WHY PLURALISM SHOULD MATTER TO ATHEISTS

Vlad Chituc
Research Assistant in Social Neuroscience at Duke U.
Blogger at NonProphet Status

Three years ago, Chris Stedman, my good friend and author of Faitheist, started the blog NonProphet Status. There was no venue for atheists to join in interreligious dialogue, so Chris created a space where believers and atheists alike could share their stories, humanize one another, and promote pluralism among conflicting voices.

I write this as someone relatively new to the idea; when I first met Chris I thought he was completely wrong. Now I write for his blog.

So allow me to briefly make a case for why atheists should engage in cooperative dialogue and action with liberal believers. You can read some of Chris’s thoughts here (and in his book), but while Chris’s roots are in outreach and service work, mine are in arguing on the internet, so I think I can provide a subtly different perspective.

Religion isn’t going away any time soon.  

Despite the rise of the “nones”—about 1 in 5 adults is now religiously unaffiliated—most are basically still religious. Even in the arch-liberal utopia, Sweden, only about 1 in 5 people actually believe that god or spiritual forces don’t exists. Even with the massive increase in nonreligious blogs, books, and organizations, the last five years has seen only 2% more of the population identifying as an atheist or agnostic. We can do everything right, it seems, and not even come close to matching the number of believers. So even the staunchest antitheist aiming to destroy religion is left with something of a Faustian bargain on social issues.  Leading me to my next point:

Like it or not, we need believers.

Secularism can’t be limited to atheists. It’s not something we like to admit, but progress on any important social issue requires the help of religious believers; we just don’t have the numbers. When it comes to the separation of Church and State, equal marriage rights for gays and lesbians, access to abortion and contraceptives for women, liberal believers are our necessary allies and friends. Six out of ten Catholics support gay marriage. Believers, like pro-life Joe Biden, still value secular policies that can even contradict their religious belief. Further:

Moral communities are great.

There’s really no way around it; believers are nicer and more civically engaged than we are. Putnam and Campbell, authors of the great sociological study, American Gracewrite that believers

volunteer at much higher rates for both religious and secular causes, give more money to religious and secular charities, and are roughly twice as engaged in their communities as comparable secular Americans. And they do more everyday good deeds: they’re more likely to donate blood, help someone find a job, give money to a homeless person, or even let a stranger cut in front of them.

This has nothing at all to do with theology, though. Atheists who attend church because of spousal commitments are just as likely as believers to behave charitably. Atheists lack the social structures that encourage us, so why not enter into a pluralistic one that is just as good as any other? But:

We’re right! You might respond.

Sure, but no one suggests you convert or shut up. We have to ask ourselves: What is the point of being right? Practically, an argument is much less helpful to the world than working together to solve a problem. No argument can affirm atheists’ shared moral standing and humanity the way shared outreach can. And if you aren’t trying to make the world a better place, what’s the point of arguing? It’s too easy to treat a debate as an opportunity to put someone down, rather than reach truth or do some good.

Rationally, you’re far more likely to convince a friend through argument than an enemy. Chris quotes Abraham Lincoln in his book, and the quote is more compelling than any relevant science I can reference:

A drop of honey catches more flies than a gallon of gal. So with men. If you would win a man to your cause, first convince him that you are his sincere friend. Therein is a drop of honey which catches his heart, which, say what he will, is the highroad to his reason. 

No one is advocating you never discuss religious issues or withhold criticism. Instead, approach these arguments as conversations based on mutual respect, not antagonism. So let me:                                                             

Sum up on being less radical.

Pluralism responsibly done and (necessarily) rooted in secularism can only be a good thing. We don’t need to embrace the homophobic, the racist, or the sexist to get along. It’s no coincidence that ostracized Muslims and tight-knit Hasidic Jews tend towards the extreme; for decades sociologists have been saying that beliefs out in the open become less radical. So, I encourage readers to treat progressives as our allies and our friends, rather than opponents to be crushed with our mighty Logic and Reason™.

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3 Responses to WHY PLURALISM SHOULD MATTER TO ATHEISTS

  1. Pingback: NonProphet Status » Blog Archive » In the Huffington Post: Why Pluralism Should Matter to Atheists

  2. David Roemer says:

    I made this post at the Huffington Post. It was deleted!!! Judge for yourself if it did not meet Huffington’s guidelines:

    Self-described atheists and agnostics think that believing in Heaven and Hell is irrational. Trying to define atheism and agnosticism metaphysically is futile. Sartre is an atheist, but he didn’t deny that God exists, so far as I know. There is a quote from him saying that the concept of God is contradictory. The concept of an infinite being (God) is indeed contradictory because of this question: What would motivate an infinite being to create finite beings? If it is not irrational to believe perfect fulfillment comes to us after we die when we are united with a transcendent reality (infinite being or God), then it is irrational to think so. Out of the irrationality of atheism comes all of the fanatical ideas of the 19th and 20th century: laissez faire capitalism, fascism, communism, imperialism, racism, nationalism, and eugenics. Out of these enthusiasms came genocide and war.

    This is the quote from Jean-Paul Sartre:

    “Thus the passion of man is the reverse of that of Christ, for man loses himself as man in order that God may be born. But the idea of God is contradictory and we lose ourselves in vain. Man is a useless passion.” (Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness: A Phenomenological Essay on Ontology, New York: Washington Square Press, p. 784)

    I interpret this to mean Sartre is admitting that God exists, that there is evidence for life after death (Christ and the Resurrection), and that life is meaningless if it ends in the grave. I am not criticizing Sartre’s decision not to believe in life after death. Faith is both a decision and a gift from God.

    However, I consider Sartre an atheist because he thinks believing in God is irrational. In my opinion, this is a neurotic response to prophetic revelation and Eastern mysticism. The evidence that Sartre suffered from such a situational neurosis is that he was a Marxist.

  3. timberwriath says:

    There’s really no way around it; believers are nicer and more civically engaged than we are.

    Nicer? That depends upon whose criteria you are using. Here in the US and other parts of the world there is a strong correlation between level of religiosity and the oppression of women and LGBT people. There’s also a good bit of nastiness aimed at religious minorities (including non-believers) by dominant faiths.

    I’ll happily take a civically unengaged non-believer over a religiously inclined, civically engaged homophobe/transphobe/misogynist who actively works toward the social and legal exclusion of disfavored minorities. Civically engaged bigots are also the people who actively try to impose their prejudices upon others. US politics is riddled with religious bigots who think the government is rightfully theirs and should serve as a means of imposing their prejudices upon those outside of their belief system. The political actions of US religious conservatives have served as readily visible examples of how a dominant religion can turn civic engagement into a tool of community and governmental violence.

    Thank goodness for the reprieve offered by the most recent election, which (ironically) was made possible, in part, by non-religious voters.

    Until the world’s dominant religions clean up their hateful aspects, I can do without the terrible consequences of their notion of civic mindedness. I have no complaints against believers who treat oppressed minorities with care and respect. Sadly, however, there are far too many religious believers who shit upon the reputation of religion by using their notion of the divine to justify hurting others. Providing resources to the needy is wonderful. Using your political and social power to deny resources and full citizenship to those who are hated by your religion is not.

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