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Atheists and Christians can enjoy sympathetic and interesting conversations about religion

Difficult topic: Professor David Newheiser says discussing religion at the dinner table may be difficult but it is a worthy pursuit

RELIGION is one topic that should never be discussed at the dinner table, so the old maxim goes.

And, for years, atheists and Christians have been considered poles apart on this topic. 

According to Australian Catholic University’s Professor David Newheiser, this caricature is based on a false premise.

Prof Newheiser is part of an international collaborative project called Atheism and Christianity: Moving Past Polemic, which seeks to demonstrate that atheists and Christians have a lot more in common than they think. 

“(The project) tries to find a way to promote a more interesting and sympathetic conversation between atheism and Christianity,” he said.  

“The thing we’re responding to is a sense that, often, the atheists that have a public impact tend to be pretty polemical; they tend to assume that any religious commitment is just stupid and unscientific.

“On the other hand there are defenders of religion who sometimes suggest that atheism is immoral and society needs to have a religious foundation if it’s going to be good.

“And we actually think that both sides exaggerate the nature of the conflict.”

Prof Newheiser is joined by a wide range of academics and distinguished international collaborators, many of whom are theologians.

“We look at classic Christian thoughts, (and) we also look at classic modern atheism from the last three centuries and we try to find points of connection and overlap between these traditions that are in some ways different, but actually have a lot of complicated relations between them,” he said.

“One of the things we’re looking at are the ways in which there are actually some similarities between the way in which atheists and Christians think about God.

“So, one important tradition of theology for our project is the tradition of negative or apathetic theology, which is really influential in Patristic and Mediaeval Christian theology, which explored the ways in which human language has difficulty attaching to God, because God is transcendent, all human language is drawn from the imminent realm of creation.

“So, theologians like Dionysius the Areopagite who influenced Thomas Aquinas quite deeply argued that there’s a sense in which Christians need to admit that they don’t know God in an ultimate and full sense.”

Prof Newheiser hopes the project will explore connections on the level of experiences – not only the incorporeal.

“A lot of the debate, especially in public, takes place on the level of belief,” he said.

“‘What do you people believe?’, ‘What do people say about God?’

“But we think that atheists and Christians have a similar experience of the world, of themselves, of love and death, and basic human experiences that are shared.”

As far as the dinner-table discussion was concerned, Prof Newheiser said that, although it was difficult, it was a worthy pursuit.

“I have experience of this in my own family,” he said.

“I have family and friends who come from a wide range of perspectives, and I think it’s a difficult thing to talk about – the things that matter most to people.

“But I think it’s worth trying to do it

“I think one of the ways to help those conversations to be more productive is to remember that the apparent differences aren’t always as big as they seem.

“One of the things that our project tries to do is step back from the obvious differences that Christians and atheists say about the existence of God and motivate these people to look at what they actually care about – what their lived commitments are – and what we’ve found, is there are lots of points of contact.”

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