What’s the problem?

OK, I have a problem and would welcome some help. I get unreasonably stressed about New Atheism and the reactions it provokes from people. I get pain-in-my-back stressed (a sure indication, ever since I was a teenager, that I need to escape from a situation). When, on my wanderings in the media, I come across arguments generated by or around New Atheism I find it saps my ability to work or think, more seriously and for longer than I would like. Actually, I’d love to stop worrying and enjoy my life, as I was doing before the atheist bus came past.

Sorting out my puzzles about the whole set of debates will probably not get rid of the stress, in fact, but it might be interesting.

It’s my belief that when something becomes a Big Question the really interesting question is often not the Big One itself, but “why do people care so much about this now? Why did it become a Big Question?” What’s the energy – the anger, the worry, the exuberance – that’s keeping the Big Question going? Where’s that energy coming from, and why is it being used in this way, right now? That is certainly the question I would want to ask about New Atheism (I’ve had a few interesting conversations about it with colleagues in political science, and heard a few partial answers).

So here’s a sub-question that you might be able to help me with. Why are intelligent, sincere, sociable, liberal-minded people upset and offended by statements like “Christianity teaches that you should love your neighbour”? Why do responses come out that aren’t just “OK, and I also, for different reasons, think you should love your neighbour” but “How dare Christians come out with that kind of claim?” backed by sincerely-felt anger and upset?

I mean, I can understand, and fully empathise with, people being offended by “Christianity teaches that women should be subordinate to men”, or similarly controversial/offensive conclusion. And I can understand, though I do not share, the standard modern “liberal” argument that religious reasons should not be put forward in public debate because we can’t all accept them as valid reasons. And I get cross myself when anyone says “only religious people can be moral”. But I still don’t quite see why it provokes anger when Christians (or members of any other religious community) just describe some aspect of their core ethical stance.

I try to think of equivalent cases for me. If someone said “Little green men came and told me that I should love my neighbour”, I’d probably on balance think it was a good thing, and certainly not worth getting cross about (unless, perhaps, they were on my doorstep in person, trying to persuade me, not only that I should love my neighbour but that the little green men existed).

Perhaps it’s more like if I saw an election poster that said “The BNP believes in safeguarding our environment for future generations”. I suppose I would be at least mildly angry or disturbed, because I’d think that was the BNP trying to make itself look ethically responsible. But my angry response would not be “What a ridiculous claim, you are insulting me and all other greens who don’t vote BNP, and my own principles are being undermined”; it would be “What a ridiculous claim, we all know that that’s not the main thing the BNP’s about (and I bet they’re not telling the truth anyway)”.

OK, so I guess that might be a good analogy for some part of the atheist objection to “Christianity teaches that you should love your neighbour” (“how can these Christians go around pretending that they’re only about being nice, when we know they aren’t really that nice, all told”). But I don’t believe that covers the whole thing.

Anyone, especially someone who does react negatively to public statements about Christian (or other religious) principles, prepared to help me stop being thick?

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9 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by John on 21 July, 2010 at 10:31 pm

    “Why are intelligent, sincere, sociable, liberal-minded people upset and offended by statements like “Christianity teaches that you should love your neighbour”? Why do responses come out that aren’t just “OK, and I also, for different reasons, think you should love your neighbour” but “How dare Christians come out with that kind of claim?” backed by sincerely-felt anger and upset?”

    Uh, can you point to anyone actually saying that? I’ve never seen it. If no one is saying that, then maybe the “problem” you’re asking about is that you are seeing and reading things that aren’t really there. Maybe people are upset about one thing and you’re incorrectly attributing their anger to something else.

    “If someone said “Little green men came and told me that I should love my neighbour”, I’d probably on balance think it was a good thing, and certainly not worth getting cross about (unless, perhaps, they were on my doorstep in person, trying to persuade me, not only that I should love my neighbour but that the little green men existed).”

    You mean, like some Christians do? And what about the people on TV saying that the LGM should be followed and anyone who doesn’t couldn’t possibly love their neighbors? I’d bet you’d get cross. Then someone might write a blog post trying to figure out why people like you get offended by statements like “the LGM teach that you should love your neighbor.” Then you stumble across that and say “how could they be so thick” and you get even more cross, thus leading to the LGM believer being convinced that you’re humorless, intolerant, and deserve all the animus being directed your way – you know, like how more Americans would refuse to vote for a nonbeliever than a member of any other class (gay, black, Muslim, Jew, etc.). It’s all your fault that people don’t like you and when you get mad at that, it’s even more proof that you deserve it.

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  2. Why are intelligent, sincere, sociable, liberal-minded people upset and offended by statements like “Christianity teaches that you should love your neighbour”?

    The problem isn’t the teaching itself. It’s a good tenet to live by. The problem lies in the assumption by some Christians that the source of this is and can only be Christianity. It isn’t, and predates Christianity by quite a long way. Indeed, it’s just a codification of a rule which allowed for co-operative behavior in tribal societies. The expansion of the meaning of “tribe” in this context to include all is a Buddhist modification (not a Christian one).

    And, yes. It is my experience that most Christians pay only lip service to the Golden Rule. Watch what happens when someone tells a religious person that they’re an atheist. There is nothing that galvanizes individuals of widely varying religions arguing over their differences like an atheist walking into the room. Why is that, if the Golden Rule is so important to the religious? What is it about the very existence of atheists that offends Christians? Excuse me for living. Maybe there is something to terror management theory.

    Okay, I’m not saying you specifically are upset by the existence of atheists, but more than enough Christians are to make me upset.

    Back to the issue at hand. It is this presumption that Christianity is the only supplier of morality and that non-believers can not be moral (as some Christians do claim) that is offensive in the extreme. I see red when someone tells me I can’t be a moral person without believing in God, the Bible and Jesus.

    As you point out, not everything Christianity teaches is necessarily seen as being moral. The misogynistic stuff is so 12th century, and shouldn’t have existed ever. I prefer to be able to justify my ethics on basic principles, like reciprocation and doing no harm, freedoms of speech and belief (even and especially extended to those who hold different beliefs), etc. I take fits with these principles and leave the rest behind, just as Christianity itself did and has been doing for centuries.

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  3. Great – wonder if we can get somewhere?

    @John: well, the example that triggered this is an exchange around this post
    http://the-kneeler.blogspot.com/2010/07/scientific-proof.html
    (you can track it through the comments and links).
    Have I misread what’s going on here? Is it a one-off? The one before that was when Michael Bartlet got slammed for saying ‘Quakers believe in the unique value of every individual’ – that’s here
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/belief/2010/may/01/quaker-immigration-child-detention
    and follow the comments (third comment down, I think). Again, have I misread what’s going on here? Is it a one-off?

    @ShamelessAtheist and also John – OK, maybe this is our problem. You get cross about people saying “only Christians can be moral”. Fair enough. So do I, though probably not as much as you do (but you probably don’t get quite as cross as I do about people who say “if you’re a Christian you obviously don’t believe in evolution” or “if you’re a Christian you obviously hate atheists”). I guess we can all agree that none of us want to start making or defending claims like that.

    But how did we get to the situation where so many of these offensive things have been said, and heard, that quite a lot of true and unobjectionable things (e.g. “Christianity teaches people to love their neighbours” or “You can love your neighbour without being religious”) are now difficult to say in certain contexts without raising a storm? And more to the point (which I’m really interested in) – how do we get out of it ?

    @ShamelessAtheist: yes, I’ve often wondered “What is it about the very existence of Christians that so offends atheists?” And that’s the problem, isn’t it – because we’re all going to go on existing, as neighbours, and somehow we need to co-exist honestly (unashamedly?) and charitably.

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  4. “What is it about the very existence of Christians that so offends atheists?”

    Honestly, I don’t know any atheists who are offended by the existence of the religious. We’d be seriously offended to the point of apoplexy because we are surrounded by them. The problem lies in the actions actions of a portion of them, and the excuses for them made by almost all of the remainder.

    Atheists aren’t trying to put up monuments in secular institutions like courthouses. The Ten Commandments have nothing to do with western legal systems, which are based on Roman and Greek law. We don’t go door to door telling people that our world view is better than the homeowner’s. Seriously, this is very condescending and insulting. Whenever we try to maintain a level playing field for everyone, we get accused of imposing our beliefs on everyone. The exact OPPOSITE is true. Christians have a tendency to see any curtailment of their perceived (and it is only perceived) right to enact laws based on Christian beliefs that not all of us share. “Atheists took prayer out of schools!” cry the religious right. Bullshit. We removed state-enforced prayer from schools that should not have been there in the first place. Any child can pray as they will so long as it doesn’t interfere with their studies. Anyone decrying this has a problem with the Founding Fathers and the Constitution, not atheists.

    Until Christians, Muslims, Jews, etc. get it through their heads that the only way co-exist is through secularism (secularism does not equal atheism!!!!), no peaceful co-existence will be possible.

    You get cross about people saying “only Christians can be moral”. Fair enough. So do I, though probably not as much as you do (but you probably don’t get quite as cross as I do about people who say “if you’re a Christian you obviously don’t believe in evolution” or “if you’re a Christian you obviously hate atheists”).
    The second one might be close to the amount of offense we feel, but not the first. Telling us that atheists can’t be moral because they don’t believe in a god is saying that we are evil without even bothering to know us. That’s a bit deeper.

    (By the way, I don’t believe in evolution. I provisionally accept the theories of Natural Selection, Sexual Selection and Genetic Drift as explanations for the observations from paleontology, molecular genetics, etc. Belief is a loaded word, as useful a shorthand as it may be. Any atheist who tell you that you can’t be both a Christian and accept evolution is nuts. Just mention the likes of Ken Miller and Sir Simon Conway Morris to them. But I do think it presents problems for the Abrahamic religions, since Genesis is quite specific on how life arose. Liberal Christianity adapted, but fundamentalists do have a point that this is a slippery slope. If X is an allegory, then how does anyone choose what or what is not also allegorical?)

    Here’s another problem. I was just watching a video blog where the author was answering a question she commonly gets: What do you do if your spouse/family member/etc. is an atheist? She gives every answer but the correct one. RESPECT THAT PERSON’S BELIEF. This answer never even occurs to her! Are you starting to see how we feel?

    Well, now I’m all hot and bothered by it all. I always do because I feel very strongly about this. Your complaint is pretty small potatoes compared to ours. All most atheists ask for is to be left alone, our values not stomped on just because the religious are in a majority, and a little respect. The backlash you’ve observed happens because Christians do indeed think little of us and it should come as no surprise. It’s deserved. My question is, where are these supposed religious moderates? Why do they just keep making excuses for the Glenn Becks, Ann Coulters and Pat Robertsons of the world? If the so-called religious moderates want respect from us non-believers, you have to start putting up or shut up. There are some that do, but they are far too few…

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  5. Ack. HTML. Enough said.

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  6. Erm, you might have noticed I’m British as well as Quaker, which perhaps explains my near-pathological dislike of confrontation (as well as my lack of straightforward views on the Founding Fathers and the Constitution). People – if I don’t respond at length to further comments, please don’t take it as a judgement either way on the merits of the case, merely a strategy to protect the small of my back. I’m genuinely sorry if the only result of this little discussion has been to make other people hot and bothered – in which case it was a mistake from the start.

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  7. Now, as they say, stop worrying and enjoy your life 🙂

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  8. I think these exchanges do provide a kind of answer to your questions, though, don’t they. In fact, two kinds of answer.

    First, it is very difficult for all sorts of people (atheist, Christian, Jedi, whoever) to hear the sentence “Christianity teaches us to love our neighbours” without assuming that it contained a silent “only” – and so assuming that the person who said it was claiming the superiority of Christianity. At the simplest level, this is very difficult to avoid simply because lots of people have said – and do still say – that “only”, quite loudly. At a deeper level, it may be because we live with an easily available narrative saying that either public morality is based on neutral, non-religious, non-traditional rational foundations, or it is based on the dictates of a particular religious tradition which claims the right to rule public life – and so a comment like “Christianity teaches us to love our neighbours” inevitably sounds like a vote for the latter. Models of public reason that simply don’t work with that alternative are – I guess – still something of a fringe interest.

    Second, it’s clear that these kinds of discussion really, really don’t cross the Atlantic well. The place of religion in public life is so very different. Saying “Christianity teaches us to love our neighbours” in public is therefore not the same thing as saying “Christianity teaches us to love our neighbors” in public. I wonder how much of current debates about faith and atheism in public life is affected by transatlantic messages getting garbled?

    Oh, and one final question. I had a very familiar kind of conversation yesterday lunchtime. I was explaining to someone what I do (research on peaceable inter-faith relations), and he said something like, “Surely faith is the problem. We’re not going to get anywhere with peace until there’s a whole lot less faith around.” That was not a particularly offensive comment, and in no way did it upset me (though I once again thought, ‘Yes, but what about the world we actually live in?’). And, in my (British, university-educated, middle class) context, comments like that are exactly what I expect when religion comes up in public (except when people are being too polite to make them explicitly). In a context like that, it is as easy to assume that something like that is the normal atheist view as it is to assume that the normal Christian view is that we’re not going to get anywhere until there’s a whole lot more faith around. Was that the kind of thing you had in mind, Rachel, when you talked about the very existence of Christians offending (some) atheists? (I realise you were simply taking the previous comment’s language and turning it round, so I’m a bit hesitant about pressing your meaning too far, here – but am I on the right lines?)

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  9. to respond to your final question – yes. I suppose I was thinking particularly of those contexts in which attacks on “faith” in general seem to hinder, rather than helping, discussion of the point at hand, e.g. because a consideration of the better and worse ways of doing religion, in relation to some substantive issue of human flourishing, can’t get off the ground at all. Um, maybe it would have been better to have said that.

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