During these past few weeks, I’ve been pushing to get more people involved in my site, particularly those outside of my normal sphere of influence — Christians, Muslims, etc. In the process of doing this, I entered into a delightful email correspondence with a particular Christian leader who was very supportive of the ideas behind this site, and offered to help promote it to several online Christian groups that he participates in. He also offered to exchange blog posts on my site and his.
However, there was one part of our exchange that really chaffed me. I am a member of The Clergy Project, an organization that helps both active and ex-clergy who have abandoned their faith and become atheists. We were talking about this a little, and he expressed regret that churches didn’t do better supplying pastoral support, because then clergy wouldn’t burn out; and that they should get better philosophical and theological training, because then they would have found the answers to the questions that caused them to leave the church.
Now, I understand his perspective; and certainly I agree that there are numerous examples of churches and religious organizations that have failed to provide adequate support to their clergy. But I immediately took offense at the idea that all of us (The Clergy Project currently has over 600 members, all of whom are clergy who have become atheists) rejected god essentially out of ignorance…because we weren’t as well educated as him, because we didn’t know as much as him, etc. Or that it was because of some sort of psychological breakdown, where if we hadn’t faced so much pressure, we would never have rejected our beliefs.
My initial reaction was that this was incredibly condescending. And worse, that it sought to reduce what are often very complex reasons for abandoning our faith, down to a few trite excuses. Excuses that are, in my opinion (and that of many others in my position) completely wrong.
However…this article is not to talk about how condescending or arrogant he is. Because he’s not. Or at least, no more so than I am, or most other people are. I have a principle that I always seek to apply myself, that whenever I seek to criticize others, I must examine my own behavior, and what I would do in their situation. So that’s what I did. I contemplated the question, “What is my attitude towards those who, like him, who hold religious beliefs?”
The answer was unsurprising, but also unsettling. Because honestly, my attitude towards him, and all other people with religious beliefs, is pretty much exactly the same as the sentiments that he expressed about atheist ex-clergy in his email. That they hold those beliefs either because A) they lack adequate knowledge, and hold their beliefs in ignorance, or B) that there is some psychological weakness or problem that causes them to cling to such beliefs. That if they only knew what I knew, and were honest in confronting that knowledge, they’d reject their beliefs just as I have done.
And the truth is, the vast majority of us — be we atheist or theist, Humanist or Christian, Liberal or Conservative — we all believe that we are right, and the other people are wrong. And of course, if the other people are wrong, it must be either because they don’t have all the information we do, or because they are unwilling to accept the consequences of that information. There may be a few people who don’t think this way, but they’d be a tiny minority.
The problem is, every time we actually say this, we are creating barriers to any real communication. Few people will respond positively to being told essentially that we think they are less knowledgeable than us, or less psychologically stable. Quite the opposite, it will almost inevitably result in people reacting defensively…just as I did above. Just as he would likely respond if I were to say something similar to him.
What then can we do? Honestly, you’re unlikely to change my opinion that those who embrace religion either know less than I do, or are unwilling to confront that knowledge honestly; and those who are religious are unlikely to change their opinion of my beliefs.
The answer, I think, lays in understanding that we all think like this. Therefore, we don’t need to say it. Besides the above sentiments, I also think that this individual is a very intelligent, sincere person; that he’s a good person, with good motivations; that he is a person who is genuinely seeking for truth. And I believe, based on our conversations and his willingness to help me promote this site, that he has similar sentiments about me.
Is it not much better to focus on this aspect? The other stuff…we can just leave it as an unspoken assumption that he thinks I don’t know as much as him on this topic, and that I think he doesn’t know as much as me; that he ascribes various psychological phenomenon to my beliefs, and that I ascribe various psychological phenomenon to his beliefs. But that doesn’t mean we can’t have respect for each other, that we cannot (or don’t want to) learn from each other.
And focusing on that latter aspect is going to lead to far more productive conversations, far more worthwhile interactions, far more meaningful exchanges. This is an attitude I’m going to do my best to promote and encourage here; and it is one that I hope all of our members, regardless of background or belief, can embrace.
I am the founder of Wrest In Peace, arising from my passion to create a greater opportunity for people of different beliefs and backgrounds to better understand and communicate with each other.
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