By: Gary Conway & Brett Geisel
This regularly-occurring series trades on the notion topics of religion, especially in a theist vs. atheist context, are interesting. For those who grew up in the church and have left or happily remain immersed, the following dialogue will at some point elicit a strong response. Good. This series also intends to dispel the myth often held by textbook atheists that people who believe in God are naive, dumb, and defenseless. And, for the theists, to show not all atheists are bitter, had a bad experience in church, or are in a stage they just need to grow out of.
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Many self-proclaimed intellectual atheists and genuine ones, too, are able to hold their own in arguments championing the absurdity of religion and spirituality. And many self-proclaimed theist intellectuals and genuine ones, too, are able to defend their faith using thoughtful, robust arguments. The Spectator Tribune will only narrate this conversation and ensure both parties play by one rule: No fisticuffs.
After a bit of a hiatus, I am back and ready to discuss! Hope you are still keen to explore some of the issues our differences present!
This week I would like to talk about Christian groups such as the Westboro Baptist Church and their behaviour, which to my mind is hateful and repugnant. I was wondering what you felt about being associated with such groups just by being a Christian, and whether you consider these types of groups to actually be a part of your faith. Considering that I have always viewed forgiveness and acceptance a cornerstone of Christianity – in theory if not always in practice – is there a place in religion for such hateful activities?
Glad you are back. I personally know of no Christian, and I grew up with some fairly conservative Baptists, who would condone the words and actions of the Westboro Baptist Church, even if they believe that same sex relationships are morally wrong. I certainly cannot condone them and see them as first and foremost arising from hate and impotence. I do affirm the ability of any group to call themselves ‘Christian.’ I do also believe in a final judgement where we are called to account and that we will be judged by our love and action for justice for those most in need, most marginalized in our society. It is, therefore, hard not to believe that the Westboro Baptist Church is in for one hell of a time, excuse the pun.
I must confess, though, that I find the need of atheists to resort to worst-case religion as their fall-back position a little disingenuous. While there are certainly many moral, just and loving persons in your ranks we also find venom and hate from Bill Maher to Christopher Hitchens et. al., who create straw men of their opponents positions and have at times called for the extermination of peoples. They also fail to deal with the reality of atheist politics known in the 20th century as Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s USSR, and Mao’ China. It should also be noted that these atheists were definitely not amenable to homosexuality. Accordingly, I must ask you how you can accept them as atheists? Likewise, based on our previous discussions the (non)acceptance of homosexuality is clearly a hot button issue for you. Based on your atheism and your evolutionary theory (survival of the fittest to keep both my own and my species genes going), how do you justify a societal acceptance of homosexuality?
I have never thought of myself as belonging to a group of people who call themselves atheists, so I have never really associated myself with Hitler, Mao, Stalin et. al., in any way other than as a human being. Also, atheism has no defining document that binds all who disbelieve together whereas Christianity does. I presume that Westboro Baptists use the same bible as you when defining their faith. I find it fascinating that two such divergent philosophies could come out of the same basic text, and was looking to get your reaction to that – I wasn’t really trying to paint you with the same brush I use for Westboro Baptists, just wanting to pick your brain about how you felt about them.
As far as evolution and homosexuality are concerned, I don’t really think there is a need to justify. Homosexuality has always been a part of humanity, and hasn’t really seemed to impact evolution in general. Perhaps if a greater number of people out there were into same sex partnerships it would be different, but it is not. I also do not consider evolution to simply be a matter of survival of the fittest. Certainly I believe that we as a species have evolved beyond that, to a point where we can accept all types of lifestyles and difference. Homosexuality in this instance is no different than a heterosexual couple deciding not to have children. After all, with seven billion people to spread around genetic material there has to be enough DNA being passed on to promote evolution regardless of whether or not everyone is having babies.
I would assume that you would hold that there is at least a minimum coherence to a philosophical theory like atheism or a theory of origins like evolution, even if the traditions, and there are definitely developing traditions, have no ‘founding document’ comparable to the Bible? When we espouse a specific position we are sadly burdened with both the best and the worst of that position’s history.
Just as Christians must account for and regularly repent of the horrors of its history, so must atheism, despite the unwillingness of atheists, acknowledge its own. But the misuse or the extremism inherent in both, in the history of both of our positions does not inherently undermine them, but rather points to what I referred to earlier as humanities fatal flaw, brokenness and sin. Therefore my point about evolution and homosexuality is to make clear that if taken at a base level we may be able to make a case that homosexuality is dangerous to our evolution as species, and if a theory of evolution is understood to have significance outside of a very limited historical account of life, if it makes it into the moral life of humanity, it may have serious consequences, like homosexuality is unnatural and immoral. We can see this kind of extension in, as I asserted earlier, Nazi ideology for example. As yet I do not see how such an extreme argument can be refuted within the context of the theory itself. It must be augmented by a moral account which again will require some form of foundation, like a secular humanism which took most of its tenants from Christianity.
I find these limit pushing cases on both sides abhorrent. But my point earlier still stands, we are both stuck with groups that are part of our history simply by the world view we espouse, and changing our world view will not let us escape guilt by association. The ability of the Bible to remain at the centre of the life commitments of so many people over such a long time span is precisely its interpretability, or as Jacques Derrida might say, its internal resources for self deconstruction. I can, therefore, argue and even condemn the Westboro Baptists from within the biblical framework. The meaning of the Bible will remain a question of contested truth as each generation confronts the challenges of its times, and yes this is inherently dangerous, but also vital in terms of its continuing relevance to humanity, and vital in terms of life giving.
While I agree that atheists are bound together by a common disbelief, there is no foundational morality or belief system that binds us as a group. The minimum philosophical coherence that you refer to is simply the lack of belief in a deity – hardly a compelling relationship. Hitler probably also believed that the Earth rotates around the Sun, but that does not really link us in a significant way. I guess you could argue that the only thing really linking you with extremists like Westboro is belief in Jesus Christ, and I truly believe that you have very little in common with such morally bankrupt individuals. I just wonder how you arrived at such a differing philosophy, even though as you say the bible is open to many differing interpretations.
As far as using the theory of evolution to refute the viability of behaviour outside the norm, I would say that any scientific theory is replete with exceptions to what would be considered average. This is how evolution works. Small changes are made genetically and then either grow throughout the population or do not. Some of these changes grow and become dominant genetic markers. Some remain a small subset. Change and differences in behaviour, physical prowess, etc. are what evolution is all about – even if these changes would appear to be contrary to “survival of the fittest”. Morality in this case has nothing to do with it. Difference simply exists without being either good or bad. Without difference, evolution would never work.
Your question is certainly a fair one and we often ask ourselves, but I believe it cuts both ways. I am suggesting that in a human context all knowledge and understanding have at some level a moral implication because we are meaning-creating animals. Treating science and technology as outside the realm of moral thinking has resulted in some absolutely horrifying consequences.
Therefore, if I hate I will find ways to justify my hate. The example of the LGBT community given above bears this out, if I hate and focus this hate on them I can find a justification, religiously or not. One cannot approach the Bible, just as one cannot do science without a set of presuppositions that guide your work and effect what we can and cannot see. This makes all knowledge contestable, which is at some level the very basis of science, and thank God that is the case or we would be in big trouble in both areas of human endeavour.
I would contest that atheism is not a positive belief in the sense of having wide ranging and shared beliefs with moral and meaning-making implications. These implications may not be evaded so easily. If this is not true, then why bring together atheism and humanism? Why discuss atheism at all and not just make the case for a strong humanism that transcends religious belief, without the need to eradicate it? The answer is that without a supplement such as humanism, the meaning- making implications of both atheism and evolutionary theory are nihilistic. In other words, they are meaningless and can be quite dangerous, at least as dangerous as fundamentalist religious belief.
If you are interested in participating in future theist & the atheist entries, please contact Spectator Tribune at firstname.lastname@example.org
Brett Geisel is Winnipeg writer, father and, perhaps, atheist zealot (we’re not sure yet).
Gary Conway is a Winnipeg-based writer, theologian, and a fun guy to share a pint with.