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Conversation peace

Krish Kandiah tells Philip Halcrow how Christians and atheists can move beyond knockdown arguments

Most of my contact with atheists is not made up of debate

LESS than a mile from the publishing offices where Krish Kandiah is conducting interviews about his latest book, some hoardings round a building site offer passers-by the chance to complete the phrase: ‘The best thing I have ever done is…’ Scrawled on the boards, the answers include ‘Visited London’, ‘Spread my wings’, ‘Got lots of friends’ – and ‘Not be religious’.

If anyone has been thinking recently about the importance to some people of ‘not being religious’ and to others of ‘being religious’, it is Krish. His book, Faitheism, is an attempt to encourage Christians and atheists to learn more about each other’s understanding of the world and engage in constructive discussions rather than unnecessarily destructive arguments.

Krish says he was prompted to write the book when the potential for mistrust in the area of beliefs was brought home to him by a conversation he had with a social worker.

‘I run a charity, Home for Good, which finds foster and adoptive homes for children in the care system. I remember sitting with the social worker and her saying to me: ‘If you send us a whole bunch of Christians, that could be an issue, because, to be honest with you, when we see “Christian” on an assessment form, it raises a red flag for some of us.

‘Since that conversation, probably about 10 per cent of social workers that I’ve come across have said that when a prospective foster or adoptive parent declares that they are a Christian, it raises a red flag. Admittedly most social workers don’t seem to have a problem with people saying they are a Christian, but 10 per cent is still quite a significant number.

‘I was confused about why someone would be concerned about a person they had never met just because they were a Christian. No one would accept that approach in other areas of identity. If someone declared that they were Afro-Caribbean and that instantly raised a red flag, we’d call that racism. Or if someone was LGBT and that raised a red flag, we’d call that homophobia.

‘I realised that among many people there is an illiteracy about faith. They don’t understand it, to the extent where it has become acceptable for a social worker to say that they are going to treat people of faith differently.’

Krish believes that Christians and atheists can have stereotypical misconceptions about each other.

‘I carried out a little survey of a bunch of workers for a local authority. I asked them to give me their reactions when they heard the word “atheist”. The first reaction was “phew!”, the second was “normal”, the third was “rational”, the fourth was “compassionate”. Then I asked them for their reactions to “Christianity”, and they came up with “oh no!”, “weird”, “Bible-basher” and “misogynist”. So you can see from those reactions that, today, atheism is perceived to be normal and Christianity is perceived to be weird.

‘Another stereotype is that Christians are born, whereas atheists are made. People like Richard Dawkins assume that the only people who are Christians are those who have been brainwashed by their parents, whereas atheists have all made personal, rational decisions. But,’ says Krish, who was raised in a Hindu family and became a Christian, ‘I know from dealing with a whole bunch of Christians that people tend not to drift into faith, because it is no longer as socially normal as it once was. At the same time, I’ve met a lot of atheists who have just gone with the cultural flow rather than make a conscious, rational decision about what they believe.’

Perhaps the misconceptions add fuel to what Krish sees as the sometimes unnecessarily fiery exchanges between Christians and atheists.

‘If you type “Christianity and atheism” into a search engine, you’ll normally get offered some video of a debate where the atheist is trying to make the Christian look stupid or the Christian is trying to make the atheist look stupid. Or there’ll be a video of ten reasons why every atheist is an idiot or ten reasons why every Christian is an idiot.

‘But none of that helps us to live as a society. We need to get rid of our prejudices and have a respectful conversation.’

Debates between Christians and atheists are all over the internet as well as in books and on TV discussion shows, a few of which Krish has appeared on. But Krish is aware that there can be a disconnection between such contests and everyday life.

‘Most of my contact with atheists is not made up of debate – it’s friendship, it’s community, it’s family,’ he says. ‘So when Christians write books in which they propose five knockdown arguments for when you’re talking with an atheist, I’m thinking that my everyday contact with atheism is not like that.

‘Equally, I read a lot of books about Christianity written by atheists, and I don’t recognise the Christians they’re talking about. They say that we all want to blow up abortion clinics or protest at the funerals of gay people. But I’ve met thousands of Christians, and I’ve never met one who wanted to do those things.’

Krish is wary of the type of antagonistic interaction that he labels ‘collision’. He is also, however, uncomfortable with what he describes as a ‘collusion’ between atheists and Christians – a tendency not to talk at all about their world views.

‘They’ve got their stereotypes about us, we’ve got our stereotypes about them, and everybody just avoids mentioning their beliefs. But the problem with that approach is that no one is being true to themselves. We don’t share with each other what is most important to us.’

Instead of collision and collusion, Krish advocates ‘contention’ and ‘collaboration’.

‘There is a space for what I call “contention”. We can ask people to explain their position to us because we want to understand them better. We can assure them that we don’t want to have a straw man picture of what they believe and we’re not looking for ammunition for a fight, but rather we’re genuinely interested.

‘We can also engage in “collaboration”. If our only conversations are some kind of meaningful chat, we miss out on another side of life, and so working together is a fantastic way that we can relate to each other.’

Krish recalls the time when he was president of a Christian society at university and teamed up with his atheist friend who was the leader of a green society. Together they ran a campaign to raise awareness of global warming.

He still believes in building bridges, even when on TV discussion programmes.

‘I was going on a Sunday morning TV programme with a guy who was a clear atheist. So I googled him to find out some information about him, and I saw that he was super passionate about helping the homeless.

‘On the programme, the question for discussion was whether the Bible was irrelevant. But before addressing it, I decided to tell the guy that I thought what he was doing for the homeless was fantastic, and I said that if there was anything I could do to help, then I would. It changed the nature of the conversation. We weren’t lobbing grenades at each other. Instead, each of us was recognising something of value in the other person.

‘It was a better way to begin rather than to say: “You’re wrong, I’m right. Let’s fight it out.” Christians and atheists have to talk about where we disagree, but it shouldn’t be the first part of our relationship.’

Krish wants Christians and atheists to adopt the right kind of attitude and have ‘genuine conversations’.

He notes that ‘sometimes in debate we pick the worst extreme of our opponent. When atheists are looking for a good example of atheism they choose Bill Gates, and say: “He’s an atheist and he’s given billions of dollars away, while Charlemagne, he was a Christian and he killed all those Muslims. So there you go, atheists are good and Christians are bad.

‘To be honest, we Christians do the same back. We say: “A normal Christian? That’s William Wilberforce. And a normal atheist is Pol Pot.”

‘Both groups are unfair in their stereotyping of each other.

‘I’ve even found that tendency in the work of the militant atheist writers. They’ve looked for the weakest case, the flimsiest argument, rather than deal with full-blooded, biblical Christianity.’

And Krish wants people to deal with each other as they really are.

‘Whenever I walk into a room, anyone can see I’m brown, I’m Asian,’ he says. ‘That’s part of my identity. I can’t hide it. That’s who I am. I’m male. That’s also part of who I am. I can’t turn it off or on. I’m also a Christian. I can’t turn it off or on.

‘So which part of my identity should I leave at the door of a room? Because the truth is, I can’t leave any of them at the door. They’re essential parts of who I am.

‘I need to be gentle about how I bring any part of my identity into a room. If I brought my Asianness into a room and started forcing everybody to eat curry, that would be inappropriate. If I brought my maleness into a room and I started mansplaining, that would also be inappropriate. If I brought my Christianity into the room and forced everyone to start praying when they didn’t want to, that would be inappropriate.

‘But there is an appropriate way that I can be true to my identity. I want everyone to be able to bring to any situation the best of who they are.’

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