What should I ask an Atheist?

Hey friends, Mike Clawson here (the delinquent Christian sometimes contributor). I’m posting again because I need your advice. These past two months I have been leading a discussion series at my church (a very artistic, progressive, Austin-y kind of church that actually has a number of atheists and agnostics in attendance and even a few in leadership positions) on world religions, interviewing members from various other faiths. So far we’ve had a Rabbi, a Muslim, a Wiccan, and a Hindu. We’re hoping to have either a Buddhist or a Haitian Vodou practitioner this coming Sunday, and then wrap up on January 30th with an atheist representative from the Atheist Community of Austin.

That’s where you come in. I have a list of questions I want to ask him, but I’m afraid I might forget something important, or not ask him the one thing atheists have always wanted Christians to know about them. So that’s my question for y’all: If there’s anything you wish Christians would ask you to explain to them about atheism, what would it be? What is it that you would most want us to know?

Please keep in mind that the purpose of this event is not debate, but simply for my church community to come to understand atheism better, and perhaps sympathize with atheists more. I won’t be arguing with my guest about anything he has to say, just asking and listening and learning. So with that in mind, what should I ask?

  • http://forthesakeofscience.wordpress.com Michael Hawkins

    I don’t know about the question, but I would like to let them know that atheism is not a normative position. It is most certainly descriptive. What they take to be atheism is actually anti-theism or ‘new atheism’ or some other position that incorporates atheism at its base. But still. Atheism itself is only descriptive; it doesn’t tell us what is right or wrong or what we should or should not do.

  • gwen

    Where do they get their ‘moral compass’?
    Why are they atheist?
    What is an atheist?

  • Chip

    I would ask something about values–not necessarily as in morals, but about what we find beauty and meaning in. The world isn’t dark without god, and I wish more people knew that.
    This seems like a very admirable series–I congratulate you!

  • Michelle Lynn

    I suggest you ask him how he knows what’s right or wrong without having scripture for guidance. A lot of Christians seem to have the belief that atheism = immoral, so in the interest of mutual respect and understanding, I’d give him the opportunity to explain how not believing in God does not mean that he doesn’t believe in love, compassion, forgiveness, charity, etc.

  • Matt

    Can you describe the process and feelings associated with becoming an atheist? (for those who used to be religious)

    For myself, the story is interesting, and the feelings associated with it were quite profound, moving, and overwhelming at times.

  • S-Y

    The fact that the term “atheist” is no more meaningful than the terms “monotheist” or “polytheist”.

  • Two Cents

    Perhaps something about the de-conversion process. How did it happen? How did it make you feel?

    Also, something that reaches on the topic that atheism, for many people isn’t a choice. Some people hear the stories, read the Bible and try as they may, they can’t believe in god. It could be tied in to something with the previous question maybe. Atheists have many different experiences when it comes to this and it might be nice for people to see the variety of experiences and that atheists come about from different walks of life. It seems obvious but sometimes, I think its easy to lump everyone into one category and soon enough forget that atheism can come about in different ways and for many people, it isn’t really anything that “defines” them.

  • scott

    in my opinion, ask him exactly what you just asked us, i.e. “Is there anything you wish Christians would ask you to explain to them about atheism, and what is it that you would most want us to know?”

    in my case, it would be that while i have no need for religion – i also don’t begrudge someone who finds something of value in it. and just as i wouldn’t push my beliefs on others, why do others (Christians specifically) seem to want and feel the need to make me live the way they choose to live.

  • keddaw

    What do babies taste like?

    What do atheists believe in and why? Hopefully this should garner the response that atheists do not have any collective belief, some are conservative, some liberal, some utilitarian some libertarian etc. All they share is that they have yet to be convinced by the truth claims of any religion.

  • Miko

    “How can we work together?”

    Perhaps better for a start of a dialogue than as a one-off question, but I’ve found that oftentimes collaboration between atheists and theists on social projects that ought to have absolutely nothing to do with faith nonetheless get sidetracked, and that’s really unfortunate when it happens.

  • Jon Moles

    If your guest is Matt Dillahunty, you won’t need to ask him anything, just let him speak. I’d say that goes for just about anyone who hosts/co-hosts The Atheist Experience show.

  • http://allusiveatheist.blogspot.com/ T Ray

    oo You should try to get Matt Dillahunty.

    I don’t understand the point of this program. By exploring alternative points you create two possible outcomes. (1) By being open-minded and carefully considering alternate perspectives on a personal level you mitigate your value for your own point of view. (2) By studying alternate perspectives on a clinical level you promote a condescending know-thy-enemy side show.

    I would want such a group to ask me: Why isn’t faith good enough (for me)?

  • http://de-avanzada.blogspot.com/ David Osorio

    Some closeted atheists are so because they’re afraid that if god doesn’t exist, there’s no absolut moral compass. Well, check your bible: our social morals have evolved and proven to be more ethic than god. Our critical faculties are the best moral compass one should aim to be guided by.

  • Dan

    How do you find comfort living in a world where you have no belief in a god?

    How do you deal with the death of a loved one when you have no belief in god?

    How do you feel about your own death if you have no belief in god?

    What gives you strength to carry on when things turn gloomy in your life when you have no belief in a god?

    … I pose these questions because I think a lot of people are religious for comfort reasons. So, I’d like the atheist to be able to talk about how someone without god can find comfort and happiness in this world, even on his or her worst days.

  • nat huck

    I’m with Two Cents. I’ve been an atheist my entire life. I was taught about god and the bible stories as a child but I could never take any of it seriously. I didn’t even realize how seriously most people took religion until about high school. I am incapable of believing these things. For a little while there in junior high I thought the idea of loving, father like god sounded wonderful and I should really find out what all the hub-bub was about and I read the bible and it just cemented my atheism even more.

  • Aaron

    When did you become an atheist?
    Was there a particular impetus?
    Were you brought up religious?

    To what extent does atheism define your life?
    Do you feel like a minority?

    How open are you about your atheism?
    Does your boss/family/friends know? Why or why not?
    Who do you hide your atheism from?

    Do you experience spiritual (“religious-like”) moments?

  • Erp

    Atheist describes what you are not, how would you describe what you are?

  • Michelle

    It is great that you are doing this and shows a high level of trust in your audience/members/congregation but, just like one Christian can not be expected to represent all of Christianity it should be clear that one Atheist can not do that for all of Atheism either. Even though it seems like an obvious point it bears repeating.
    For me personally believing is not a possibility without some very solid evidence to change my mind. Other than that I would say that all of your guests as well as your congregation would be likely to find we have more in common than our labels would show.
    Lastly, I tend to categorize behavior and arguments as helping or not helping. This definitely fits under the helping category.

  • Seeker

    How does not having a belief in a supreme being acting as judge or an afterlife as punishment / reward affects the way you live your life.

  • http://quichemoraine.com Mike Haubrich

    I think that a great question to ask an atheist is about that person’s perception of Christians, especially if it is a question to a person who has deconverted.

    You would get several different answers, because not all of our experiences are the same.

  • http://www.youtube.com/aajoeyjo Joe Zamecki

    From the original post: “Hey friends, Mike Clawson here (the delinquent Christian…”

    And “Please keep in mind that the purpose of this event is not debate, but simply for my church community to come to understand atheism better, and perhaps sympathize with atheists more.”

    I have a question. Why does a Christian who freely admits to being a delinquent feel like we Atheists need or want him and his fellow Christians to SYMPATHIZE with us more?? We have the better position. He wants us to start off with by accepting that THEY have the better position.

    He should ask us what humility is.

  • Sean Santos

    There’s the basic question that I think will come up anyway: Why are you an atheist? Why don’t you believe in God?

    Maybe a better suggestion is “How do you cope with death/mortality?” It’s a bit of a personal question, and there’s no particular “atheist answer”, but I do think it elucidates a common fear people have regarding atheism.

    I’d love to hear how this goes. We’ll probably get the ACA rep’s side of things at some point, but I’d like to hear reactions from some of the Christians as well.

  • Sean Santos

    Joe, I appreciate your work, but did someone put sauerkraut in your coffee today?

  • http://emergingpensees.com Mike Clawson

    I have a question. Why does a Christian who freely admits to being a delinquent feel like we Atheists need or want him and his fellow Christians to SYMPATHIZE with us more?? We have the better position. He wants us to start off with by accepting that THEY have the better position.

    My apologies. My wording was unclear. I meant that I was a delinquent contributor (to this blog). Not that I was a delinquent Christian (though I often am that too I suppose).

    As for wanting Christians to sympathize with atheists, it has nothing to do with any feelings of superiority. My concern is that I know many atheists are discriminated against in society these days, especially by the dominant Christian majority, and I want to do what I can to mitigate that. My hope is that if more Christians can understand where atheists are coming from, and why y’all believe as you do, then they will be less inclined to act in hostile or discriminatory ways towards atheists in their day-to-day lives. That is what I meant by wanting a greater level of sympathy for atheists among Christians.

  • Jo

    I think the questions @Dan suggested are ones that I wish Christians would pose of me.
    It seems I always try to soften the “I’m atheist” statement with my own positive spin on my reason for being atheist. I get mad that I do it, and I know it’s in a way being apologetic for my beliefs for some reason, but that’s the stage I’m at. For me, it’s all related to a strong belief in myself and my own capabilities (after an extremely tragic personal event). Where some people would have “found god”, I did the exact opposite. I was never religious to begin with, and as time passed, my personal beliefs grew stronger. I can’t tell you how many times I was asked if I feel like I “have a closer relationship with God”!

    A question related to positive perspectives on the personal journey to atheism might be nice.

  • Franco

    As an atheist, why do you find it necessary to be so hyper-sensitive about religion in the political sphere?
    Do you really expect a religious politician not to introduce and support legislation based on his religious convictions?
    Wouldn’t it be hypocritical of him not to?

  • Joshua Pearson

    I don’t have a question, so much as a caveat. Unlike a with a religion, one atheist can’t really repesent all, or any other, atheist.
    Rev. Phelps represents perfectly what Westboro Baptists are like. Pope Benedict represents Roman Catholics, so-on so-forth.
    Atheists have only one unifyinh principle, no belief in a god or gods. Each atheist is their own atheist, and we all come to atheism from a different way. Some come through logic, some through anger, and others because they don’t like religion.
    This is one thing I don’t know if many religious people realize. No atheist can really speak on what atheism is for anyone but themselves.
    Not that this, or what you are doing, is a bad thing; to the contrary it’s a great thing. I just think it’s important for people to know that atheism is an individual system, not a group one.

  • Drew M.

    Mike, I just read through your church’s website and I am quite impressed. I like your ideas about interpreting the bible and this part really stood out to me:

    We don’t emphasize “right belief” as much as we emphasize being loving, forgiving, trusting God, believing in and following Jesus.

    The next time I’m in Austin, I may check it out. I could use a reminder that there are indeed a lot of good Christians in the US.

    As far as what you should ask, I second (or third) Dan’s questions, especially:

    How do you find comfort living in a world where you have no belief in a god?

    This is a very important part of my non-belief. When I was a devout Catholic, I had daily stress, including vivid nightmares several times a week. I could never live with an all-powerful and supposedly loving god who allows bad things to happen to good people.

    I take solace in an indifferent universe that has nothing to do with how humanity behaves. I suspect I’m not alone.

  • Rich Wilson

    This feels a bit like Jeopardy “in the form of a question”

    Here’s my evangelism in a nutshell:

    I have morals. We may not have the same morals 100% line by line, but we’re probably pretty close, especially on the ‘big’ stuff.

    I’m not trying to convert anyone. So long as your faith doesn’t cause you to hurt other living things, then so be it.

    When I oppose some some religious ritual, it is only because it is tied up with government in some way, and I’m a strong defender of the establishment clause. Take it to a private setting and I could care less.

    I’m not fighting Christmas. I don’t care what greeting anyone uses. In fact, almost purely out of habit, I say “Merry Christmas!” myself.

    We are apes. The planet is 4.54 billion years old. 2 + 2 = 4. Jupiter has moons.

  • Siamang

    Hi Mike!!

    A couple of questions.

    My first question could be equally for atheists and believers alike: is belief something that a person has control over? I once read an atheist who complained that “belief” isn’t something we can just put on like a sweater. I liked that analogy… if someone asks you to put on a sweater, even if you aren’t cold, you can still do it to oblige them.

    But belief in a thing isn’t (to me) something you can do that with. Other people might have differing opinions. Maybe you could ask atheists if you think that believers can just take off that sweater because you convinced them that YOU don’t need one. I think it’s a good question for everyone… just to think about what “belief” is and how much control we even have over such a thing.

    Anyway, that’s one question.

    My question to you (prolly off topic) is this… Okay, so my daughter is seven now. I’m getting to the point where soon we’ll have to start dealing with her learning about people who are unpleasantly religious. (So far, it’s just been nice people who are religious.. grandma and grandpa, etc).

    But we’re trying hard to raise her with the notion that mommy and daddy don’t believe in a god, but other people do…

    But here’s the deal… Partly out of protectiveness, but mostly out of wanting to teach her respect for others… we’ve been really kind of not teaching her about the parts of religion we really don’t like.

    It’s REALLY hard to express to her why some people don’t want to let her gay grandmothers get married… and it’s because of their religion… without really trashing religion. Without telling her the problems that religion can cause… because of course we don’t want her telling her friends at school that their religion is wrong.

    Anyway… so we’re kind of not addressing the subject. So pretty soon now (by my watch) some kid on a playyard’s gonna tell her that her parents are going to go to hell and she will too unless they kneel right there and pray the sinner’s prayer…

    Anyway… that’s my fear because that kind of stuff happened to me when i was a kid and I was unprepared. And here I am unpreparing my daughter because i’m afraid of loading her down with my dislikes for religion. She doesn’t even know about hell, and I don’t want to be the person who tells her that people believe in such a thing.
    What child needs that horror show in her mind? What a perfect innocent person… why should she have to endure the horrors of dark imagination that kept me awake nights?

    Of course, it’s even worse if someone else tells her, because they can make it scarier.

    How do I teach her to treat with respect the beliefs of others, when their beliefs contain thoughts that are to me absolute madness, like the doctrine of hell?

    Anyway… slight derail.

  • Patrick

    Don’t ask atheists what you should ask. At absolute best, what you will get is an atheist’s estimation of what misconceptions Christians have about atheists.

    Ask whatever you want to know. Figure out what you don’t know, and ask it. And accept that this may result in you being a jerk, because the typical christian internal discourse about atheism is basically vile slander designed to scare believers away from atheism.

    I know vile slander isn’t what you want to be doing, and I know it may not be what you think you’ve been doing, and I know it may not be what you want to bring up as part of this seminar.

    But if what you’ve got is, say, an audience of Christians who believe that people become atheists because they love orgies and narcotics, then that’s what you should ask about, and just accept that you’ll get an angry answer. At least the conversation will be productive.

  • http://skepticsplay.blogspot.com miller

    The most obvious questions: What does atheism mean? Why are you atheist? What positive things do you advocate? How do you feel about efforts to change people’s beliefs? What causes might you have in common with the emergent church?

    Other possible questions:
    What’s the difference between an atheist and an agnostic?
    What problems do atheists face in their personal lives for being in a minority group?
    Do you believe there are “two kinds” of atheists, the nice ones and the mean ones?
    Also, any question that leads to any of the points here is a good one.

  • Claudia

    I have a question. Why does a Christian who freely admits to being a delinquent feel like we Atheists need or want him and his fellow Christians to SYMPATHIZE with us more??

    Wow, have a bad day Joe? Mike is almost supernaturally (heh) nice. If find his exceptionally gentle comments offensive, I shudder to think how you interact with most theists on a daily basis. Really, not every comment from a Christian is meant to show superiority or condemn.

    As for questions, I think that one of the most misunderstood aspect of atheism (other than morality, which has been covered well by other comments) is the issue of definition. I know a lot of nonbelievers (and used to be one) that misunderstand atheism to be a positive affirmation in the nonexistence of a god, instead of the default lack of belief in the absence of evidence. I can only imagine that this misunderstanding is even more common amongst believers. So a question like “We believe their is a god, do you believe there definitely isn’t one?” would be helpful. If they are a part of the active atheist community they will take the question as a way to explain this misunderstanding.

  • AxeGrrl

    Jon Moles wrote:

    If your guest is Matt Dillahunty, you won’t need to ask him anything, just let him speak. I’d say that goes for just about anyone who hosts/co-hosts The Atheist Experience show.

    I’m a Matt fan as well, but for my money, Tracie Harris is the best representative for the show (especially when it comes to reducing arguments/issues to their essence). She simply never comes across badly….which isn’t true for every host of the show.

  • AxeGrrl

    Here’s a great question to ask the atheist:

    “do you believe in anything ‘bigger’ than yourself?”

    I’m soooo tired of hearing believers say “atheists make themselves their ‘god’”. Hopefully, those who answer the question I posed above will decimate that ignorant presumption.

  • http://www.youtube.com/aajoeyjo Joe Zamecki

    I’m having a great day. Every time a Christian tries this on me, it always goes sour, thanks to them.

    I did a phone interview with a Christian reporter the other day, and she was real nice and receptive on the phone, and gave me plenty of chance to explain our position on a lot of issues.

    Then she lied about what I said, and made me look like I missed religion because I’m angry at God. lol!

    I laugh, but I also remember. She was not the first, and won’t be the last. Christianity relies on dishonesty, and that’s not going to change anytime soon. Fool me once…

  • Dan Moody

    Do you admire anything about religious people/communities?
    Do you feel there is any role for religion in the public sphere?
    Do you disagree with how some atheists portray their views (the “You know they’re all scams” billboard is an example of an area of disagreement between atheists)?
    Why do you put evidence before faith?

  • J. R. Braden

    Is there any positive moral thing you’ve done that you could not have done if you were a believer? Is there any moral action a believer could do which you would be incapable or even more hesitant to do?

    Make it tough on them. If they’re anything like me, they hate softball questions.

  • Gaardiyen

    (Long time lurker…first time commenter…)

    @ Siamang:

    Since I found this site via The Meming of Life , I thought that I should refer you there. Dale McGowan has written a couple of excellent books specifically addressing the questions you pose and I have found them very helpful in answering them in regards to my own 2 daughters (8 & 5).

  • Slider33

    Have them ask “what’s the hardest part about being an atheist?”

    I think that’s a pretty open-ended question that will allow the person to address a lot of misconceptions and difficulties that an atheist might face.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    Obviously, you need to ask him about his favourite recipes for babies.

  • http://cannonballjones.wordpress.com Paul Adams

    “What is the point of your existence without the promise of a life after this one, and where does your morality come from without the promise of reward or threat of punishment?”

    That, for me anyway, covers the most annoying and patronising accusation levelled against atheists, namely that we’re immoral, directionless and deeply unhappy. High five to the commenter who suggested “What do babies taste like?” though, was gonna go for that too :-)

  • http://religiouscomics.net Jeff P

    Hi Mike,

    As a second to what Two Cents Says above, I would start a discussion centered on the following question:

    Is atheism a choice?

    I would predict that the ensuing discussion would be both interesting and informative. You would probably get various answers even from atheists. For me, I don’t view my atheism as a choice. It is just the way my brain is wired. I’m skeptical about supernatural claims. Almost like skin color – It is something I can’t control. The notion of atheism not being a choice is something that might give some Christians pause who might otherwise feel some obligation or need to subtlety persecute or judge atheists. It might also give them pause (especially if they are from the “beliefs get you into heaven” flavor of Christianity) in thinking about their own beliefs. How can you be judged on something in which you can’t control?

  • Claudia

    Interesting thing about whether atheism is a choice. My guess is that yes for some, no for others. A related question would be “Is theism a choice?“. It obviously is in the sense that it’s not something you are born with and it’s not biologically determined. On the other hand, to what degree some people are given a choice in the matter is questionable. If you are brought up by fundamentalists of any stripe and you share their beliefs, can it be really said you had a choice? Sure, some people, even some people brought up by fundamentalists, never buy it, but I don’t know for certain that those that do are really free to choose.

  • Ethan

    If it’s Matt Dillahunty (however you spell that), he always has more than enough to talk about without having to prod him too much. He does have a long lecture about secular morality, so if you’re gonna ask him “where do atheists get their morality”, be prepared for a long answer. Or ask him how he moved away from the church. Or which god he doesn’t believe in (the answer should be more entertaining than “all of them”). “What’s the harm in believing?” And please through Pascal’s wager at him. Lol.

  • bernerbits

    Joe,

    I read the article in question and I fully agree that you were taken out of context and misrepresented here. However, no matter how many Christians seem to fulfill their stereotypes, I think we have to be careful not to tar them all with the same brush. Just as while we may vigorously disagree with Islam, we can recognize that not all Muslims are terrorists, we can have fundamental disagreements with Christianity while recognizing that not all Christians are arrogant, self-serving hypocrites.

    Now, incidentally, Mike happens to be a family friend and I will grant that this could be skewing my perception a bit, but due to my interaction with him I have a very hard time believing he has any ulterior motive here and that he is truly interested in building bridges.

    Trust me, I really do get your reaction here. Since I (and many of us here) feel strongly that atheism is the only really rational hypothesis in the face of all current evidence, and since we are frequently told by well-meaning believers that we are infringing on their religious freedoms by existing, even if we don’t actively evangelize this position, it’s a struggle not to regard believers of all stripes with some form of mild to severe intellectual contempt, or consider any attempt to improve channels of communication between us an act of condescension.

    I freely admit this is a character flaw on my part, one that I exhibited just as strongly toward the other side when I was a Christian. Last week I (and many of us) came down pretty hard on Brad White for doing something similar, and while I feel I made a few perfectly valid points, it’s also clear that he was earnestly attempting to reach out and that should probably have tempered the tone of some of my replies.

    Many atheists believe that pure, unbiased critical thinking should only lead to atheism, but remember that many Christians believe that pure, unbiased critical thinking should only lead to Christianity (I suppose then that most people who believe that pure, unbiased critical thinking can lead either way would call themselves “agnostic”). I think that most of the vitriolic debates we find ourselves embroiled in stem from this very basic impedance mismatch, and I don’t think it’s going to change as long as either side places such a high degree of importance on being right all the time.

    You’ll have to forgive my roundabout long-windedness (I had a 5-hour energy for the first time this morning so I’m a tad hyper :D) but I guess the point I’m trying to make is that if Mike were in the business of twisting atheists’ words to protect a Christian audience, he wouldn’t be bringing them front and center and letting them speak for themselves.

    Besides, if an atheist is able to successfully convey to a group of Christians that we are not trying to take their rights away, that we really are a marginalized segment of society, and that we can be good people too, then that is a success for us that Mike has helped organize. Being viewed as human beings, and not spawn of Satan, can only help us when it comes to getting across our position on “hot-button” issues, such as the teaching of evolution in public school, gay marriage, abortion rights, first amendment violations, and so on. It’s always easier to debate with a friend than it is to debate with a random stranger on the internet.

    On that note, Mike, the questions I’d like to see asked:

    “It’s frequently claimed that the most influential atheists are working to curtail the civil liberties of Christians in the US. Do you agree? Why or why not?”

    “Would you agree that the US is a predominantly Christian nation? If so, how does that affect you personally on a day-to-day basis?”

    “Many Christians believe that their faith empowers them to be better people. What empowers you to be a better person?”

  • Lin

    I understand Joe’s comment, and I think “sympathize” was a poor word choice.

    I feel like Christians — the ones who don’t fear or hate me, that is — already express a condescending sympathy for what I’m missing.

    If the purpose of having the atheist speaker is to elicit sympathy, it seems like the church is just trying to reinforce the idea that atheism is an inferior position. Let’s feel sorry for the poor unbeliever. That way, hopefully, nobody will walk away contemplating their own doubts.

    I hope the speaker shows how happy and fulfilling life can be without faith, and gives the congregation no reason to sympathize.

  • Chris

    For most of the religious, religion and religious beliefs form a decent sized chunk of personal identity. To what extent is that true or not for atheists?

    I bring up this question because I think the degree that religion is tied up with identity is the reason so many religious are ‘offended’ by even talk of atheism. That is, if you decry a person’s religion it is often perceived as a personal attack rather than a criticism of ideas. If there were one thing I wish the religious would take away understanding about atheism (and especially ‘new’ atheism) is that the critical consideration of religious ideas are not personal attacks and should be responded to on their merits. Debate on religious ideas should be robust and getting the religious to see that would help a lot with any dialogue or understanding.

    My 2 cents.

  • http://emergingpensees.com Mike Clawson

    Siamang asked:

    How do I teach her to treat with respect the beliefs of others, when their beliefs contain thoughts that are to me absolute madness, like the doctrine of hell?

    I’m actually in a somewhat similar situation right now with my 6-year old daughter re: MLK day. She is in a very racially diverse school (as a white kid, she’s actually in the minority here), and hasn’t yet realized what race is, much less that it could be used as a basis for exclusion. It’s not that I want to keep her sheltered from such realities indefinitely, but I also don’t want to be the one to suggest such notions to her. I guess I’m afraid that even if my wife and I emphasize that racism is wrong, it will still suggest to her possibilities for her own behavior that hadn’t previously existed.

    Anyhow, I guess it’s probably a universal dilemma for parents on how to best expose their children to the ugliness that exists in the world. In general I support being honest and teaching kids how to deal with it. Regarding religion, I suppose you should probably just continue your policy of letting your daughter know that different people believe different things, and that not all of them are good things. You don’t have to trash all religious people to let her know that some religious people hold really destructive beliefs. Emphasize that just as not all atheists are the same, neither are all religious people (or even all Christians) the same.

    Speaking of that, I appreciate those who have encouraged me to emphasize during the interview that one guy can’t represent all atheists. That’s actually a point we’ve been emphasizing for all of our religious representatives. We don’t want to imply that each of our interviewees represents the whole of their tradition, and we often ask them to comment on other streams and denominations of their faith.

  • stogoe

    As an atheist, why do you find it necessary to be so hyper-sensitive about religion in the political sphere?

    Because of the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, and because I would honestly rather not be hanged for apostasy by the thugs of a theocratic dictator. (DishonestNice framing, by the way.)

    Do you really expect a religious politician not to introduce and support legislation based on his religious convictions?

    Happens all the time. The “Tax cuts for the rich, a knife in the eye of the poor” bill passes every year with overwhelming support. Nearly all of those legislators believe in the one who called his followers to sell all they have and give the proceeds to the poor.

    Wouldn’t it be hypocritical of him not to?

    When has that ever stopped any politician?

  • The Other Tom

    Siamang asks an excellent off-topic question about his daughter:

    How do I teach her to treat with respect the beliefs of others, when their beliefs contain thoughts that are to me absolute madness, like the doctrine of hell?

    You don’t. Teaching her to respect idiocy is idiocy. Instead, teach her that the religious beliefs are incorrect and that she should not believe them… but that the believers can still be good people and should be respected as fellow people whose beliefs are sincere, although mistaken, and that she should be kind to them the same way she should be kind to everyone. Teach her to respect people, not beliefs.

    And then gently teach her about specific concepts. Tell her a lot of people believe there’s a place called hell where bad people go, and they say mean and bad things happen there (you don’t have to go into details), but that those people who believe that are wrong and there is no such place and isn’t that good news? And so on. Yes, she will probably have a little indecision and concern as the years go by, but better that when the time comes that someone tries to scare her with hell, she can remember her loving parents smiling at her and lovingly giving her the good news that there’s no such thing.

  • http://emergingpensees.com Mike Clawson

    I understand Joe’s comment, and I think “sympathize” was a poor word choice.

    I feel like Christians — the ones who don’t fear or hate me, that is — already express a condescending sympathy for what I’m missing.

    If the purpose of having the atheist speaker is to elicit sympathy, it seems like the church is just trying to reinforce the idea that atheism is an inferior position. Let’s feel sorry for the poor unbeliever. That way, hopefully, nobody will walk away contemplating their own doubts.

    I hope the speaker shows how happy and fulfilling life can be without faith, and gives the congregation no reason to sympathize.

    Again, my apologies. I wasn’t intending that connotation for the word “sympathize”. I meant something more like “appreciate” or “empathize”, i.e. something beyond simply “understanding” atheists beliefs and experiences in an objective way, to a deeper level of really grasping the validity of the atheist perspective, and of really feeling compassion for the discrimination atheists often face.

    In dictionary terms, I suppose I had these definitions of “sympathize” in mind:

    From the OED:
    sympathize
    4.a. To feel sympathy; to have a fellow-feeling; to share the feelings of another or others; to be affected by the condition or experience of another with a feeling similar or corresponding to that of the other.

    and

    4.c. To agree or be disposed to agree in some opinion or way of thinking, to be of (about) the same mind with a person or party; also, with in or (now usually) with, to approve or incline to approve, to regard with favour (a scheme, cause, etc.).

    Again, I am sorry for the misunderstanding and confusion.

  • The Captain

    “Austin-y kind of church that actually has a number of atheists and agnostics in attendance and even a few in leadership positions”

    Perhaps then the first question you should ask is “What is an Atheist, and what does an Atheist believe”.

    Unless a spouse is making them go I find it rather impossible for anyone attending your church, and who believes in your mission statement “Our first priority and joy is to love and know God.” to be in fact an atheist.

  • http://emergingpensees.com Mike Clawson

    Unless a spouse is making them go I find it rather impossible for anyone attending your church, and who believes in your mission statement “Our first priority and joy is to love and know God.” to be in fact an atheist.

    Heh, yeah, you’d think, wouldn’t you :)

    But actually one of the atheist folks is a very good friend of mine, and he’s told me that he’s the one who is usually dragging his Christian wife to church. Recently he’s decided that he is a “Christian Atheist” (meaning that he doesn’t believe in God, but still feels compelled by the ethical vision of Jesus and of communities like Journey), though he light-heartedly acknowledges that such a designation isn’t likely to make either side very happy with him :)

    The key to understanding our situation is in that word I used, “Austin-y”. Journey is just a very laid back, messy, relaxed sort of place. We don’t get too worked up over these sorts of differences.

  • http://religiouscomics.net Jeff Pq

    Mike, is your notion of God also “Austin-y” where He also doesn’t get worked up over “these sorts of differences”? If so, then you are to be commended. If you watch our back, we’ll watch your back when “they” come for us with the pitch-forks and torches.

  • http://emergingpensees.com Mike Clawson

    Mike, is your notion of God also “Austin-y” where He also doesn’t get worked up over “these sorts of differences”?

    Yep :)

    I decided a long time ago (even before I got kicked out of my conservative Baptist church) that if God’s primary concern was something as trivial as making sure that everyone had the “correct” set of philosophical ideas in their heads about the nature of reality and such (and that he’d send folks to Hell for having the wrong ones), then I really didn’t want to have anything to do with that sort of God.

  • http://religiouscomics.net Jeff P

    Mike,

    I’ve often thought that Christianity would be a lot better if the whole preoccupation with some kind of admission criteria to some kind of afterlife was dropped and Christianity just concentrated on making the world (as we live in it) a better place. I wish your “Austin-y” Journey well even though I don’t personally believe in the supernatural.

  • AxeGrrl

    Jeff P wrote:

    Is atheism a choice?

    I would predict that the ensuing discussion would be both interesting and informative. You would probably get various answers even from atheists. For me, I don’t view my atheism as a choice. It is just the way my brain is wired.

    My response to that question is basically:

    do we choose the conclusions we come to? Because that’s basically what atheism is ~ a conclusion one arrives at.

    Are there any atheists here who feel that their atheism was a ‘choice’? If so, I’d love to hear their response(s) to my question above.

  • Korinthian

    What are your favorite bible quotes?

  • Shawn

    Ask anything as long as you genuinely wish to know the answer.

    Just remember one thing – religion and the people that follow a religion are two separate entities. Any view against religion is never meant to be an attack on you.

  • http://waters.me/ Simon

    I think the premise is a bad one. Atheist is too broad a church (if you’ll excuse the expression).

    If he is an apostate (oh the lovely language) one could ask how it came about. But I think the issue is summed-up by believing in one god less that you (assuming you are a monotheist).

    But if he never had a faith, I don’t see the basis on which one asks a question. Kind of like what question would you ask someone who isn’t a member of any political party.

    One might ask how moral decisions are arrived at as an atheist. However the religious often phrase that one the wrong way around. They should ask the atheist “If there is no god, how do WE come to the moral decisions we do, and how does that defer from your own”, but they always ask the atheist how he comes to his moral decisions – which kind of misses the point of there being no god.

    It is interesting to me that the over whelming majority of humanists believe in voluntary euthanasia, that we have a right to die rather than suffer, where as many religions don’t accept this. I don’t know if there are other beliefs that the thinking non-believers share so widely that are potentially so controversial.

  • RollTheBones

    Ask him, “Why are we here?”

  • Siamang

    if God’s primary concern was something as trivial as making sure that everyone had the “correct” set of philosophical ideas in their heads about the nature of reality and such (and that he’d send folks to Hell for having the wrong ones), then I really didn’t want to have anything to do with that sort of God.

    I love this quote, Mike.

    Regarding religion, I suppose you should probably just continue your policy of letting your daughter know that different people believe different things, and that not all of them are good things.

    Thanks for this… I think that’s really important, emphasizing a broad range of beliefs, good and bad. Emphasizing a diverse range of views. It puts the bad things in context.

    Gaardiyen, thanks for the note. I’ve read Dale’s book “Parenting Beyond Belief” which is good, but still I’m not seeing anything in it that feels more natural to me and my parenting style. I get the impression (and this might just be me) that those essays are written from the point of view of “professional atheists”. People who are politically atheists, you know? I don’t know… it just comes off like friends of mine who are politically active, and they’re making kind of a project of their kid in how to raise their own perfect little junior democrat.

    Anyway, not my style. Mike’s approach is quite helpful to me.

    Thanks for the perspective Other Tom. I agree that I don’t want to teach her to respect ALL the beliefs of others. I would not teach her to respect the beliefs of racists, for example.

    I think the real issue is that at some point she’s going to get past the currently age-appropriate behavior of ignoring all religious differences and graduate into an age where other children are arguing religious differences.

    Lastly, to Joe Zamecki,

    I know Mike well enough from his posts here to know we’re not being set up. He doesn’t ask “Gotcha questions”, and he’s not coming here with any other motive other than bridging gaps.

  • Matt Dillahunty

    Mike Clawson…

    I’m curious which ACA representative is speaking. I dug through my e-mail and can’t find anything. (I’m mostly checking to make sure I didn’t miss/forget to add something to my calendar)

    Matt Dillahunty
    President, Atheist Community of Austin

  • Defiantnonbeliever

    Why is life better without irrational beliefs?
    It seems to me the central question that separates all churches and atheists.
    Sorry it this is a duplicate but I didn’t want to wade through the rest.

  • http://atheistexperience.blogspot.com Russell Glasser

    Mike, which member of the Atheist Community of Austin volunteered? Some of us are not sure who is supposed to go.

  • Katean

    I am an rational humanist/atheist at a Universalist Unitarian church and I am far from being alone. My church is offering a class about religions of the world and it is based on the work of Joseph Campbell, specifically his book Transformations of Myth Through Time, along with other sources. This would be a great topic for your open-minded church audience.

  • veggiedude

    The most obvious question I think would be “Where do they get their ‘moral compass’?” This assumes that morality can only be from religion. I think I can tie this into my other persona – that of being a vegan. A study last year revealed that people who are vegan are neurologically different from others. The part of the brain that has the ability for empathy is more pronounced in vegans. Ah ha! Empathy for others is what governs our morality – not religion!!

  • Deepak Shetty

    “Why do you feel that being a non-believer is better/more reasonable/more fulfilling than being religious?”

    I think that far too often religious people feel that non-believers need to be helped, or are missing something in their lives. A lot of them just don’t understand why not believing actually leads to a better life.

  • http://vancouvermoose.livejournal.com/ VancouverMoose

    This might be a boring or obvious, but I think the most useful question is “how did you become an atheist?”

  • http://emergingpensees.com Mike Clawson

    Matt & Russell – I submitted a request through your website to your “Lecture Coordinator” and the person that email goes to responded. I don’t want to post his name here without his approval, but I did email your VP last night and let her know who it is and she was fine with it. I don’t really care who y’all send, but just as a logistical suggestion, you might want to revamp your web contact form so that these sorts of requests go to a general inbox as well as to the specific person so y’all can avoid confusion in the future.

  • Katean

    Siamang (hey we saw some of those at the Zoo yesterday!): Parenting Without Belief has a workbook out now. I haven’t read it so can’t say that it is more grounded, but you might want to check it out. I have similar concerns for my daughter who is soon-to-be 5 and asking questions about death, and will go to a public school next year with all types of people. Diversity is good – trying to convince her to believe in Jesus is not IMO. I want to give her a strong grounding in our beliefs about what is important (mainly how you treat other people) and hope that she comes to me with anything she hears that does not jive with our beliefs. We don’t believe in a supernatural deity but we believe in the inherent goodness of most people. I am still working these issues out as well as you can see. Parenting is a work in progress and we hope we just dont screw them up too much along the way. LOL

  • http://religiouscomics.net Jeff P

    We had a funny conversation at the dinner table last night about what a soul was. My eight year old was confusing a “soul” with a physical backbone and asked if you lost your soul would your body collapse into a blob on the floor. I said, no, you are thinking of your backbone. My wife said your “soul” was what gives you your personality. I brought up that it is debated whether or not the “soul” dies with your body or lives on. My older son piped up and said “There is no such thing as souls”.

    So there you have it. A day in the life…

  • Matt Dillahunty

    Mike,

    It’s all cleared up now. We’ll make a change so that “lecture coordinator” is a bit more clear. We host a monthly lecture series and there’s one board member who handles all that traffic. It was never intended (to my knowledge) to be used for contacting us about having someone speak, though I certainly see how one could assume that.

    Thanks for e-mailing. I hope you enjoy the talk. :)

  • Annie

    What are your reasons for not believing in any god?

  • http://ideaswithheld.blogspot.com/ Chaos

    It has been mentioned, but I feel it is important enough to be repeated, repeatedly. Atheist means only “without a belief in a god or gods.” This defines us specifically based upon something we do not have or possess, which does not serve to define us in any purposeful manor. A very good question would then be “What do you believe?”

    That said, I think another good series of questions would be along these lines:
    “Are there any questions you often receive that you find frustrating? What are they and why do you find them so?”

    But if you are looking for… sympathy… or perhaps a common ground, might I also suggest you ask questions that involve getting to know the person for who they are, rather than based upon their Atheism which as mentioned does not serve to define them meaningfully.
    “What kind of music do you like?” “Favorite movie?” “Read any good books lately?” Helping your congregants to see us as people, rather than as atheists first would probably do more good than focusing upon religious views that we don’t share.

  • Michael Aubry

    Why would an atheist attend a church – in Austin or anywhere else? What do they get out of it?

    • http://profile.yahoo.com/JHXSAS4HZP6HRY5PTRZ7FTXOWI Crystal

      free stuff even though they dont believe

  • http://emergingpensees.com Mike Clawson

    Why would an atheist attend a church – in Austin or anywhere else? What do they get out of it?

    That’s a great question Michael. I know what my friend has told me about it, but I probably shouldn’t presume to speak for him in a public forum. I’ll let him know you asked and see whether he wants to answer it himself.

  • Elena Villarreal

    Do you find faith personally admirable, even though you don’t have it, and regardless of whether or not it is a force for good? Why or why not? Some atheists (probably the kind who would speak at your church) find religion to be a beautiful thing, while others have a hard time really respecting religiosity in others.

  • http://emergingpensees.com Mike Clawson

    Thanks to everyone for all the great questions. They were very helpful. My interview with him actually got bumped up a week, so I’ll be doing it tomorrow morning. (9:30am at Journey Imperfect Faith Community, if any Austinites reading want to come). I’ll let you all know how it goes.


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