Can Christians and Atheists Co-exist?

February 19, 2008 at 6:49 pm 4 comments

Recently, an old friend commented on my blog – we haven’t been in touch for years, but I am thankful for the reconnect. He commented that “Ken and I were always so kind and gracious, even to an unrepentant atheist like me.” I haven’t seen Jim in years, but my memory of him is as one of the nicest guys on the planet – I can’t imagine anyone not wanting to be kind and gracious to him. So, this brings me to the topic of this post. Is it possible for Atheists and Christians to be friends, I mean REALLY be friends? No hidden agenda, no critical spirit (on either side), and no forced relationship in the hopes of conversion.

I’ve had some mixed experiences – one Atheist friend from college was very anti-Christian and condescending toward me. He really enjoyed arguing with me and other Christians and tried hard to show me the error of my ways. We remained friends for a while, after all I was living with his best friend, but before long our differences strained the relationship. Though we shared a friend, we didn’t share much else.

Then there’s my friend Matt, I met him at work a few years back. He’s a really fun guy to hang out with, super smart, and genuinely funny. We occasionally have conversations about our different beliefs about God, but there is never this sense that he is trying to convince me and I hope he doesn’t feel as if I am trying to convince him. Surely, I have a hope that God will reveal Himself to my friend, but that is not the basis of our relationship. My friend, who believes I am deluded since he has no evidence for the existence of God, surely hopes that someday I will think as he does – but this too is not the basis or goal of our relationship.

I have also made a new friend through a website called, Conversation at the Edge. I am currently enrolled in Seminary at George Fox in Portland and am required to talk about my faith with a not-Christian conversation partner for the duration of the class. And, yes, I will be graded on this. I have plenty of not-Christian friends whom I could have chosen as conversation partners, but some of my classmates posted their need for conversation partners and were overwhelmed with the response. So, I agreed to start conversing with one of the respondents and it has been delightful. I always enjoy making new friends – and I really like my new friend. We have already discovered we have a few things in common and she is a great conversationalist. You can read about our conversations on her blog. You can also read more about this idea of Christians and Atheists conversing at Off the Map’s eBay Atheist site.

In light of all these relationships, I am wondering if there is some way we can learn to co-exist with our fellow human beings without worrying about what they believe about the nature of the universe. I’m not sure we can totally remove this from our thinking, but perhaps we can stop trying to prove ourselves right about this one thing within our relationships and allow the realities of the universe to make themselves manifest to all.

What do you think?

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4 Comments

  • 1. Amy Black  |  February 20, 2008 at 4:53 am

    i love your entry! this is good. I definitely agree that acceptance is a two-way street. it makes no sense for us atheists to demand respect from the religious community without showing any respect for them.

  • 2. Jim Battle  |  February 21, 2008 at 8:32 pm

    Elizabeth,On a one to one level, no doubt, individuals can find a common ground and look past their differences. It all depends on those individuals wanting it to be that way, of course.You end with: “… I am wondering if there is some way we can learn to co-exist with our fellow human beings without worrying about what they believe about the nature of the universe.” I’m very doubtful about the prospect of that in general.There is a very strong tendency for people to find some group they identify with and join. Groups instinctively are self protective and view outsiders with some degree of suspicion, if not outright hostility. Look how much genuine animosity erupts between fans of different sports teams if you want a particularly stupid example of this, but it also explains to a great degree why, for example, many Texans are overly proud about the fact that they happened to be born in a particular spot surrounded by arbitrary and imaginary boundaries. Patriotism is another by product of this us-vs-them dynamic. Time and time again, leaders use this to vilify the “them” to get the “us” to to accept their leadership. 50 years ago some people genuinely believed that Germans ate children because of WWII propaganda. It is easier to kill a German that looks just like you if you believe him to be different, to be evil.Religion and a sense of membership are a powerful combination that create very tight-knit groups. Atheists, by and large, don’t congregate or primarily think of themselves as atheists in the way that evangelicals often do. For instance, I think of myself, roughly in descending order as: male, an engineer, a husband, a father, a political liberal, (other things), an atheist, (more things).It is easier for atheists to remain anonymous because not talking about religion can be interpreted either as: this person is an atheist, or: this person is private about their beliefs. There are obviously some people who do make a big deal of their atheism, but I think they are the exception: Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, PZ Myers are a few. I can certainly name far, far more people, both public and private, that are outspoken about their Christian beliefs.It seems to be a key feature of evangelical lifestyle to “testify” to one’s faith, leaving little doubt as to where one stands. I’m sure to these people, this is a reflection of how they feel, but it is also a means of reinforcing the bonds of group membership. It has another consequence too (which is why I’m going on and on), which is it invites people outside of that group to place the testifier in the “them” category, making the distance between them a little bit larger.I’ll admit that I like a good debate over religion now and again, as I do about politics or any subject where I have a clear opinion and the opportunity to discuss it with another person of a clear, yet opposite, opinion. It is destructive unless both parties are happy to be engaged in the discussion, and it is a waste of time if it is simply misinformation, unsupported assertions, and name calling.Rather than thinking of debate as something divisive and to be avoided, a healthy argument actually can bring two people of different opinions into a closer relationship of understanding and respect, even if neither party changes their opinion a whit.

  • 3. Elizabeth Chapin  |  February 21, 2008 at 11:13 pm

    Jim, great thoughts on the societal and communal impact of religious affiliations – or lack thereof. I have found this “us vs. them” mentality to be very destructive in culture at large and agree while there is room for healthy debate that the divisions created by the “us vs. them” mentality ultimately lead to hostility.It seems paradoxical that the teachings of Jesus celebrate peace, yet following Jesus often leads to hostility through this group association. Even though it may seem idealistic, I will continue to pursue peace with all humankind.

  • 4. Helen  |  May 14, 2008 at 6:47 pm

    Elizabeth, I’m delighted to hear you met Amy through my blog!

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