So often – nearly always, it seems – “debates” between atheists and Christians, or even among atheists or Christians when discussing “the other side,” betray the kinds of polarization that now infects our larger society. This seems in part to be caused by the Internet, which allows people to find others who believe as they do, and then wall themselves off in an intellectual bubble from which any different opinions are excluded. Their world views and beliefs become a self-licking ice cream cone.
That is evident among atheists. There is a very wide diversity of views within the atheist community, but a substantial subset of them are militant anti-theists who will not tolerate even a suggestion of any positive attribute for religion. A post in one closed facebook group for such people summarized the behavior nicely:
“Think religions do some good? Think there should be a “middle path”? Think there are “positives” we should take away from religions and that gods “might” exist? Think moderate theists deserve to be taken seriously just for being “moderate”? Then, my friend, you are NOT an atheist because the last time I checked, an atheist is one who unequivocally rejects any notion of god’s existence and denounces religions, cults, and theology of all kinds. This is NOT the place for you even if you feel you deserve to be heard.”
That is a group which feeds upon itself, and which will strongly resist any other views of either religion or atheism.
Christians, particularly the more extreme evangelical fundamentalists, tend to behave similarly, walling themselves off from having to confront opinions different from theirs, and creating a mythology about others, both of differing religious confessions and atheists, that spring largely from their imagination. Both the evangelicals and the atheists make public statements that define those positions, and all too often they are insulated from having to actually confront disagreement with their beliefs.
An example can be found in a blog by an otherwise undistinguished and unremarkable “student of Religion, an ex-Oneness Pentecostal”. The blog states the author’s view of five reasons why atheism is “unlivable”. And, as is so often true, it reflects a narrow viewpoint that is largely unrelated to reality. Some of the comments to it did a point-by-point refutation, but the reaction was summed up neatly by one respondent: “Complete non-sense, obviously the person who wrote this has no basic understanding of human nature, let alone a grasp of the way atheists live, and think.”
Another example from the same author, showing how his thought process works, can be found on his “Pray for an Atheist” page on the same blog. His current request for prayers are for Ryan Bell, a Christian pastor who is undergoing a year-long experiment in faith by attempting to live like an atheist. Dr. Bell’s blog on that experiment is, so far, full of thoughtful, mature commentary on the nature of belief and his relationship to it.
But never mind that, he is at least flirting with atheism, so our “student of Religion” claims “He wants, ‘sexual immorality, impurity, lustful pleasures, idolatry, sorcery, hostility, quarreling, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish ambition, dissension, division, envy, drunkenness, wild parties, and other sins like these.’”
How does he know what Dr. Bell wants? Is it from finding such desires expressed in his blog or other writings? Well, no, it’s not. It is from a mis-reading of Galations 5:19-21, which he interprets to say that someone who is not a Christian who follows the Spirit will necessarily want to do those things. Never mind that’s not what the section says or means; it follows the narrative the “student of Religion” wants to believe, and so must necessarily be true. His interpretation of a Biblical passage is all the information he needs to see deeply into the soul of another human he has never met, and to know that person's deepest, most hidden desires.
In fact, Dr. Bell’s blog discusses this, reflecting on the way narratives become part of a subculture, and the narrative and culture reinforce each other:
“I understand my basic knowledge or beliefs about the world to be deeply embedded in a narrative about that world. Beliefs are not, as we sometimes think, free floating ideas that we can take or leave at will and combine in any number or ways to create our own personal identities.
“Acculturation happens when a person takes on, to a sufficient degree, the practices of a culture such that they begin to feel at home in that culture, perhaps even thinking the way people in that culture think; seeing the world from the perspective of a very different group of people.”
Very true, but not exactly the words of a dissolute libertine as our "student of Religion" would have it.
So how do we keep our larger culture from devolving into little bubbles of extreme narratives, unsullied by opposing views? It is by respectful debate, exchange of ideas, attempting to understand the preconceptions of “the other side” in order both to speak intelligibly to them, and to be informed by them. Dr. Bell understands this.
Although the blog author does not engage any of the comments to his essays, and discourages direct contact with him for discussion, there seems a ray of hope for dialog that might lead to better understanding. Both at the end of the essay and in his Contact page there is an invitation to further dialog, by joining his closed facebook group. Wonderful! Let the conversation begin! Let’s have each side learn more about the other, in their own words, instead of from things we imagine they must believe.
But no . . . it is not to be. Anyone who attempts to join that group, to have that conversation, is immediately confronted with a list of ten “guidelines,” including that they must agree to a profession of evangelical faith. Your average, garden variety atheist, of course, will not agree to those terms. And if he announces his intent to seriously, respectfully advantage himself of the invitation to come to discuss the issues raised in that article, he is summarily removed from the group. So much for dialog.
That’s how these bubbles are built and maintained. It’s true not only for the religious and for atheists, but for liberals, conservatives, conspiracy theorists and all manner of other world views. In an era that gives us unprecedented access to information, it seems the human tendency is to wall ourselves off from everything that does not confirm what we want to believe. It is so easy to find people who agree with us that we live in the illusion that we, and we alone, have found Truth.