resources for tolerance

May 31, 2005

An atheist recently said to me, “We’re pretty much the same. I just believe in one fewer God than you do.”

The argument goes like this. Ask a Christian why he’s not a Muslim. Or a Buddhist, or a Hindu, or what have you. Then, whatever his reasons, try to figure out why they aren’t equally well reasons not to be a Christian. It’s a case study in the volatility of us/them rhetoric. Whatever the Christian tries to pin on “them,” is often applicable to “us” as well.

In a pluralistic society, the exclusive truth claims of Jesus are supposed to be a problem. Christianity declares a universal human need for salvation, says its salvation is the only one that matters, and then says Jesus is the only way to that salvation. It’s understandable that folks standing on Muslim ground, or Jewish ground, or Buddhist ground, or pagan ground, or atheist ground, say: “What are we – chopped liver?” If Xians began by saying, “Well, we’re only talking here about a subjective experience that has no bearing on the public sphere,” there would be no problem. Of course, then there would be no Xianity.

The question is, what would there be?

Let’s be clear: a purely private spirituality that has no public ramifications might be possible, but it is not what is found in the lives of most Hindus, Jews, Buddhists, Xians, or Muslims. I’m not even sure if such a notion would make sense to your average pagan or Wiccan.

An atheist would be pleased by the idea of strictly private spirituality – for “other” people. Maybe. I say “maybe,” because an atheist’s commitment to truth still makes it a dicey proposition ethically to allow other people to persist in error, even when that error has no negative effect on the atheist personally or on the larger community.

The challenge of pluralism is not getting religious beliefs to stay “in their place,” well within the bounds of the private sphere. Religion will not stay within bounds in this manner. It is the nature of religion to make truth claims that transcend the narrower realms of science and politics (in atheistic terms: it’s by definition “religious” to overreach and make claims that go beyond what logic and evidence can prove). So the challenge of pluralism is one of etiquette – if you have people of divergent truth commitments interacting and talking in the public sphere, how can they coexist in a way that is healthy? What’s the shared basis for dialogue going to be?

As a Christian, just what is my viewpoint on other religions? Well, I can pick a fight on all kinds of points – why we’re here, how we should live, what will become of us, etc. – but at some point when you see two parties lined up and disagreeing on a series of issues, you have to recognize that there is common ground between them precisely to the extent that they agree on what’s at stake. The Xian says: “The Bible!” The Muslim says: “The Koran!” We’re both talking about revealed truth. No matter what end of the spectrum you choose – e.g. the Buddhist’s relationship to the Buddha differs radically from my relationship to Christ – there is still going to be a relationship of some kind between the community of believers and a truth they do not derive independently, but which comes to them as an inherited tradition.

The atheist steps in and says, “You’re both taking human documents, not even the most valuable human documents (because they’re riddled with fantasy and propaganda) and giving them ultimate value.” Does that mean, then, that the Xian, the Muslim and the atheist can agree that the question of “ultimate value” is crucial? It depends on the atheist. If we’re talking about someone who restricts himself to affirming only what is logically unassailable and demonstrable from scientific evidence alone, then I wonder what meaning the terms “ultimate value” can possibly have. He’s likely to say, “We can have a conversation if you agree that what you call ‘ultimate value’ is only a subjective notion with no significance which I am compelled to respect,” and that means that there can be no conversation.

If the atheist goes one step further and asserts that her position gives her the advantage of an open mind – an advantage neither the Xian nor the Muslim shares – then we have a devastating chasm between perspectives. What’s more, her perspective turns out to be privileged by our mainstream culture. On the one hand, our culture tells us that it is up to each individual to decide how to live and what to believe. In other words, “I’m okay, you’re okay.” On the other hand, our culture tells us that there is a world of reliable facts – arrived at by the logical, empirical disciplines – and that people can reasonably expected to agree about those facts. (This is the split between the public and private spheres.) So this perspective we’re describing takes the best of both worlds – “I’m okay, because I restrict myself to the facts, and you’re okay, as long as you keep quiet about your illogical, extrascientific ideas. So I can receive you with an open mind, having always already disregarded your ideas – and if you bring your religious beliefs into the public sphere, I can oppose you as an enemy of the truth.”

So there is an asymmetry to relations between our hypothetical atheist and our hypothetical monotheist (to take one example – it’s not as if the atheist’s conversation with a polytheist or pantheist would go so much better!). The atheist’s stance is, “You depend on inherited tradition, but I depend only on what I can independently verify. You believe what you do to make yourself feel better, where my beliefs require courage and emotional toughness. Your truth claims are attempts to leverage power over others, but my truth claims are innocent of any such motivations.” etc.

Two closing observations.

The perspective I have described is not the only one available to the atheist. It is possible for the atheist to acknowledge that her truth commitments are not innocent – that she shares with the religious wo/man both an existential dilemma (requiring her to take some kind of stance on the world before she can reliably explore it) and a social situation (requiring her to take account of uneven power relationships with which her choice of beliefs will intersect in some way).

None of this means that the Xian is intrinsically more respectful of other folks’ points of view, or that he can coexist in good faith with people of varied perspectives while the atheist is necessarily alienated from the religious world. It will always be a temptation for the religious person to view his own stance as angelic in nature and the other’s stance as demonic. If I had to choose between being a courteous atheist with common sense and a rude Christian without common sense, then I can tell you it would be an easy choice – from a practical standpoint. I’d rather be the atheist.

As it is, Jesus insists that I follow him and so risk seeming closed-minded and stupid – but he has not made it a requirement of my discipleship that I actually be closed-minded and stupid – quite the opposite. The first thing we notice when we look at Jesus’ own life in the gospels is a bizarre combination of radical openness to other people and a devastating judgmentality to the judgmental. So I’m content that my religion gives me resources for living in a pluralistic society. I pray that I might use them well.


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