Reevaluating our motives for discrediting other peoples’ faith

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It’s difficult to go through college without getting into some kind of religious debate — or at least witnessing one. I’m not referring to a theological argument on the proper interpretation of a certain religion. Nor am I talking about a socio-political debate on topics like teaching creationism in schools, the influence that the Christian Right has over the Bush administration, or to what extent the waning of formalized religion has caused our society’s profligacy. Rather, I am referring to those heated disputes that take place over that big question: Is there a God, and who is He (he)?

We’ve all seen this type of religious debate among our fellow college students. Usually, it consists of one ardent atheist, one ardent religious person (usually a Christian since we live in the United States), and a few other people who are a bit more neutral and temperate in their beliefs. These nasty disputes can last for hours, each side desperately hoping to make his opponent realize his foolishness. At the end of all this rancor, the two people walk away just as steadfast in their beliefs as they were before the conversation began (by this point, the dispassionate participants are long gone). In other words, nothing has been accomplished.

We are all aware that turning an orthodox believer into an atheist and vice versa is next to impossible. Often with these arguments then, it seems that at best we waste a few hours of a precious Saturday night; at worst, we lose a friend. But when you think about it, these discussions can potentially have consequences that are much more severe.

One often wonders what would happen if a non-believer effectively persuaded the religious person to renounce all of his former beliefs and stop believing in God. The non-believer may feel smug and victorious for a while, but shortly thereafter, a deep remorse would set in. Through carefully reasoned logic and rhetoric, the non-believer would be effectively depriving this person of all those beliefs and ideals that once gave him such hope and contentment. And any moral human being would surely feel contrite for taking away another person’s faith. After all, some people would rather be robbed of all their possessions and property than lose their faith. This could be a crime worse than burglary!

It’s one thing if you believe that religion is the root of all evil, and that every religious person is somehow wreaking havoc upon the world. If you turn bin Laden into an atheist, I will personally thank you. It’s one thing if your friend is terrified that he might go to hell and spends every day confessing to a priest and you try to get him to tone it down a bit. There are many fine arguments to be made for wiping religion off the face of the Earth, and just as many for keeping it here. In other words, if your motives for converting a religious person are truly benevolent, then go right ahead. After all, then you’re no different from the religious groups who try to convert non-believers, who, for their general good will, do not fall under the scope of this criticism. (I will defend any group who proselytizes so long as they don’t do so forcibly or through manipulation.) Giving someone God is, by its very nature, more selfless and benevolent than taking someone’s God away. Moreover, it’s almost counterintuitive to think that all non-believers have altruistic motives in mind when they engage in these debates. I’m not exactly sure what motivates a non-believer to get another person to stop believing in his or her god, but I suspect it comes from the deeply rooted human desire to prove other people wrong, and feel oneself to be right.

This desire to kill another person’s god without any praiseworthy reason for doing so extends far beyond the world of the college dorm room. In his 2003 worldwide best seller, The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown sought to challenge the validity of the Bible and the very divinity of Jesus Christ, often using pseudo-history and folklore. Did Dan Brown have benevolent motives in mind when he wrote a book that risked robbing millions of people of their sacrosanct beliefs? Or did he just want to create a stir and be famous? And Dan Brown is not the only one — anyone familiar with the shelves at Barnes & Noble knows that there is an exorbitant amount of literature out there that advocates this conspiracy theory. Given the wide authorship and readership of these books, we can safely say that at least some people really want to turn Christianity on its head if not destroy it altogether — the question is: Why? Maybe these writers and their followers really do think that their research will hasten the way for a godless utopia — or maybe they just want to be able to tap a pious Christian on the shoulder and say authoritatively, “Did you know that Jesus had a wife?”

Obviously, we should never sacrifice historical inquiry, open debate, and freedom of speech to decrease the risk that we’ll trample upon someone else’s religious faith. Nevertheless, we should always evaluate our objectives in turning another person towards our own way of thinking. Are we persuading with our audience’s best interests in mind? We should deal with matters of religious faith cautiously, always mindful of where our research and rhetoric will lead us. And if you really want to engage in an often futile debate that can only help your opponent and the society around him, convince a Republican to become a Democrat.