Saturday, February 13, 2010

A Christian debates an Atheist – can any good come from this?

My Theology after Google professor is debating Daniel Dennet, one of the four “New Atheists.” Clayton threw the glove down via YouTube, showing that new technology can still be used for old-fashioned challenges. Here is the challenge:

I am rather uncomfortable with this idea. Not because I think that atheists are terrifying or unreasonable, quite the opposite in fact. In my experience the many atheists I know have come to their conclusions from a thoughtful and patient examination of their soul (inner world if you prefer) and have chosen a system of beliefs that give them life and meaning. This journey is not unlike my path towards relevancy and hope inside my Christian tradition. We both have worked pretty hard at this; I respect and honor their path, just as my non-theist friends have respected and honored mine.

Like most belief systems, even systems of non-belief, there tends to be some obnoxious loudmouths that claim to speak for the whole movement. The Dawkins and Hitchens of the world tend to be as much fundamentalists as Pat Robertson because they claim the absolute truth and most of the media’s attention. This should certainly be splashy.

And so I worry that this debate will not bring about respect, but just louder yelling at each other. Professor Clayton says “let’s talk out of our common ground,” yet, I’m not sure that a “Debate” is even the right structure for bringing about a way to find that common ground. In my mind’s eye, I see two men at a podium waving scriptures (be it the Bible, Whitehead, or Darwin) and declaring this to be a fundamental truth, there can be no other! I know that this is probably not the case -- they will be sitting down in chairs, sipping tea, and creatively, wittily calling each other foolish.

Of course I’m going to watch this. Like a moth drawn to flame, humans are drawn to controversy, and I’m no exception. And yet I’m dearly hoping for something absolutely boring. I want Clayton to say: “Yep, I’m totally an atheist if all you define God as is an old white guy with a beard” and Dennet to say: “Yep, I’m totally theistic if God is the idea that humans can hope and love.” So I am watching this with all the expectations of a car going into the wall, but really hoping instead that it turns out to be a boring 500 laps around a track.

All right, my non-theist friends, my theist friends, my pluralist friends, my “we’ll never get along” friends, my somewhere in between friends, what do you think? Is this kind of debate a good idea? Or how would you go about starting a dialogue between atheists and theists in such a way that would uphold the positive aspects of both?

1 comment:

Wildflower said...

Amen, Ruth!

I was pretty uncomfortable with the whole setup of the "debate" as well. If all we can do is continue to live within the conflict model, the conflicts will perpetuate themselves. I really appreciate your sentiments here.

I would say, however, that I do think we can model conversations between different religious (or non-religious groups) in more positive ways. Obviously, I don't think you were suggesting a hands-off model where everyone has their own religious world to function in (and no responsibility to live in dialogue) - but I don't think that positive models of dialogue are emphasized enough period. Obviously, as a Buddhist/Christian, religious dialogue is important to me, and considering a lot of my work is on atheist philosophers, I think constructive engagement can occur on many fronts. I agree with you though - this debate was not a positive achievement along any of those fronts.