Civil discourse – an American tradition that seems to have suffered as society has become more impersonal – is back. Well, kind of back.
The Stockton Area Atheists and Freethinkers are returning Wednesday at 8 p.m. to the Manteca Library’s McFall Room for a lecture and a conversation. Meanwhile, those who identify themselves as Christians are gathering at 7:30 p.m. outside in Library Park to offer prayer and testimonial.
The two groups aren’t exactly meeting under one roof and engaging in a polite and sincere give and take of their values and beliefs while searching for common ground.
It’s not that there was acrimony the last time the two groups gathered in the same locale. However, the Christians should not feel a need to post security at the freethinkers’ meeting to assure that no outside troublemakers disrupt the lecture. It wasn’t the intent, but it sent a message of intimidation just as freethinkers posting security outside of a church service would send to Christians.
Everyone should remember that Christians and Freethinkers fought side by side 238 years ago for the same secular ideals of freedom, liberty and human dignity. They have also served together defending America ever since.
Some believe the Christians last time around were crashing the Freethinkers’ party, so to speak. What they were doing was staging a public demonstration of their views or faith depending upon your perspective. They did not – and should never – need the government’s permission to do so.
As for the Atheists and Freethinkers, some wondered why they should even need to gather at all given their beliefs. The assumption, of course, is that atheists shouldn’t have to gather since they have no beliefs to share. That’s not true. They do have beliefs. It’s just that their beliefs are based on secular issues and not ones rooted in religion. Besides, man is a social animal.
That brings us to what is so refreshing about what is taking place on Wednesday.
The click of a mouse on “like” to commit to a cyber group or thought has replaced face-to-face interaction. At the same time, the exchange of ideas on the Internet is often anything but civil. The coarseness of faceless conversation is encountered everywhere from blogs and Facebook postings to emails. It seems without a real-life connection restraint is abandoned, giving people the green light to not engage but to belittle. And while face-to-face discourse can be anything but civil, cyber communication has created a carte blanche mentality where anything goes no matter how degrading, insulting, inflammatory or vicious.
It is good to see people embrace and identify with their beliefs without resulting to name calling while hiding behind a computer screen or a mobile device.
It is also a great way to find out they are people just like you who often share many of the same values even though they may think differently.
And it is what the Christians, Atheists, and Freethinkers share that is really the point.
They all embrace the same constitutional principles, including freedom of religion. The difference is how rights – especially when it comes to freedom of religion – are applied, controlled, supported, compromised, enforced or delegated by the government.
You won’t meet very many Atheists or Freethinkers that don’t believe Christians have the right to believe what they do. It’s just that they believe there should be secular limitations or checks to make sure it doesn’t infringe on the rights of others.
The same is true of Christians. They are not against atheists and freethinkers for exercising their right not to embrace Christianity. In the context of government and how the right of religion is regulated they do, though, have a distinct differing view.
The strength of America is – and always will be – the ability of those from different walks of life and divergent viewpoints to embrace common ground.
Yes, atheists may not believe in god, but consider what they do believe in. Christians believe in God but they also believe in a lot of things that atheists do.
Christians could very easily ignore the gathering of the Stockton Area Atheists and Freethinkers and go about worshipping on their own. And the atheists and freethinkers could have banned those Christians that ventured into the McFall Room in January from their last gathering and asked questions at the end.
But that would not have sparked a healthy discussion among people, even those who weren’t there, about freedom of religion – one of our fundamental rights as Americans – and what it exactly means.
Civil discourse even if it is two adjoining venues catering to specific beliefs tends to strength the American fabric.
This column is the opinion of executive editor, Dennis Wyatt, and does not necessarily represent the opinion of The Bulletin or Morris Newspaper Corp. of CA. He can be contacted at email@example.com or 209.249.3519.