Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Atheists Should Meet Theists Where They Are At

[re-posted from November 2012]

We have a saying in social work: 'Meet them where they're at'. This means, essentially, that we know where this person needs to end up in order to be healthy, but they are currently participants in a lifestyle or worldview that only allows for gradual progress. Embrace the whole person, and pick your 'learning opportunities' wisely.

I endorse a version of this approach when it comes to interacting with the religious as well.

The difference between the version of this approach employed by atheists interacting with religious folks and social workers interacting with their clientele is first and foremost that a religious person is not necessarily unhealthy. In many cases, the religious person may be far healthier than the atheist. They may be far closer to self actualization, and performing far closer to their peak capacity. They may be more intelligent, happier, funnier, and kinder. Their worldviews are just couched in a falsehood.

The atheist has to ask themselves first and foremost, what can I learn from this other human being that I am interacting with? Their religious views do not discredit the entirety of their worldview, or reduce them to the content of their religious views. The first thing the atheist must do is to find what is human about the religious person they are interacting with. The faithful are often advised to 'look for god in the person', and this is essentially my advice, substituting the word 'god' for the phrase 'what is human'. Religion is a very human thing. It is an understandable human phenomenon. What leads a person to religious belief? Often it is a personal desire to have their life make sense in a holistic kind of way. Often it is the reaction to stress and uncertainty. Often it is simply a framework that is learned in childhood that evolves along with the person as they grow into adults. It is human, and it is something we as atheists should be able to identify with.

Why? Because we are meaning-seeking creatures too. Atheism, as I have discussed in the past on this blog, is not enough. We need more. In our own attempts to determine what that 'more' is going to be, we should be able to sympathize with folks who have discovered a 'more' that works for them, even if it is one that we view to be wrongheaded.

It is from the framework of the 'more' that we need to view our religious brothers and sisters. So they believe in a god and follow a religion. What does this god and religion compel them to do? Does it compel them to contribute to their community? Does it compel them to be kind to their families, their neighbors, and animals? If so, then their motivation should become secondary to their actions in our consideration.

If on the other hand, their religion can be seen to feed into negative and harmful traits, it will need to be confronted at its root. Religious views that lead people to view benign and natural human orientations like homosexuality as 'sinful', or views that advocate for the genital mutilation of children, or refusal to receive blood transfusions, or patriarchal and racist views, will need to be challenged.

First and foremost, we have to encounter each other as human beings, not as infidels in need of conversion or conquer. That M.O. is better suited to the religious fundamentalist than it is the atheist humanist.

I am writing this as much for myself as I am anyone else. I am a white male American. I live in the suburbs and am married to a woman. Atheism is one of the only traits that puts me in the minority. If there is anything that has become obvious lately, white male Americans living in the suburbs are uncomfortable being minorities. So perhaps in the past I have been overly aggressive (read: defensive) in my interactions with religious folks, and perhaps I've discounted many because of their beliefs. After I gave up religion, many of my friends went from being 'My friend ______' to 'My Christian friend ___________'.  That was wrong.

I don't believe in God. I am glad that people find cause to do good in their religion, but I think there are plenty of non-religious reasons to do good. I tend to believe that people do good because they are good, and that my religious friends--in spite of their insistance otherwise--would be good without god. Perhaps even better.

I also don't want to sound like I'm discouraging discussion. Discussion and debate are very important. I'm writing this--as much for myself as for anyone else--as a call not to lose sight of the human heart when approaching a person with a different outlook than your own. I can't tell you how many times I have heard my views cynically rationalized away by christians who would not allow for the fact that I have honestly arrived at the conclusions I have. I've been told I had made a choice not to accept God into my life. The idea that I had just discovered that there had never actually been such a divine invitation was just not something they could consider. I've been told I didn't properly understand christianity, and that is why I am an atheist. I've been told that I am 'taking the easy road'. All of these cynical responses to my belief system irk me, but really, how much more generous am I when considering the beliefs of the religious? Often, not much.

So yes, it would be great if all of this god nonsense was behind us. Evidence indicates that it's on its way to being so. In the meantime, however, do I really need to go around trying to beat it out of people? Leaving religion is a big deal, and it leaves a huge vacuum in a person's life. I can tell you this from personal experience. Is it responsible to try to take this core out of people and not stick around to help them rebuild something sturdier?

Better to seek common ground, I'm coming to believe. There are plenty of atheists out there whose sole concern is removing 'in god we trust' from our money, and making sure that there are no nativity displays on public grounds. I have much more in common with christians, jews, and muslims who are motivated to help the poor and homeless than I do these privileged misanthropes. Better to work with them--and my fellow atheist humanists also similarly focused--and actually make a meaningful contribution to the welfare of my fellow primates.

I'd rather role up my sleeves and build something with people looking in a common direction, and leave the theological discussions for pleasant post-project coffee talk.

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