Would you want an atheist for a neighbor?

Posted on 01/10/13 27 Comments

This is a repost of an article originally published at The Christian Post in 2009.

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A former student of mine (I’ll call her Jan) was working for a time as a chaplain at a large hospital. While she worked with chaplains from many different faith traditions — Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist — during one coffee break she told the others that she could not work with a Wiccan. Unbeknownst to her, one of the other chaplains sitting at the table was a Wiccan. Not surprisingly, by the end of the day Jan had been reprimanded by her supervisor.

Now Jan was coming to me and asking my opinion. This was my first question to her: “Well do you know what Wiccans believe?” She looked puzzled and responded, “Well she’s a witch.” “Yes,” I replied, “But do you know what she as a Wiccan believes? Do you understand the Wiccan concept of the godhead and the doctrine of pantheism? Are you familiar with Wiccan ethics?”

Not surprisingly, she did not have a familiarity with Wicca beyond pop-culture depictions like “The Witches of Eastwick”. And that meant that she really had no familiarity at all.

Wiccans are among the more discriminated groups in society and this is due largely to an ignorance of their beliefs and practices. The same might be said of anarchists, communists, various immigrant groups, and homosexuals. But if we were to identify the one group above all that is the most misunderstood and discriminated against, I suspect it would be atheists. In poll after poll, atheist comes at the bottom of the list for those that people would be most likely to vote for public office or to desire as a neighbor.

Sadly, such attitudes are borne more out of ignorance than anything else. A couple posts ago I drew the ire of a busload of atheists who felt that my claim that atheism does not provide meaning was yet more discriminatory slander. It certainly was not intended as such. I believe that atheism has key weak points as an explanation of the world and the lack of objective meaning is one of them. (Of course, every other worldview has weak points as well, but the point of the piece was to critique atheism in particular.) That said, we always need to distinguish the intellectual tensions within a worldview from the often brilliant and good people who hold that worldview, atheists included.

But I am not quite done. While the Christian must shoulder some blame for the poor public relations of atheism, atheists themselves must also take some criticism. Just as the poor public image that goes with the title “evangelical” owes much to the poor behavior of evangelicals, so the poor public image that goes with the title “atheist” owes much to the poor behavior of many atheists.

Look at the frenetic and uninformed screeds that atheists purchase and read by the truckload: Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, Christopher Hitchens, god is not great: how religion poisons everything, David Mills, The Atheist Universe, Sam Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation. Distortion, caricature, ad hominem, non sequitur and countless other blunders fill these writings. When it comes to philosophy of religion and theology, each of these authors writes with all the sophistication of a college freshman.

I wish that more atheists would seriously engage both with serious atheists like Austin Dacey and Quentin Smith, as well as equally serious theists like Alvin Plantinga and William Lane Craig. (Of course I also wish that more Christians were reading intelligent critiques on both sides.)

Anyway, we are hardly going to bring these two communities to a greater level of intellectual sophistication over night. So let’s start small: for all you Christians out there, if you happen to have an atheist for a neighbor, invite him (or her) over this weekend for a barbeque. And don’t worry about winning either converts or arguments. Just have a good evening.

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  • epicurus

    I’ve never met any Wiccans, but I read a couple books years ago about them, and didn’t see anything that struck me as too hideous (they were written by practicing Wiccans, maybe they left out the bad stuff??) . I think a lot of their stereotypes come from Hollywood and an overzealous early and medieval church trying to stamp out paganism.

  • http://www.facebook.com/erroll.treslan Erroll Treslan

    Amen to this piece. Let’s all focus more on how people behave rather than what they believe.

  • R0c1

    Serious like William Lane Craig, seriously?

    • R0c1

      (Amen to the rest)

    • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

      Yes, seriously. Craig has two earned PhDs from outstanding schools and has published several academic books and more than one hundred peer-reviewed journal articles. He’s a world class scholar.
      Now if I’d said “Ray Comfort” or “Josh McDowell” I could understand your incredulity.

      • Anti Collaborator

        Randall never misses a chance to slam a Christian, does he?
        Atheists tortured relatives of mine when the atheists had the political power to do so.
        I believe they would do the same to me if they had the power.
        I would never turn my back on one.

        • Ray Ingles

          Monotheists are torturing people today. Christians are monotheists. So Christians are torturers? Uh… no.

          I’d bet that the atheists that tortured your relatives were Communist atheists, right? What if there are different kinds of atheists, just the way that there are different kinds of monotheists?

      • R0c1

        Craig’s academic achievements stand as evidence that he can understand the positions of his opponents. Yet he consistently misrepresents his opponents even after he has been corrected.

        • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

          Can you provide a few examples?

          • R0c1

            For about a year, I had this kind-of-vauge feeling that Craig misrepresents the views of other scholars and debate opponents. It’s the same feeling I get from political talk radio.

            Chris Halquest convinced me that it’s true – Craig is not a trustworthy source of information on the subjects he debates.

            http://www.patheos.com/blogs/hallq/2012/07/documenting-william-lane-craigs-lies-about-his-opponents/

            • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

              My response to this will be long so I’ll put it in a blog post.

    • 1981cudd

      Yes Craig has two PhDs (in bullshit) He’s a world class bullshiter. Ray Comfort same bull with out the PhDs

      • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

        I guess that puts me right in the middle with one PhD.

    • Walter

      Craig is an intelligent and sophisticated fideist.

      • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

        I don’t think “fideist” is a very helpful term. It would be more accurate to call Craig an epistemological externalist. And it turns out that many if not most epistemologists these days are epistemological externalists.

        • Walter

          I am not very fond of Craig’s Holy Spirit epistemology. Craig feels that a person can know in their heart that Christianity is true sans evidence of any kind, and he attributes this inner certitude to the mystical workings of an invisible, undetectable agent. Saying that something is true because I just know it is sounds an awful lot like fideism to me.

  • Anti Collaborator

    Notice the the Wiccna chaplain did not try to talk to Jan, but instead went and complained to her supervisor.
    Like any weasel would. In this case, a Wiccan Weasel.

  • 1981cudd

    Would you want an atheist for a neighbor? WELL I SUPPOSE IT WOULD DEPEND ON WHAT PART OF THE WORLD YOU LIVE, BEING THE WRONG TYPE OF CHRISTIAN WILL GET YOU KILLED. A CATHOLIC IN NORTHERN IRELAND WOULD PREFER AN ATHEIST NEIGHBOR I’M SURE, AND VICE VERSA. BELIEF IN THE WRONG GOD WILL ALSO GET YOU KILLED. A JEW IN PALESTINE WOULD PREFER AN ATHEIST TO A MUSLIM, A MUSLIM IN ISRAEL WOULD BE A LOT SAFER LIVING NEXT DOOR TO ATHEISTS, NOT SURE THE ATHEIST WOULD FEEL TO COMFORTABLE WITH THE MUSLIM NEIGHBORS IN BAGHDAD. BEING AN ATHEIST IN MUSLIM COUNTRIES WILL GET YOU KILLED. NO, GIVE ME AN ATHEIST NEIGHBOR EVERY TIME. YOU NEVER KNOW, HAVING AN ATHEIST NEIGHBOR YOU MIGHT GET INFECTED WITH REASON AND FREE THOUGHT.

    • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

      Did your caps lock key get jammed or are you just really mad?

      • epicurus

        A capital offence has been commited

      • 1981cudd

        lol cap-lock was on got half way before i noticed couldn’t be arsed to retype

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  • http://www.facebook.com/people/David-Evans/100000619020207 David Evans

    I stopped taking Plantinga seriously when I read his argument that evolution is not likely to lead to true beliefs. His example is Paul, who has evolved to run away from tigers when he sees them. This could arise from true beliefs – that tigers eat people, that the way to avoid this is to run away, and that being eaten is painful – but also from false beliefs:

    “Perhaps Paul very much likes the idea of being eaten, but when he sees a tiger, always runs off looking for a better prospect, because he thinks it unlikely the tiger he sees will eat him. This will get his body parts in the right place so far as survival is concerned, without involving much by way of true belief. … Or perhaps he thinks the tiger is a large, friendly, cuddly pussycat and wants to pet it; but he also believes that the best way to pet it is to run away from it. … Clearly there are any number of belief-cum-desire systems that equally fit a given bit of behaviour.”

    (Plantinga, Warrant And Proper Function).

    Now clearly Plantinga’s alternatives are ludicrous:

    If Paul wants to be eaten, there will be no urgency in his desire to escape the current tiger. He certainly won’t put as much effort into it as a man in fear of his life. And won’t he eventually tire of looking for the perfect tiger and settle for the nearest one?

    If Paul thinks the best way to pet something cuddly is to run away from it, how does he ever get close to his mate and children? And how does he continue to think tigers are friendly after seeing what they do to other people?

    More generally, false beliefs may lead to life-saving behaviour by accident. But in the great majority of cases they don’t, which is why evolution in general selects for true beliefs.

    • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

      “false beliefs may lead to life-saving behaviour by accident. But in the great majority of cases they don’t,”

      That’s circular. Plantinga’s right. If our cognitive faculties are formed by a process aimed at survival rather than truth, then we have no way to know that survivability and truthfulness substantially map onto one another. That doesn’t mean they don’t. But as Plantinga points out, it does leave us at best with the conclusion of inscrutability.

      Incidentally, I think you’re getting distracted by Plantinga’s fanciful examples. He’s just having fun with Paul the prehistoric hominid. Daily life is full of examples of beliefs that are adaptive but false. In fact, I’ll devote a blog post later today to a couple examples.

      By the way, I have a chapter on this in “God or Godless.”

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  • Alejandro Rodr√≠guez

    “Wiccans are among the more discriminated groups”

    No, they aren’t. The popularity of Harry Potter proves it. Just this year the movie Brave, which heavily uses Celtic imagery which is one of the biggest influences to Wicca, won the Academy Award for Best Animated Picture. It also was a box office success. How is this discrimination again? And among fundie circles, anti-Catholicism is much more common than anti-Wicca, which actually very rarely gets attacked. In fact, most people around the world do not even know what Wicca is, so how can they discriminate something they don’t even know it exists? Discrimination is what happens to the Native Americans, who have it so bad they have to live in reserves. And it continues to this day if movies like Lone Ranger are anything to go by.

    “But if we were to identify the one group above all that is the most
    misunderstood and discriminated against, I suspect it would be atheists.
    In poll after poll, atheist comes at the bottom of the list for those
    that people would be most likely to vote for public office or to desire
    as a neighbor.”

    Even if it’s true that most people wouldn’t vote for an atheist (at least in the USA, anyway) that doesn’t mean atheism is discriminated against. After Christians, they are the second biggest religious group in the USA. They rival major denominations like Mormons in number. They don’t have problems getting jobs. Some of the most famous celebrities from the US are atheists (or, at the very least, irreligious), like Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, and it’s pretty obvious that their beliefs don’t get in their way. Atheist organizations have enough money to place giant posters with anti-religious messages on it. Heck, James Randi has enough money to offer 1 million bucks to anyone that can prove the supernatural. Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett and Dan Brown made their careers out of attacking religion. CSICOP, an international organization, was founded in the USA. By an atheist. The agnostic Bill Gates and the atheist Mark Zuckerberg are two of the richest persons in the planet. Hollywood doesn’t have any problem producing anti-religious films such as The Da Vinci Code and Kindgdom of Heaven. I can go on.

    It really grates on my nerves when I read or hear claims like this. I’m not saying Wiccans or atheists don’t suffer discrimination in the USA, but they definetely do not suffer it to nearly the same extent as many other groups. For instance, Muslims are way more discriminated than both of the aformentioned groups, as are blacks and latinos, who have to put with institutional racism to boot.