For the last month, I had been getting to know a new professor at the graduate program where I was also a prof. We had many fun conversations so far, and I had helped him settle in and had driven him around to show him the town. During our talks, he would occasionally pepper his conversation with religious comments to which I would tactfully not respond. Instead, I would just translate his religiosity generously and let the conversation move on. Then suddenly, one day, he confronted me, “Sabio, what do you think about Jesus Christ?”
I knew where this conversation was probably headed. And I knew that if I was honest I might offend him, but if I was illusive or vague, he would only bring it up later. So before preceding with a frank answer I checked with him, “Are you sure you want me to tell you honestly what I think about Jesus?” He replied, “Yes!”
So I told my new friend my honest opinion: “I feel Jesus was just a person who was later mythologized and then deified by his followers. But I feel that belief in Jesus as a god can serve people very well if they use it correctly.” My colleague looked a little surprised and was quiet — did not respond. In fact he did not talk to me for about two weeks after that until I broke the ice and asked him, “Hey, what is wrong? You have been avoiding conversation for a while now?” He looked at me with irritated eyes and said, “Look, don’t you think it is rude for you to have told me that my faith is all a myth?”
I answered, “Look, I was honest with you. You asked me for my opinion. Besides, which is more rude: for me to tell you I think your faith may be a myth but may be useful for you. Or for you to quietly think that my beliefs sentence me to torture without end?”
My new friend looked at me with puzzlement, paused and then said, “You are absolutely right, I never thought of it like that.” And we remained good friends after that.
Concerning the generous translations I mentioned above:
This new colleague was highly educated and a very bright. When I heard him making religious statements in the beginning of our conversations, I could have said to myself, “What a whacko ! I can’t believe he believes that bullshit.” But instead, I knew he was not a whacko and though he may hold some presuppositions I strongly disagree with, I thought of ways to translate what he said into terms I could agree with and assumed he used these beliefs to serve himself and others well. See my post on Generous Translations.
However, of course my colleague could not reciprocate and that is what led to our conflict. In my colleague’s type of Christianity he could not generously translate my statements, because in his world I was damned for eternity and all my beliefs and good actions counted for nothing. There was not one ounce of generosity that he could afford me because my friend was an exclusivist Christian. Months later he embraced a more pluralist position in his Christianity which allowed us to be much more genuine friends.
10 responses to “Who is more offensive, Christians or Atheists?”
Sounds like you handled the situation much better than I would have. : )
“In my colleague’s type of Christianity he could not generously translate my statements, because in his world I was damned for eternity and all my beliefs and good actions counted for nothing.”
This inflexibility vaguely reminds me of a conversation I had with one of our local friends about the ontological status of Christianity. One of the things that has always bothered me with such firm religious convictions is how they are initially formed in the minds of the believer.
People rarely, if ever, adopt a religious belief based on a groundbreaking, clever new theological argument they read in a book. Instead, these transformations are emotional, brought about as a result of an experience juxtaposed with certain life circumstance. I don’t want to be too critical of this alone – we all probably do this – but what I really don’t like is how the believer can then so easily turn this around and claim that this revealed truth as they have came to know it automatically should be granted ontological value in a universal sense, applicable to everyone. There seems to be a psychological sleight of hand going on here: “this belief makes me feel good on a personal level, therefore is must be true in a universal sense.”
Like I said – this only loosely related to your post, but it seems that the exclusivist vs. pluralist distinction is related to this.
Do exclusivist personalities tend to be more selfish, in your experience?
I agree with you on how people agglutinate their web of beliefs. Yesterday, for instance, I was speaking to a woman who is Vegetarian. During a drug rep meal, she told the group why she was vegetarian, including health reasons, saving the planet etc. But it was clear that she had just recently started to read about vegetarianism and her rationales were weak. So I asked further and she finally confessed. “I was traveling in Brazil 2 months ago and all we had was beef for every meal. And a lot of the beef tasted real funny. So I was so disgusted by meat when I got home I avoided it — because now I could. I had some cool friends who are vegetarian so I decided to be vegetarian. But I only started reading on it.”
2 years from now she will forget this story and only remember the intellectual reason. Likewise, how many Christians can remember, that they became a Christian to get a girlfriend or to have friends or because of fond childhood memories. The blogging ones only remember the intellectual reasons.
To your question: I would bet that exclusivists, compared to pluralists do have certain personality tendencies — indeed, like most beliefs, their type of beliefs may be largely fated. Or maybe Calvin was right, god predestines us to be vegetarians.
Ha! Sabio, your comment about, “How many Christians became Christian to get a girlfriend” is AWESOME! SO TRUE!! We called it, “Missionary dating” when it went the other way: trying to attract the godless hotties to high school youth group.
I think most exclusivists have personal issues that exclusivism helps them validate/justify and it all fits neatly into a “baptized” package.
You really did handle your co-worker well. It’s continually amazing to me that intelligent, mostly-self-aware people remain so blind when it comes to their religious worldviews/godviews. “Of COURSE I want you to tell me what you really think!”
“But no, I don’t…”
Evangelicals have been fed a line (lie?) that Jesus is a “cure-all.” All you have to do is say his name enough, and anyone listening will experience a mind-altering shift in opinion.
Doesn’t work that way. Thank God.
Thanx for the note, Peter. Would you consider yourself an inclusivist, pluralist or universalist?
If we look at the question ‘who is most offensive’ then I have to consider motive. People can say things that others take offense to, but are not being offensive (your example is perfect in that respect), but others say things deliberately to cause offense. Unfortunately most people don’t seem to recognize the difference.
If a Christian honestly believes that someone is going to hell if they do not become a Christian then they are not trying to be offensive if they state the fact – how could they do otherwise. It would be like taking offense when the captain of the Titanic suggests you put on a life jacket.
However it is very clear that some people deliberately try to cause offense with what they say and write, and deliberately try to intimidate or irritate others into responding – like a fly buzzing round in your face that you can’t help taking a swat at eventually….
Unfortunately words can be extremely wounding, and I feel we should all respect each others views and treat each other as we would like to be treated….
The story is simple. The Christian asked me what I honestly thought and I said, “Your god is a myth, but I am sure he serves you well. And you and I will share the same fate at death.” And he was offended by that while he thought, “Sabio is damned to eternal torture for his wrong beliefs.” And he thought my answer was offensive. That is ironic.
My point: He should find no more offense in my story if he does not expect me to be offended by his.
Wouldn’t you agree?
Yes indeed, he took offense where none was intended. By the way, I was in no way implying that you intend to cause offense. The comments I’ve seen of yours are gracious and respectful.
The ‘irony’ can often be quite a challenge, Christians can find it difficult not to respond to feelings of being offended by retaliation – and don’t always manage it!
Great story. Did your friend later mention if it was your confrontation that spurred him into the pluralist persuasion?
I can’t help but think that had you immediately posed objections to his religious blips, your relationship would have ended pretty quickly. Your tactful silence in the beginning probably helped build a foundation for your relationship to continue after the disagreement. Well done!
Minimalist Christian expresses my view perfectly, Sabio.
I think it can be very offensive to hear someone else’s thoughts about our faith or lack of faith. It’s not a personal matter, though; it honestly is what the other is feeling. There should not be offense taken when one is being genuine and merely answering another’s question or inquiry. We all know when we want to hurt someone and when our intent is less than stellar, that is when one is offensive and an arse, Christian or atheist. 😉