November 10, 2018

Atheist-Theist Dialogue: One Obstacle

flamingos talking
Is it possible for atheists and theists to have a meaningful dialogue? I don't mean just to talk to one another - I think we all know that is possible. I'm thinking more about being able to have meaningful discussions about religion that can sometimes change minds. Forget for a second whether such a dialogue would be beneficial or even desirable and consider whether it is possible. If so, what might it look like?

As atheism becomes more common, this question will be asked more frequently by both atheists and religious believers. Assuming we decide that it makes sense to try to talk to one another, how do we do it? What kinds of things are likely to get in our way when we do it? Whatever the obstacles are, how can we prevent them from getting in our way or overcome them when they do get in our way?

I see many potential obstacles that make atheist-theist dialogue difficult, but I'd like to mention one big one here. I pick this one because I think it is probably the most significant. I also pick it because I suspect that most of the other obstacles I can think of could easily be subsumed under it. And finally, I pick it because I am not at all sure what it would take to overcome it.

The obstacle I have in mind can be illustrated best with the following quote from Daniel C. Dennett (italics added for emphasis):
"...can we public atheists have productive conversations with believers? Certainly. We can discuss every issue under the sun...respecting each other as citizens with honest disagreements about fundamental matters that can be subjected to reasonable, open inquiry and mutual persuasion... As long as those who are believers will acknowledge that their allegiance gives them no privilege, no direct line to the absolute truth, no advantage in moral insight, we should be able to get along just fine."
I told you it was a big obstacle! I think that Dennett is correct here. As long as religious believers insist that their faith counts as some sort of special knowledge, that they are the only ones capable of being moral, and that they alone have "the truth," it is difficult to imagine meaningful dialogue.

Of course, that does not mean we should not try to communicate with religious believers. It is important to remember that many former religious believers were aided in their de-conversion by encountering atheists who were willing to talk to them. And even those of us who did not have this experience can probably imagine how helpful it would have been.

An early version of this post appeared on Atheist Revolution in 2007. It was revised and expanded in 2018.