their children.

    So how do I react to that without being either rude or being walked on? The offended parties don’t care if ArbiterDD thinks they have legitimate claims that some atheist is being rude.

    I don’t set out to be rude, and I don’t think I normally am. But when I’m trying to calmly disagree with the theists and do things like refuse to back down about gay rights or school prayer, *THEY* think I am being rude. Are you saying we shouldn’t disagree with people because they might think we’re impolite?

    Li’l hint: You can’t disagree with what someone feels is the central fact of their lives without them thinking you’re just a little bit improper.

    I don’t care if the current crop of fundies think I’m rude, any more than I care if fundies 40 years ago thought that black people were “getting too uppity.” Quick, name all the minority groups that got their civil rights recognized because they sat quietly? Was that enough time.

    Again, if you haven’t had to deal with that shit, more power to you. I guess that’s why you can’t understand why we can’t be like your knitting forums. (There are few people out there saying that knitters aren’t real citizens. If someone did, would that be rude enough for you to react?) But until you DO have to deal with that, I think you’re uniquely unqualified to lecture anyone on how to respond.

  37. You still haven’t said what horrible things have been done to you in the name of religion or given a concrete example of what you mean by “being walked on.” It sounds to me that you are just like the people you are complaining about. You don’t like people who say mean things about you.

  38. Writerdd – thanks for starting this thread. I am greatly interested in the possibility of more productive discussions on religion and atheism than those that consist largely of name-calling. If a sceptic’s basic premise for debate is that any proposition requires evidence to back it up, then the common practice of resorting to labels like “ignorant” or “delusional” or “irrational” when discussing religious belief just demonstrates one’s own failure to comply with that premise – and, as you point out above, labelling and abusing people is not very persuasive, either.
    As to the question in the title, however, based on my own anecdotal experience, the answer is a firm, but qualified, maybe. As I am the “black sheep” in a born-again Christian family, I am always aware of the subtle, or not-so subtle, campaign constantly being waged by members of my family to bring me back to the fold. Since there is very little chance of this happening, we dance around certain well-defined danger zones, and on the whole, manage to remain close and fairly caring.
    What I have found much stranger is the fact that people I went to high school and college with (I won’t say how many years ago), when I was (no doubt) the proselytising prat, and they (in my view) were the lost heathens, have now “found the Lord” and sincerely wish with all their souls to re-introduce us. Recent converts tend to be far set on this agenda than old hands like my own family…. so it’s strange, and makes for uncomfortable encounters, at best. I guess the people I feel I share the most with are those who do not feel the need to constantly enquire as to the state of my soul….or my political opinions, or my level of recycling, or any other way to measure if I’m “one of us”…. but are gently accepting of a world full of different folk.

  39. My husband and I had a fight with my in-laws a few years ago at Thanksgiving because they didn’t seem to understand that we don’t talk about The Lord or say prayers over our meals at our house. We had to tell them outright that this behavior is not acceptable in our home. They didn’t really get it that we were just asking for equal respect. When we go to their home, we are quiet while they say grace (no, we do not pretend to pray with them, and we often just start eating while they are praying), we don’t bring alcohol into their home, and we don’t curse while we are visiting them. They didn’t seem to understand that we just want them to respect our customs as well. But eventually it sank in and last time we went to visit them they asked if it was OK for them to say grace. Of course, we said, it’s your house. We don’t expect you to change your customs.

    So all I’m saying is instead of getting pissed off and crying about “being walked on”, why not actually talk to people and see if you can come to some sort of agreement?

  40. @ phlebas – Do you mind if I ask if am I correct in interpreting your basic proposition as being that your own personal (anecdotal) experience is the most important guide for both your behaviour towards others and for the quality and nature of the debates you will have with people who think differently from you? And that the fact that the experience of others (ie writerdd) is different from your own makes them less qualified than you to engage in such discourse? And this is different from religious discourse, how?

  41. @writerdd:

    Of course I don’t like people to say mean things about me. Do you?

    What I am saying is that when someone says mean things about me, and I object, then I don’t care if they think I’m being rude for objecting.

  42. @scotlyn:

    Wow, you are reading a lot into what I’m saying.

    I am saying that the goal of talking to theists is not to avoid offending them. I don’t normally want to offend anyone, even though the theists don’t care if they offend me.

    But I am not going to be shamed into silence because they (or writerdd) think I’m being rude.

    And I don’t understand where this tacit belief of “if we just smile, everything will be okay” comes from. I don’t know what your history is, and Donna as already admitted to growing up in a tolerant environment. But from where I sit, “raising a fuss” is the only way to get attention focused on a problem. If no one raised a fuss, women still wouldn’t vote and black people would still be sitting in the backs of buses.

    I’m not saying that I, personally, am some kind of crusader. But there are some truly awful ideas out there, and the people who hold them are going to thinkg you are rude if you challenge them. I think there are times when not offending people gives us the worst outcome.

    Clearly, Donna disagrees. I expect that I’ll be a continual disappointment for her.

  43. @Mark Mulkerin: Actually a “true believer” of any flavour of xianity and a “true believer” of any flavour of neo-nazi group share a commonality in that both group’s idologies are based on irrational belief, fear and a desire to see their enemies suffer. To be sure, they are on different branches but they are all still on the Irrationality Tree

    Just because an individual was racist towards only one single ethnic group doesn’t make them any more rational, in the same way that just because a person believes in an attenuated form of xianity is no more rational either.

    As for the whole respect thing, I’m with Dawkins on this, why should be pussyfoot around other people’s beliefs? The whole “respect” towards xianity is essentially their way of ensuring special “unquestionable” status for their crazy beliefs.

    If you had a friend who started talking about the jews running wall street, you wouldn’t say to yourself “I can’t critise their beliefs, I have to be respectful”, you’d tell them they were wrong and why. In the same why if you had a friend who started talking about how god made the world in 6 days, you’d tell them they were wrong and why.

    If everyone considered everybody else’s ideas to be something you couldn’t challenge then not only progress in every scientific field would stop, but also would every form of meaningful discourse. It’s only through challenging other people’s ideas a society progresses

  44. I don’t mind critique, that’s key for any dialogue on these issues. But what mucks up such things are name calling and a ton of assumptions, whether theist or atheist.

  45. @writerdd: Who are you to define “rude?” I think the problem here is that there’s a fine line between standing up for what you believe and being rude. And it’s all subjective, right? I’d rather stand up and take the risk of rudeness than hold back for fear of being impolite.

  46. Phlebas, Donna said, “If someone says something rude or stupid to you, you don’t have to sit back and nod and smile as if you agree. I am encouraging conversation. Tell them what you think and why you disagree. But there’s no need to be obnoxious about it.” She is not advocating keeping your mouth shut just to avoid offending people.
    Granted, in my experience, people with a lot of emotional investment in an irrational belief will tend to get offended if you respond to their beliefs with so much as a raised eyebrow. And I think, in a lot of cases, it would be wrong NOT to raise that eyebrow, EVEN if you know you’re going to offend somebody. Nevertheless, there are ways of dealing with nonsense that are counterproductive. Belittling people to their face generally makes them cling to their nonsense even more tightly.
    I think the key is that we have to be judicious. Sometimes there’s no point in bursting people’s bubbles, even if the bubble is oh-so-poppable. And sometimes you have to publicly, firmly, civilly disagree—and if the bare fact of your disagreement makes people get mad, well, let them make a spectacle of themselves. I also think there’s a time and place for ridicule; some people, by virtue of the volume of meanness and nonsense they produce, deserve to be mocked, maybe even to their face. But that’s not most people, and generally not the people you have to live with.

  47. @Spacesocks:

    I know what she said. What I’m taking isssue with is that writerdd is lecturing us because she thinks we should be nicer to Christians, because she’s never had a problem with any of them.

    I am not going to walk into a room full of theists and shout “Which of you drooling fucktards want to fight?” If someone wants to have an adult discusssion about theology, I’ll happily join in with a smile, and I’ll be the most pleasant person in the world. If someone has a misconception about what atheists believe, I’ll calmly correct them.

    But when they get insulting and they start telling me that I’m necessarrily immoral, that I should be forced to attend church, that I shouldn’t be allowed to raise children… well, things are going to get tenser.

    No death threats. No ad hominems. No physical attacks. Nothing like that. In fact, nothing anywhere near as bad as what they do to us. But we are going to take a guided tour through the awful things they tacitly support.

    When it gets to that point, it’s probably not accomplishing much to continue the argument. But at least they know not all of us are just going to take it with a smile. (And occasionally they are flummoxed to realize some immoral heathen knows their Bible better than they do.)

    Don’t know that there’s much more I can say on this. I just hate being talked down to, both by theists and by skepchicks.

  48. @phlebas: I think we actually agree, we’re just approaching the question from different directions.

    Sometimes people are just so dedicated to their dogma, that it’s not even worth trying to talk to them. Some people are so stubborn and closed-minded (on both sides) that they are incapable of being friends with anyone who disagrees with them. I think and hope that these people are in the minority (on both sides).

    I for one, am just exhausted from all the anger and bile that has been thrown around on the internet and on the news and in bad books that are published too quickly to be edited for the past 8 years and I am looking for a more positive and hopeful way to instigate change in the future.

    Anyone who wants to spend the rest of their life being pissed off is more than welcome to do so. But I’m finished listening to that kind of discourse (from both sides).

  49. @ Mark Mulkerin:

    No need to apologize. I think the prevailing image people have these days is of Baptist = Fundy Mental Case due to the disproportionate influence of the Southern Baptist Convention and its offshoots, the megachurches and celebrity televangelists. For better or worse, big gets noticed.

    The SBC – by far the largest Baptist denomination – was considered part of the mainstream until it made that sudden, tragic right-cum-U-turn 30-35 years ago.

    The Fundy wing of the SBC, led by the egregiously misnamed “Moral Majority,” packaged its simplistic theology so neatly and made so much noise about it that the moderate-to-liberal contingent was almost enirely drowned out.

    It’s inherently difficult for a group that takes a nuanced view of things to keep its balance in the face of so much black-and-white certainty, and the moderate-to-liberal group made the mistake of letting itself be intimidated and demoralized into abandoning the field to the Fundy juggernaut that declared itself to be “THE” Christians (and “THE” Americans).

    The great tragedy is that the SBC leadership has become so dogmatic and dictatorial that the denomination has completely lost sight of the quintessentially Baptist founding principles of “soul liberty” (individuals’ right to read the scriptures for themselves and to shape their beliefs according to their own conscience), “soul competency” (their assumed ability to do so), congregational autonomy, and the absolute separation of church and state.

    In Rhode Island, Roger Williams founded the first Baptist church in the West and the world’s first truly secular government. Ironically, he left the church less than a year after its founding, when it showed signs of trying to take over the civil government. Very few Baptists know that history, and that ignorance has allowed the church to become predominantly UN-Baptist, with a devastating effect on both religious and secular society.

    OTOH, the faith-based liberal Baptist tradition that is my heritage may be down for the time being, but we’re far from out. There’s a growing movement to take back the names “Baptist, “Christian,” and “American,” to reclaim the name “liberal” from the trash heap where the Religious Right has thrown it, and to become working partners with people of good will regardless of their religion or nonreligion.

    Way too many more brass farthings’ worth from a Zen Baptist Existentialist Agnostic Heretic Preacher’s Kid. YMMV. AWYSB.

  50. You’re right, the SBC split off from the ABC over the slavery issue. The great majority of its churches, especially in the deep south, remain segregated – many southern towns have a First Baptist Church (white) and a Second Baptist Church (black) – and the denomination itself is still pretty schizzy due to racial polarization. The modern civil rights movement was organized within the network of black SBC churches; at the same time, many of the most conservative white churches continued their open support of Jim Crow segregation and the KKK.

    Of course the extremes always get the attention, and have hidden the general movement of the denomination in a more moderate direction. By the mid-70s, much of the SBC had moved into the mainstream, and a sizeable liberal movement was taking shape. (Jimmy Carter’s home church is a prime example. His concerns for peace, justice, and human rights in general are rooted in the liberal Social Gospel movement that originated in the Baptist churches in the early 1900s.)

    Sad to say, much of that progress has disappeared under the massive flood of sewage that the Religious Right managed to unleash.

  51. Oops, hit “submit” instead of “preview.” Oh well….

    The liberal movement within the SBC has begun to re-emerge and gain momentum over the last 10 years or so, with groups such as the Alliance of Baptists (a joint ABC-SBC group) and the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, a liberal association within the SBC – which in turn had enough cows for a good-sized dairy and proceeded to kick a bunch of CBF churches out of the denomination altogether.

    Of course the ABC isn’t perfect either. It’s been beat to crap and back by all that homophobic shit. My former church is a founding member of the pro-GLBTQ Association of Welcoming and Affirming Churches. Once the word got out, it didn’t take long for things to get ugly. Churches that have joined AWAC have routinely been kicked out of their regional associations. My old church is located near the ABC headquarters and has historically been home to many denominational employees and officials. When the W&A movement began to take off, a number of my friends were forced to choose between their church family and their jobs. The denomination has been pretty well torn up and will take years to recover.

    So in addition to detesting its theology and social philosophy per se, I have personal reasons to despise the Religious Right. It’s evil in every sense of the word. If there’s a devil, it’s his best friend.

    OK, that’s way more than anyone really wants to know about Baptist politics. (So much for the “love and brotherhood” thang. =pfffthbblththththfffffp=) Shit like this is why there are something like 800 “Baptist denominations” (including some with a couple dozen members or less!). Bah. Humbug.

    End of rant for now. Gotta get some sleep.

  52. @ phlebas – responding to me. That was yesterday, and I guess it was a strongly worded question. But what struck me was the sense in your comments that your personal experience was the final arbiter – for you – and that no one else with a different experience – for eg writerdd – could tell you how to feel, speak or act towards Christians. In essence, this is perfectly correct of course, as far as it goes. But I think writerdd is reaching to go further – to a place where there is a wider, more inclusive norm or standard that different people, with different experiences could refer to and agree on. When discussing certain matters, that outside more inclusive norm is called evidence. And that is what supercedes personal experience in matters scientific. But in the context of this discussion, you seemed to want to stay within the realm validated purely by your own personal experience, a realm no one else could enter. And this reminded me of my own family of believers, who feel that their personal experience of God trumps any outside evidence. Thence my question to you. Hope that makes sense, and also hope that it was a misreading of you, based on only a small, possibly unrepresentative, sample of comments in this one thread.

  53. writerdd wrote: Wouldn’t it be ironic if atheists became better at following Jesus’s advice about being Good Samaritans than Christians are? (Luke 10:25–37)

    I think I might work on a project on that topic. I like the idea.

    I like it too. I think it’s a great idea.

    It seems to me that atheists and Christians who want to be friends don’t find it that hard to figure out how.

    Some don’t want to be and so they never will.

  54. Dr. Myers is a professor of psychology at my alma mater, and I was always impressed with his honest explorations of faith and psychology. I’m disappointed I never took a class from him while I was there. I didn’t know about this latest book, thanks for the pointer! I’ll plan to read it in December.

    I still keep in touch with many Christian friends from my Hope College days, and pretty much all my in-laws are true believing Mormons, so keeping the peace is important to me, too. Anything that encourages respectful dialogue is a net positive in my book, and it sounds like this book probably fits the bill.

  55. I am in many other online groups — mostly about knitting — where this rarely, if ever, happens. So maybe it’s just a geek thing. Maybe we have digital asperger’s or something.

    writerdd, it’s funny you say this – my wife subscribed to a tatting mailing list for a long time, and after September 11 there was a HUGE fight about how the tatting community could help, etc. People were seriously calling each other horrible names because they disagreed about what to tat or where to send it. My wife unsubscribed after that.

  56. I don’t know if I’m late (only checking the net sporadically this week), but I’d like to make a suggestion for the list:

    Godless Morality: Keeping Religion Out of Ethics by Richard Holloway

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