A Challenge for Atheists and Believers – Will You Accept?

Hello friends,

I am inspired by Pascal. While I do not share all his strengths, I do recognize his character is an image that my best self desires to reflect. If that sounds like high-praise, it is. As an oncologist, his compassion is regularly exercised and deepened by his engagement with others in their time of suffering. He fights for them and his hope and solicitude are a bedrock in the face of their own mortality. If you’re on the fence about Pascal, please get down and embrace him. Even in his disagreement, he’s respectful because his understanding of other people and their reasoning is immense. The genetic parts of his personality have been cultivated by years of actively struggling to learn about those who differ from him – and that foresight and sacrifice is what I value so deeply.

A model to follow

A few years ago, Pascal invited my family into his home. When he found that my faith did not match his own, he invited me to breakfast. When I couldn’t afford to go, he paid for my egg and cheese burrito. When I avoided faith conversations, he waited patiently, week after week, growing a friendship over hours spent in the enthusiasm of shared interests. The bond formed quickly because he’d already taken the time to strengthen his knowledge in areas that I enjoy, and he continued to do so over time. It took months, but eventually I opened up to him about my lack of faith and he accepted me. He challenged me, he listened, and we communicated. I read some books he like, and he read some books I liked so we could understand how we each think. Through the investment of time and the effort to understand one another’s point of view – especially where we didn’t share it – we grew from our opposing poles and related to one another in a stronger way. That transition was easier to the degree that we already respected each other. He had that respect from me from the beginning, because he’s a human just like me. This blog is a continuation of some of those discussions in a way that encourages others to join in the respect we already share.

Pascal and I still meet for breakfast, but we rarely spend much time on shallow things. Our topics often meander, but they’re usually quite deep and earnest. This isn’t a recipe that will work in every situation for every set of two individuals with opposing views – but it worked for us. My point is, it wasn’t easy, but he hasn’t given up yet and I’m much better for it. His actions are the inspiration for the challenge to come. I believe that everyone needs at least one person like Pascal in their life, and needs to be a Pascal for others. Ultimate, that will raise the bell curve. So…

The challenge

1) Think of someone who disagrees with you on some world-view issue (especially if they do so strongly) and schedule a time and place to meet with them this week.

Right now, give them a phone call, voice mail, text, email, Facebook message, Tweet, or something, and let them know you want to meet over a meal in your home or at a restaurant this week or next (include some dates/times). Confirm the meeting and then leave a comment letting us know your meeting is scheduled and anything you want to discuss with us before you meet with them (don’t forget to use good judgment if it’s someone of your gender-attraction).

2) Meet with them and work on your friendship (don’t try to convert or de-convert or tackle the issue(s) you see as extreme right away).

Try to understand them and see the world through their eyes. Find some shared interests to work on for next time. Feel free to refer them to this blog (or a specific post) or any other blog or information that may lead to mutual respectful conversation. Try to talk about something deep before you leave to set that precedent. Be honest, authentic and humble with them when you do, recognizing that you don’t have all the answers and that at least some of your closely held beliefs, statistically, must be false in some way. Their position is worthy of respect because they’ve had different experiences than you. If you were born in their circumstances with their parents and environment and DNA you might believe exactly as they do. If you see their view as extreme, they probably see yours the same way, so try to get to understand theirs in the same way that you would want them to try to understand the legitimacy of your own. So try to understand their views that you think are extreme, but don’t force the topic at the first meeting if the timing isn’t right. Schedule another and another until your friendship builds the needed respect. If you’re a believer, pray for them. Also, whether you’re a believer or not, spend time thinking about how you can prioritize friendship and respect with them rather than the issue you want to understand. That will come with time.

Remember that your goal through all this is to genuinely understand your opposition by seeing the world through their eyes. Don’t count what your group says about people who think the way they do as “knowledge” about how they actually think. There are likely more straw men than true representations of your opponents arguments in the impassioned cries of your in-group, because straw men are easier to knock down. Go with an open mind and a heart that seeks to connect with the heart of a friend.

Don’t wait to respect them until what you hear what they have to say. Respect them now, because they are you in a different set of circumstances, and you are them. As they speak, listen to how your life might have been if, outside of your control, you were born in their circumstances instead of yours. Find a way to legitimize them as a person and to help them grow through your shared time and your shared humanity. Love them as yourself. It’s likely that meeting them on this level, with this heart, will bring them closer to you as well. If so, encourage them to use this model as they engage others.

3) After your first meeting, comment back here in a response to your first comment and let us know how it went. Try to set a follow-up meeting if possible and appropriate.

I’m immensely grateful that we have the ability and privilege to unite together in this blog and others to discuss theology and world-views, but if those ideas never turn into action, we’re stopping short of achieving the level of potential improvement we seek in the lives of our friends and perceived enemies. If we rise above differences and focus on humanity, and if we commit together to act in the world, we really can raise the bell curve.

I’ll start the challenge in a comment below. If anyone else joins me I’ll do something unique for them in a future post. 🙂

Have a great week!

Gentleness and respect,
–Russell

5 comments

  1. I just texted an acquaintance from church and invited him to meet me for lunch this week or next. He holds some strong views in favor of young earth creationism and seems to be somewhat antagonistic towards atheism. This may not be true, it’s just the impression we have so far.

    He does not know my position and I’m not planning to reveal it right away, though I desperately want to be up-front with him. Due to our family circumstances we are keeping our faith (or lack thereof) secret, so I’m not sure how this will go. All I’m planning is to make sure my heart is in the right place before we meet and then to become his friend by investing time in getting to understand him, as Pascal did for me.

    Whatever happens, taking the time to understanding him better will add to my knowledge of his experiences and his life, which will help me relate to people with his views a bit better. I used to be a convinced young earth creationist myself, but I don’t want to assume our reasons and experiences are the same. Each person is unique and there is still much to learn.

    Perhaps he’ll grow less fearful of atheists over our time together if that ever comes out, but that’s not the main purpose. I’m looking forward to a new friendship.

    Gentleness and respect,
    –Russell

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Good luck to you. :0)

    I have been engaging in this sort of dialogue (although somewhat less systematically than you suggest here) for the last few years, mainly because I’m pathologically incapable of keeping anything secret. I find that, most of the time, the actual encounter is much less terrifying than the imaginary one we create in our heads.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. Hello, dear. I accepted your challenge (in my own way), as you know, but I thought I would comment here, since the response to this post is kind of sad.

    I’m working on raising the bell curve in our hometown, and specifically in the K-12 school that cultivated my faith. I grew up in a Christian school and recently had my ten-year reunion there. Because of my reputation in my class, I was asked to speak in chapel during homecoming week on a panel of four students. Obviously, I was terrified–no one there knows about my blog or what I’ve been going through. After the initial light-hearted discussion and questions about academics, college, careers, and marriage/family, there was only time for one question that remotely touched on faith. The question was “What do you think about the [name of my school] ‘bubble’? Is it helpful or harmful, and why?”

    “The bubble.” The “Christian Bubble.” I had heard my school referred to in those terms so many times growing up, and as a student, it offended me when public school kids would accuse us of being stuck there in the bubble. I chose my words carefully, with deep respect for the teachers who had supported my faith and my education–most of them still there in the audience. I said that I thought that being in the bubble is helpful in some ways for a time. That bubble was a safe place for me where I learned to hide scripture in my heart and was prayed for daily. But while the other panelists spoke of how precious that “bubble” was to them and gave warnings not to take it for granted, I spoke of the danger of the bubble. I spoke of how the danger becomes evident when we step outside of its boundaries without realizing we’re not inside of it anymore, and we enter higher education or the workplace with the expectation that all others act as if we all remain in the bubble. When we live within such a membrane for so long, we forget how to engage the culture around us, and we become offended by everything. Gay marriage, women’s rights, climate science, and a freaking red ombre Starbucks cup–calling these things a “War on Christianity.” People die for their faith around the world, and we think a War on Christianity is happening in our local Starbucks?! I reminded them that, as the story goes, Jesus didn’t stand up for Himself and say “I’m offended” when His own cross was placed upon Him. I told them that they cannot engage a culture they are offended by–and that living in the bubble makes it easier to forget that Christ’s disciples will be known by their love, not by their offense at a world that doesn’t share their preferences.

    That was all I said–I didn’t speak about doubt or question the foundations that had been placed in my heart by the very people in that room. I didn’t accuse them of not discipling me well enough or of abandoning me as soon as I shook the principal’s hand on graduation day while receiving my diploma. But I did worry about the response–I was the only one who hinted at any negative aspect to “the bubble.”

    My high school principal (formerly a practicing lawyer) is now the leader of the entire school, and that’s who I targeted to meet your challenge. What better place to start than with the leadership of the school where my faith developed? It’s the first time I’ve opened up to anyone who knew me as a child–the risk had always seemed too high. Our conversations so far have been eye-opening for both of us, and we plan to get our families together over the holidays as friends–not just debate partners. As Toad said above, I really had nothing to fear–even in opening up to one of the most important people in cultivating my childhood and young-adolescent faith.

    I’ll try to remember to come back here, Russell, to keep your readers posted on the progress of the friendship–but I’m thankful that you encouraged me, both here and incessantly in person, to pursue it in the first place when I lacked the courage.

    Liked by 1 person

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