Thresholds for a sensible conversation with an atheist

I’ve been musing – in between sneezes and christmas pudding – about what is needed to have an intelligent conversation with an atheist; that is, a conversation which has some chance of fostering growth in understanding on either side. There are general things to do with civil debate and openness to changing of minds, but there are some more specific needs as well. So I thought I’d jot these down (I’m sure an atheist could come up with some reciprocal ones from their side!).

1. The atheist needs to either understand, or be willing to be taught, the concept of idolatry. This is not new-fangled ‘liberalism’, this is the main root of the Judeo-Christian tradition. In brief, God is not a member of a class – any class. That class can be ‘existing things’ or ‘beings’ or ‘good’ – all of these fail to capture God. So often the understanding of God being rejected is not one that a moderately trained theologian could accept. As Denys Turner puts it, the atheist hasn’t even reached the ‘theologically necessary levels of denial’. A usual response at this stage is to say ‘well you and the theologians might believe that, but most Christians (Muslims/Jews) don’t!’ Well, that may or may not be true, but it’s a juvenile clouding of the issues. If we’re going to have a serious debate then we need to engage with the best exemplars of the tradition, the ones with most influence. It would be like saying that science is evil because of Mengele’s experiments.

2. Related to this, the atheist needs to have a broader sense of historical perspective that that dominated by post-Enlightenment controversies. If the arguments for the existence of God or the truth of Christianity are all centred on, eg, literalistic claims in Genesis vs geological evidence then we’re not going to get very far. Those arguments were generated by the scientific revolution, that is, the theological force of Ussher or Paley is within an already scientific epistemology. If that epistemology is not accepted – in other words if there is an epistemology with much broader and deeper roots in the Christian tradition being employed – then those arguments are frankly not very interesting. A different way of saying this is that you don’t have to be a fundamentalist to be a Christian – indeed the overwhelming majority of Christians in time and space are NOT fundamentalists, and it would be helpful if this were acknowledged by the atheist.

3. Putting that same point in a different register: the atheist needs to understand the grammar of religious faith, that is, that religious faith doesn’t function as an inadequate precursor of scientific investigation. The role that the language of belief plays within the life of a Christian is not at all like that which the language of science plays in the life of (say) a biologist. It is integrated with a much broader way of life. Unless that is understood then the conversation never begins. Practice gives the words their sense; religious believers do things with words!

I think if these three elements were in place then a much more interesting conversation could result. I’d be interested to know what the equivalent requests would be from the atheist side. Possibly: “don’t assume you have to believe in God to be good”?

One thought on “Thresholds for a sensible conversation with an atheist

  1. ahhhh, I wonder if you’re getting close to a difference between apophatic and cataphatic atheists ….

    Gurdur the apophatic atheist

    P.S. Yes, I do have to stress one thing; atheism, genuine atheism, living life without any faith — and I mean that precisely — does exist. I liked the quote about John Mortimer, and it was goodnatured, but I really do have to stress, genuine atheists do exist. Speaking as one myself. Doesn’t mean we don’t have a good deal to learn from each other, though!

    Many thanks for detailing your thoughts like this, it makes things so much easier.

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