10 Things Christians and Atheists Agree On

This is a great article via cracked.com called 10 Things Christians and Atheists Agree On. As the title implies, it goes through a list of things that Christians and Atheists agree on, arguing that we have a lot more common ground than we think. Most of the things we disagree on are cases of committing the same indecency to the other that we’re accusing them of committing to us. I completely agree with the general idea behind each of the 10 points. I may argue with some of the smaller things he says – even for the Christians he tends to portray that our faith is about moralism and going to Heaven when we die, which I wouldn’t accept – but for the most part I’m completely with him. The actual article is lengthy and is complete with funny photos mocking both sides, which is something we both need to be able to handle. Here are the 10 points, with minimal commentary from me, mostly summarizing or quotes:

You Can Do Terrible Things in the Name of Either One

This part of the debate drives me crazy, too, when it happens:

We’re putting aside the question of which belief system has killed more people by percentage of population, or whether a hypothetical world without religion would have seen fewer or more genocides than ours. We’re not going to open a spreadsheet and try to count which belief system manufactures more murderous sociopaths per capita.

This tends to be exactly the debate. “Atheists have Stalin”. “Christians have Hitler” (arguably). “Atheists have Pol Pot.” “Christians have the Inquisition.” They just banter back and forth with examples of how much bad the other side has done, trying to show that per capita their side is still better. It’s pretty much hypothetical. Each will argue that the terrible things done in their name was a corruption so doesn’t really count. Blah blah blah, it’s pointless! Let’s agree on this: both sides have people doing evil in its name.


Both Sides Really Do Believe What They’re Saying

Some Christians are convinced that atheists aren’t really atheists. They just don’t want to believe because that would mean they’d have to stop sleeping around or doing drugs or killing people. Atheists deny that whether they like it or not, there is a natural inclination to spirituality. I’d also add that atheists tend to think that Christians are being stupid and irrational, and it isn’t unusual for an atheist – never a Christian – to define “faith” as “something you convince yourself to believe even though you know it isn’t true.” Both sides are missing the point: both sides really do believe what they’re saying (in most cases, at least) so telling them that they don’t is just rude and counter-productive.

In Everyday Life, You’re Not That Different

It’s an interesting point, and relates to the whole moral argument that Christians use. By the Christians own moral argument, it makes perfect sense that atheists (as a collective) are equally moral to Christians. Yet sometimes Christians still portray atheists as inherently evil because they don’t believe in God, even though their own apologetics arguments and theology say otherwise. Similarly, Christians are just as rational as atheists. Atheists don’t like to admit that, but yes, we do use logic and science just as much as you do. 99% of our day-to-day lives are the same. The article author puts it in an interesting way that I can mostly agree with:

Well, at the very worst, the atheists are just applying the same common sense, real-world troubleshooting to the God question. At the creation of the universe and in the heart of mankind, they expect to find the same physical, tangible answers they’d find inside a burnt transmission. If they’re wrong about God, they’re only wrong in that they’ve taken the tried-and-true troubleshooting we all practice one step too far…

Well, at the very worst, the Christians are just taking that same moral impulse and applying it to the God question. At the creation of the universe, they expect to find the same invisible hand that pushes us to be fair and loyal and kind. If they’re wrong about God, they’re only wrong in that they’ve taken that absolute morality and put a face on it, made an idol out of it. Taken it one step too far.

There Are Good People On Both Sides

This pretty logically follows from previous points. We’ve established there are people who do terrible things on each side. We’ve established that the majority of our day-to-day lives is the same. It’s an easy step to say then that there are good people on both sides. When we just use straw men of the terrible cases because it makes for a better argument, we neglect a lot of good people. Stop it, both sides.

Your Point of View is Legitimately Offensive to Them

Great point here: your point of view can be both offensive and true at the same time. Both sides tend to be guilty of saying that they don’t care if they’re jerks because they’re telling the truth. This, my friends, is fundamentalism, and it comes on both sides. One side says it or implies it – doesn’t matter who says it first in each debate – and the other responds in kind. The author phrases it in terms of justice, where both sees the other’s side as unjust. For Christians, it is unjust that atheists don’t see reward or punishment – everybody gets the same. For atheists, it is unjust that they legitimately don’t see evidence for God or Jesus and that they’ll burn in Hell for eternity. Doesn’t matter how many Christians argue for an inclusive concept of Heaven, and it doesn’t matter how many atheists argue that this is why justice in this life is so important.  I’m not sure I’d use those retributive justice terms, but I definitely agree to the main point.

We Tend to Exaggerate About the Other Guy

I’ve already mentioned this. Christians sometimes portray atheists as denying their intuitive sense of spirituality, or of having no grounding for morals, or of denying the obvious truths from the evidence of the world. Atheists sometimes portray Christians as a bunch of backward hicks who hate all science and have no education. Sounds obvious, but there are clear middle grounds: just because atheists have a different explanation for the source of morality doesn’t mean they have no morality, and just because some Christians reject evolution doesn’t mean we hate all science and education. It wouldn’t take long to see how wrong either of those straw men arguments are just by looking at the world around us.

We Tend to Exaggerate About Ourselves, Too

This is something I wouldn’t have thought of, but is dead on. Did you know that the theology of biblical inerrancy is a modern one? I’d argue, like the author, that it is a defensive theology. Once somebody points out something that is insignificantly wrong, we need to exaggerate how great our beliefs are by denying it and actually escalating how we understand our own teachings. The author gives a great example conversation:

“I believe the Bible is true.”

“There is no evidence that this one religious text is any truer than other texts like it.”



Interestingly, if we stuck to just the first two instead of escalating our own beliefs to more extreme positions, there is actually lots of common ground there. And neither side even really believes the extreme versions that they escalate to: I don’t think even fundamentalist Christians really believe that line about the Bible, and I don’t think even fundamentalist atheists believe that the Bible is purely superstitious lies that has destroyed civilization.

Focusing On Negative Examples Makes You Stupid

The title says it all. Atheists portray Fred Phelps as the perfect example of true Christianity, when Westboro Baptist is made up of a single family and a few of their friends. The billions of other Christians worldwide are ignored and they use Phelps to argue that all Christianity is obviously wrong because one guy is stupid and immoral. Christians will do the same, whether with Stalin or the Columbine shooters or somebody else. It’s a cheap shot. It doesn’t contribute to the conversation. It only makes the other side more defensive and more stubborn in their views, so if the goal is to convince the others that you’re right, you’re even working against your own point.

Both Sides Have Brought Good to the Table

This is the only one where I could see a lot of Christians honestly disagreeing with the author. The author says that rationalism is inherently linked to atheism, but there have been all kinds of Christian rationalists, including long before atheism really existed. Yes, we’re thankful for rationalism but I wouldn’t go as far as to equate that to atheism. A lot of the forces causing the Enlightenment and Scientific Revolution were Christians, wanting to learn more about God’s creation. What I will say, though, is that right now – at least in the American context where the author is writing from – there is no doubt that Christianity is associated with moralism and atheism with rationality. It isn’t true historically that atheists have been more or less rational, but it is true in some contexts today, so I’ll definitely grant that atheism’s constant strive for rationality is a huge benefit to the world and the church.

On the other side, atheists should (and most do) acknowledge that theists have done a lot of good in the world. Both sides agree that killing is bad and both sides accept most of the same morality, whether that is seen as subjective or objective. So yes, most atheists can and do argue that religions have tried extremely hard to bring about a more just world – they just add that we’ve simply replaced one evil with another. Allowing themselves to set aside the addendum for a moment would let us appreciate each other a bit more.

You’ll Never Harass the Other Side Out Of Existence

It’s amazing how few fundamentalists on both sides seem to realize this. Christians threaten the wrath of God. Atheists belittle that we don’t think. Both sides call the other immoral and claim that they need to be eliminated. A simple message: lead by example. If you really want to prove that your worldview is more moral, stop belittling the other side! When I see Christians attacking atheists, it is disgusting. Being attacked by an atheist just makes it seem more obvious to me that I’ve got something right with this whole following-Jesus thing of loving neighbours and enemies alike that they don’t. I’ve pointed this out to atheists before and they resort back to the “well, I have the truth so I don’t care if I’m a jerk.” Yes, atheists have said that to me before. I suppose that’s fair enough particularly for the subjective morality atheists. It’s not like I can invoke a higher attitude of respect, and I refuse to fight fire with fire, so I usually end up leaving the conversation. They’ve simply made me more convinced of my view because that isn’t the way of treating people that I want to live out.

But to my fellow Christians, you have no excuse for harassing atheists! You have been outright commanded by the man you call God, Lord, and Saviour to love our enemies. Sure, if you want, consider atheists your enemies on this one major debate. What’s your instructions then for how to deal with them? Love them. Not offer whatever threats you can think of to convince them to become a Christian or else. Not use straw men arguments of how immoral all atheists are because they don’t claim an objective divine source of ethics. This can still include debate, but it is loving, respectful debate. I pointed out some cases where I haven’t received that from atheists, but there are many more cases where I have. I think that’s true of Christians, too – most are loving and respectful – but some aren’t, so smarten up. If the practical side of it – the fact that you’re a lot more likely to change their minds by leading by an example of love – doesn’t convince you, then try listening to Jesus. You call him Lord. Act like it. It is one thing for atheists to claim that truth is more important than love, but we have been specifically commanded otherwise!

Ryan Robinson

It is easiest to identify Ryan as both theologian and tech guy. By day, Ryan is a Technical Consultant work with PeaceWorks Technology Solutions. There, he works on websites, CRMs, and SharePoint implementations. Along with blogging here, Ryan is a founding member of the MennoNerds blogging network and a contributor to the book A Living Alternative.