Atheosplaining

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I love you, but your incessant atheo-splaining is tiresome.

I’ve been watching a bit of Bill Maher recently. I appreciate his wit when it comes to things like fiscal policy. But, like a junky, he can’t help but return to his true favorite compulsion–bagging on God. I’m not opposed to a sensible, respectful discussion of the merits of faith. What I object to is the constant strawman-ing wherein Bill first tells me what I believe, then tells me why that’s bad. A recent example is here. Bill tells Ross Douthat, conservative politico, NYT columnist and Catholic, that not believing all of the Bible is somehow cheating. The entire exchange is worth watching as Douthat articulates a very reasonable Christian position, but the exact wording from Maher is

If [the Bible is] not 100% true, I would say the whole thing falls apart.

Confronted with a Christian whose faith has room for things like evolution and a metaphorical interpretation of some of the Bible, Maher becomes suddenly desperate to put Douthat back into the comfortable box in which he’s used to putting theists. I’ve had a few of these conversations myself where I’m expected to defend, to an atheist friend or acquaintance, the faith of the last Christian she talked to. I know this is sometimes done in interest of time, because not many atheist have interest in the fine points of my faith. But I need you, atheist friends, to appreciate that Christians (or Muslims, or Jews, etc.) are not a monolith. There’s staggering variety in the beliefs of Christians worldwide. For example, returning to Maher’s statement, even among Christians in the United States who report attending church every week, only 54% think every word of the Bible is literally true.

People of faith are also surprisingly self-aware. I recall one conversation with a colleague in graduate school. I studied experimental physics which occasionally left us some down time while various things heated up or cooled down or measured this or that. In one such lull, my colleague, who knew I was a Christian turned the conversation to religion. He did not believe in God and ventured, sheepishly, to ask, “Have you ever thought that…maybe…you only…um…believe in God because that’s how you were raised?” This question, stated with such hesitation is riotously funny to me. Only the non-religious could assume that someone pursuing a doctorate in physics at a prestigious university could have grown up in a religious home and never pondered this question. He is a good friend and was only trying to spare my tender feelings, but his question grows out of the assumption that theists like me only believe because we haven’t thought it through.

I’ve dealt with this enough to coin a new term for this phenomenon. Hitching a ride on the recently coined “mansplain” I submit

atheosplain \ˈā-thē-ō-ˌsplān\ v.t. To begin your conversation with a religious person by first educating them on the tenets of his or her own faith.

I think especially with faith, which is often something people have come to through very long, winding and difficult paths, it’s important to allow people to self-define. Respect the journey even if you’ve arrived at a different destination. This advice applies to religious people, too. We should respect that atheists are on a journey as well. Atheists, you may be underestimating the interpersonal connection you’ll make by asking questions of a believer about their faith. Let’s talk. I promise not to preach (again, I can’t speak for all Christians) and to listen equally respectfully to your explanation of the source of your morality and the meaning in your life, whatever that be. Then, you can proceed to tell me why I’m wrong. And so, for you, Mr. Maher:

New Rule. If you’re going to tell me why my belief is ridiculous, you first have to take five minutes to understand what I believe.

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