Debating a Dead Horse
It's not often that I find wisdom at Jimmy John's. Tasty sandwiches, sure, but not usually wisdom. Today at Jimmy John's I was reading a sign on the wall while waiting for my lunch. It was one of those corny signs about life lessons, but in amongst the more and less amusing quips and clichÃ©s I found this: "People who are interested in telling you about their religion usually aren't interested in hearing about yours."
That's about right, I thought. The Jehovah's Witness on the doorstep is not likely to be very enthused if the prostelytize-ee becomes the prostelytize-er and starts talking about the importance of having the proper relationship with Lord Krishna.
But what about atheists? Where do we fit in this little scheme? I have to admit that I'm not very interested in hearing about most people's religious beliefs. Most of the time I feel like it's all old wine in new bottles - the same stuff I've heard before from someone who is convinced that they are explaining things to me for the first time, and if they explain it right that I'll come around to their way of viewing the world. And am I interested in telling them about my beliefs? To be honest, probably more often than I'm interested in hearing about theirs, but I like to think that my aims are a little different.
I'm bored of having debates with religious believers. Really. Been there, done that. When I was trying to figure out what my worldview was, and I was exploring all sorts of ideas, I found debates very compelling. They were a way that I could think through things I hadn't thought through before. They were a way that I could test my emerging worldview and see if it held up. But now, I've got to say that my mind is pretty well made up. Sure, if presented with absolutely extraordinary evidence, it's subject to change, but I wouldn't bet on that happening.
I love debate, don't get me wrong. I was on a debate team in high school and in college, and I even coached some high school debaters for awhile. But when people want to debate with me about religion these days I feel like they aren't really open to changing their minds. And I admit, I'm pretty sure they aren't going to come up with an argument that will convince me either. If neither of us is participating in the exchange with the idea that it could result in a change in our position, then what really is the point?
Does this mean that I don't want to talk with religious folks? No. Does this mean that I don't want to talk with them about religion and metaphysics? No, it doesn't mean that either. It just means that I don't want the terms of the conversation to be an argument to try to convince the other party that one of us is right. I'm bored of that conversation. I've had it too many times.
How do I want to talk with religious folks instead? I could use a little less debate and a lot more dialogue.
I want to talk about public policy. I want to find out what religious people think about the issues of the day, and how they think religion should interact with those issues. I want to find out what they think about separation of church and state. I imagine the answers will vary a lot from person to person, and I want to see if we can be allies on issues that matter to me, even if we disagree about metaphysics.
But I don't want to avoid metaphysics either. I want to talk about how useful naturalism can be for finding the answers to questions. I want to talk about how people can be good moral people without a belief in God. I want to talk about these things, not with the idea that I will convert someone to atheism, but with the idea that they'll walk away from the conversation understanding a little more about what atheism is and who atheists are. I don't want to convert them, I just want let them know where I'm coming from. I'm happy to listen to where they are coming from too, if they play by the same rules and don't try to convert me. Like a lot of atheists I know, I'm fascinated by religious beliefs and practices, and I'm happy to listen to people talk about them - as long as they aren't trying to tell me that I have to accept them.
Amanda K. Metskas is Executive Director of Camp Quest, Inc., a secular summer camp. She graduated from Brown University in 2002, and is currently a Ph.D. candidate in political science at Ohio State University. Amanda is a member of the Secular Student Alliance, and a contributor to the eMpirical. She is married to August E. Brunsman IV, the SSA's Executive Director. Their essay about Camp Quest appears in Parenting Beyond Belief, a remarkable new book on secular parenting.