9.02.2011

What Good Could A Christian Possibly Find In A Friendship With An Atheist?

The progressive religious culture site (and magazine) RELEVANT has posted an article ('My Friend, The Atheist') by C.R. Wiley, a Christian who has atheist friends. The writer discusses the many ways that his friendships with atheists have made him a better person, as well as how these relationships have shown him some of the shortcomings of his Christian friends.

It's a neat piece, not only for dealing with a very (ahem) relevant topic, but also for its willingness to say what many Christian writers will not say: a) that atheists aren't the horrible scum that they've been characterized as for so long, b) that Christians and atheists can be, and often are, good friends, and c) that atheists are often just as moral as Christians (or even more so).

I have to say that I do have some issues with the article (atheism is not a 'dehumanizing philosophy', for instance), but knowing that this is a Christian writing in a Christian magazine, I can overlook some of the mischaracterizations and simplifications and appreciate the author's effort to demystify atheism to his audience, and to encourage them to associate with non-believers.

The entire piece is worth your time, but I will highlight a few segments:
In my experience, atheists are more likely to know why they are atheists than theists are to know why they are theists. Even worse, atheists tend to have a better grasp of the basic tenets of the religions they reject than the adherents of those religions. It is all somewhat discouraging. 
* * * 
Atheists can be intellectually stimulating. Their distrust is the source of their critical sharpness. In a secondhand way, Christians can benefit from it. My wife's grandfather, a man educated at Harvard and Yale, once told me the danger of only listening to people we find agreeable is that we can nod ourselves to sleep. Keeping a few atheists for friends is caffeinating. I can be sure they will challenge my arguments. Like most people, I am a bit lazy. Atheists force me to think. 
* * *
My atheist friends have taught me compassion. Since atheists believe the universe began with a bang, but without the benefit of someone lighting the fuse, the second law of thermodynamics is their only guide as to how it will end. Everything will float apart in a cold eternal night. What difference does that make? The universe isn't going anywhere. It has no meaningful purpose. Since the world does not serve the will of God, atheists must find their meaning in their own willing.

As a non-believer, I have, at times, been that smug, condescending, cynic that tends to give atheists a bad name (in my defense, I usually only resort to this when others are using their faith to malign others or to impede progress). Lucky for me, I have some pretty awesome Christians in my life who have kept me in check when I have crossed a line (my non-believing friends have done so, as well). Many of my Christian friends and relatives are also, like me, liberal, compassionate, principled, and passionate about social issues.

I know many Christians that cringe at the behavior of other Christians who may exhibit a lack of compassion, and I know many non-believers who cringe at their fellow non-believers who exhibit this same lack. I have found that I often have more in common with progressive Christians than I do atheists (see John Shore), and I know many of my Christian friends have more in common with some non-believers.

It's a strange, polarized world we are living in. As the author of the above piece illustrates, each of us might benefit from allowing ourselves to be challenged by those who believe differently, by allowing ourselves to appreciate the positive aspects of other belief systems, and by working together to make progress on social issues.

I'd like to see more Christians defend their compassionate and principled atheist friends. And conversely, I'd like to see more non-believers defend their compassionate and principled Christians friends. At the end of the day, we all want progress.



5 comments:

  1. Nice piece. I agree we have much to learn from each other.

    You use the word "progress" as if we were going somewhere, as if there were some standard against which to measure distance. Christians believe that (mostly) but isn't CRW right that atheists don't?

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  3. Thank you for the comment.

    Most atheists absolutely do have a standard by which they define progress. Just like the word 'Christian' can describe a wide variety of people, so does 'atheist.'

    Most atheists, as CRW notes, have come to their non-belief due to a critical analysis of religion. Many have come to understand that morality does not require religion, and in some cases religious morality requires the maligning of groups of people.

    Atheists, humanists, etc. by and large are interested in the enhancement of human (and animal) well-being, the use of critical thinking, reason, and science to find solutions to human problems, and the upholding of human rights, regardless of gender, ethnicity, class, sexual orientation, or religion.

    This is what represents progress for most atheists, along with the rejection of dogma as the source for our morality or our laws.

    For the most part, it appears, most atheists and most progressive Christians would define progress in the same way.

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  4. When I got interviewed about a Christian-Atheist fundraiser I helped inspire/organize, the interviewer asked me if I thought it was remarkable that Christians & Atheists were working together. I said, "No. Christians and Atheists work together every day. What's remarkable is that people on the internet got along."

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  5. when living in NC, i encountered many people who were shocked when they learned i was an atheist. i even had one co-worker tell me that she was surprised at what a good person i was. it's funny that some christians don't realize that they are likely surrounded by agnostics, atheists, and at the very least, doubting thomas'. it's nice to be able to prove to others that you don't need religion to be compassionate and kind.

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