Well, it has taken a few centuries but it looks like there is a small, tiny hairline fracture in the religious space-time continuum. When atheists and devout Christians can sit down together and learn from each other without dismissing or proselytizing to one another, this is news. Yet somehow, this momentous event was largely overlooked. Yet it is actually happening, albeit in a relatively small way.
Mehta, now an honors graduate in mathematics and biology, has not converted, but the two have become friends. Mehta has started his own blog (friendlyatheist.com) and travels to speak to churches and humanist organizations. He has written a book – “I Sold My Soul on eBay” – that explains why he is an atheist and gives churches advice on what it would take to reach nonbelievers.
This is not to suggest that interfaith dialogs never occur. They do. Even the Pope occasionally catches the ecumenical wave and is seen openly praying with Muslims, Jews and assorted Protestants. The problem with most of these dialogs is that no real understanding occurs. These dialogs serve some other purposes but mutual learning is not one of them.
Nevertheless, when atheists and devout Christians can actually hear what the other is saying and take some actions based on their learning, I begin to feel that there is hope for humanity. It makes me wonder if seemingly intractable problems like global warming can be solved too. In the case of Jim Henderson, a former evangelical pastor, he is learning from atheists what I suggested back in 2004: Christian marketing practices suck. They suck because they are based on the model of the ignorant savage. There are not many of us still running around the bushes. Evangelicals hoping to draw in new adherents had better understand where the modern unchurched are coming from.
As for the “friendly atheist” Hemant Mehta, he is getting an eye opening in contemporary Christianity. If he was inclined to believe that Christians are starry-eyed myopic zealots, his understanding is now clarified through actual experiences. It seems that Christians are not necessarily always studying their Bible on break, or spending their weekends knocking on doors bringing the good news to the unenlightened. It seems that Christianity does not necessarily wholly define the lives of all Christians. Who would have thunk?
If you ask me, both the religious and the non-religious should spend much more time listening to each other. Talking at each other is easy. Listening is hard. When you listen, you have to acknowledge the point of view that you are hearing. When you listen, some part of your mind must see the world through the eyes of the person you are hearing. When you listen, it is hard not to develop empathy with the person talking. The person you are tuned into is no longer objectified as the heathen or the unenlightened. Instead, they become a human being. They become personable and real.
Many issues needlessly divide us from one another, and one of our most polarizing differences is religion. I count here atheism as a religion too. I am sure many atheists will want to harass me on the point, but there are many similarities between the religious and the atheists. Christians and atheists have this in common: certainty. Christians are certain that Jesus is our Savior. Atheists are certain he is not and God is a fiction. Both are dogmatic. Only now, maybe they are a little less so than they used to be.
Here is one of life’s lessons that I fortunately learned quite early after I pulled away from Catholicism: what religion you do or do not practice doesn’t really matter. Religion is the window dressing. Values are the window itself. I am guessing that you think that Christians and atheists do not have many values in common. Guess again. Both likely have a reverence for life. Both likely believe in love, fidelity and family. Both share a passion for the truth and only differ in how the truth should be interpreted. Of course, they also have other values that are not in common. That is okay because we are all unique. We all arrived where we are at via different paths. Consequently, we are not all going to believe the same things. So of course, we are not always going to share the same exact perspectives. We are each like a unique mold of gelatin, but we are all made of same gelatin. Our mold just happens to be our path through life. We are different but simultaneously we are also the same. This is natural for us. This is the way it was meant to be!
We need to never forget this. Truly, far more commonalities tie us together than pulls us apart. Your religion, your lack of it or your complete indifference to it should not matter any more than your eye color. The world would be a less interesting place if we all had brown eyes. The same is true with our many faiths and spiritual practices. Why not embrace our differences, instead of feeling affront if your beliefs are different from mine? If we were all the same then this world would be deathly dull. You can see how exciting the world was when much of it lived under communism. Was it better when everyone lived in the same kind of drab block apartments? How much more interesting life becomes when we celebrate, respect and realize we draw collective strength because of our differences.
My inner theist almost thinks this meeting of minds between religious and irreligious must be divinely inspired. How wholesome it is. How intuitively right it is. Now what is needed is much more of the same. Let us bring many more of the churched and unchurched together. Let us get them talking in measured and respectful ways. We have nothing to fear from open and respectful dialog and everything to gain. We are simply who we are. Yet almost all of us want to be listened to with respect. When we are not heard in a respectful way that is meaningful to us, the extreme cases can end up wreaking their vengeance in horrifying ways.
Look, I know it is not easy to listen. It is as hard for me as it is for you. Nonetheless, we need to make active listening a conscious and regular habit, particularly with people we are most prone to disagree with. Let us listen to each other with a kind and open heart. Let us find common connections with each other. There may or may not be a heaven in the hereafter. However, we can all agree that there is plenty to do in the here and now to make our world much better, kinder and gentler place.
Genuine dialog is the means to achieve this end. So step one is simply this: to listen.