July 2, 2009

Can Atheists Participate in Interfaith Dialogue?

The Resurrection—Tischbein, 1778.Image via Wikipedia

In a comment on one of my posts on atheist-theist dialogue, J. R. Miller directed me to a related post on his blog, More Than Cake. After noting that there is a conflict within Christianity as to whether interfaith dialogue "has led some Christians to value appeasement over proclamation of the Gospel," Miller provides a list of eight conditions which he feels would be helpful in promoting effective dialogue.

I know that many of you will be tempted to immediately discount the idea of atheists participating in interfaith dialogue because you recognize that atheism does not involve any sort of faith. Fair enough. Still, I find Miller's conditions worth a look. Perhaps they have implications for productive atheist-theist dialogue. I wonder how our conditions would compare if we were to draft a similar list?

I also realize that it is difficult to get past some of Miller's assertions. Right off the bat, he presents us with this gem:
We cannot escape the necessity of our age to engage the culture with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
This takes me back to my thoughts on the topic of proselytizing as compulsion. But I do find myself agreeing with at least some of his conditions.
Condition #1. Deal with the past, but don’t hold individuals responsible for it
If one is attempting to engage in meaningful dialogue with Christians, I see how bringing up references to the Crusades isn't likely to be helpful. Of course, Christians trying to claim that their religion has been good for the world may need reminding that this claim is not without great controversy.
Condition #2. Express agendas with honesty
I really like this one. Dialogue does indeed work better when agendas can either be set aside or at least brought out in the open. Unfortunately, Miller does not appear to care much for the idea of setting agendas aside.
My agenda is to share the salvation hope that comes only through the death and resurrection power of the Messiah–Jesus. This, for me, is the context for interfaith dialogue.
I don't know about you, but this is likely a deal breaker for me. Miller seems to be saying that he is either unable or unwilling to set this aside. I'm not sure how atheist-theist dialogue can proceed from this point.

But what about the atheist agenda? Well, there really isn't one, at least not one so organized or commonly accepted as Miller's. Some atheists simply want to be left alone (i.e., they don't want to hear about the "Messiah-Jesus"), others primarily want to secure atheist rights, and others work toward the gradual decline of religion's power. We're all over the place! If those of us open to the possibility of atheist-theist dialogue share a common agenda, my guess is that it would involve things like encouraging rational thought, presenting an alternative to belief in the supernatural, and attempts to demonstrate the error behind many atheist stereotypes.

We encounter a big stumbling point in Miller's explanation of Condition #5:
As a Christian, I believe in truth. I believe we can know truth. And I believe the truth is found in the person of Jesus Christ who lived, died, and rose from the dead 2000 years ago. BUT, knowing the Truth that is Jesus Christ, does not mean I have all the answers to every question of life.
This feels like a door being closed on the possibility of meaningful dialogue. I'm not sure where to go with this one. There is no evidence for anything close to the alleged resurrection of Jesus. This is a faith-based claim, and we know that faith is not a valid way of acquiring or verifying knowledge. Belief does not equal truth.

What do you think? What would atheist conditions look like, and is there any point to engaging in dialogue with someone who held onto Miller's conditions?

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