6. We Tend to Exaggerate About the Other Guy
Cyberpunk author Neal Stephenson wrote in one of his books - and this was probably just moments before the character was split in half by a robot weilding a samurai sword - that the only real sign of intelligence was the ability to detect subtlety.
Anybody can memorize facts. But you remain a clumsy, intellectual oaf of a person as long as you keep looking for sheer black and white in every situation. That's what's so frustrating about politics, the way everybody wants to paint the two parties as angels vs. devils. And if you just said to yourself, "Yeah! Those evil ________ are always trying to polarize us that way!" then, guess what, you just did the same thing.
So please, please, please, when we get into these atheist vs. Christian arguments, can the atheists stop acting like Christians want to abolish all science and live in grass huts? Just because some Christians reject the science on evolution, doesn't mean they reject all science.
I mean, give me a break. America has been full of Christians since the day we invaded it, and has been a scientific and technological freaking superpower. So please stop waving your arms and warning that if Christians get their way, we'll all be sacrificing virgins on altars and replacing surgeons with priests.
And Christians, will you please, pretty please, with sugar on top, stop implying that the atheist lifestyle is one long drug-riddled blood orgy? You take a country like Japan, where just 12% of the people say religion is important to their lives and yet have some of the lowest crime rates in the world.
Okay, so maybe Japan is a bad example. But it doesn't matter. To move on, we only need to agree that rejecting science on one subject doesn't mean you reject all science on all subjects, and that rejecting Christian morality doesn't mean rejecting all morality.
And if we agree that we tend to exaggerate about the other guy, can we also agree that...
7. We Tend to Exaggerate About Ourselves, Too
If you're like me, there's this weird process that happens when you encounter somebody who believes the opposite as you, especially when they're really pushy about it. You actually go the other direction. I secretly think the Yankees are good enough to win 80 games this year and maybe make the playoffs, the other guy snorts in my face and tells me they'll be lucky to finish last. I roar back that they're going to win 100 and take home the title.
It's like that other guy is so irritating, I want to position myself further away. Or maybe it's like haggling over the price of a used car, you start low so that once the compromise happens, you'll be closer to your end than his.
It's often the same thing here. It looks like this:
"I believe the Bible is true."
"There is no evidence that this one religious text is any truer than other texts like it."
"EVERY LETTER IN THIS BOOK IS ETCHED DIRECTLY FROM THE HAND OF THE ALMIGHTY AND ANY ONE SYLLABLE CAN REDUCE ALL OF THE WORK OF ALL THE WORLD'S SCIENTISTS TO RUBBLE!"
"YOUR BRAINWASHED DEVOTION TO A RIDICULOUS BOOK OF SUPERSTITIOUS LIES HAS DESTROYED CIVILIZATION AND KILLED BILLIONS!!!!"
In reality, there are very few Christians who do or even try to follow the Bible exactly, including all the obscure rules about church women staying silent and hatted. Word of God or not, the faith changes, adapts with the times. That is, in fact, the entire point of Christianity. Jesus was a reformer, and set that precedent. It continues to this day, it's what I like about it.
Now Christians hate to admit that, because it opens the door for the other guy to say, "See! If it's not the word of God then you admit it's all a big pile of fly-ridden crap and that atheism is the one true belief system!" So, the Christian digs in and pretends they've never experienced a moment of religious doubt in their lives.
Conversely, atheists like to pretend they're islands of pure, rational thought in a sea of wild-eyed craziness. But we all have a little crazy in our world, and we all depend on some fantasy that floats outside the boundaries of cold reason.
Atheists still tell their girlfriends they "love" them, and not that they simply feel a psychological artifact of a biochemical bond generated by the mating instinct. They still refer to their "mind" as if it's something more than chemical switches. And remember what we talked about with "justice" and "right" and "wrong." None of it is scientific.
Even weirder? Free will. Remember, to a neuroscientist, free will is every bit as real as the Tooth Fairy. They can watch your neurons light up at the moment you make moral decisions, can trace the exact electrochemical pathways. If there is nothing beyond the physical, then your ability to choose your actions vanishes along with God and Heaven and the angels. It was an atheist professor who told me that, in a class on ethics.
Two days later, he told me if I was ever late to class again, he'd knock 100 points off my grade.
To deter me from being late in the future.
As if I had the free will to be late or on time.
So we all got those contradictions, that's my point. None of us are 100% on board.
You don't have to admit this one out loud. I know you lose debate points for it. Just keep reading if you agree.
8. Focusing on Negative Examples Makes You Stupid
That guy, the "God Hates Fags" guy who runs the protests I mentioned back on the first page? Fred Phelps? His church (Westboro Baptist) has become world famous for those dickish demonstrations.
Which is amazing, considering that the "church" is made up entirely of Phelps' family and a few friends. That's it. And they're world famous, mainly because atheists looooooove to hold them up as an example of what dicks Christians are. When you need an icon of intolerance, they're as useful to have around as Hitler.
And please don't come at me with the, "Christians hate Phelps because they know he's saying out loud what they're secretly thinking! They secretly hate homosexuals just as much!"
Please. The White House and Congress and the Supreme Court are full of Christians, always have been. If all Christians thought like Phelps, American gays would be in concentration camps. There'd be nobody to stop it.
Smearing all Christians with Phelps' bile is a cheap shot, like saying all atheist schoolkids are potential Columbine shooters. At worst, that kind of stereotyping is dehumanizing and divisive. At best, it's a recipe for mediocrity.
I compare myself to the worst so that I don't have to try to be the best. I can spend all day on my sofa, playing Wii Boxing and helping no one, and I'll still be a better man than Phelps. But I think we've got to shoot higher here.
It's just another form of hypocrisy, and if there's one thing we can agree on, it's that hypocrisy sucks.
We're almost done here.
Now, if only we can agree that...
9. Both Sides Have Brought Good to the Table
Okay, bear with me here.
Christians, I'm not saying that atheists have brought good things to the world by telling people not to believe in God. I'm talking about the thing that drives atheism, the philosophy behind it.
I'm talking about rationalism. I'm talking about the philosophy that started saying, centuries ago, that it's not demons that cause disease. It's microbes, and genetic defects, and chemistry. And that we can find those causes and we can find cures. Cures in the physical world, without consulting the priest, without going through a ceremony.
Think about what I said before. If atheism is wrong, it's only wrong in that it takes rationalism too far, beyond the edges of the universe. But you don't have a problem with the rationalism itself. There are people you love who would not be alive without it. You can pray that grandpa's heart holds out for another year, but rational thinking invented the pacemaker.
So even if you detest atheism, you can at least agree that it grew out of something good.
Atheists. You hate wars. You hate genocide, you hate iron-fisted dictators who line up peasants and jump over them with monster trucks. You hate it when corporations steal your money, and when fat suburbanites will let a million Africans starve before they'll donate. You hate guys who treat women like lifeless sex dolls, guys who lie and leave.
You hate all of that, because you know that the ability to have empathy for other humans (even those who don't benefit us) is the only thing that separates us from the cockroaches. And when that fails, it's terrifying and awful in countless ways.
In the middle of a religious debate, you may say that religion and superstition are the prime evil in human society. But you look behind it, and you'll find that other monster is bigger. Humans doing the opposite, acting like animals. Treating other humans as nothing but engines for their own pleasure.
Religion - whether it was handed down by God or just invented by a bunch of guys- serves mainly to fight that. It makes humanity sacred, and the moral law moreso. You can hate the methods it uses, you can say that there are other ways, you can say that it only replaces one cancer with another. But most of what it's trying to get you to do - treat other humans as sacred and put morality above your own impulses - you already do. And you criticize religion mainly for not doing it.
You're going to come back here and say that you're not criticizing that part of religion, the concept of things being sacred, or morality, or any of that flowery stuff. It's the intolerance and manipulation and superstition and ignorance you hate, the zealots demanding evolution be stripped from the textbooks.
But from the Christian's point of view, when you attack one, you attack the other. The story of Christianity (or mythology, if you prefer) is bound to the morality. Humanity is sacred because were were planted here in a six-day act of divine intervention. Lying is wrong because God said so. You should work to preserve a marriage because God made that bond sacred with Adam and Eve.
So when you attack that mythology, Christians hear you attacking the morality along with it. And that is why they fight so hard for it.
Seriously, what did you think the creationism thing was about? It's about keeping humanity sacred. They think that once you dash the idea of a created humanity, then there'll be nothing to stop strong humans from treating weak ones as cannon fodder.
And logically, there won't be anything. You can't defend morality with logic. Once you explain it away as an artifact of the genetic herd instinct, well, hey, we've got the genome mapped out, right? Couldn't we just cut that morality gene right out of there?
If you're saying, "But that would be retarded! The world would go down the toilet if we did that!" Guess what, that's just your morality gene talking. Your objection is merely based on a genetic disposition toward social behavior, and can be ignored with the proper genetic changes.
Do you see how weird this gets? There's no logical conclusion to it, it just gets more and more strange. So what's their motivation to go that way?
After all, you know as well as I do that there are two kinds of people who attack Christianity: those who love rationalism, and those who just have a knee-jerk reaction to being told what to do. You've got people who are right for the wrong reasons, and others who are wrong for the right reasons, and some who are right for the right reasons and others who are wrong for the wrong reasons.
It's like all my friends are with me on the beach, looking out at the ocean. Half of them look at the water and say:
"This is Oceanis, the living Blue God! He is sacred!"
While the other half say,
"Here is a convenient place to dump our sewage."
The truth has to be somewhere in between.
Whew. Last one, for the people who are still reading. Can all zero of you agree that:
10. You'll Never Harass the Other Side Out of Existence
Remember when I said that, when somebody comes on too strong, no matter what they're selling, we tend to run the other way? I mean, sure, the "God Hates Fags" guy has changed tens of thousands of minds. But not in the direction he intended.
People are not convinced that way. The sarcasm, the disdain, the laughter. It makes you feel better, and rallies your friends, but it does exactly nothing to change minds on the other side. Conservatives may like to read Ann Coulter, but nobody else does.
No, in reality, if changing minds is your thing, there's only one way to do it:
Lead by Example.
There's a thing the church has been doing for centuries, that I don't think it can do any longer. It goes like this:
"Jesus is the son of God."
"How do I know that?"
"Because if you don't know that, then you will burn in Hell for eternity."
No. Uh-uh. If you want people to live their life in a certain way, based on a certain fact, you can't substitute a threat for evidence.
You have to lead by example.
Atheists, same thing. you want to show me that atheism is the key to a balanced, satisfying, confident life? Show me.
Trust me, if they introduce a new energy drink tomorrow and I observe that everybody who drinks it suddenly can dunk a basketball from their knees, I'm going to notice. So will everyone else.
That drink will be unstoppable.
So if you want to criticize the Christians' intolerance, then be tolerant. Show them how it's done. Shame them with your tolerance. You won't have to say they're awful. They'll look awful by sheer comparison to you.
And don't show up in a room full of Christians and start making fun of their taboos, immediately talking about boobs or whatever, as if the only reason people adhere to a rule is out of fear of experiencing the awesomeness of breaking it. You've got taboos, too. All of you. Things you don't like to see or hear in polite conversation. This is the internet, I can show you the pictures.
Be tolerant. Lead by example.
Both of you.
And don't think of it as a tactic to win converts. Think of it as common courtesy.
David Wong is the Senior Editor of Cracked.com and the author of the dongtacular horror novel John Dies at the End.
For more questionably helpful advice from David, see How the Karate Kid Ruined the Modern World or 7 Reasons the 21st Century is Making You Miserable.