What Atheists and Believers Can Learn From Each Other

by: Mariann Devlin 

In a recent essay, Julian Baggini from the Guardian said he wanted to reclaim atheism through  spread of the word “heathen” –that is, an “unredeemed outcast from heaven who roams the planet without hope of surviving the death of his or her body.” I recently wrote an essay about how important it is to revive the rotting corpse of atheism, although I said it in much nicer terms.

Baggini, while I take small issue with him from time to time, is one of my favorite atheists, for his deep understanding of the pressures of faith and non-faith. His series, “Heathen’s Progress,”  tackles the ways in which religious debates between believers and atheists can be rejuvenated, by asking the more fundamental, moral and epistemic questions that plague us as human beings.

As an atheist, I believe that dialogue with people who seem to have an opposing worldview is necessary for me to not just alter my prejudices, but also strengthen my sound beliefs. I’m personally indebted to the religious people I’ve met over the past couple of years, whose confidence, thoughtfulness, and respect have helped me open myself up to the seriousness of faith, without making me feel like they’re trying to convert me.

Maybe that’s what people fear from religious dialogue: that its pretense for conversion on either side.

But it really isn’t that way, at least not for me- and I hope that people who are reading this now can be inspired to reach out to those with different worldviews. Atheists and believers have so much to learn from each other, and I’m coming to the conclusion that we’re not so different from one another after all. We’re all human beings whose lives are spent struggling to find meaning out of chaos. For people of faith, God- however they define God- provides the ultimate meaning. For atheists, our ultimate meaning rests in something different, but its still of a transcendent nature- Reason, science. For other atheists, well- I’m still figuring that out. I really do feel like Baggini’s “heathen” most of the time, or maybe I’m like a ghost in C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce.

Either way, I will never forget the first time I had a conversation with someone who is now one of my  best friends. His opinion on everything from art, pop culture, philosophy, and love is one that I respect more than perhaps anyone I know. The fact that he’s a Christian actually adds to this deep, abiding respect. But at the time we first conversed on the subject of religion, we were both feeling pretty defensive. We assumed, based on past experiences, that the other person’s opinion on faith just had to be one based on ignorance of our own.

His interactions with many atheists and Christians left him feeling alienated, because his Christian faith also required a certain amount of skepticism, and- as he told me much later- it offers little consolation. Plus he didn’t feel like atheists really understood what it meant for him to identify as a Christian.

At the same time, my experience of many atheists and Christians left me feeling alienated, because my atheism also required a certain amount of faith. See where this is going?

Reflecting back on our first conversation, I’ve realized that two “opposing” parties can’t enter into a dialogue, unless they’re willing to be honest with the fallibility of their beliefs. If I were a militant atheist, and my Christian friends fundamentalists, then there’s no way we could find common ground. But the fact is, most people aren’t Christopher Hitchens or Pat Robertson. Most people are open to other people’s knowledge, thank God.

I have a couple Christian friends who I tend to pester with questions like, “Why do you consider yourself a Christian? What does God mean to you? Can you define that word for me? What is the fundamental difference between the two of us, do you think?” Each time, I get a thoughtful answer- sometimes its satisfies my curiosity for the moment, and sometimes it just leaves me with more questions. But I never walk away from that Q&A (man, they’re patient) feeling like they’re jerking me around or lying to themselves. It’s not because they’ve provided me with brilliant answers or anything, even though they usually do- its because the questions I ask aren’t rhetorical.

Unlike some people who pose questions to the “opposition” simply to get a chance at revealing their ignorance to them, I often ask questions to my Christian friends because I know that they’ll be able to illuminate something to me. Sometimes it doesn’t always come across that way. The questions I’ve asked my best friend, who I’m a lot more comfortable with, seem like thinly-veiled condescensions at times (and of course, we’ll butt heads!), but our intellectual squabbles have shown me another benefit of dialogue. By “keeping at it” I’ve definitely learned how to better navigate a conversation.

Atheists and believers have so much to learn from each other. I’m a “heathen,” but I’m also a member of the human race and I’ve learned that faith and belief are part of my condition. I am not without faith. Mine just looks different, and right now it isn’t being subjected to misdirected scientific scrutiny.I’ve also learned to appreciate the Western religious heritage which I, whether I’ve chosen it or not, actually take part in as a member of American society. There isn’t a single belief I have that isn’t somehow colored by the Christianity I was raised in, or the greater cultural history that Western religion is largely responsible for. Most of us atheists who were born here are more Christian than we want to admit.

On the flipside, Christians can learn a lot of things from atheists- mainly a skepticism toward that very heritage. (Indeed, contemporary Christian thought would be nothing without the critiques of atheists like Nietzsche, Marx and Freud.) Sometimes we have to question the past, and that especially includes the Bible as canon. Whose canon? Classics don’t become classics simply because they appeal to some universal human truth. Texts, and values themselves, are written, reviewed, published, and disseminated by very particular people- people with power and an agenda. I’m not just an atheist in the sense that I don’t believe in an anthropomorphic God. I’m also deeply skeptical of the system Ive been thrown into, that I have little choice but to take part in.

In the end though, those differences matter less than what we have in common. Shared meaning, or- in the absence of that- a shared search for meaning. How much different would our debates looked like if we could agree to that? Would we even have  debates at all, or would our questions be based on a real interest in knowing and appreciating the perspective of the other? I think so. Hats off to my thoughtful, brilliant friends for giving me the possibility of that.


Mariann Devlin is a journalism school graduate from Loyola University. She’s a reporter for Patch.com, and a volunteer contributor to Streetwise magazine, a publication dedicated to ending homelessness. Originally from Anchorage, Alaska, Mariann moved to Chicago four years ago and still complains incessantly about the cold winters.

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