Atheists & Christians discuss civility

osuatheists400In my apologetics class this past week, we discussed the COEXIST bumper sticker. I was making the point that not all of the religions on the bumper sticker can be true at the same time without denying the law of non-contradiction. Then one lady said that she would almost put the sticker on her car, not because she believes that all of the views can be true at the same time, but because she believes that we all need to be more respectful in our discussion with people of opposite views.

This same lady sent me a link to the conversation that occurred on Tuesday evening of this week at OSU (Oklahoma State University). Clayton Flesher and Red McCall, two gentlemen from the Oklahoma Atheists, had a conversation with Stuart McAllister and Andy Bannister, two gentlemen from Ravi Zacharias International Ministries entitled:

An OSU Open Forum –Perspectives: Maintaining Civility in a Pluralistic Society

Andy Bannister gave the most organized speech describing civility with these 5 points:

1. Recognize the right to belief.

We each hold beliefs, what we think is true. The government can’t regulate our beliefs. And while the government may try to protect our life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, it cannot do so absolutely. Our life, freedom, and pursuit of happiness can be taken away, but no one can force us to give up our beliefs. We can’t make someone believe something or disbelieve something, and shouldn’t try. God doesn’t force our beliefs. We should interact with others respecting their beliefs.

2. Show generosity.

Give your opponent the benefit of the doubt. Interact with the strongest form of their position, not the weakest. Recognize the contributions of other worldviews. Andy gave the example of atheist Matthew Parris who believes that Africa needs the belief in a personal God to crush tribal groupthink, and claims that

Removing Christian evangelism from the African equation may leave the continent at the mercy of a malign fusion of Nike, the witch doctor, the mobile phone and the machete.


3. Be accountable for your words.

James 3:6 tells us how the tongue can set the whole course of our lives on fire. Be careful how you use words, especially in debate about truth. You can cause personal damage and close people off from the truth through reckless words.

4. Reflect on our shared humanity.

Andy said that the primary question of the evening might be “What does it mean to be a human being?” Clayton defined a human being as “an animal who can ask questions other animals can’t.” Andy said that being made in the image of God defines what it means to be human. So although there was no agreement, even at this basic level, Clayton said that both sides agree that most humans share basic moral values, a desire for meaning in life, a desire for community and a desire to make the world a better place, although Clayton admitted that the reasons for these shared values are not at all the same.

5. Pursue a commitment to truth.

Truth should be the goal, rather than winning a debate. If we pursue truth, we will be more apt to listen with the goal of understanding, rather than formulating ammunition in our minds as someone else speaks. Seeking truth means we demonstrate humility, but it also means that we show courage. Courage to speak the truth clearly and uncompromisingly, without losing the respect part.

The evening was set up as a conversation – not a formal debate. It was interesting to me that the views on both sides came out quite clearly, even without a debate structure. And it was also clear to me which side seemed to have the stronger position. But the first questioner of the Q&A time came to the microphone and in a rather disgruntled way said: “Well that was the lamest debate I’ve ever seen. So I want to ask the Christians – ‘What is your proof for God?’ and I want to ask the atheists – ‘What is your proof that there is no god?’ ” Both sides got to exercise civility toward this questioner who obviously misunderstood the entire evening.

Andy’s five points of civility remind me of how I Peter 3:15 tells us to defend the hope that is within us, yet with gentleness and respect. I think we all know this; we just have to remember it.

So even though all truths don’t COEXIST, our civility ought to.

~ Betsy McPeak

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