Many atheists acknowledge that they sometimes feel sorry for their Christian neighbors. But this sort of pity is not the same thing as empathy. How many atheists experience feelings of empathy for the believers surrounding them? Are such feelings beneficial, possibly contributing to effective dialogue, or do they get in our way?
Pity vs. Empathy
Pity amounts to feeling sorry for someone and often carries a condescending aspect. For example, one may pity Christians for their inability to live free from the delusion that nonbelievers have escaped. Nobody particularly wants to be pitied, as most are aware of the subtle insult it contains.
In contrast, empathy refers to a capacity to relate to another in a nonjudgmental, emotionally relevant manner. When we talk of walking in the shoes of another or seeing the world through someone else's eyes, we are close to empathy. However, empathy carries a vital emotional component in that the empathic persons is able to relate on an emotional level and not simply an intellectual one.
Empathic Understanding of Christians
When I attempt to relate to Christians in an empathic manner, I can begin to understand why atheists are so threatening. Most (if not all) Christians experience periods of doubt. Their faith conflicts with reality, and they are not immune to perceiving the conflict. I imagine that some of these times are scary. After all, many Christians will tell you that their faith is an important part of their identity. Questioning one's identity or encountering threats to how one has defined oneself provoke the sort of existential anxiety with which we can all relate.
We all experience our anxieties, or fears, and we know them to be unpleasant experiences. To reduce these feelings, we engage in all sorts of irrational thought processes and behaviors. These are part of the human condition and by no means unique to Christians. By recognizing them in ourselves, we can better empathize with Christians and perhaps gain insight into our own minds.
To manage the sort of anxiety that comes from doubting their faith, many Christians devalue atheism and criticize atheists. This often leads them to report a strengthening of their faith. If atheism has merit, Christianity, a core part of the identity of many Christians, could be false. Christianity must not be false because this would be too much of a blow to one's identity, and therefore, atheism can have no real merit.
To the outside observer, this seems like a sort of stubborn irrationality. It is irrational, and it does represent a rather primitive attempt to distort reality to preserve a flawed identity. But, whether we want to admit it or not, we should be able to relate if we are honest. Nobody enjoys the feeling that their worldview, indeed their identity, is crumbling. We all use denial and other irrational mechanisms on occasion to ward off uncomfortable feelings.
Atheist, Know Thyself
It is often said, at least within the histories of psychology and literature, that Freud's real contribution involved dispelling the myth of human rationality. Copernicus showed that we do not occupy the center of the universe. Darwin offered a natural explanation for the many species around us and how we fit into a larger biological system. Freud exposed the limitations of our own minds and provided a natural explanation for religious belief.
By bringing empathy to bear in our quest to understand the Christian mind, we are reminded that irrationality is part of the human condition. This may be an uncomfortable truth for many atheists, but I believe that it also offers an invaluable opportunity for us to "practice what we preach." As we encourage the Christian to set aside his or her denial and explore a reality free from delusion, we must be willing to do the same. We must face irrationality in ourselves and be willing to learn from it.
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