A Church’s Missed Opportunity

When I heard about the following program at PromiseLand West church in Austin, Texas, I got excited:

atheistsunday

I love it when churches do this! They are asking which side of their theological spectrum makes more sense — belief or non-belief in God. Of course they’re going to say belief makes more sense. But it’s a chance for the other side to be heard and critiqued.

I think churches should do this more often… partially because their criticisms of atheism are usually so far off the mark that people who realize it may end up becoming atheists themselves :)

Anyway, I’ve done a few events like this. I get up on stage and the pastor and I discuss (not so much debate) our major issues with the other person’s views. The audience is allowed to ask questions to the two of us. It can be a really powerful event… especially for Christians who have been sheltered by their families from ever hearing opposing viewpoints.

When I heard about this particular event, I felt that if that church were anywhere near me, I would go. And I would bring atheist friends with me.

I want to know what the atheist is going to say. I want to know how the pastor is going to respond.

If your goal as a pastor is to get “unsaved” people to step inside your church, this is a fantastic way to do it.

Too bad this church fails.

Frank Harber, the man who is the special guest, is not an atheist. He’s a Christian pastor who used to be an atheist. (Much like Lee Strobel.) Apparently, PromiseLand West thinks that’s the same thing.

It’s not.

Most atheists have heard the arguments of “former atheists.” They’re weak, cliché, and easy to debunk.

As Eileen Flynn writes in Of Sacred and Secular:

… So there won’t actually be a debate going on. But [Pastor Randy] Phillips is hoping that skeptics will hear Harber’s story and reconsider their views.

To do that, you’d have to get atheists to enter your church. That’s not going to happen.

It would’ve been far more interesting if the church invited an atheist (Dan Barker comes to mind) to speak about why he left Christianity. After he talks, have small group discussions at the church about what the speaker said. Let the church staff explain the problems they find with the atheist’s arguments.

I guarantee more people would find that discussion interesting. Real dialogue would happen. The church, I imagine, would grow spiritually as a result.

As it stands, Pastor Phillips doesn’t have the courage to bring real atheists to his church to share their stories.

I predict he’s not going to get more than a few atheists to show up. And a couple of those will come only because of the misleading advertisement.

  • http://www.thenewatheist.com Randeazie

    I hate when they do this, people love to claim that atheism is just as much as a religion as the rest of them, or that we are dogmatic. The truth is I would happily believe if there was enough evidence, or indeed any evidence at all to support the idea of a god. I am willing change my believes as the evidence comes in, theist are not.

    Thanks.

    http://tinyurl.com/db89oz

  • Leanstrum

    I really hate how many apologists parade their former atheism to bolster their argument as if it’s some kind of “I win” button. It’s as if they think they know and understand every atheist argument and are more than able to debunk all of them. All experience says that this couldn’t be less true.

    In Stobel’s case in particular, it’s as you said: his arguments are so predictable and unsophisticated that I’m not at all surprised that he lost his doubt. With standards of evidence as low as his, he was bound to eventually be taken in by some flimsy body of nonsense or another.

    As a former Christian, I try not to make a big deal out of my conversion for two reasons: because I know it doesn’t prove anything, and because I know how infuriating it is when someone tries to imply that it does. In Strobel’s case, it’s almost invariably the first thing he brings up.

    I’d like to see my family’s church hold an event like this, but with a real opposition.

  • http://religiouscomics.net Jeff

    Does it take more faith to believe or not believe in the tooth fairy?

    What about the Easter bunny? Santa Clause? Tinkerbelle? Garden fairies? Water sprites? Thor? Muhammad riding to heaven on a horse? Mary’s dead body rising up to heaven? Decomposing Lazareth being brought back to life? Jesus rising (body and all) up to heaven.

    In all of these cases, for me, not believing takes no faith at all. I view them all as being equally improbable.

  • TXatheist

    I may go but it’s a good distance from my house. Here’s frank audio talking about converting to xianity….and he accuses atheists of falling into 10 categories like ignorant, sinners, close-minded and just delay becoming a xian for various reasons. I’m not impressed with the audio but wearing my friendly neighborhood atheist may get me noticed so he doesn’t bs the atheist viewpoint.
    http://gotlifeministries.lightcastmedia.com/console.php?u=3034&c=1257880952

  • Larry Huffman

    It must always be understood that atheism is merely a lack of belief…that is it. That lack does not have to come from lengthy ponderings over the philosophers or over the illogic of theological doctrine. It does not have to come from an understanding of the conflict between science and theology. Atheism can come from ignorance as well.

    Take my brother, for example. He is an atheist, but not for the same reason I am. I was devout, and loved the church, the bible and all it stood for (yeah…I know…for shame). My atheism is one that is well thought through and validated frequently (in fact, my participation in forums such as this is such a validation check for me). My brother, on the other hand just hated church and anything about it. He refused to go from an early age, and that was that. No thought process as to why other than rebellion. He hardly knew anything about the doctrine with which he rebelled.

    And so…many atheists who are so simply because they rebelled against church or such while young, really have no reasons that would prevent belief later in life. Most have not studied evolution and the origin of species to the point to where they reject god because of it…and then do a 180 and decide evolution is bunk and god is the way. It just does not happen.

    Most of these atheist’s who convert to christiainity were people who were atheist for more superficial reasons. Their atheism was not one of contemplation and education in most cases, but of ignorance and rebellion. And so they may fall on either side of the arguement if and when they gain a knowledge…depending on the source of that knowledge in most cases. Many, because they have been allowed to use their reason, will reject religion when presented with it…but many still will flock to it…especially in light of hardship. The allure of pseudo-consolation being stronger than any intellectual arguement against it.

    But…because most people do not really understand the simple definition of atheist, they can then be used as poster-converts for the chruches saying, “See, this guy was an atheist and he will tell you why it is a miserable thing to be.” The people listening will just assume that the reailty the former atheist paints is identical for the rest of us.

  • Larry Huffman

    I want to be clear here…my use of the term ignorance is not meant to be demeaning. I think I sounded kind of mean in my previous post with the words I chose. I do not mean to belittle those atheists who are so out of ignorance. In many ways I envy it…to not have gone through religion on my way to atheism would have been nice. :-)

    And I am also aware that many who are now educated atheists were once ignorant atheists as opposed to people like me…I was an ignorant theist. :-)

  • Siamang

    On that poster they have the phrase “Does it take more faith to believe or not believe in God?”.

    This echoes the Ray Comfort book title “I don’t have enough faith to be an atheist.”

    I thought faith was supposed to be a good thing?!

    I’ve noted this before, but it seems there is a certain type of believer who uses “faith language” as a knock against others.

    Evolutionists are “dogmatic”, “zealous”. Scientists are members of the “high priesthood of materialism”. It seems that for some people, the worst insult they can think of is to call something a religion. It’s a bit self-loathing, don’t you think? Can anyone imagine any atheist taking a dig religion by calling it science?

    As in “Oh, that Pope, he’s a regular white-coated biologist!”

  • Brooks

    That’s what I don’t get either, Saimang. If they’re saying that atheists have more faith, what does that say about their faith? And if atheism is a religion, can I get tax exemption?

  • Richard Wade

    Often, apologists naively think that claiming they were formerly atheists gives them some extra credibility in their present beliefs. I suppose it might impress equally naive believers who only want to have their faith stroked, but to an atheist it only means they made the same mistake twice.

    I would very much like to speak to church groups in a genuine discussion, not to challenge people’s beliefs about gods, but to dispel their far more hurtful beliefs about atheists. I think it could really help to reduce strife and tension in our communities. The problem is that while I’m articulate and personable, there isn’t any qualifying criteria for being an “expert atheist” other than writing a best selling book or a successful blog, or being an officer in a large atheist organization. My Master’s degrees are not in atheism, so who the hell am I to represent atheists? We really only have one thing in common for certain.

  • John Larberg

    I’d love to dispel the notion that atheism and nihilism are one in the same.

  • http://skepticsplay.blogspot.com/ miller

    When I try to explain myself to Christians, one of the first things I often say is that I am an ex-Catholic. I do not say this in order to bash Catholicism. I say it because most people don’t realize that atheists come from diverse religious backgrounds. They seem to think that atheists simply haven’t heard the Gospel or something like that. No, I’ve heard the Gospel. I have a general idea of what both Catholics and Protestants believe. I wouldn’t say I’m an expert, but I know enough so that hearing one more person’s explanation would probably not make a significant difference by itself.

    I won’t claim that I was the most religious person. I wasn’t. I didn’t like to pray. I hated church. But this is all well within the range of Christianity. People are diverse; Christians are diverse. I don’t believe in dictating who is truly Christian and who is not. Therefore, I wouldn’t say that I wasn’t ever really a true Christian. However, I would freely admit that I probably wasn’t the same kind of Christian that you are.

    If ex-atheists want to use the same tactic, but in the opposite direction, I respect that. If you say you used to be an atheist, I will tentatively accept this claim (honesty is the null-hypothesis). Did you identify yourself as atheist, or is this just a label after the fact? How do you define “atheist”? Do you think you were representative of all atheists? Do you think you were representative of my kind of atheism? Or were you just a living straw man?

    My impression is that most alleged ex-atheists were living strawmen. Because they are too focused on depicting atheism as negatively as possible, they have lost any sympathy I might have had with their former atheism. If you insist that as an atheist, you lived a hedonist life and hated God, then you can no longer say, “I was just like you when I was younger.”

    In the end, it doesn’t even matter whether ex-atheists are lying about their former atheism. Obviously, they’ve never been in my shoes.

  • Polly

    Pathetic. They are intellectually vacuous and they know it. That’s why they’re afraid to put up a well-informed atheist. It’s not like we’re hard to find…or not argumentative. ;)

  • «bønez_brigade»

    Jeez, I’m having trouble making it past the first part of the first sentence on Harber’s page:

    Once a former skeptic of the Christian faith, Pastor Frank Harber speaks about the truthfulness of Christianity.

    So, does that mean he’s no longer a former skeptic — thus making him a current skeptic of Xianity — or is he now agnostic of skepticism towards Xianity? Religilogic gives me a headache.

    ———

    BTW, melikes Jeff’s comment.

  • Luther Weeks

    In all of these cases, for me, not believing takes no faith at all. I view them all as being equally improbable.

    The other fallacy in all this is that for some reason they imply that taking more faith to believe something is some sort of advantage!

    Or maybe they are saying it takes less faith to believe in a myth…that would be totally ridiculous. So its probably what they mean.

  • dvsrat

    As a student in a psychology class, I once performed a live and rather spontaneous experiment. In a class discussion the topic of atheism came up.

    One student went on about how he “used to be an atheist until…” Then another student went in about how “I was an atheist too until…” Then I asked the whole class a question (or two.)

    “How many people here consider themselves to be atheists?”

    Only a few hands showed up (including mine.)

    Then I asked the next question. “How many of you WERE atheists at one time?

    It looked like just over a fourth of the hands in the room went up out of a class of roughly 80 people.

    So I pointed that out. Why is it that “I was an atheist” outnumber “I am an theist”? Would the results been different with another group of people. Would they have been different last year? Etc.

    Most of the people in that class were friendly. I did get a bit of hostility but not bad.

  • TXatheist

    Frank the ex-atheist was more properly labeled irreligious as he said before converting he didn’t know of one actual bible contradiction. Now, how many atheists can’t name one? The rest of his speech was on ID which was funny because he started out saying how the bible is completely accurate. The ID folks believe in a old earth unlike most creationists. No Q & A session afterwords so I just took notes and left.


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