Missed Part One? Read it here.

http://blog.seattlepi.com/hottopics/files/library/472alsolost.jpgAs an “evangelical atheist” who’s heavily involved in interfaith work, I’m hugely inspired by my friend Greg Damhorst (co-founder of Faith Line Protestants), who faces very similar challenges as an evangelical Christian who’s strongly committed to both interfaith work and sharing the message of his faith. So I asked him for his thoughts on evangelism, interfaith, and Christina’s piece.

In our discussion, Greg made the excellent point that “there’s a difference between fighting to preserve a non-Christian religious tradition and respecting it. As a Christian,” he continued, “I’m interested in the latter (respecting others) and not the former (preserving other traditions) because I believe (a) that all people deserve respect and (b) in the exclusivity of the Bible.”

I think this is perfectly parallel to the way an evangelical atheist like myself ought to approach religion, the religious, and interfaith work. Like Greg, I believe that all people deserve respect; but, like Greg, I also think I’m right about the god question. I think I can easily respect somebody while explaining what I believe and why. If I couldn’t do that, I could never engage in academic discussions in my seminars at school, or converse about politics, or talk to anybody, ever, basically. The way I see it, we must respect people, but we need not respect theories.

So I hope I’ve shown that both of the goals Christina outlines for various constituents of the atheist movement are perfectly compatible with interfaith work. But the issue of respect, brought up by Greg, brings us to the question of tactics.

Christina implies that “confrontationalism” – which she defines as “arguing with believers about religion, or making fun of it, or insulting it” – might hurt the cause of reducing discrimination against atheists, but won’t necessarily hurt the cause of persuading people out of religion. Again, I’m not going to discuss effectiveness in this post; although I’m skeptical that yelling insults at people is likely to change their minds, let’s assume for the moment that it might. What interests me now, for the purposes of this discussion, is what tactics are appropriate for an evangelical atheist in interfaith work.

As a lifelong lover of both Oscar Wilde and The Onion, I desperately want to believe that there is a place for humor and satire in the marketplace of ideas – even when those ideas concern the supernatural. When you’re trying to use those tools without violating the respect principle, the distinction between people and theories becomes key. I think “arguing with believers about religion” is totally fair game, and “making fun of” religion can be fair game too – as long as you don’t cross the line into “making fun of” the religious. Attack theories; respect people. That’s the mantra I try to live by.

Greg suggests other reasons why even the most passionate evangelical might want to avoid “confrontationalism” of the sort Christina advocates. He treats people of different worldviews with respect, “not because I think others’ theological opinions are just as valid as mine,” but because it’s “the Christ-like thing to do.” And, I would add, it’s the kind thing to do. And one way I practice my Humanism is by trying to just be a kind person (while still unashamedly defending my other values and beliefs).

On a related note, Greg remarks that “interfaith dialogue gives me a platform for telling the WHOLE story of my faith, which is not the story that the criticism-yelling, self-righteous folks are telling.” Hear, hear! To me, being an atheist and a Humanist – even an evangelical one – doesn’t just mean telling everyone why I don’t believe in the supernatural and they shouldn’t either; it also means demonstrating Humanist values by putting them into practice in my own life.

Greg is frustrated with Christians who are so concerned with criticizing non-Christians that they forget to act like Christians. I feel the same way about my fellow atheists and Humanists sometimes. If we all spent less time bickering about where to put our next “Good without God” billboard, we might have more time to actually be good people.

So whatever your beliefs, don’t be afraid to share them with the world – but don’t get so caught up in the sharing that you forget to practice them in your own life. Be loud if you want, but try to be good, too.

Chelsea Link is a senior at Harvard University, studying History and Science with a focus in the history of medicine. She recently founded and currently writes for two other blogs, The Unelectables (following religious minority candidates in the 2012 election) and Blogging Biblically (documenting her attempt to read the Bible in a year). She is the Vice President of Outreach of the Harvard Secular Society, the former President of the Harvard College Interfaith Council, and a Volunteer Ambassador for the Be the Match bone marrow donor registry. She likes to cook while pretending she’s on Top Chef (hasty breakfast? more like Quickfire Challenge!), adores word games of all kinds (and was once the President of the illustrious Harvard College Crossword Society), and tends to kill the mood at parties by unnecessarily reciting Shakespeare. Last summer, she interned at the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard. You can ask her what she’s doing after graduation, but she’ll give you a different answer every time.

10 Responses to “Confessions of an Evangelical Atheist: Part Two”

  1. Yewtree Says:

    Religion is not synonymous with theism. There are plenty of people who practice a religion or spirituality but don’t believe in God. They do it because they gain benefit from meditation, community, etc. Examples include non-theist Pagans, Quakers, Buddhists (pretty much all buddhists are non-theist), Unitarians, Unitarian Universalists, and cultural Jews.

    So when you are talking to a religious person, don’t assume they believe in God.

    And don’t assume that all religions think their tradition is the only one that’s right, either. Many liberal religionists assume that their tradition is an outgrowth of their particular culture and history, and therefore other cultures will have a different perspetive, and that’s just fine. One can spot parallels in other spiritual traditions that reinforce practices and symbolism in one’s own tradition; this is affirming and not threatening.

  2. Chelsea Link Says:

    Good points, Yewtree. In this post and the last one, I’m basically using religion to mean “belief in the supernatural” – which I think is what Greta Christina probably means by it, too. I should have been clearer about that in my post. I was hoping that my meaning would be clear from context and so I could avoid a lexical tangent, but it would have been more responsible of me to define my terms explicitly.

  3. Chelsea Link Says:

    P.S. I am definitely in favor of non-religious people getting the benefits of religious communities, as you mention. But I think we should be able to do that without using labels and structures traditionally associated with religion and/or theism and/or the supernatural. That’s why I’m a big fan of the work that the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard does – check it out at http://harvardhumanist.org/.

  4. cris Says:

    Firstly, thank you for your thoughtful posts, I have been enjoying them. I am sorry to nitpick, but I see this all the time and, well, grrrrrr. Your use of the word “theory” is incorrect thorough out. A theory is an explanation that has yet to be disproven. Also, to even be a valid hypothesis (the proposed explanation, the step before theory), the proposed explanation must capable of being disproven. There is really no such thing as a religious theory as most religious explanations cannot even be disproven (as in “god did it”).
    It is fine to argue against religious ideas and proposed explanations, but to call them by the name of “theory” waters down the word “theory” to point of useless.
    It is the geeky scientist in me that rankles when I hear people throwing about “theory” where it oughtn’t to be used, especially since it can lend credibility to religious ideas :)
    That all said, Thank you for your voice on this blog. I was about to unsubscribe until I read your posts!

  5. Chelsea Link Says:

    Cris, you make an *excellent* point. This is one of those confusing instances where the same word is used scientifically and colloquially with very different meanings. The geeky scientist in me is probably just as frustrated as you are when ultra-conservative religionists abuse this dual definition, for example, to say that evolution is “just a theory,” obviously without understanding what a scientific theory is.

    So, yes, I get you completely. But – and I mean this with completely sincerity, not at all as a snotty retort – do you have a better idea? I’m kind of stuck because I can’t think of a good synonym for the colloquial usage of “theory.” None of the thesaurus suggestions seem to me to have the same connotations as those that come with the word “theory” as commonly used outside of scientific contexts. I would love to hear any suggestions you have, though!

    Thanks for the kind words and the thoughtful comment!

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    [...] community (though there do seem to be some anomalies, like my co-blogger, Chelsea Link, who wrote a great and nuanced post just recently about evangelical atheists being involved in interfaith [...]

  8. Cris Says:

    Chelsea, Perhaps I have just been surrounded by the science community, but it has become very rare for me to hear “theory” used in any other term than a yet-to-be-disproven hypothesis, so I hadn’t htought about alternatives really…
    I think when people throw about the word “theory” they are really saying “possible explanation”, so I personally use the terms “ideas”, “possible explanations” and “world views”, unless of course it is when many religious people refer to a particular theory (such as, “I have a theory that God cures cancer, or creationist “theory”), in which case, because theya re putting forth a testable explanation, I would use the word “hypothesis” when feeling polite and “untenable hypothesis” when feeling snarky : )

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