Whenever I meet someone in his thirties who’s a rabid, frothing-at-the-mouth atheist, I look at him like he’s an adult who still yells at his parents or has unframed posters on the wall.
In college, I voraciously ingested all the great anti-theist scribes, from Christopher Hitchens to Richard Dawkins to Sam Harris, as if preparing for that one hypothetical argument with a religious person over dinner while everyone else awkwardly ate their meatloaf. It enabled me to roll my eyes at anything religious with the best of them. Little is more fun than smugly looking down on a group of people and saying cruel things about them with a feeling of righteous superiority.
Still, this unrelenting disdainful stance gets tired after a while and doesn’t stand up when dealing with actual human beings who can talk back. My once-rabid atheism evolved not into belief, but into a calm acceptance of the more faithful people I met, as I gradually came to understand what many non-believers fail to: You’re not smarter or stronger than religious people, and you don’t know something that they fail to grasp.
There’s probably a person of equal intelligence to you, who enjoys the same bands and movies and salad dressing, and maybe even looks a little like you, except he or she has faith. All of that person’s skepticism and doubt is simply pointed in the other direction.
You may not want to meet a person like this, because then you’ll think, “Jeff also hates the Warriors and thinks ‘Rogue One’ was the best of the recent ‘Star Wars’ movies, but he believes in God. What’s up with that?” I know how it feels, I’ve also met Jeff, and Sarah, and Mike and all sorts of similar folks whose faith I could not fathom.
This is not to mention those at far higher stations in life, like Francis Collins, the decoder of the human genome who converted from atheism to Christianity, or Georges Lemaître, the Catholic priest who first theorized an expanding universe. Can you confidently look down on them as deluded? If the two of you took an IQ test side by side, how soon before you started cheating off his paper?
Everyone needs to come to their “What do I know?” moment. It’s not simply the dismissal of religious people that reeks of unearned smugness, it’s the dismissal of any higher divine belief. The notion that you’ve finally cracked the multi-millennium religious instinct because you angrily read a New York Times bestseller is unlikely.
Whatever bible they follow, there is value in believers beyond what atheists smugly refer to as the “magic stuff.” An allegorical system of time-honored beliefs and practices that bind a community and restore the spirit is not something to be thrown away and replaced with making it up as you go along, as many do now.
Some of the negative qualities we ignorantly ascribe to all religious people are often equally represented by those who hate them. It’s not only the worst of religious people who can shift facts to suit narratives, or exhibit cultish following of a person or idea, or vote out of irrational fear. Bad people all around do; I did two of those this past weekend. It was a good weekend.
We all know the talking points that religious people trot out in their defense; the problem is many of these hold up. Yes, they give more to charity. Yes, non-theistic political movements are responsible for somewhat as many wars and deaths as religion. Yes, it’s enjoyable to make fun of Scientology.
That said, I still have no faith, and I think my non-belief will persist through any foxhole or disease or ecstatical life-altering event. And if you got me drunk enough in a religious debate, I might, in a moment of weakness, start spouting off the same stupid, anti-religion crap I did when I was 20.
But then I’d sober up, and maybe atheists should too. Because one day you may come across that religious double who’s just as smart as you, just as strong, and just as convinced of how wrong you are. What then?
You both won’t spontaneously combust if you listen to each other, and there are far better things to discuss anyway, like how both of your positions will probably change when the aliens invade Earth.