What They Didn’t Ask at the Megachurch

***Update***: Audio of the event (MP3) is now available!

The event at Kensington Community Church went wonderfully. I’ll post audio when it’s available.

The evening was structured so that I would be interviewed by the pastor on stage about the eBay auction and my thoughts about the Christian church (about 20-30 minutes), followed by another 30 minutes or so of questions from the audience. The questions were submitted on pieces of paper while the first half of the conversation took place. Staff members collected them and weeded out certain questions (because they were too general or odd or just plain weird). The more interesting ones were given to the pastor and he selected his favorites to ask on stage.

What kinds of questions were asked?

  • Why are atheists altruistic?
  • What is your take on Jesus?
  • Finish the sentence: God is ______.
  • What is your definition of “atheist”? [Versus "Agnostic"]
  • Are you still practicing non-violence? [I believe that's a nod to my Jain upbringing, though it sounded funny when asked]

More on the questions below.

The audience was great. They were respectful. No one bombarded me with “the love of Jesus” afterwards. No proselytizing. Good deal.

A few more details…

The Good:

  • The opening song (in my honor!) was Chicago by Sufjan Stevens. That was awesome.
  • I met quite a few atheists after the event! Thanks for all your support!
  • I met frequent commenter and Forum mod SarahH!

    (See? People on this site exist in real life!)


  • I *swear* I’m not that short. I’m just leaning. Yes, that is a church, not a mall. And no, I have not yet learned how to remove a mic from my head.

The Sad:

One girl came up to me afterwards along with her two friends. We had only a brief chat, but this is what I understood her story to be.

She thanked me for raising some interesting questions and getting her to think more critically about her faith.

Then she started crying.

I asked what was wrong.

Essentially, she said that she rarely gets exposed to a different point of view. She’s a Christian and her parents are Christians but they still seem to shove their faith down her throat. At the first sign that she might be challenging her faith, they stop her. If she’s hanging around people who might question her Christianity (or cause her to ever-so-slightly stray from it), they are all over her.

She’s not going to become an atheist anytime soon, but she was grateful for hearing a new perspective.

Then she had to go.

(I hope I got that story right. And if my interpretation of her story is accurate, it says a lot about what’s wrong with parents being dogmatic about their faith and trying to “protect” their children from what else is out there.)

The Questions:

There were a lot of questions people wanted the pastor to ask me. We could only get to a few of them because of time issues.

I was really curious which ones were weeded out…

The church staff was kind enough to pass them along.

Here are some of the questions from the un-asked pile:

  • Did you ever consider that people want you to believe because they care about you? [No, I figure they tell me about Jesus because they hate my guts... In all seriousness, I know they care. I just think they're misguided.]
  • Have you ever considered giving Jesus a chance? [Yep. Didn't work.]
  • Who do you turn to in times of despair? [Friends. Family.]
  • From a scientific standpoint, all evidence points to an Intelligent Creator (God)… Do you have presuppositions that influence your choices how to interpret this huge amount of evidence?
    P.S. Do you think we are fools? [I think he's referring to ID-Proponents... and no comment on the rest of this. Why bother.]
  • What if you are wrong? [It's a risk I'm willing to take. Now, what if Islam is right? Then we are all in *so* much trouble...]
  • … Do you not question the validity of a master designer when you see the change of seasons, the complexity of the human body… do you believe you evolved from an ape? [*sigh*... it's not so hard to believe when you actually read some books about evolution and understand how science works]
  • Where are you going when you die? [Same place that you are.]
  • Who are you living your life for? [Myself. And, hopefully one day, the wife and our 18 kids.]
  • Do you see that you chose to not believe in God? Do you see that can choose to believe? [I had no idea. I guess I will just change my mind now.]
  • What do you sit around talking about with fellow atheists? [Politics. How to deal with Christians who try to "show us love." How to raise our children. Sports. The best temperature at which to roast the children. You know, the usual.]
  • How do you apply Laws of thermodynamics, conservation of energy, & creation of man from a non-God perspective? [I read books about Science and then try to understand how these things actually work.]
  • How do you explain the concept of love without belief in God?
  • What factors solidified in your mind that God absolutely does not exist? (signed: Not Kirk Cameron) [I mentioned a few times that I was not saying God definitely did not exist... oh well]
  • As an atheist, would you allow your children to make their own decisions about Christianity? [Yep. Would you do the same regarding their decision about atheism?]
  • Where do you find joy when there is such sorrow and pain — either in the world or in your life? [In the people I love. In books. In Stephen Colbert.]
  • Have you ever had an experience that you couldn’t explain by your mind or any rational thinking? [Of course. That doesn't mean the automatic explanation must be God.]
  • I wonder what kind of relationship he had or has with his father? [Oh boy.]
  • When you pray, why do you say, “In Jesus’ name?” [When I pray?! Maybe I need to be clearer about what atheism entails...]
  • What can we say/do to a “non-believer” in 10-20 words or less to show them Christian love?

A lot of those questions were echoed by others with slightly different wording.

It’s easy to just laugh at a lot of those because the answers seem so obvious to atheists.

But it’s important to realize these are among the reasons religious people have a hard time understanding who we are and why we believe the way we do. We need to have decent responses to these kinds of questions.

I’m especially curious how readers would answer that last one.

Briefly, what would you advise Christians to say to atheists so that we know they care about us?

Personally, if they talk to me like another human being and not as “he-who-must-be-converted,” that’s a good first step.

  • Desert Son

    What can we say/do to a “non-believer” in 10-20 words or less to show them Christian love?

    Treat them like decent human beings, act like decent human beings yourself. Act more, talk less.

    No kings,

    Robert

  • Desert Son

    I wonder what kind of relationship he had or has with his father?

    Am I the only one who’s first thought on reading this question was “projection?”

    No kings,

    Robert

  • http://mylifeintheblender.wordpress.com Laura

    Speaking of odd things Christians think about atheists, I was told a couple weeks ago (and I’ve heard it before) that there is no such thing as a “true atheist” because “whatever is most important in your life, that is your god.”

    Sigh. . .

  • Matthew

    What can we say/do to a “non-believer” in 10-20 words or less to show them Christian love?

    How about: “If you’re in need, I’m here to help. I respect you and will not judge you or impose my beliefs on you”.

    You know, you could just say nice stuff and stop attempting to assimilate me or think that I’m wrong or immoral. How about that for starters? Live and let live… If you don’t like carrots then don’t eat them. If you’re a man and don’t want to kiss another man, then don’t do it. If you’re pregnant and don’t want to have an abortion, then don’t get one. If the TV show has naughty words, change the channel. Stop trying to impose YOUR moral views and beliefs on ME, and especially stop doing that with my tax dollars!!!!

    The constant attempt for conversion from some (not all) Christians shows to me that there is a weakness in their belief. It somewhat reminds me of the conversations that die-hard sports fans have about their respective teams in that it’s so much easier to believe your shitty team is the best when everyone around you believes the same thing.

  • Jeff E.

    Those questions were all so predictable; there was nary a one that didn’t conform to the stereotype. You could have written them out beforehand, sealed them in a jar, then taken them out while there and compared them. I wish they had asked them, Hemant.

    To me, this demonstrates the impossibility of dialogue. This is what surfaces when there isn’t a babysitter there to filter what gets through.

    Aside from the questions about science (“From a scientific standpoint, all evidence points to an Intelligent Creator (God)…”), about which they should be prohibited legally from speaking, my favorite was,

    Have you ever considered giving Jesus a chance?

    They always assume that you haven’t. Always. Because they need to believe that it always works. And when you tell them, “I have tried; it didn’t work”, the response is equally predictable: “You didn’t really try.” The idea that it may not work 100% of the time terrifies them – because if it fails to work for you, it could fail to work for them. They’ll never forgive you for making them confront that possibility.

    You are a much, much better man than I am.

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  • Michael

    Some of my answers would have been…

    What can we say/do to a “non-believer” in 10-20 words or less to show them Christian love?

    Leave off the “Christian”, and capitalize the “L”.

    Showing people Love is very natural. Why would someone need instructions for this?

    Who do you turn to in times of despair?

    My girlfriend told her coworkers I was an atheist. They asked her a question similar to the one above. They asked, “What does he do when he gets sick?”, she of course said “He goes to the doctor”. Kind of an obvious answer.

    How do you apply Laws of thermodynamics, conservation of energy, & creation of man from a non-God perspective?

    What the hell is this question supposed to mean?

    Do you see that you chose to not believe in God? Do you see that can choose to believe?

    Actually, you can’t choose your beliefs if your honest with yourself.

    From a scientific standpoint, all evidence points to an Intelligent Creator (God)… Do you have presuppositions that influence your choices how to interpret this huge amount of evidence?

    Wait, what evidence do you speak of?

    Have you ever had an experience that you couldn’t explain by your mind or any rational thinking?

    Honestly, I’m sure there are some. But I can’t think of any right now. Almost anything I can’t explain, that I have experienced, I could later explain after thinking about it in a more clear state of mind.

  • SarahH

    Those questions were all so predictable; there was nary a one that didn’t conform to the stereotype. You could have written them out beforehand, sealed them in a jar, then taken them out while there and compared them. I wish they had asked them, Hemant.

    To me, this demonstrates the impossibility of dialogue. This is what surfaces when there isn’t a babysitter there to filter what gets through.

    I think what this demonstrates is that yes, the stereotypical questions are the first that Christians think to ask. Many of these Christians probably had never had those questions answered. They honestly don’t know what an atheist would answer.

    I think they’re stereotypical because of the way Christians are taught to think about their faith and about non-believers. If we make it a priority to be patient and keep answering these questions (and over time, our answers will become more succinct and understandable from practice) the Christians who’ve gotten answers will start thinking about new questions – maybe deeper, more accepting questions.

    Sure, there’ll be some who stay incredulous and insulting, but I think it’s always worth the chance to crack someone’s mind open a bit.

    (also: I love the picture! It’s true, Hemant’s not that short, but to be fair, he’s almost that short. I’m also 5’10″ so that may be a contributing factor, lol).

  • http://function13.blogspot.com josh.f13

    Wish I could have made it. Ended up with a nasty stomach bug that’s going around work. Can’t wait to hear the audio.

  • http://saganist.blogspot.com/ Saganist

    Here are some magic words for showing love to an atheist (or anyone, really). “I’m interested in understanding what you have to say.” No ulterior motives, just understanding. That spells love to me.

  • Jeff E.

    Sarah,

    I’m not convinced. The answers to these questions have been online for years. As far as the assertions go – you can choose to believe, the “scientific” evidence proves creationism/ID overwhelmingly, etc. – most of them will never, ever change their minds, because they have too much invested in being right.

  • steve

    i’m hoping that “pray in jesus’ name question’ was for me! :)

  • David D.G.

    I think that the questions chosen for you to answer were good selections, Hemant; I hope you’ll tell us, in brief, how you answered those, too.

    However, I think it’s a pity that the obvious and/or “gotcha” questions were completely passed over; hearing the answers in that setting, even from a guest atheist, might possibly have had more impact on the crowd at large (e.g., correcting the wildly erroneous view that there is scientific evidence for creation!) than online discussions ever would have on the individuals who asked the questions, since they really aren’t interested in the answers that any nonbeliever might give.

    ~David D.G.

  • absent sway

    About the “Christian love” question: I was taken aback at what seemed like looking for a shortcut, slogan-based, limited approach to speaking with your fellow human beings, like you can’t waste more than 10 to 20 words on them if they don’t share your worldview. There are no magic words for displaying God’s love or for converting people. Don’t say anything, just listen with as open a mind as you can manage when you’re having a conversation. I learned that much when I was still a practicing Christian. Granted, the attitude I perceived in this question might not have been intended; I can only hope that is the case.

  • Jeff E.

    I was taken aback at what seemed like looking for a shortcut, slogan-based, limited approach to speaking with your fellow human beings, like you can’t waste more than 10 to 20 words on them if they don’t share your worldview.

    It isn’t about communicating God’s love; it’s about protecting their world view and making themselves feel safe.

  • MAZZ

    What can we say/do to a “non-believer” in 10-20 words or less to show them Christian love?

    How’s about, “I love you”? That was only 3. You could then add, “even if I don’t agree with your beliefs.”

    Troy is an extremely Christian community (if you can judge an areas religiosity by the number of churches it has). It’s likely that most of the people in that church have never engaged in a religious conversation with an “open” atheist. My girlfriend has lived there her whole life and has been brought up to believe unquestioningly. I’ve known her sister since she was 6 (now 12) and she has always gone to church every Sunday and a meeting or 2 during the week so I think its fair to say she’s fairly indoctrinated (as are a high percentage of her peers). Those questions don’t surprise me in the least.

    My GF has seen me reading Atheist sites numerous times and sometimes gives me this worried look. One day I talked to her about her faith (she’s one of those “spiritual people” and is currently church shopping). I started by asking her to define her beliefs and got one of those vague “god is everything” type of answers. I tried explaining that with such a vague “god” it’s basically the same as not having a god at all and that she doesn’t have to believe. She’s extremely intelligent so sometimes I get upset that her brain turns off when it comes to religion. This conversation lasted about 20 minutes and ended with her crying and telling me that she would “die without God.” I say that to say this: religious indoctrination leads to insulation from other points of view and when those other ideas come in the wall goes up. So much so that any breach leads to worries of total destruction. It’s no wonder people ask questions that have answers that seem so obvious.

    Sorry for the ramblings lol.

  • SarahH

    Sarah,

    I’m not convinced. The answers to these questions have been online for years. As far as the assertions go – you can choose to believe, the “scientific” evidence proves creationism/ID overwhelmingly, etc. – most of them will never, ever change their minds, because they have too much invested in being right.

    You might be right about the ID/creationist Christians and those particular questions. I’d argue that many of the questioners don’t frequent atheist sites. It’s just not something I ever thought about, as a Christian. I just didn’t think about atheists, so why would I have sought out a blog or website about them? And there’s something to be said about having certain questions answered in person, so the questioner can see you face, your expressions, your normalcy. No horns or bits of unchewed baby sticking to your sweater, you know.

  • MAZZ

    Also I’m disappointed there was no after party. PZ would’ve done it! ;)

  • http://notapottedplant.blogspot.com/ Transplanted Lawyer

    I’d say to Christians looking to show “Christian love” to me, there’s nothing you can say. But what you do matters a lot.

    Accept me for who I am and understand that I am no more going to change my world view than you are going to give up your faith. We don’t have to agree on everything to be friends or show love to one another.

    Do neighborly favors for me, accept neighborly favors from me when I offer them.

    Share meals and conversation with me.

    Be a good person, be a good friend. Really, does Jesus ask you to do anything more than that anyway?

  • http://sandwichesforsale.blogspot.com DagoodS

    Luckily a friend informed me of this event and I was able to attend. Following Mr. Mehta’s format:

    The Good:

    Hermant did extremely well in two regards:

    1) He did not look or act what they expected for an atheist; and
    2) He kept reminding him he was one!

    On the first, he was clean-cut, short hair, appropriately dressed. No meth-induced creepy look about the eyes. He laughed and joked and smiled and looked…comfortable. Atheists aren’t supposed to look comfortable in a church. We are supposed to be “the dark” and shun “the light.” For many it was like watching a vampire sunbath—not supposed to happen. Not right.

    In fact, he was SO comfortable the audience warmed up to him. He seemed like the type of guy you could laugh away an afternoon of cards with. Or even…dare I say?…let date your daughter. Or…(how could this be possible?)…even not think twice about dropping your kids with at a day care.

    And every time they started to think, “what a neat guy!” he would hit them in the face with a board. (Figuratively.) “Oh, I am an atheist.” “As an atheist…” “No such things as god…” The people around me were letting out their breath when they started to relate, and then sucked it in when they heard that word. Like being seated with a pack of bellows.

    The question, “Fill in the Blank, ‘God is ___’” and without hesitation he replied “Make-believe.” The people stiffened around me. “Did he just say…uh…but he seems like such a nice boy?!”

    The Bad

    I found it interesting how the questions, whether worded that way, or phrased by the Pastor, kept implying he (and all of us atheists as well) thinks Christians are unreasonable, irrational and deluded. I don’t remember the exact wording, but there were prefaces or additional clauses like, “…since we are not rationale.”

    Clearly the impression atheists have given (deserved or not) is that we think all Christians are not very intelligent. Something to think about… (And yes, I know, “Have you tried Jesus?” has been asked 1000’s of times, and we tire of saying the same thing over and over and over, only to hear the next day, “Have you tried Jesus?” But remember, often to the person asking the question—it is their first time asking it. We may have answered it numerous times; they have never heard the answer. A flippant response, “Yes, and he was delicious” born out of frustration has given us a not-so-welcome reputation. If that is what you want—fine with me. Just don’t be surprised if that is what we get.)

    The Ugly

    Nothing will change. As it coincidentally turns out, I attended Kensington for a period of time. I explained I was an atheist, and wondered if there was any way I could fit in. (Long story.) After being shuffled around a bit—it became evident there is not.

    Understand—I think this is correct. There is no place for an atheist of my stripe in a church. Like roller-skating. Fun activity, but no way to do it in a bowling alley. About the same fit.

    I discussed the situation with a friend, and he eloquently pointed out, “Church must cater to the lowest common emotional denominator.”

    People met an atheist. Found him fun and personable. (A bit too comfortable with the “a” word.) And figure he was a rare anomaly, unlike all those other atheists.

    In answer to the question, “What can we do to show Christian love to a non-believer?” I would respond as follows:

    “You could start with the Golden Rule. You know the one: ‘Treat others as you would like to be treated.’ And once you have that Christian love mastered, you could possibly graduate on to Human love and try the Platinum Rule: ‘Treat others as THEY want to be treated.’”

  • sc0tt

    I understand you didn’t go there to pick a fight, but those answers seem kind of wishy-washy. Christians see wishy-washy to mean there’s room to convert you.

    What is your take on Jesus? He was a regular human conceived by two other regular humans, he was executed by a corrupt government for being a subversive, he died once and did not come back to life. He had some interesting ideas but he was a fraud.

  • SarahH

    He had some interesting ideas but he was a fraud.

    The connotations of “fraud” are too strong, I think. We don’t know that the historical Jesus didn’t personally believe what he taught. We don’t know who – Jesus himself, the Gospel writers, the canons who chose books to go in the Bible – really believed (or even said) what we’ve got today.

    Instead, I would say, “The Biblical Jesus had some interesting ideas – and some of them were good- but ultimately I think he was deluded at best and a fraud at worst.”

    Hemant was also brave (IMO) to take shots at Jesus’ ethics in the Bible. He pointed out that Jesus had a temper, that he certainly didn’t seem to treat his family well, etc. I was kind of hoping he’d point out that he wasn’t strong on animal rights either and mention those poor pigs, but you can’t have everything.

  • Pockets

    Have you ever had an experience that you couldn’t explain by your mind or any rational thinking?

    Sure, but at the same time I don’t have a PHD in physics, chemistry, biology, psychology, geology, and every other type and sub type of science. Just because you don’t know the answer doesn’t mean god did it, it means simply that I dont know everything. And if it intrigues me, Ill read a book, look online watch discovery channel.

    What can we say/do to a “non-believer” in 10-20 words or less to show them Christian love?

    Buy me a beer and have an open and honest intellectual conversation. Its possible to respect someone who has a completely opposite view point. And thats ok, as long as there is no name calling or hateful comments.

  • justin jm

    Jeff E. said:

    Aside from the questions about science (”From a scientific standpoint, all evidence points to an Intelligent Creator (God)…”), about which they should be prohibited legally from speaking, my favorite was,

    You know we can’t prohibit speech, right? I just want to check, ’cause I feel we should be careful even about jokes like this. We need to hold ourselves to a high standard.

  • withheld

    We shouldn’t be surprised by the questions. Many of these people live in very isolated worlds. I don’t think I knew more than three people who weren’t Catholic before I graduated high school. Some of it may be over-protective parents protecting their children from those “other” people with the “dangerous” ideas, but a lot of it was just lack of opportunity. We didn’t know many people who weren’t involved in our church or school. Growing up with that doesn’t make you question your own faith. I bought it all. I never doubted that it was right. I don’t know that my “questions for the atheist” would have been any different. I simply wouldn’t understand how someone could not believe.

    As to the “what should my Christianity elevator pitch be?” question. Show love, show compassion, show empathy. Try to understand that those are human characteristics. Atheists don’t need a god to understand them, and there is nothing that you can say in 30 seconds that change someone’s mind.

  • Jeff E.

    I found it interesting how the questions, whether worded that way, or phrased by the Pastor, kept implying he (and all of us atheists as well) thinks Christians are unreasonable, irrational and deluded.

    I do think that, actually.

    And yes, I know, “Have you tried Jesus?” has been asked 1000’s of times, and we tire of saying the same thing over and over and over, only to hear the next day, “Have you tried Jesus?”

    The problem is that they don’t ask, “Have you tried Jesus?”; they ask “Why don’t you try Jesus?” – the implication being that it’s impossible for someone to try to “accept” Jesus and come away empty-handed. It’s the presumptive arrogance I can’t stand.

    Nothing will change.

    Agreed.

  • Jeff E.

    You know we can’t prohibit speech, right?

    Unfortunately.

  • Autumnal Harvest

    Sarah, it seems OK to me to kill pigs to save possessed humans. I just wish the guy hadn’t been so harsh on that poor, innocent, fig tree. :)

  • Richard Wade

    My heart goes out to the girl you described who is constantly being browbeaten by her parents to never even come close to questioning her indoctrination. She sounds like she is in so much anguish. You said she told you:

    She’s not going to become an atheist anytime soon, but she was grateful for hearing a new perspective.

    That would seem inevitable at this point, more because of her parents’ oppressive dogma defending rather than in spite of it. You gave her permission to secretly keep her mind alive, but her emancipation is going to hurt.

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  • stephanie

    * What can we say/do to a “non-believer” in 10-20 words or less to show them Christian love?

    I’m always here for you. Errrrrm, how ’bout those niners?

    There. Ten words. Of course, the other half to this answer is that christian love shouldn’t be any different than atheist love. I’m not so sure why there needs to be an adjective.

  • http://thecrowsdream.wordpress.com/ Hector

    I think it is awesome that you did what you did. I think the girl you talked to may some day question her faith. It is a cary and often frustrating thing to do. I remember being a religious, and I could not conceive that someone who did not believe in god could have any meaningful and inspiring events in their life. When I changed my mind, I began to have meaningful experiences simply while walking or eating an orange. I did not have to save those for spiritual moments.

  • Lynx

    * What can we say/do to a “non-believer” in 10-20 words or less to show them Christian love?

    In 20 words or less? They don’t even have to talk. All you have to do is have a sincere attitude of caring and show you think of the person in front of you as an individual not “lost sould X to save”. If you care about a person as an individual that will shine through. What IS true is that I won’t associate it with Christian love necessarily. I don’t even know how you would distinguish regular love from Christian love. In fact, I suspect that the more I could distinguish one from the other, the less I would trust the sincerity of the specifically Christian love.

  • Anonnie Mouse

    Unfortunately, showing “Christian love” is usually code for “planting the seeds of conversion.” To the akser of that question I’d have to say:

    Nothing. There is nothing you can do to show me that christian love is any better than *gasp* heathen love. There is something that you can do to show me that you’re a regular human being though, and that is to listen respectfully, educate yourself, leave me alone and just live your life. Also, quit trying to convert my kids. (ahem, stuck that in special for my parents and dd’s friend’s mom, lol)

  • http://www.banalleakage.com martymankins

    Very happy to hear the report. Would love to hear the audio when it’s ready.

    And very good to hear how respectful most were. It sounds like if someone is going to attend any church, one like the Kensington church would be one to at least consider.

    And we figured everyone out here does exist to some degree. Sarah is a cutie.

  • Catherine

    I know I’m a bit late here, but I’m a atheist who attends Kensington Church with family (long story, but they do some interesting stuff there, and seem to be very sincere about not being jerks about their faith). I wasn’t able to attend Wednesday night because I was out of town, but I got the CD of your visit from the church today, and I thought you were amazing. I’m passing the CD to family members and I think they will really enjoy it as well.

    What can we say/do to a “non-believer” in 10-20 words or less to show them Christian love?

    “I’m here to listen” followed by actually listening. Not interrupting, not debating, just listening to what the ‘non-believer’ has to say.

  • ChameleonDave

    Those questions are rather stupid.

    And that girl is rather cute!

    How do I get your job?

  • http://friendlyatheist.com Hemant Mehta

    Those questions are rather stupid.

    And that girl is rather cute!

    How do I get your job?

    You have to be brown.

  • JSug

    In general, I think they did a pretty good job weeding the questions. Answering many of those would obviously be unproductive, because they aren’t really curious about your world view. They are just looking for some chink in your armor so they can jump up and shout, “Ah ha!”

    * From a scientific standpoint, all evidence points to an Intelligent Creator (God)… Do you have presuppositions that influence your choices how to interpret this huge amount of evidence? P.S. Do you think we are fools?

    * Do you not question the validity of a master designer when you see the change of seasons, the complexity of the human body… do you believe you evolved from an ape?

    * How do you apply Laws of thermodynamics, conservation of energy, & creation of man from a non-God perspective?

    Wheee! ID proponents are fun.

    * How do you explain the concept of love without belief in God?

    Interesting story: my high school psychology teacher asked us to all write down a definition of “love”, then she read them all out loud. It was interesting. There were a few “God is love” type things thrown in, but in general the definitions were scattered all over the board. Personally, I wrote down a couple lines from a song. Mine kind of stuck out from the rest, and the teacher asked (with a smile) if I would be willing to explain why I wrote it. I said something to the effect that love is a highly subjective experience, and there is no correct definition, so I didn’t see the point in trying to do better than some random poet or songwriter. I got an A in that class.

    * As an atheist, would you allow your children to make their own decisions about Christianity?

    This is an interesting one for me, because I already have a young child. I actually intend to educate my son about religion, and I very much hope that he does make up his own mind about it. Of course, I also intend to educate him about science, skepticism, and critical thinking, so I will be very surprised if he decides to become a theist.

    Where do you find joy when there is such sorrow and pain — either in the world or in your life?

    Agreed, there is plenty of joy to be found in friends and loved ones. I guess the key is in understanding that we can’t really do much about most of the sorrow and pain in the world. And when it comes to the sorrow and pain in our own lives, I actually find it much more comforting to think that there’s no “plan” involved in my suffering, that crap just happens and we have to deal with it. The alternative is that God is a real d***.

    * What can we say/do to a “non-believer” in 10-20 words or less to show them Christian love?

    Here’s what you can do:
    Say “I care about you as a person even though you don’t believe as I do.”
    Say “I respect your right to not believe.”
    Stop talking and listen from time to time.
    Be a good person without making it seem like you’re only doing so because you’re trying to score points with God.

    Things you shouldn’t do:
    Try to convince me that my life is amoral or without purpose.
    Try to convince me that science has it all wrong.
    Make assumptions about me because I don’t believe in God. If you want to know my thoughts on a subject, just ask.
    Tell me that Jesus/God/etc loves me. If I don’t believe in them, then that’s just your opinion. I’m much more interested in how you feel about me.

  • Erica

    Hi Hemant! I am a member of Kensington Community Church and attended the service you spoke at. I’m glad to read that you felt like you were treated with respect, I was really hoping that would be the case. You are a brave man sir!! :) I appreciate you coming and offering us different ideas to think about. The pastors at KCC have always encouraged everybody to ask questions and to do the work to find the answers. As they always say “God is not afraid of our questions!”. I like that attitude, everyone should know why they believe what they believe, especially if you’re dedicating your life to it.

    I’m wondering if you’ve read the book called “Letters from a Skeptic” by Dr Gregory Boyd? I’d suggest it, not as a means of trying to convert you, but I think its an interesting book from either side. The book is based on letters from Dr Boyd and his father (who was a skeptic). His father asks a lot of great questions and Dr Boyd provides some interesting info. I definitely found it to be a fascinating read.

    As far as the comments on this page, all I can say is that I feel like I can devote my life to Christ without turning my brain off. I’ve seen scientific and historical evidence that supports the Bible. I’m definitely engaging my brain when I’m studying & reading the Bible. It’s the only book I can think of, that seems like you could read it all your life and still keep learning from it. My personal journey with Christ involves continuous learning & improvement – I’m definitely a work-in-progress, that’s for sure! :)

    As far Christians constantly trying to convert people, it’s our calling plain & simple. It’s not supposed to be a battle of who’s right and who’s wrong, unfortunately a lot of Christians come across that way. God has called us to spread the Gospel and bring as many to Christ as we can before he returns. So I won’t apologize for that, granted I think most Christians (myself included) could definitely go about it a better & more respectful way. It’s hard to talk about religion, it’s so personal and generally such a taboo subject. People are so passionate it about it from both sides and I think that definitely contributes to well-intended conversations going south.

    Anyway, thank you for coming to our church! It was a very interesting evening. Take care, erica*

  • http://friendlyatheist.com Hemant Mehta

    I’m wondering if you’ve read the book called “Letters from a Skeptic” by Dr Gregory Boyd? I’d suggest it, not as a means of trying to convert you, but I think its an interesting book from either side. The book is based on letters from Dr Boyd and his father (who was a skeptic). His father asks a lot of great questions and Dr Boyd provides some interesting info. I definitely found it to be a fascinating read.

    Hi Erica — Thanks for your comment. I haven’t read the book yet but I think a church member is sending it to me because I thought the premise sounded interesting. Now, I wonder if we can get you to read books by atheists that question the validity of the other things you might be reading… :)

  • http://minimumwagephilosopherthesequel.blogspot.com/ Rev. T. Monkey

    Cool post. Thanks for the attempt to extend interfaith dialogue to include the non-religious. As an instructor of comparative religion, I think discussing these issues freely is the best way for us to learn how to get along and treat one another with love (Christian or otherwise).

    Saganist got the idea when he said,

    Here are some magic words for showing love to an atheist (or anyone, really). “I’m interested in understanding what you have to say.” No ulterior motives, just understanding. That spells love to me.

    It’s that “interested in understanding” part that is essential to dialogue, which is essential to civil society. Not interested in changing, converting, teaching, etc., but in understanding. The goal of dialogue, if there is a goal, is to open oneself and to learn about the other, not vice-versa.

    Sadly, I think the comments from Jeff H reveal the difficulty, coming from all sides, with dialogue:

    Those questions were all so predictable; there was nary a one that didn’t conform to the stereotype… To me, this demonstrates the impossibility of dialogue… As far as the assertions go … most of them will never, ever change their minds, because they have too much invested in being right.

    If the goal of dialogue is getting them to change their minds, then yes, dialogue is impossible. That’s because you no longer have dialogue. You have certitude that forecloses on the possibility of new understanding. Ironically, oftentimes arrogant certitude that seeks conversion isn’t exclusive to Christians or religious people.

  • Jeff E.

    Right. Way to take my comments out of context. You’ve combined my comments from two posts into one paragraph. What I actually said was,

    As far as the assertions go – you can choose to believe, the “scientific” evidence proves creationism/ID overwhelmingly, etc. – most of them will never, ever change their minds, because they have too much invested in being right.

    The difference between what I said and what you are implying I said is obvious.

  • Erica

    Actually I love to read and would be up for some recommended reading. I think the post about “interested in understanding” was right on the mark. I’ll be honest and say that I’m not the best “evangelist”. I don’t walk up to strangers or ask people about God in the first few minutes I meet them. I love to share my faith with people who are interested, who ask questions and are open to what I have to say. Personally I feel like I can get the bigger bang for my buck by putting my money where my mouth is and trying to live it out everyday as best I can in front of everyone. Doing that often creates opportunities for great discussions.

    I’d be interested in doing some reading because I would like to get a different perspective than how I grew up. I accepted Christ when I was 5 years old and grew up in the church. And while I’ve continued to grow and mature my faith, ask the tough questions and continue my bible studies, I still don’t know what it’s like to not have been a believer all your life. So maybe doing some reading outside my normal genre would help me understand what it’s like for people who didn’t grow up like I did. I could better understand where people are coming from when they investigate Christ for the first time. And if I can see things from their perspective, hopefully I can have a better conversation with them. And honestly, hopefully it will make me less afraid to have those conversations. I seen enough discussions about religion & politics that started out friendly and ended up in heated debates or worse (and that’s between family & friends)! LOL

    To Jeff E – I’m sorry if you feel like your comment was taken out of context. The comment in my post was prompted out of a combination of what I read on the some of the blogs, the cartoon I saw on the previous page and I think that really is a “stereotype” that people have. I think lots of people think that to believe in God and go to church, that you must throw all commonsense and logic out the window. That you must blindly believe without asking any questions. And maybe there is a percentage of people that do just blindly believe. And I’m sure there’s churches that don’t encourage people to ask questions. But my point was that there is a large percentage of Christians out there who put a lot of thought & effort into their faith. Stereotypes go both ways and to have conversations based on “interested in understanding”, stereotypes on both sides need to be thrown out. They just aren’t productive for anyone.

    On a lighter note, a few years ago before I got married I briefly dated a Buddhist and someone who was Jewish. And those were some of the most interesting conversations I’ve ever had! I loved hearing about their beliefs firsthand and having the opportunity to ask questions. They were great conversations because they really were based on trying to understand rather than any intent to convert. So it can happen (those types of conversations) and when they do, it leaves a very lasting & positive impression. :) erica*

  • unclemomo

    I think both sides need to make sure that we are staying away from stereotyping one another. After reading the book, I did have to reflect on my preconceived notions of what I think atheists are. I feel atheists think Hemant went into a church and fielded questions with a bunch of boxed up Christians who have never truly engaged with another atheist or spent a significant amount of time with them. The truth is most of my friends who are Christian, if not all, have a number of atheist friends and seek out and challenge themselves if they feel like they are living in a “Christian bubble.” Being a college graduate from a large university, you can’t help but be exposed to different areas of thought that don’t line up right with your beliefs. I am willing to look at my stereotypes and try to adjust them to make sure I am showing the Christian Love we like to talk about. I just want to challenge others to make sure they are doing the same. And by the way, I do have much love for the brown man. Being one myself I have to respect a good brown man one liner Hemant. “You have to be brown.”

  • http://sandwichesforsale.blogspot.com DagoodS

    Erica,

    Books I would recommend:

    History and Theology of New Testament Writings by Udo Schnelle*
    The Test of the New Testament; its Transmission, Corruption and Restoration by B. Metzger*
    The Canon of the New Testament by B. Metzger*
    Social-Science Commentary on the New Testament by Malina and Rohrbaugh*
    Jesus and the Eyewitnesses by Richard Baukham* (tacitly recommended)

    Who wrote the Bible? by Friedman
    A History of God by Karen Armstrong (the intro is priceless)*
    Finding Darwin’s God by Ken Miller

    Losing Faith in Faith by Dan Barker**
    Why I became an atheist by John Loftus**

    *written by Christians, but heavy reading.
    **deconvert stories

    When discussing with Christians, I find myself referring to the first five books more than any other. The middle set give interesting perspectives on things you may not have thought about. The last two are more descriptive of what it means to deconvert.

  • http://NoYourGod.blogspot.com NoYourGod

    What can we say/do to a “non-believer” in 10-20 words or less to show them Christian love?

    How about “I respect your right to be wrong, just as you respect my right to be wrong.”

  • ML

    I saw this as an add up on top of this page, what is that about?? Are we now promoting Christian bussiness???

    Tate Publishing & Enterprises, LLC, is a Christian-based, family-owned, mainline publishing organization with a mission to discover and market unknown authors.

  • http://friendlyatheist.com Hemant

    @ML:

    I saw this as an add up on top of this page, what is that about?? Are we now promoting Christian bussiness???

    Google places ads there based on keywords used on this site. Guess I write a lot about Christianity… :)

  • ML

    I liked the story about the girl that couldn’t question her religion. I will never understand why if religion it’s so strong, and your faith it’s so big, why then can’t you go out and broaden your horizon, after all, if it were that unfallable, then no religious person should ever fear that anyone would go astray because they spoke to an Atheist.

  • ML

    @ Hermant, thanks, I get it now. Capitalism at it’s best :)

  • brent

    What can we say/do to a “non-believer” in 10-20 words or less to show them Christian love?

    “Look. Jesus is on CNN addressing the UN – explaining why it’s taken him so long.”

  • Christine

    To answer the last question, I like to borrow the language of Ethical Culture. To show me Christian love, treat me as an end, not a means. My best friend is hardcore evangelical, but bends over backwards to demonstrate that she takes me on my terms, and is in no way trying to proselytize. I think she views her “testimony” to me to be constancy, friendship, helpfulness, and support, no preaching required.

  • James Smith João Pessoa, Brazil

    So predictable, so sad. To see people so earnestly reject reality and rational thinking. I believe my greatest character flaw is an impatience with stupidity, especially willful stupidity.

    This particularly difficult for me because to paraphrase Albert Einstein, “The two most common elements in the universe are hydrogen and human stupidity.”

  • Chris

    What can we say/do to a “non-believer” in 10-20 words or less to show them Christian love?

    To show “Christian” love, you have to make it obvious that the love is Christian in nature… at that point it becomes more about the person giving the love than the person receiving it… and that’s not really love at all, now, is it?

    So I guess my answer would be to say/do whatever humbly shows your genuine appreciation for a fellow human being. As long as I think it’s a random act of kindness rather than PR stunt to engender goodwill towards a larger group, then you have succeeded.

  • Ken

    “I *swear* I’m not that short. I’m just leaning.”

    What the hell is wrong with being short?!?

  • danielle

    Re: “Are you still practicing non-violence”

    I wonder what they expected you to say? “No! In fact, I beat up an old lady on the way here and I eat babies for dinner.”

    In any case, I think this is awesome. I empathize with the story of the girl who came to you in tears, as that reflects so much of my fundamentalist upbringing. It wasn’t until college that I was really able to explore, learn, and find answers to so many of my questions. I was disowned after college for getting engaged to someone who was (at the time) Catholic–since Catholics aren’t “real Christians.”

    Now I live a very happy, very fulfilled, godless life. I’ve since reconciled with my parents, but they still try to guilt me back to the church.

    It’s refreshing to see a church so open to dialogue. I wish more were like this.

  • Erik

    It’s always awesome to see/hear about friendly dialog occurring between believers and nonbelievers on the subject of belief. It is just such a politically incorrect topic that really should be addressed in a much more public manor and more often.

  • Mitchell

    Love has been usurped by religion to give it legitimacy … love needs no words to reflect its intent … people have been trying to capture love with words for thousands of years … someone asking what they can say to convince another of their love, for a non believer, with words … is asking how they hide their guilt for feeling pity … in my opinion

  • Anonymous

    Found your blog via StumbleUpon.

    I just want to thank you for your attitude on religion, and for sharing it. I’m an agnostic and most of the atheists I know are angry, bitter, self-righteous, and arrogant. They drive me crazy when religion comes up, and they give people like us a bad name.

    So its a breath of fresh air to see stuff like this :)

  • caseywollberg

    “I’m an agnostic and most of the atheists I know are angry, bitter, self-righteous, and arrogant.”

    I don’t think you know what “agnostic” really means. And if that is your experience of atheists, I have a question. Could it be that such a response is justified in specific cases? After all, you know what it’s like to be driven crazy by others’ arguments. It may even be that you are projecting your own anger, bitterness, self-righteousness, and arrogance onto their remarks. Perhaps instead of being driven crazy you should calmly consider their arguments: they are most likely valid.

  • caseywollberg

    “What the hell is wrong with being short?!?”

    Lol! What the hell is wrong with preferring to think of oneself as tall?

  • YoungAtheist

    The best thing a Christian can say to a “non-believer” to spread the love would be: You accept my beliefs, and I will accept yours. Cooperation and common acceptance are the best things that can happen between Atheists/Agnostics and Religious people.

  • Joe

    Nothing will change

    Come on guys, we can evolve! :) It will eventually change…

  • http://www.zazzle.com/briman232* Brian

    Alright you ignorant atheists… if there is no god, then HOW DOES THE SUN KEEP ORBITING THE EARTH? BAM!

    You see people, that’s how you deal with atheist skum. With LOGIC! Hit that bullseye and the rest of the dominoes will come down like a house of cards… CHECKMATE!

    And on that note…

    Dunt dun duuh DAAAAHHHH!

    !!!!!!!!!MY ATHEIST STORE!!!!!!!!!

    Aristotle’s Muse

    This is my store. Maybe wearing an atheist T-shirt won’t change the world, but enough of them just might.