I had a discussion with a friend the other day about the absence of civility on the Internet over disagreements about religion. Our observation was that, no matter whether you subscribed to a particular religion or no religion at all, there is little room for open discussion which respects the opinions of those with whom we disagree. There are probably a number of reasons this is the case, one of the biggest being the strong sense of safety felt behind a computer screen. I am convinced that 90% of people, when put in a situation where they must debate another face-to-face, would not use the same language or tone as they do when the engage in discussion (if you can even call it that) on the Internet. But the reality is that people today are passionate about what they believe (or don’t believe) and it would do society good to learn to have disagreements in a civil manner. The unfortunate truth is that Christians tend to be some of the most harsh and unforgiving debaters out there. It’s hard to tell someone about the love of Christ when you’re insulting them.
In a recent piece on The Guardian’s Comment is Free, Julian Baggini, a self-proclaimed atheist, made the first step toward reconciliation. And if all truth is God’s truth, then we as Christians could benefit from his lead. And if you’re already feeling uneasy that an atheist could teach Christians something about appropriate discourse then all the more do you need to hear these words. Consider it practice in learning to disagree gracefully.
Baggini’s intent is clear. “This manifesto is an attempt to point towards the next phase of atheism’s involvement in public discourse. It is not a list of doctrines that people are asked to sign up to but a set of suggestions to provide a focus for debate and discussion. Nor is it an attempt to accurately describe what all atheists have in common. Rather it is an attempt to prescribe what the best form of atheism should be like.”
You can read the full article over at The Guardian, but two of the rules in particular will be beneficial for Christians to hear. Though they all are important.
Religion is often our friend
We believe in not being tone-deaf to religion and to understand it in the most charitable way possible. So we support religions when they work to promote values we share, including those of social justice and compassion. We are respectful and sympathetic to the religious when they arrive at their different conclusions on the basis of the same commitment to sincere, rational, undogmatic inquiry as us, without in any way denying that we believe them to be false and misguided.
If you took the next ten minutes to look at an article written from the perspective of faith and another article written from the perspective of atheism the comment section would look quite similar. What you’re likely to find are detractors on either side focusing on unhelpful insulting and stereotyping. Atheists and Christians alike are guilty of this behavior. I find it quite commendable that Mr. Baggini wishes to recognize a better way to disagree. As he puts it with respect and sympathy. Neither of us must give up our beliefs, but we will do nothing to promote civility and beneficial discourse with mean-spirited and irrelevant stone throwing.
This manifesto is less concerned with distinguishing heathens from others than forging links between us and others
Our commitment to independent thought and the provisionality of belief means that few heathens are likely to agree completely with this manifesto. It is therefore almost a precondition of supporting it that you do not entirely support it. At the same time, although very few people of faith can be heathens, many will find themselves in agreement with much of what heathens belief. This is what provides the common ground to make fruitful dialogue possible: we need to accept what we share in order to accept with civility and understanding what we most certainly do not. This is what the heathen manifesto is really about.
Paul urges believers in his letter to the Ephesians to “make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.” I find that I am extremely sympathetic to anything that starts with what we have in common, rather than begins where we differ. This is certainly something Christians ought to be sympathetic when we read Paul’s words. We need to be reminded that God doesn’t just love Christians. He loves all people. Everywhere. Our common ground, Baggini rightly points out, is what makes fruitful dialogue possible.
To reiterate the point, all truth is God’s truth. I really believe that. And there is much truth and wisdom from Baggini’s atheist manifesto. Someone ought to write a Christian manifesto. And when they do I hope they affirm the mutual respect despite disagreement that our neighbors have already advocated for. I think we have good reason to believe it’s “what Jesus would do.”
featured image: reuters