10 Things Christians and Atheists Can (And Must) Agree On
(with commentary)

By: Dean Tersigni
2012-09-25

This is a commentary on an article by David Wong, which can be found here: http://www.cracked.com/article_15759_10-things-christians-atheists-can-and-must-agree-on.html. If you want this commentary to mean anything, please read his article first. In summary, I agree with most of what he says, but there are a few points of contention. One minor quibble was that it's directed at just Christians and atheists, as if those are the only possibilities, but I'm assuming he merely tailored his article to an American audience.

Introduction

I understand where Wong is coming from in the introduction--there is plenty of hate coming out of the two camps and that should be minimized. I'm not sure I completely agree with his assessment that if you're happy when someone dies, you're a bad person. When Saddam Hussein died, people were happy, and I think that was justified. Sure, we can probably all agree that it would have been better if he had seen the error of his ways and spent the remainder of his life doing everything in his power to make amends for his atrocities, but that wasn't going to happen, and I think we're all still a lot happier with him being dead. However, this is the extreme, and I certainly wouldn't say the same about someone who doesn't agree with my about the Big Bang model, which I think is what Wong is going for.

Also, I don't think most of the people who claimed to be happy about the death of Jerry Falwell were really as happy as they claimed to be on an Internet forum. People often say shocking things for the sake of being shocking, but if they were to look inside themselves, I'm sure most of them don't feel that way.

On to the points...

1.) You can do terrible things in the name of either one

Unfortunately, Wong makes a very common misunderstanding about atheism. Atheism is not a belief system, nor is it a world view, nor religion, nor philosophy, nor value system. Atheism is simply the lack of a belief in a god. Is not believing in something a belief system? Is not collecting stamps a hobby?

So, can you do terrible things because of atheism? Can you do terrible things because you don't collect stamps? Of course not. Atheism by itself doesn't make any value claims or tell you what you ought to do, and therefore can not be the basis of terrible things.

Now atheists, like all people, subscribe to a variety of belief systems. Some atheists subscribe to secular humanism, a belief system that tells people how they ought to behave, and from that they may do good or terrible things, but it is not due to atheism.

The author continues to mislabel atheism as a belief system throughout most of his article, so I won't belabor the point. Besides, later on he points out that he knows the distinction, and that he's really talking about rationalism in general.

A second issue I have is when Wong says we can't factually say that one belief system will cause better results than another; I disagree. Compare a belief system in which everyone is encouraged to murder each other in the most painful manner possible for no reason, to a belief system in which people are discouraged from murdering each other. It's not just my opinion that the latter is better than the former, it's a verifiable fact. Of course, actual belief systems are far more nuanced than that, but we can still make an obvious comparison. For example, the bible says that homosexuals should be bludgeoned to death with rocks, and a minority of Christians make that part of their belief system. Now, what if we copied that belief system and removed that one aspect of it while keeping the rest the same. At this point, the latter belief system is demonstrably better than the former.

2.) Both sides really do believe what they're saying

I completely agree.

3.) In every day life, you're not that different

The interesting thing about this, is that believers and non-believers do lead similar daily lives, but it's because they both act like non-believers. If theists pray for their car's transmission to be fixed, they're not expecting their god to descend from a golden cloud like in their scriptures, they're willing to attribute a generous repairman as evidence of a "miracle." Non-believers act the same way, only they don't invoke magic. However, it's when things get out of our control, that is where we have our differences. If your mother is diagnosed with breast cancer, both believers and non-believers will go to an oncologist, both will hope that their mother will be fine, but the believer will pray, and the non-believer won't.

As for the moral absolutes, I'd say the author has it backwards. The black and white absolutes of religions are not followed by anyone, not even the religious. The bible says lying is wrong, and both believers and non-believers would agree, but is it okay to lie to a Nazi who wants to kill the Jews hiding in your attic? Of course it is, and most believers will internally justify this even if their scriptures say lying is wrong. So, it is in fact subjective morals that people cling to in everyday life, not objective. Also, comparing a nipple slip on live television to a someone cheating on their significant other multiple times is not a fair comparison. One is an accident, the other knowingly violates a contract.

4.) There are good people on both sides

Of course there are.

5.) Your point of view is legitimately offensive to them

Indeed. No arguments here.

6.) We tend to exaggerate about the other guy

I agree that we do, and that it's not productive.

7.) We tend to exaggerate about ourselves, too

I agree with the bullet point, but Wong follows it up by saying there is a contradiction between a world without free will and using corrective behavior. This is a huge topic in and of itself, but suffice to say, I disagree with him on this point. Corrective behavior fits perfectly with a deterministic world, it is only retribution that does not.

8.) Focusing on negative examples makes you stupid

Yup.

9.) Both sides have brought good to the table

Finally, Wong makes a distinction between atheism and the belief systems behind atheism, showing that he does know the difference, which bothers me even more that he didn't state it right up front.

Also, he says that morality can't exist in a purely rational world. Sam Harris would disagree, as his book, “The Moral Landscape,” shows precisely how morality can exist in a purely rational world, and how it's intrinsically better.

However, I do like how he says that both believers and non-believers have people who are right for the wrong reasons.

10.) You'll never harass the other side out of existence

I certainly agree that being a good and tolerant person is they way to prove that your belief system is worthy of civilized society, but that by itself is irrelevant since we already agree with point 4 which states that there are good people on both sides. If we, as a society, want to discover the truth, then we must confront our ignorances. However, in confrontations, people are always going to get their feathers ruffled.

For example, evolution is a fact. However, most people in the US don't believe this. It's not because they understand biology, it's because they've been systematically told, by people they admire and trust, that it's false and evil. So, suppose you want to educate someone who doesn't believe in evolution, you not only have to teach them the science, but you also have to point out that everyone they know and love has given them incorrect information, and their world view is fundamentally flawed.

Back