It was billed as “A Discussion between Science and Religion about Origins,” but it was nothing of the sort. The scientist refrained from attacking the biblical account, but he kept stating that science demonstrated the earth to be billions of years old and that settled it. The pastor, defending the religious side of the discussion, would have none of it. He claimed that the Bible declared the earth to be about 6,000 years old, and that settled it. The two sides weren’t discussing anything. They weren’t talking to each other. They were talking past each other.
This, unfortunately, is characteristic of many—and probably most—discussions between Christians and atheists. It would be easy for religionists to blame atheists for the disconnect, but as the preceding example illustrates, both sides are to blame. On the religion side a study by the University of British Columbia found that religious people distrust atheists to roughly the same degree as they distrust rapists. Lead researcher Will Gervais said that “where there are religious majorities—that is, in most of the world—atheists are among the least trusted people.”
On the other hand, speaking about the July 2011 Japanese tsunami, best-selling author and atheist Sam Harris said, “Either God can do nothing to stop catastrophes like this, or he doesn’t care to, or he doesn’t exist. God is either impotent, evil, or imaginary.” Atheist Richard Dawkins, in his book The God Delusion, calls the God of the Old Testament “a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser” and a “capriciously malevolent bully.” And the late Christopher Hitchens devoted a whole book to the proposition that God is not great and that religion poisons everything.
So the question arises, is it possible for Christians and atheists to have meaningful conversations? I will begin by pointing out that this article is not about how public debaters can have meaningful conversations. These are usually a competition between contestants to see which one can be more persuasive with an audience. The purpose of this article is to discuss how individual Christians and atheists, or even small groups of Christians and atheists, can have meaningful conversations.
Realistically, in a polarized climate, engaging in these conversations can be risky. It will take some effort to make meaningful conversations possible. Following are some mistakes to avoid and some positive steps we can take that can help to make conversations between Christians and atheists meaningful.
Dialogue versus debate
The title of this article is “Christian-Atheist Dialogue.” The word dialogue is critical here. Dialogue suggests a respectful conversation, the purpose of which is to exchange ideas, inform each other, and clarify issues. Debate, on the other hand, is a competition, with each side trying to defeat the other, especially in the eyes of the onlookers.
So the first requirement for honest discussion is for each side to listen, really listen, to what the other person is saying. Truly listening can often help us quickly determine whether the other party really wants a conversation, whether they’re attempting to engage in debate, or whether they just want to mock and ridicule. Those three things are quite different, and the latter two are, regrettably, too often indulged in by parties on both sides of the question. As mentioned earlier, there are those who aren’t interested in engaging in a meaningful dialogue but want simply to defeat or demean the opposition. They don’t intend to listen or respond except to score debating points and/or to engage in mockery. Conversation is impossible in such cases.
Debates have their place, but a debate is not a conversation. In a conversation, two individuals build a relationship based on understanding; a debate is about persuading an audience. Most of us are not skilled debaters, nor do we wish to really engage in debate. Building a relationship based on understanding requires building trust by respectfully exploring the ideas we share and those on which we differ.
Understand first, then respond
Only by listening can we discover what the other person is thinking. Everyone wants to be heard. When we feel that we haven’t been heard, we become frustrated, and that can easily lead to resentment and the breakdown of a relationship.
Too often, instead of listening, we’re composing our reply in our heads while the other person is still talking. In so doing, we react rather than respond, going into debate mode without realizing it, getting ready to counter their statement rather than really understanding it. This often results in miscommunication because we’re responding to what we think the other person was saying instead of what he or she really said. One of Stephen Covey’s seven habits of highly effective people is, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”
An effective way to discover whether we’ve really heard what the other person said is to repeat back to them our understanding of what they said to us—but in our own words. For example, “What I hear you saying is such and such. Is that correct?” If we simply parrot back verbatim what the other person said, there’s a chance we may be attaching different meanings to the same words. By rephrasing it in our own words, we demonstrate whether we truly understood the other person’s meaning. And until that happens, no progress can be made.
Avoid harsh language
Dialogue involves give and take. It isn’t about one person setting the other straight. Saying “You’re wrong,” or “You’re mistaken” probably won’t be well received. The golden rule applies here: do to others what you would want them to do to you. If you don’t like it when others tell you that you’re wrong, why would they like it any better? Instead, you might say something like, “That’s not the way I understand it,” or “I don’t agree,” followed by, “I understand it this way,” or “This makes more sense to me.”
Facts versus assumptions
Many of the exchanges between Christians and atheists are about Creation versus evolution. While Signs of the Times® supports the Creationist viewpoint, we recognize that there are situations when conversations between the two sides need to take place, and it’s important that these conversations be respectful. And one way to achieve that is to keep in mind the assumptions that each side brings to the table.
Scientists base their conclusions on evidence that’s derived from observation with our five human senses—sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell—and they assume that these observations will lead to a correct understanding of life and the world we live in. This assumption is called naturalism. And it works! If you don’t think so, try taking a ride on an airplane!
Christians accept many of the conclusions that naturalism leads to, but their basic worldview is called supernaturalism—the assumption that there is a God, that He has revealed Himself in the Bible, and that the Bible’s history is true. Archaeology can provide evidence of certain parts of Bible history, but these are few and far between compared to the large number of stories (history) in the Bible. Thus, the Bible’s stories largely must be accepted on the basis of faith.
Even where both sides can agree that a historical event really happened, Christians must rely on faith to interpret the spiritual and theological insights that can be drawn from the story. For example, some atheists may agree that 2,000 years ago there was a man named Jesus Christ who was crucified by Roman soldiers—and there is some historical evidence to support that view—but the conclusion that He died to pay for the sins of human beings is strictly a matter of faith. No amount of observable evidence could prove that point.
It’s also important to understand that honest people on both sides of the question respect facts and evidence, and both sides take some things on faith—that is, they believe some things that can’t be demonstrated by observation. Many Christians accept the Bible’s story about the origin of our world by divine Creation to be true, but there’s no way to demonstrate this scientifically, because no humans were around to see it happen. On the other hand, scientists also have to rely on faith with their theories about the origin of life on Earth, whether it’s spontaneous generation from some primordial soup or transportation from outer space, and for the same reason: no humans were around to see it happen.
So for either side to start from the proposition that their position is based on fact while the other side is based on faith not only is mistaken but makes real dialogue impossible. The result is people talking past each other rather than to each other.
Respect versus ridicule
I’m probably correct in saying that each side would like to win the other side to its point of view, and there are instances of “conversions” in both directions. However, it’s critical to understand that beyond these occasional exceptions, neither side is going to accept the basic conclusions of the other side. The two worldviews are based on assumptions that are too contradictory. So in dialoguing with each other, rather than trying to persuade each other, it’s better to respect each other, recognizing that we humans are free moral agents who have the right to our beliefs and our approaches to knowledge.
Ridicule and disrespect are impossible to avoid in the world at large, but when Christians and atheists are engaging in a personal dialogue, respect is critical if they’re going to maintain friendships. And in today’s culture, where there’s an unfortunate amount of hostility between Christians and secularists, it’s critical that both sides do everything they can to keep tolerance alive and well.