November 2, 2005

An Alliance With Progressive Christians

In a recent post over at It Ain't Necessarily So..., Sportin' Life got me thinking about the issue of atheists working with progressive Christians. This post seemed to echo my previous thoughts on the topic, but reflected concerns I didn't properly address.

In order to come together in a productive working relationship with Christians, we atheists would need to keep our criticism of religious belief to ourselves. Obviously, attacking the beliefs of those with whom we are trying to cultivate a relationship is not going to be helpful. If that makes you uneasy, try looking at it this way:

Our eventual goal of helping society move beyond the need for religious belief is a long-term goal. On the path to this goal, there are many steps, some of which are likely to require the support of progressive Christians (e.g., combating Christian extremism, limiting the political power of evangelicals, etc.). These goals steps are important enough that we can certainly afford to be courteous in our interactions with progressive Christians.

If you are having a negative reaction to this, I think I know why. Let me present three points which may ease your concerns. First, for this to work, we would expect such courtesy in return. If we are to keep our criticism of religion to ourselves in the interest of cohesion, the progressive Christians must similarly keep their criticism of atheism or proselytizing to themselves. Fortunately, I don't expect that this would be a problem for most moderate Christians. Second, limiting our criticism of religion in this particular context in no way requires us to change our beliefs or suggests that our criticism must be limited in other contexts. When you co-worker tells you that her father died yesterday and her only consolation is knowing that he is "in a better place," you don't choose that moment to criticize her faith, do you? And the fact that you don't choose that particular moment doesn't mean that you have suddenly become a Christian, a sell-out, or have otherwise compromised your beliefs, does it? In fact, your willingness to keep your mouth shut out of respect for your co-worker's feelings probably has nothing at all to do with your feelings about religion. See the parallel? Third, I seriously doubt Sam Harris goes around challenging religious faith in every interaction he has. Isn't it far more likely that he is a fairly normal person in his personal life and reserves his critique for his professional life?

We often criticize the moderates for not speaking out against the fundamentalists. Maybe by developing an alliance with them, we can model such opposition and arouse their desire to speak out.

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