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A Christian's guide to empathising with atheists.

12 March 2014, 13:51

When I wrote to you before, I told you not to associate with people who indulge in sexual sin. But I wasn’t talking about unbelievers who indulge in sexual sin, or are greedy, or cheat people, or worship idols. You would have to leave this world to avoid people like that. I meant that you are not to associate with anyone who claims to be a believer yet indulges in sexual sin, or is greedy, or worships idols, or is abusive, or is a drunkard, or cheats people. Don’t even eat with such people.

When these words were penned down nearly two thousand years ago by the scribe of St Paul, I often wonder if it was with the understanding that this teaching would be largely ignored by Christians, every day, since reproduced in the written form? While most Christians have no problem with condemning those in righteousness with whom they disagree; such as Atheists who in Christian theology worship the idols of themselves, it appears there is no such similar condemnation for their own family members who might fall into sin, but still claim to be a believer. So, contrary to the everyday life of a reasonable and typical human is the hypocrisy that when we do hear stories of a Christian actually following this teaching of St Paul, it shocks and repulses both Christian and Atheist alike. One story I remember involved a Jehovah Witness who upon conversion would no longer sit and eat at the table with his family or interact with them in any meaningful way, much to the detriment of his 15 year old son who went from having a loving parent, to an empty husk of a father driven by pious delusion.

I have been wanting to tell Christians what it is like to be an atheist for some time now, but have been struggling and wrestling with the exact method to convey a mode of thinking so diametrically polar to the other without intoning an unreasonableness, similar to the father in the story above as seemingly unreasonable; without the proper understanding of the context of thought from St Paul. It seems, that for me to be able to tell you what it is like to see the world through the eyes of an Atheist, first I must give you the reason and rationality for those very eyes we now possess. Here is an example of what I mean by this:

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/f/f8/A_Vincent_Van_Gogh.jpg

This is a picture (as you may have guessed) by Vincent Van Gough. For those of you unfamiliar with it, it will seem fairly ordinary. Do take a look at this picture for some time and try to understand what it is that makes it such an exciting painting to millions of people around the world. Once you have done this, do continue…

The context of this painting is in fact quite remarkable. It is thought to be the last one Vincent painted before he committed suicide. Some have suggested that he shot himself in the field of this painting. It is not an absolute certainty whether it is his actual final painting, but it is, at the very least, among his final set of thoughts before the final event from which there was no return. It is difficult for me to explain why the context of this changes the meaning of the picture so dramatically, but the knowledge of this event unmistakably does. The simple brush strokes seem to take on a meaning of despair; and the crows could be considered agents of the unknown or a symbol of the ego, which is some circles, can be regarded as sinister. As for the rest, that is anyone’s guess…

Since the context of how to see things seems so inexplicably linked to the act of seeing itself, it is no surprise that we should find ourselves unable to comprehend each other’s thoughts when discussing the nature of reality, and concepts such as God. I believe, however, that one should make an attempt to convey this no matter the insurmountable nature of the problem. For example, for many Christians, the idea of a personal God is so linked to ones ‘self’ that the very idea that God could not exist creates questions that are seemingly insuperable. How does an Atheist find meaning in life with no purpose or ‘drive’ get up in the morning? How can morality be derived in a world where no absolute standard of goodness exists? What is free-will to an atheist or justice or accountability, if there is no differences between species like humans or animals? What if you’re wrong and you are going to hell?

All of these questions only make sense from a framework that predisposes Gods existence. It would be like asking a homophobic Christian “What if one day you wake up and you find that you are Gay?” only to receive the answer “That cannot happen, since I am born again in Christ”.  What does that answer even mean? Without the context of theological teaching and background the answer cannot make sense to an Atheist, but to a Christian who understands what being born again actually means it is a perfectly suitable answer to a complicated issue.

And so, I argue, one must remove the mental chains we have placed around our minds if we are to be able to see things from another’s perspective. We must universalise our beliefs into something that works for any particular set of circumstances and not just our own. Only then can we begin to understand the ways of seeing that people who are contrary to ourselves and in doing understand reality. By way of example, this is what universalising the belief can mean: When an Atheist asks “What if one day you wake up and you find that you are Gay?” the answer provided must make sense in the context of both a world with and without a God. An answer that cannot make sense in both worlds cannot be universalised consistently. A response that suggests it is impossible because one is born again, is not consistent in both versions of reality and so must be discounted in favour for a better answer. A better answer might be “Then I am no longer saved and will go to hell”, however this might conflict with another view that once you are born again, you cannot lose ones salvation. Again these kind of questions must be answered and universalised.

Similarly an Atheists response to a question “How do we have morals if there is no God providing an objective standard?” must work universally in a world with and without a God. For example, one possible response may be that Objective Morality does not require a God to exist, which is summed up by: “Is something morally because god commands it or does god command it because it's moral.” In the former, if moral values exist because God commands them, then they are not Objective, but capricious, since anything that is commanded immediately becomes moral regardless. In the latter, God is simply a messenger and irrelevant to what morality actually is. Thus, for objective morality, God is simply not required, but a hindrance. This simple idea is easily universalised with and without a reality that contains a God.

The action of universalising ones beliefs has profound implications. We are no longer grounded in a world of cause and effect only able to interact with the world around us. Once you go beyond the immediate and engage with the hypothetical, then all possible worlds and outcomes become just as real as the events that never actually happened. “What if”, thought experiments, can answer all sorts of significant questions without ever having to occur. For example, one economic fallacy known as broken window theory exposes why jobs that never come to exist due to a detrimental event are no less real and can still affect an economy as much as jobs that do exist (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hXC9FI1nAqs). Now of course the oversimplification of the video assumes that the baker would not simply save his money and not spend it, but the idea that unseen or unknown jobs can be as real as jobs that actually exist is the universalising of a problem in all possible scenarios that we must attempt. It is not enough to answer questions in this particular universe, but we must consider all possible universes that might have existed also when answering a question.

Conclusion:

I have attempted to show that to understand an Atheist or for an Atheist to understand a Christian, then a universal train of thought should preferably be adopted and that responses to each other’s questions must be made consistent in all possible versions of reality; not just the ones we happen to believe in or are comfortable with. Empathising with others is a central doctrine to humanity in general so we should embrace opportunities to do so. Although, I have created an arbitrary division of Atheist and Christian (quite cheekily) for the sake of argument, there is no reason to suggest that this mode of thinking should not transcend to all methods of empathetic thought when dealing with other people.

If you want to engage a little more with me, please feel free to jump onto Facebook chat, ask I attend your church or mosque or have coffee with you… or if you are also curious and enquiring join the South African Skeptics group, which I am a part of, that values evidence and critical thinking over bias or preconception. Thanks goes to my Agent Bronwyn Ansell for her hard work and dedication in editing my pithy ramblings.

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