There is a modern religious thought pattern, called ecumenicalism, which is aimed at reconciling religious traditions or otherwise bringing them under the same umbrella. Greta Christina covers the basic premise of ecumenical religion in chapter 7 of her excellent book Why Are You Atheists So Angry? On its face, the ecumenical approach seems vastly superior to the violent interfaith clashes that have become the hallmark of the Crusades, much of middle eastern history, and indeed the Old Testament itself. Although many of those selfsame religions advocate violence against outsiders, most reasonable ethical systems would agree that, faced with the two choices, it is better to espouse a “live-and-let-live” policy than a “kill the infidels” policy. Indeed, most would agree that committing to violence is the same as admitting we have lost the argument.
However, ecumenicalism is also a false alternative to religious violence. It is also a mode of losing the argument. The ecumenical form of “reconciliation” is little more than “I’ll let you believe your nonsense if you let me believe mine.” Or worse: “We can both believe our separate nonsense as long as we agree to punish anyone who calls it nonsense.” It is the modern institutional form of “agree to disagree”. To nonbelievers: “agree to engage against only the faithless, not each other.”
While most anti-theists argue against religion on the grounds that religious beliefs don’t agree with reality (or don’t even intersect with reality), religions should in principle have the same kinds of disagreements with each other when they make conflicting claims. Indeed, anti-theists consider any clear interfaith conflict as a further point in evidence against the truth claims of those religions. Ecumenicalism is just another way the godless are frustrated to watch as anti-epistemology is perpetuated.
In a recent conversation with a friend of mine, I postulated that holy war might be on one end of a spectrum, with ecumenicalism on the other. More specifically: physically violent confrontation is one extreme, complete avoidance of confrontation is on the other. If approaches to religious disagreement can fall elsewhere on this spectrum, then taking only one of the two extreme approaches is a false dichotomy.
I asked her what she thought other alternatives might be, or if there were even others not on the spectrum at all. She suggested that the death of all humanity might be another choice. I admit I was shocked that I hadn’t thought of an approach that would be more extreme than holy war, but I suppose I just don’t have a believer’s imagination. Thinking more about how such a world view might be possible, it is clear that this is God’s exact approach in the Bible: when God doesn’t like how his creations are behaving, it is not out of character to commit genocide on a whole race or tribe, destroy their firstborn children, or even to flood the entire earth and start over with virtually a clean slate. Indeed, if it is true as the faithful believe that human nature is basically sinful, a utilitarian of any stripe would be hard-pressed to justify the continued existence of billions of our kind.
Fortunately, we are not yet forced by evidence to agree that the existence of humanity is a net negative proposition for the universe. Even if we allow that our species is somehow a cumulative blight in its current state, the case would also have to be made that there is no way for us to ever change our ways and earn our place in the “plus” column. Even the faithful have to agree that this possibility must still exist, or else God would have destroyed us all again; it is His way. It is unfortunate that some believers are actively trying to bring about the conditions they think their holy books foresee as the precursors to a “second coming”, but that is only yet another reason that the faithless feel compelled to act.
Not being extremists or fundamentalists, many atheists advocate and/or espouse a position closer to the middle of the continuum: we adamantly oppose violence of all kinds, especially religiously-motivated violence (including male and female circumcision, stonings, non-sparing of the rod, and other atrocities believers inflict on their own kind), but we also actively engage in confrontation of religious ideas. In a culture of religious freedom and free speech, our answer to religion is not to commit violence against it, try to outlaw it, or use any more force than the power of argumentation. C.S. Lewis, a favorite author of Christian apologetics, would probably agree with our approach (Till We Have Faces):
One of his maxims was that if we cannot persuade our friends by reasons we must be content “and not bring a mercenary army to our aid.” (He meant passions.)
Mano Paul writes about reconciliation, too. His biblical sources might be interpreted either way, but Mano apparently believes that Christians are only obligated to reconcile themselves with other Christians. Indeed, his interpretation seems even to be at odds with the the source material when he says:
Putting First Things First, we must first be reconciled with God and we must reconcile with other believers who may have offended us or whom we may have offended.
Whether or not it is necessary to reconcile with non-believers, Matthew 5:24 does seem unequivocal about the order of things: first set right with man, then return to worship. If the correct order is to first attempt reconciliation with God before settling with man, it would be easy to keep moving that goalpost forever and never take account of one’s fellows. Many Christians seem to agree that we can never live up to God’s standards, so a believer might spend his entire earthly life chasing God’s “friendship and harmony”, never taking the chance to settle differences with the rest of us.
In his Points to Ponder, Mano asks:
Are you reconciled with God? Are you reconciled with men/women? If not, stop your worship and first get reconciled before returning to worship. This is the best gift you can give God.
Atheists have few uniting principles beyond a disbelief in gods. Rationalists and skeptics work toward a world in which poor epistemology is eradicated because we believe the power of science and technology is responsible for the greatest reductions in pain and suffering in human history. The power of these forces is only hindered by archaic and irrational belief systems. We hope that Mano will attempt to settle and resolve his differences with the faithless, because we want him to be a part of the forward progress of humanity (not the backward downforce of antiquity), and we believe the result of that reconciliation is that he will see that atheism is the more reasonable position to take on the question of gods.
If nothing else, the only way we learn new things is to discuss them with those that don’t believe exactly as we do. Perhaps the reconciliation will even bring nonbelievers closer to his god.