The war that's coming between the fundamentalist Christians and the hard-core Atheists probably won't be the most violent of the holy wars. But it has the potential to be the most annoying. Well, I'm going to try to stop it.
So I'm running into this guy basically everywhere I go:
Not that exact guy. People like him. I recognize the type, I had to spend the whole first half of my life around the Christian version of those guys, people who worked it into every conversation. But now I'm running into these really aggressive, sort of evangelical atheists. Ever since 9/11/2001, in fact. The exact day a whole lot of atheists decided this religion thing had to go before it killed us all.
These things never end well.
But I think we've got more common ground than we admit. For instance, both my atheist and Christian friends (I seem to have an equal number of both these days) tell me they agree with the following statement:
Celebrating the death of somebody you disagreed with pretty much makes you a dick.
I doubt anybody reading this has ever waved a snarky sign at a funeral, so I think we're pretty much all in the same boat still. See? Common ground.
So how about this: I'm going to throw out a few of these statements - things I think we have to agree on if we want to avoid disaster - and you can read until you see something you disagree with. We'll see how long we can make it last.
Why? Because something's brewing. I wander around my local Barnes & Noble and they've got a whole special table set aside:
I go home, log into one of my favorite forums and one guy's got this as his avatar:
And another dude has this:
So I retreat to my own forums, and find out turbo evangelist Jerry Falwell had died that day. The reaction?
I mean, that thing I said I said earlier about not celebrating the death of somebody you disagree with... that still counts for a bitter, uncompromising old fart like Falwell, right? We're civilized people. We can celebrate him changing his mind, or even celebrate him being made to look like a fool in public.
But you start cheering his death, you've walked away from the one single baseline every remotely moral person has ever agreed on: the value of human life. And I know we all agree on that, because we can all think of people we could've otherwise stabbed and gotten away with it.
And sure, there may be a few of my atheists out there saying that what Falwell was spewing was so hateful, that it surely inspired some murders (of homosexuals or abortion doctors or whatever) and that he thus deserved death on those grounds.
But you don't want to live by that rule; you'll wind up in a world where gangsta rappers and video game programmers and political commentators and novelists are considered worthy of death just because some fans claimed their work inspired them to kill. That's the sort of thing a nut from the other side would say. Right?
No, people got to have the right to express themselves, good, bad and ugly. Falwell had a family. Friends. He was a human being. You cheer over his corpse and you're just acting like a pecker.
And that's another thing both sides agree on, that we hate this modern trend toward peckerfication. So let's see what else we agree on...
(NOTE: Per international regulations governing all online religious debate, we are required to insert on each page humorous and inflammatory image macros such as the one below. To prove my objectivity, these have been carefully chosen as to be equally offensive to all belief systems. -MGMT )
1. You Can Do Terrible Things in the Name of Either One
We're putting aside the question of which belief system has killed more people by percentage of population, or whether a hypothetical world without religion would have seen fewer or more genocides than ours. We're not going to open a spreadsheet and try to count which belief system manufactures more murderous sociopaths per capita.
All I need from you is agreement that it's entirely possible for either an atheist or theist world to devolve into a screaming murder festival. The religious leader sends his people into battle because he thinks God commanded it, the Stalins and Maos of the world do the same because they see their people as nothing more than meaty fuel to be ground up to feed the machinery of The State. In both cases, the people are equally dead.
Yeah, yeah, I know the Christians are saying that the guy who fights an unjust or needless war is violating God's law, and thus isn't a good Christian. Meanwhile, the atheists are saying that Stalin was merely bloodthirsty, separate and apart from his disbelief in a higher power. Both believe, then, that it is a corruption of their belief system that allows unjust slaughter to happen.
But for this project, All we need to agree on is this: it happens in both cases. And if the opposing belief system vanished tomorrow, war and bloodshed and terror would still take place.
And can we further admit it's actually physically impossible to calculate whether, if your side had its way, the volume of terrible things happening would go up, or down, or stay the same? I know you have an opinion on that, and I can guess what it is. But we don't know, and can't state it like it's fact. Right?
Everybody still on board?
Good. Can we now also agree...
2. Both Sides Really Do Believe What They're Saying
Christians do this thing that drives atheists nuts, where they talk like God is patently obvious to all mankind, and that atheism is therefore just petty, intentional rebellion against Christians. In other words, that atheists don't honestly believe what they say, and just say it because they're jerks.
But atheists do something very similar, particularly when a Christian says:
"Only the saved go to Heaven!"
...and what the atheist hears is:
"I want everyone else to go to Hell!"
It's the same thing, thinking that deep down Christians don't really believe this is the law handed down by a creator, and therefore Christianity is just a petty, intentional rebellion against the non-Christians of the world. In other words, that Christians don't honestly believe what they say, and just say it because they're jerks.
But all that is just a way to make cartoon villains out of the people who disagree with us. And if we stop and think about it, we'll see it's asinine.
Atheists, you know that Christians have freaking died because they refused to walk away from what they believe. That goes beyond simple human stubbornness. I mean, I can tell you first hand. I was raised in a Pentecostal church (like the one they visited in the Borat movie).
I soured on the whole religion thing in my teens, as you can probably imagine, and then came back to it later kind of on my own terms. From that experience I can relay this fact: If there's no God, then there is something in the human brain that can and does present an amazingly realistic impression of one. A gland, an artifact of environmental pattern recognition, whatever you want to pin it on, the result is, at certain times and in certain moods, as tangible and real and distinct as the person sitting across from you on the subway.
You can say they're wrong. You can say it all day, you can etch "YOU'RE WRONG" into the surface of the moon with a giant laser. But you'll have a lot less angst if you remember that the thing they're wrong about is something they honestly believe, down to their roots. I guess you could just call them crazy, but it's a little silly to use that word when believers are the norm in human population.
But either way, it's not something they intentionally chose just to annoy you.
Christians, same deal. Every one of you have got friends and family who aren't believers. And I bet some of them are good people. Earnest people, thoughtful people. Charitable. Kind.
So... doesn't that kind of kill the premise that these people are avoiding God out of sinful rebellion or fear of having to live a godly life? After all, you've got people who are doing the hard part (self-sacrifice, patience, giving up all sorts of sinful pleasures) but are avoiding the easy part (praying and listening to a preacher talk for one hour a week). If God and the danger of Hell were that obvious, why wouldn't they just go all the way with it?
No, if there is a God, it appears that some good people honestly don't perceive him. For whatever reason. And there has to be some tolerance in God's rules for the Honest Mistake. Has to be. Otherwise we're all going to get screwed by that thing with the Sabbath being on Saturday instead of Sunday.
So, we've agreed that the other guy, no matter how irritating he or she is, is likely making an honest mistake. If we can agree on that, can we also agree that...
3. In Everyday Life, You're Not That Different
You Christians, if the transmission in your Camaro explodes, are you going to use prayer to reconstruct it? No, you'll call a mechanic. When your tooth hurts, you don't assume it's possessed by demons. You look for a cavity. Basic, everyday troubleshooting.
Well, at the very worst, the atheists are just applying the same common sense, real-world troubleshooting to the God question. At the creation of the universe and in the heart of mankind, they expect to find the same physical, tangible answers they'd find inside a burnt transmission. If they're wrong about God, they're only wrong in that they've taken the tried-and-true troubleshooting we all practice one step too far.
On the other hand...
Atheists, even if you reject the idea of God completely and claim to live according only to the cold logic of the physical sciences, you all still live as if the absolute morality of some magical lawgiver were true.
No, wait. Don't go away.
When some guy hustles you out of eighty bucks in an ebay scam, you don't nod and say, "Interesting! This fellow lacks the genetic predisposition toward equitable dealing that generations of sexual selection in favor of social behavior has instilled in the rest of us! A fascinating difference!"
No, you think what that guy did was wrong. You want justice. You think he should have acted differently.
Even though there's no "wrong" molecule floating in the air and there's no "justice" element on the Periodic Table. You don't think of the swindler as just a fellow animal who happens to behave differently than you. You think he should have acted some other way, according to an invisible ideal that everybody is aware of and knows they should obey.
When that "boob at the Super Bowl" incident happened a while back, I constantly heard atheists making fun of Christians and their puritan silliness over sex. "Come on! It's just meat! We're all just mammals! Sex is natural! What are you afraid of?!?!?"
Yet, the moment you find out that while you were on vacation, your girl got drunk and slept with the entire Chicago Bears...
...Suddenly sex is something to get upset about. Suddenly it's not just meat slapping against meat. Suddenly the exclusive sexual bond between you and your girl was important, was to be protected, was almost... sacred.
Again there's this invisible rule that was supposed to be followed, that everybody was supposed to be aware of, that can't be proven by logic. Whatever it is, wherever you think it came from, you can't deny that it's there. Your own behavior would make you a liar.
Well, at the very worst, the Christians are just taking that same moral impulse and applying it to the God question. At the creation of the universe, they expect to find the same invisible hand that pushes us to be fair and loyal and kind. If they're wrong about God, they're only wrong in that they've taken that absolute morality and put a face on it, made an idol out of it. Taken it one step too far.
You think of it that way, and the amount of overlap between the two of us is actually pretty striking. Right?
4. There Are Good People on Both Sides
This is an easy one. I shouldn't lose anybody here. All you need is examples.
Atheists, you can despise a Falwell or the gay funeral protesting guy, but you've known Christians who did it right. Famous ones like Martin Luther King Jr., or just common ones you've run across who seem to have an inexaustible well of generosity and good cheer. You know how many charities have crosses on their logo.
Christians... look. The church loves to phrase it like:
"The faithful will be joined with their father in Heaven, while the liars, the murderous, the treacherous will be cast down with Satan and his hordes."
See the gap there, between the first part of the statement and the second? What about all the people in between? The atheists and Muslims and Buddhists and Scientologists who aren't murderous or treacherous or liars?
I understand the concept, that all morality comes from God and thus those on the outside are vulnerable to temptation and the devil and all that. But you know good people who aren't believers. I know you do. You can't miss them. Therefore:
If God alone can deliver us from temptation,
Some people who don't believe in God are also able to resist temptation,
God must offer his protection against temptation even to some who don't believe in God. One could even say that God aids the atheist's honest desire to follow one of God's rules... even while he continues to deny God.
But all that is speculation. In order to move on, we only need to agree that such good people exist. Easy.
5. Your Point of View is Legitimately Offensive to Them
Now, this says nothing about whether or not it's true. For this, I only ask that you understand why they get offended.
Everybody is aware that something can be both true and offensive, right?
You see a friend holding a newborn baby and you say, "You know, there's a chance he'll die tomorrow." Or you stand over the casket at your uncle's funeral and say, "He'll definitely be consuming fewer of the world's natural resources now." Both statements completely, 100% factually correct, and can be defended to the end of time by cold, undeniable logic. And both are incredibly offensive.
To say such things, and to be surprised when the hearers take offense, would show such a profound misunderstanding of human nature that everyone will assume you were raised by wolves.
So Christians, knowing what we just said about how it is possible to be a true, honest atheist, that people walk around every day and truly see no evidence of God, can you understand why it's offensive to them to hear that they, and their family, and their children, and their friends, are going to burn for eternity for it?
Especially if you, as most modern churches do, imply that people born into other cultures who honestly follow other faiths, are also going to burn? Because they were fooled by Satan?
And that if the hearer of this news hasn't had the aformentioned religious experience, and doesn't have that tangible feeling of God as a real presence in their lives, that they'll find this to be incredibly unjust?
Nobody hates the idea of a creator, or of there being some kind of ultimate justice in the universe. That's not what has these people in such a bad mood. They despise the clique-ish, militant exclusion of it.
Again, I'm not asking you to stop believing that people, or even these people, are in danger of Hell. I'm simply asking you to accept that, if the situation were reversed, you also would be offended. After all, don't you get offended when a Muslim says you're going to Hell?
Atheists. Same deal. It's irritating to you when they say you and your friends aren't going to Heaven because of your beliefs. But it's just as irritating to them when you say they're not going to Heaven, because there is no Heaven. And the irritation happens on the same grounds, which is, injustice. You hate the idea of all non-Christians burning for eternity, but you're telling them that the mass murderer and kindly grandma will draw the same eternal reward (or lack of).
Now, again, both of you are saying, "But I'm factually right in what I'm saying!" And that's fine. For this, all we're doing here is understanding why they're offended by what you say. That's it. Putting yourself in their shoes. Basic human empathy. That's all.
Everybody still on board my theological peace train? Sweet. Now I want everybody to stand up together and admit...
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.