Dialogue with unbelievers: three hurdles for opponents of humanists

This edition first appeared in Humanitie magazine, Winter 2015 

Horns and forked tail? Dialogue is better than ranting, so why can’t we discuss core beliefs with unbelievers, says Dr. Stuart Hannabus:

We may often find ourselves speaking with unbelievers. They may not call themselves that. And we may not say so either. It’s just that that’s what they are or what we discover they are – or what they say they are. The term ‘unbeliever’ comes, of course, with baggage.

It suggests rejecting belief, and in one sense, since we all have beliefs of one kind or another, no one is an unbeliever. Yet in another sense one can clearly be an unbeliever. I don’t believe in an afterlife as you do as a Christian, you can’t accept Muhammad as the one true prophet, we don’t want (or think we need) a divine dimension to life, I think children should not be indoctrinated.

Perhaps unbelievers really are free thinkers, untrammeled by the dogma and superstitions of belief, especially if it’s belief in things where there seems no reliable empirical evidence, such as miracles. Perhaps they are atheists, denying God and gods, or agnostics, searching for answers and proceeding by inquiry or rationalists or materialists or whatever. Unbelievers then pun intended – are a broad church.

And, for all the appearance of rejecting things, of saying no to ‘God’, of being contentious about the supernatural, a lot of humanists are really quite positive. In fact, we speak of positive and not negative humanism – celebrating this life and not the next, being responsible and altruistic and citizenry, and being quite nice people on the whole.

Horns and a forked tail arc optional extras.

I noticed this in a recent dialogue with unbelievers. Dialogue is better than ranting. Empathy is essential for understanding. It’s good to know the size of the shoes of someone else even if you don’t plan to fit into them.

Three hurdles crop up and they’re likely to occur in any such encounter. The first is ‘we know best’. We live now not then. Long ago people believed all sorts of odd things – flat earth, dryads living in trees, the gods bringing thunder, and all that, but now we’ve grown up we scientifically look for valid and reliable evidence and use empirical inquiry to test everything, because everything is testable in this way. That’s why the supernatural drops off the edge of the reasonable – no one can prove it.

Divine encounters, holy scriptures and the rest of the paraphernalia of religion are pretty well shot today, even though some believers are quite nice. Live and let live I say. But some people are just irrational.

The second is ‘we don’t believe’. Or believe we don’t believe. Many reasons for this, most reasonable: whatever happened when we were kids, we’ve grown up now and can make up our own minds. How can you believe in things that aren’t there? Science can explain how things started – big bangs – and how things end – we die. I have a brain, even a mind, but not a soul. Come on now! What is all this talk of transcendence and being born again? Isn’t once enough? The third Is ‘why ask questions?’ If we don’t, we don’t get answers.

Humanists atheistic, agnostic, secularist should be good at asking questions – good questions at least. Like why believe, why cribs at Christmas, why the hajj and the holy hook, can we be good without God, can we trust technology and progress, why do you call chance providence? Should we remove religious privilege in a truly secular society? Isn’t there evidence to show that successful economic democracies are secular? Isn’t religion a root cause of war?

Add it all up and we have three hurdles that really do get in the way of open dialogue with unbelievers. Believers, you see are making different assumptions, looking for different evidence, asking different questions, coming to different conclusions. Believers do actually spend a lot of time on issues of doubt and truth and they ask lots of questions too. The hurdles I’ve had with unbelievers are ones believers have too. Perhaps you’ve faced them as well, whichever side of the divide you take. It would be a real pity, however, if dialogue stopped altogether. After all we might all be wrong.

Image courtesy: First Minister of Scotland, Creative Commons

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