If you were an external observer of the regular debates seen on the internet between religious people and atheists you would be forgiven for presuming that these two positions were the only places to stand. Antithetical arguments tend to use extremes as their currency and over simplification as their oxygen.
At the risk of being over-simplistic myself it sometimes seems as if Richard Dawkins and Pat Robertson share a common gene when it comes to absolutism.
Now I recognise that they are working from different models and they have conflicting world views but I often meet atheists who seem as equally embarrassed at some of the positions held by their leading scientific voice as I do about Rev Robertson, the Bishop of Broadcasting.
The media in general has a tendency to add to this antithetical positioning. Whenever they want to run a debate on any given subject they seemingly choose a crazy from the right and sit them down against a loose cannon from the left and ask them to argue; occasionally poking them with a stick-like question to make sure that the audience is entertained.
This gives the impression to the viewer that they can simply choose between either position A or stand B when they are asked to complete the electronic survey. At the end of the show the broadcaster then informs us that 86% of viewers who could operate a mobile phone or a mouse support a particular view: the presumption is of course that consensus makes it true.
The problem is that it doesn’t: and somewhere deep in the hard drive that we call a soul we know it. This style of debate, however, is now part of our conditioning and we (me included) are highly influenced by its charms and its simplicity.
This has several effects upon the way we debate on the internet and in general.
It has a tendency to make us prejudge the other person according to the group to which they belong. Atheists, after all, are part of a group that do not believe in the God that we Christians worship each week in our churches. In this regard surely their views are already wrong before they even express them. Indeed the neo-Calvinist might suggest that there is no imago dei present in them at all.
The Atheist in turn is more likely to be driven to dismiss the voice of ‘all’ Christians as intellectually challenged because they have seen a documentary about snake handling Pentecostals.
So we see the fuel that drives our need to engage in antithetical debate with the ‘other’.
The Nigerian author Chimamanda Adichie speaks in her TED talk about the danger of creating such single stories. As she travels the globe she is often struck by the over-simplistic view of her country held by the rest of the world, in particular the west. The recent abduction of over two-hundred school girls has received a similar treatment in the western media.
As shocking as the incident is, the media has presented a view that the Nigerian government has been primitively negligent in its slow response: this has a distasteful quality about it. As much as I would support the need to campaign for a better response you could almost be forgiven for thinking that Nigeria is somehow backward in their response compared to the forward thinking way that USA, UK, and European governments tend to act.
It doesn’t take long, however, to find shameful examples of our own shortcomings when it comes to the kind of behaviour we would demand of other countries. For example it wasn’t until 1991 that a man could be charged with the rape of his own wife in the UK; now which country seems backward. I will leave you to consider the frailties of your own nation in this regard.
This danger of creating a single story is all too influential when we come to entering moments of debate. We think we know what the other is like: as if the other is a single entity that can so easily be described. As if the other is so very different than we are.
At a distance these caricatures feel comfortable and allow us to offer soundbite responses that massage our own sense of belonging. I have often found myself doing this.
When you get closer to the ‘other’, in this case an atheist, you often find that they are not so different after all. I, as a fully signed up ‘believer’, have moments of doubt; in that sense I am sometimes agnostic.
On the other hand it is not unusual to hear an atheist confess to having moments of wonder and awe; sometimes using almost ‘spiritual’ language to describe them; they are perhaps agnostic too.
When we revert back to our debate we find ourselves settling into our predefined positions of theist and atheist, suggesting again that these are the only two places to stand.
In reality I am an agnostic who has intense moments of believing in God. This belief is not rooted in the emotionalism I associate with my pentecostal heritage but with a decision I made on May 18, 1975 to become a follower of Jesus Christ. I have come to learn that the promise is an anchor for the soul not certainty for the mind. It often depends upon the circumstances, and my state of mind, as to whether I see myself as an ‘agnostic who believes’ or a ‘believer who doubts’. I am grateful to the work of Pete Rollins for his work on this subject.
I wonder whether many of our atheists friends have similar thoughts. Perhaps they consider themselves to be agnostics who sometimes have intense thoughts about the possibility of there being a bigger story. Then they see examples of Christians behaving in strange ways and return to the safety of their atheism. Indeed it may be me that they look at; we all have the potential to seem odd to others.
Antithetical arguments tend to make us stand far apart from our perceived ‘opposition’ and often leave us with little opportunity for constructive learning.
If, however, we looked to find our commonality, perhaps in us both being at times agnostic, we might find a way of expressing what is most dear to us. If we Christians were more willing to confess our doubts then I wonder whether our atheist friends would be more able to admit their moments of wonder.
Do we Christians have enough faith to believe that God might meet us in the agnostic moments we share with others?