Kim Williams, a friend I met through the local social networking scene, has written a very thought provoking piece at his blog Wishful Preaching:
One day a religion professor – a educated, kind and openly Christian man – suggested I take the risk and talk with one of the better known atheists on campus. He suggested I NOT talk with him with the intent of changing his mind, but rather seek to listen and understand why and what he believed. I forced myself to listen, to ask questions and allow myself to hear another point of view. At one point he said, "I don't believe in God." Seeking to be open, I asked him, "Tell me about this God you don't believe in." He talked for an hour or more . When he was done I could honestly say to him, "It is interesting. I don't believe in that god either." When spent many hours together over the following years talking about our personal beliefs and similar hopes and fears. He never came to believe as I did (perhaps he did admit a few times he had grown to be more agnostic than atheist), and I never lost my faith (although I did learn some difficulties with my beliefs). We would both agree, however that we were better because of the friendship.
Perhaps there is something to fear in the failure to listen to others of different beliefs and traditions – that's scary!
Reading this I had multiple thoughts, the most prominent being a question I first asked in my late teens/early adulthood – how is it that the people I find most personify the positive qualities associated with religion are often atheist or agnostic? If being a "believer" is a prerequisite for being a good person then my eyes and ears were lying to me, because I could see for myself that it wasn't true. Heck, some of the nastiest people I've ever met have never missed a day of church so obviously the reverse could be true as well. Over time my belief system evolved to incorporate this bullet point – The fact that people without faith in a higher being could be among the great people in the world is in itself proof of some kind of higher being.
I know that last sentence sounds like a pretty lame piece of philosophy that your average 14 year old would come up with, so maybe it would be better to explain it this way. I think it's a mistake to say that an atheist or agnostic is not a believer. They simply don't believe in God or a higher being the way I do; I think they believe in humanity, in the basic goodness of people, in the idea that mankind is a net-positive for the world. If you think about it their faith, in the face of all the evidence to the contrary (war, capable people parking in handicapped spaces, reality TV), is as great or greater than the faith of those of us who believe in a higher being. In the end their faith in humanity affirms my faith in a higher being.
The other thought I had while reading Kim's post related to the old saying "you have two ears and one mouth for a reason, and you should use them accordingly" and with the propensity of some folks to constantly proselytize. What I truly loved about Kim's post was that he engaged in the conversation with his friend without the intent to "convert" him or to convince him of anything. Instead Kim engaged him to listen and to learn and in the end I think they both gained immeasurably from it. By using his ears Kim did more to exhibit his faith than he could have done with a million hours of proselytizing, and I think there are quite a few folks out there who could learn from his example.