Consortium of:

Towards Better Disagreement: Atheists and Interreligious Dialogue

  July 30th 2021

Prof. Paul Hedges

The discourse about atheists and religious people and how to bring both of these group into inter-religious dialogue may seem a very unique and interesting topic of discussion and research, because those identifying with religion and those identifying with atheism often seem locked in misunderstanding of one another. However, against fierce rhetoric on both sides, common grounds for agreement can be found. Better disagreement between the two sides requires at least three things. First, a more educated and balanced understanding of the Other is needed beyond ‘strawman polemics.’ Second, the recognition that since neither religious nor atheist worldviews will disappear, a search for areas of cooperation is required. Third, we must seek a deep humility that acknowledges that as human beings we can never have certain knowledge, therein avoiding dogmatic apologetics and developing an appreciation for the voice of the Other. This presentation entitled ‘Towards Better Disagreement: Atheists and Interreligious Dialogue’ was delivered by Dr. Paul Hedges in Wednesday Forum, a weekly discussion hosted by ICRS and CRCS UGM on 28 April 2021. This presentation is based on his book, Towards Better Disagreement: Religion and Atheism in Dialogue (2017). Hedges is Associate Professor in the Interreligious Relations in Plural Societies Programme, RSIS, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. His research areas include interreligious studies, comparative theology, and theory and method in the study of religion. He has published fourteen books and over seventy academic papers. His two latest books are Understanding Religion: Theories and Methods for Studying Religiously Diverse Societies (California University Press, 2021) and Religious Hatred: Prejudice, Islamophobia, and Antisemitism in Global Context (Bloomsbury Academic, 2021).

At the beginning of his presentation, Hedges explained that the title of his book came up while he tried to make sense of various responses to a group of people who are often known as the new atheists. He first envisaged this top while reading some ideas, for example, from Richard Dawkins and especially related to his book The God Delusion and Christopher Hitchens and his book God is Not Great. Alongside other prominent figures and for the last two decades Western Anglophone media spaces and public debates escalated with ferocious vitriol against religion, positioning an eternal battle of superstition and faith against science and reason, and suggesting that religious traditions are the villains responsible for most of the ills of humanity.  This attack is the background for this discussion of the book. 

Furthermore, in many ways, while the works of those prominent writers were fantastically good rhetoric, Hedges argues that many of them are often poor in understanding. Indeed, in response to Richard Dawkins book, The God Delusion, the British Marxist literary critic and scholar Terry Eagleton who is also a well-known as an atheist wrote a scathing review suggesting that much of Dawkins attack has failed simply because he did not understand his target. Dawkins, himself, even publicly said that he did not need to understand or study religion to attack and demolish it. However, things are not always much better on the religious side. Hedges also argued that on the other hand, several prominent scholars had written responses to the new atheists. Yet, even figures such as Prof. Alister McGrath, Keith Ward, and Tina Beattie often portrayed a lack of knowledge of the atheist tradition or were simply apologetic without trying to empathize or understand where the other side came from and no side took the other one seriously or sought for points of agreement or try to find out where the stereotypes came from and how they could be laid to rest. This condition is leading to a lot of heated conflict between the two groups. However, Hedges believes that once everybody can begin to understand one another then they would a neutral and safe common ground could be found. As the title of the book suggests, what was needed is that people in these debates learn to disagree better

According to Hedges, as he writes in his book, better disagreement consists of several elements. First, we need to understanding the Other's ideas, arguments, worldview, and start our critiques from solid grounding. Second, we must be willing to listen first to see where the Other is coming from, such that there is some empathy and understanding of why quite reasonable people could see the world in a very different way. Third, there must be an openness to admit legitimate criticism that the Other has of your tradition and its ideas. And fourth, there must be a willingness to agree that not everything about the Other is completely wrong and abhorrent, and, so, finding that on at least some things could form a certain amount of common ground. However, regarding the last point, Hedges argues that as far as we can see religious traditions and atheist traditions will persist in our world for a long time to come, and so it’s simply pointless to just shout at each other. Rather, people need to meet on many grounds to work together, and the environmental crisis is one of the main issues in addition to the still-raging COVID-19 pandemic.

Why is this kind of approach and common ground better than the cumbersome terminology of people who identify with religion and people who identify with atheism, often simply said to be religious people and atheists? There are several layers of the answer to this question. First is to overcome a common aspect of the debate which is that they have a group labeled as religious people, who could be concussive to another group labeled as atheists. This language is a form of injury and an out-group identifier to demarcate two clearly defined units. And particularly from the new atheists-inspired camp, there can be some stereotyping. Religious people often signify low intelligence, anti-science, use faith against reason, and are superstitious. Meanwhile, atheists are believed to signify high intelligence, pro-science, use reason rather than faith, and are fact-based. On the other hand, religious people understand religion to signify morality, trustworthiness, generosity, goodness, and as agents of God. Meanwhile, atheists are seen as immoral, untrustworthy, ill-spirited and mean, and agents of Evil. However, if this kind of paradigm is operated, it is very hard to find any agreement or to see any merit in the statement of the opponent. Neither of the stereotypes can help to see the particular pathways of any person who identifies with either religion or atheism and their integrity as a human being.

The second problem lies in the terminology of religion and atheism. To critique the concept of religion is essentially a product of a modern Western and Protestant imaginary and it has been found in various permutations from Wilfred Cantwell Smith’s classic work The Meaning and End of Religion (1963) up to very recent works critical of religion which argue that the term religion should be disposed of altogether as a scholarly concept. Thus it is clear that religion may include a variety of different traditions and assumptions about what those traditions are, for instance, is Confucianism a religion? In Indonesia, Confucianism is one of six recognized religions, but in Singapore, it is normally seen as a philosophy or a cultural complex of ideas and not a religion. Many scholars have spilled into this issue and variously argued that Confucianism is a religion, a political philosophy, or a form of secular humanism. Furthermore, depending upon our definition of religion, Buddhism or Christianity or even new atheism also may or may not fit into a certain definition. The point is, if we cannot define the concept of religion as there are different weights and connotations, than it is more challenging to speak about religious people, and of course, it is also applied to atheism. People may say this is an easier term to define but a simple definition may give a wrong impression. If a-theism is simply define as the one who denies a Deity, this is not necessarily what atheism is about. After all, with this kind of definition, even Buddhism may also be included as a part of atheism. Hence, if one works within a certain culturally conditioned set of terms, then, of course, the language of religious people can be seen and conceived.

The third problem is if religious people or religious groups are positioned as opposed to the secular and scientific rational types. However, this kind of thought is easily proven wrong, because some figures defy that stereotype. Isaac Newton was one of the great figures in the rational development of modern science and the rationalist worldview but he was a deeply religious person, greatly interested in the pursuit of alchemy and also the detailed study of the Bible. Another example is Taqi ad-Din Muhammad ibn Ma'ruf ash-Shami al-Asadi. He was a Muslim astronomer and mathematician working in the Ottoman Empire. He combined his deep religious faith with a deeply scientific and rational outlook on the world. One other figure that can be taken as an example is Hugo Grotius, a Dutch jurist who in the 17th century advanced the notion of working "as if there were no God" which may sound like a deeply atheist and secular principle. However, actually, for Grotius, it was a pragmatic way of dealing with disputes between Protestant and Catholic rulers and nations. This was helpful in the international sphere of Europe in which different theological interpretations would not hinder how people work together or stand in the way of peace. Nevertheless, Grotius was a deeply pious Christian and a keen scholar of the Bible. Throughout history many of the leading scientists, engineers, lawyers, and philosophers were deeply committed to religious stances and this inspired their work. From these various examples, it is clear that there is a need to clarify the language or the terms before the discussion of certain matters begins. Hedges made an interesting and pivotal argument: “If the words we use lead us astray, then we need to start looking at those words. The name by which we name the other should be our starting point because it is a key part of disagreeing better, because to start to see the other outside the boxes we have made for them and it shapes what we see, what we fail to see and what we are mistaken in seeing. Without this, everything else is much harder."

Moreover, Hedges explains that in his book Toward Better Disagreement the rational foundation is that much of this disagreement has happened because people often fail to see that their individuality and particular perspective, but honestly from the atheist side or even religious side, there was more misunderstanding and ignorance about religion than there was about atheism. In the Western context, the discourse where the new atheists and critiques developed and where atheism is a well-known phenomenon and atheist books can readily be found, the discourse will be very different when compared to Southeast Asia and elsewhere. In these regions, the problem may be the opposite because religion is more well-known, but atheism is little known. Often it is hard to find an atheist and hard for atheists to speak openly and frankly about their stance. Thus to see, know, or talk to atheists and to understand them is the problem. The misunderstanding of atheism itself can be seen in some questions: Is atheism the dismissal of an all-powerful creator/deity figure or something more or less?; Are atheists immoral, and is atheism the denial of morality and ethics?; Do atheists seek to undermine society and lead to nihilism?; Is atheism only a modern, western and secular worldview?; Are atheists the enemies of religion and all that it stands for?; Do people become atheists because of belief in evolution and science?; Can an atheist be involved in interreligious dialogue or because it involves religion must they be excluded? These seven questions are not the only ones that could be asked and of course, there is some overlap between them.

Some people, even academicians, may be very dismissive of atheists. Some of them may suggest that there are no valid reasons why somebody might leave their religion to become an atheist and accuse that there was no basis for moral and ethical matter as there was not a universal ground for model values for atheists even though morality is simply pragmatic, loved, and foundational for many atheists. Even some also believe that their ideological choice meant that relativism and nihilism were the outcomes of their worldview. However, the first thing that needs to be remembered while discussing these questions is that atheists are not monolithic, and there are no simplistic ways to conceive them. Hedges argues that it would be very reasonable for somebody to choose to leave their religion to become an atheist. For example, if someone had been sexually abused by a priest or religious leader (as it is can also found in many places globally), and if the hierarchies’ ranks blamed the victim or pressured them to silence. Therefore, the decision to leave religion is understandable in some cases. Furthermore, another reason may also be the corruption in many religious traditions, or movements of anti-abuse based around gender sexuality, class, race, and other aspects within religious institutions also contribute to pushing people away from religion because they want to reject those problems altogether.

Institutions and organizations may not represent the best teaching principles and values for tradition, thus rejecting the institution does not entail rejecting the tradition and religious values in their entirety. Nevertheless, traditions come to us only as mediated through people, the teachers, the examples, and complicate confidence around us. When these are called into question and they seem to be hypocrites or worse, becoming  suspicious of the beliefs and practices is neither unreasonable nor immoral. The pathway from religion to atheism can be undertaken for very good moral reasons. Sometimes becoming an atheist is not a rejection of religion or a deity, but it is just that religion is not on the horizon, because it is not something that many people pay much attention to, because in some places like the old East Germany, Sweden, New Zealand, or Czechoslovakia being religious is a margin of life choice. For young people, it is hard to see why it is an option they may consider. Are they bad people for having been born in places where there is no serious option? Globally, the top ten ranked nations on that implementation of social welfare for the poor and with low corruption level but high justice in society at large are interestingly secular, liberal, and democratic countries, often with the highest level of atheism. It is rare for Muslim majority nations or religious majority nations to even break into the top 30. In Southeast Asia, Singapore always fairs better, in this case, compared to Malaysia and Indonesia. Hence, it is doubtful that atheism is not aligned with morality. Even in traditions such as humanism, atheists have developed their values and principles of ethical living and behavior and religion is certainly not the foundation for this nor does it provide a bulwark against misbehavior. Regarding the concept of deity and how it is differentiating religious people and atheists, according to Hedges, the concept of deity is closely related to the effort of conceiving how or why we are here with nature. This kind of thought is also closely related to the scientific effort of explaining the formation of the universe and the earth as a part of it with all creatures that live within it. From the religious side, for example, the three Abrahamic religions, there is a tendency to explain how and where the creation and evolution process fit into god's plan for creation.

Interestingly, Hedges also argues that from the atheist side it is clear that not all religion is equally bad. Because of various orientalist stereotypes, Hinduism and Buddhism are often presented in the West as peaceful even pacifistic traditions which are favored in the Western context while Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are often positioned as bad religions, particularly amongst the new atheist polemic. Throughout history, in Europe, there also exists a savage image of Muslims, intent on destroying Christian Europe, and this today haunts both its religious and secular imaginaries. Hedges then argues that overcoming Islamophobia in many places seems like the key part of the dialogue that seeks to bring together those identifying with religion and atheism. In each case, Islamophobia or Atherophobia are fueled by stereotypes, ignorance, and a sense of us versus them social identification that relates to threat perception and imagined enemies. However, the actual lives and beliefs and practices of individual atheists reveal their experience of prejudice. Again, atheist identity does not entail immorality or legalism, neither are they inherently hostile to everything that is identified with religion

Finally, regarding the issue of dialogue between religion and atheism, Hedges finds that both religion and atheism cannot be in dialogue, because the system cannot have dialogue, but people can. Only specific people with their specific ways of living may be involved in dialogue. The dialogue then is always the meeting of individuals with their own worldviews, and any interreligious dialogue is not a dialogue of religion but a dialogue of people with particular forms of identification. Therefore, Hedges suggests using the term inter-worldview dialogue, rather than inter-religious dialogue. Inter-worldview dialogue maybe feels cumbersome, and it is certainly not a perfect term but it stresses the most important point that people may not see the demarcated borders between those things labeled as religion or atheism. However, within this kind of perspective, more things can be done, for example, social work inspired by people's world views or to discuss ethical issues or, even from the religious side, to share a form of mindfulness prayer and meditation because there is nothing inherent in any of this that restricts identification of atheism and inclusion within it.