Are Pastors Willing to Talk to Atheists During Church?

Here’s a nifty idea: What if churches volunteered to interview an atheist for a church service as part of a mutually beneficial dialogue?

You’d need atheists willing to be interviewed and pastors willing to challenge their congregations — and both sides would have to respect the fact that this would be a dialogue and not a debate.

Kile Jones, a student at Claremont Lincoln University (in California), is trying to make that happen:

The Facebook site where atheists and pastors can sign up to volunteer themselves (or their churches) is called “Interview an Atheist at Church Day“:

Interview an Atheist at Church Day is a community project aimed at bettering the understanding between atheists and religious persons. We hope to connect atheists who are willing to be interviewed with congregations in their area that are interested in developing ties with atheists in their area. The “day” represents our desire to grow into something far-reaching and beneficial to atheists and churchgoers alike.

As unbelieving populations around the world contion to rise, dialogue and understanding between atheists and people of faith is more important than ever. We live and work in the same world: understanding better what both unites and divides religious and non-religious people can only help us make this world a better place.

We hope that these interviews will benefit both believers and non-believers

If you’re interested in signing up, just send Jones an email. As responses come in from both sides, Jones will pair up people who are relatively close to each other and you can work out your own timeline to make this happen!

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the chair of Foundation Beyond Belief and a high school math teacher in the suburbs of Chicago. He began writing the Friendly Atheist blog in 2006. His latest book is called The Young Atheist's Survival Guide.

  • Courtney

    More power to him. I sent letters to a dozen local churches 2 years ago offering myself as a resource. Not a single response. Lately I’ve been attending conservative church services as an interested observer. My intent is to go back to these or similar churches with a “friendly atheist” t-shirt to see if my experiences are any different. Should be interesting.

    • Carolyn hill

      I think Its a great idea. I used to consider myself a Christian having been educated in the Christian faith but … Since having met a declared atheist on Facebook i find we have a lot in common!

  • http://twitter.com/ylaenna M. Elaine

    I expect much vitriol and hostility aimed at any atheist volunteers, but would love to be proven wrong.

    • Anti Iggy

      You want to see vitriol? Try going to an atheist meetup group and talking about Christianity.

      • http://www.facebook.com/lonborghini.funghini Lonborghini Funghini

        Perhaps, but it’s vitriol for a good cause.

        • baal

          There are other ways to handle things than vitriol. The hosting group’s leader could ask the disruptive person to talk to them later. If the disruptive person can’t figure that out, they should be asked to leave. There is zero need to get snippy or belligerent.

      • Carmelita Spats

        It depends how you do it…If you are PROSELYTIZING, then it’s the equivalent of dumping a massive pile of bible tracts on my doorstep or barging into an atheist blog to bray with zero evidence about your cognitive biases…Namely, that you worship a trinitarian, incarnational, atoning, resurrecting, ascending, and returning-to-Earth-real-soon god. At that point, you become the worst type of public nuisance codified under the descriptor CBC…Christian-Be-CRAZY. You sound to atheists like the creepy homeless guy yelling at women who cross the street. It’s not vitriol on the atheists’ part, they are actively ignoring you.

      • unclemike

        You want to see vitriol? Try going to a PC user group and talking about my MacBook.

        • http://www.facebook.com/people/Adam-Patrick/100000027906887 Adam Patrick

          Same thing if you switch those around.

          • unclemike

            Nope.

          • http://www.processdiary.com Paul Caggegi

            Nope seconded. The PC crowd simply crash with no hope of rebooting.

  • Hamilton Jacobi

    For a church to spread the meme that “atheists are good people too” seems like a one-way ticket to empty pews and empty collection plates. In short, a suicide note. So I wouldn’t expect much response.

    • ctcss

      “For a church to spread the meme that “atheists are good people too” seems like a one-way ticket to empty pews and empty collection plates.”

      You seem to have a very dour and shallow notion of why a person might find religion to be important in their lives. Thinking that someone unlike themselves are also “good people” would not lead any serious thinker to abandon church anymore than hearing that “baseball is a fun sport” would lead cricket players to abandon their bats and wickets. When people enjoy the activities they are engaged in (whether cricket or religion), they pursue that activity for its own sake, not because others pursue the same activity or don’t. To do otherwise, would mean that they have engaged in their activities for extremely shallow reasons.

      • http://www.facebook.com/lonborghini.funghini Lonborghini Funghini

        I wouldn’t expect to find any serious thinkers in a church. If church people were to begin thinking that alone would empty the pews. Indeed religion is practiced for the most shallow purpose of assuring one’s passage to a heavenly utopia.

        • ctcss

          Well,you just encountered a serious thinker who very much values church and his religious practice. And no, I don’t go to church to get into a place called heaven, nor to avoid a place called hell. I practice my religion because I want to understand more about God and learn how to follow Christ.

          • Art_Vandelay

            And how did you come to the conclusion that this particular church or pastor have any more valuable insight into this than anyone else?

            • http://www.flickr.com/groups/invisiblepinkunicorn Anna

              I’m also curious how cctcss came to believe that the god of the religion in question is real.
              Practicing a religion to “understand more about God” is not only an assumption that the church and pastor have insight into the nature of a particular deity, but also an assumption that the deity in question exists at all.

              • ctcss

                @Anna, Art_Vandelay

                “I’m also curious how ctcss came to believe that the god of the religion in question is real.

                Practicing a religion to “understand more about God” is not only an assumption that the church and pastor have insight into the nature of a particular deity, but also an assumption that the deity in question exists at all.”

                OK, I find this question somewhat puzzling, but maybe it’s just because of how I was taught about such things. Granted, I am guessing that I am talking with non-believers who, for whatever reason(s) have concluded that God does not exist or does not seem to exist. That’s perfectly fine. Everyone should be granted the right to arrive at their own conclusions about belief. (For my part I have concluded that God exists because of experiences shared with me by fellow church members, as well as experiences in my family’s life, and in my own life.)

                However, the part that puzzles me is that (even conceptually), anyone would not consider religious practice as something, that when thoughtfully engaged in, would not (once again, conceptually speaking), allow a person to gain a greater understanding of God. If I engage in the study and practice of basketball, I should (hopefully) gain a greater familiarity with, and understanding of the game. If I engage in the study and practice of mathematics, I should (hopefully) gain a greater familiarity with, and understanding of math. So, by engaging in the study and practice of my religion, I would think that would help me gain a greater familiarity with the subject of, and understanding of God as I make the effort to walk in harmony with (what I believe to be) God. And by religious practice, I am not talking about simply sitting in a church service listening to a sermon. I am talking about daily studying and communing with (what I believe to be) God. (Perhaps you might consider the term “meditation” as a more approachable concept, even if that is not exactly what I do.)

                I guess to put things in perspective, one might hope that the pastor of a congregation (who is probably communing with God on a daily basis) might have more familiarity with, and experience of, “walking” with God than someone who only comes to church at Christmas and Easter, just as one might expect a forest ranger (who spends a great deal of time in the field observing and communing with nature) to be much more familiar with the park’s environment and wildlife than someone who only comes to the park once a year for a picnic. Thus both the pastor and the forest ranger would be helpful people to talk to regarding the knowledge and experience they have of their respective subjects of study and life. They might very well have the ability to help, or to answer questions asked by the people coming to their respective places of work.

                So yes, you can assume what you like about whether or not I or anyone I am associating with are just kidding themselves with regard to the existence of God (as in, it may be just our imaginations), but personally, I am observing a difference in the people who do spend more effort seriously engaging in practice. And what I see is compelling enough to make me want to learn more myself. I admire their dedication, their insight when presented with questions, their works when confronted by problems, and the seasoned experience they bring to the table. (And although there are obviously differences of approach, content, and context, I am assuming that people here have also encountered quiet, sincere, experienced, unassuming types who calmly help others deal with problems in life (just not from a religious standpoint), right?)

                The point is, they lead by example. And seeing a good example often inspires someone else to want to do likewise. Thus my response to what I have personally seen.

                Does that help answer the question?

                • http://www.flickr.com/groups/invisiblepinkunicorn Anna

                  Thanks for your detailed response, but I’m afraid I’m more confused than ever.

                  (For my part I have concluded that God exists because of experiences shared with me by fellow church members, as well as experiences in my family’s life, and in my own life.)

                  That’s the confusing part. How do people come to believe that a certain deity is real? The vast majority of the time, it’s because they were taught it was real when they were a small child. So you’re going into your church with the assumption that what they say has inherent validity to it. As an atheist, I can’t relate to that. I don’t understand why people think certain other people or institutions have special insight that would help them “understand more about God” if there’s no indication that these people are special. They are human beings, no different from any other human beings. They weren’t born with special supernatural powers that give them knowledge of the secrets of the universe.

                  When someone tells me they know what a god wants, I have no reason to take them seriously. You go into your church with the thought that your pastor has some inherent knowledge that you don’t have, that he can help you understand more, that he has a special position that you don’t have. But he’s a person like anyone else. What makes him different from a shaman in the Amazonian rainforest? He believes what he believes for the same reason that the shaman believes, but you are willing to believe in him but not the shaman. That’s why I don’t understand people ceding control of their lives to these authorities. What makes them authorities? What makes them right? Just because they say they are right?

          • http://www.facebook.com/lonborghini.funghini Lonborghini Funghini

            Hint 1: If you follow a mythical figure like it is a real person, you are not thinking seriously and deeply enough.

            Hint 2: If one, or more, of the difficult questions are answered by “God works in mysterious ways”, you probably have to think deeper and open your eyes to other possinbilties.

            • ctcss

              @ Lonborghini Funghini

              “Hint 1: If you follow a mythical figure like it is a real person, you are not thinking seriously and deeply enough.”

              Honestly, if you think that someone who follows God, whom they openly and explicitly admit and acknowledge is completely non-material, is going to be thrown by a reference to God as “mythological” (as in, there is no material evidence for said being), then I would suggest that you are not thinking seriously and deeply enough. Something does not need to be material for a person to consider it seriously. Ideas and concepts are very much non-material, yet they often cause us to examine them thoughtfully and seriously. And, if we find the idea to be compelling enough, we often follow it to see where it leads us.

              Hint 2: If one, or more, of the difficult questions are answered by “God works in mysterious ways”, you probably have to think deeper and open your eyes to other possinbilties.

              This might be a good point, but only if the person is engaging in the consideration of shallow theistic concepts. However, shallow theism has never been at all attractive to me because (amazingly enough!) I find that it lacks depth, so the point falls flat.

        • Blacksheep

          I could not disagree more. There are countless serious thinkers, myself included, who follow Christ and think seriously and deeply about it all the while, which includes confronting and wrestling with difficult questions of the faith.

          • PietPuk

            Hint 1: If you follow a mythical figure like it is a real person, you are not thinking seriously and deeply enough.

            Hint 2: If one, or more, of the difficult questions are answered by “God works in mysterious ways”, you probably have to think deeper and open your eyes to other possinbilties.

      • Hamilton Jacobi

        Quiz time!
        1. God is the ultimate source of all morality. (true or false)
        2. The only way to enter heaven is through belief in Our One True Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. (true or false)
        3. (Bonus question) What percentage of church-going Christians would answer “false” to questions 1 and 2 above?

        • ctcss

          I would say true to 1. I would say that 2 is badly or inaccurately stated, at least as far as I understand these things, so I cannot really answer it. And I have no idea regarding 3. The only important question for me is whether or not I am willing to follow God to the best of my understanding and ability. And so far I would say that I have very mixed results on that score. But since I have not finished traversing my path yet, I will continue to see if I can improve on my efforts as I make my way forward.

        • Blacksheep

          Hamilton, I know this question was directed at ctcss, please forgive my two cents:

          I believe that virtually all would answer “true” to #1, at the very least because God created everything. I would say at least 90%. However you would be surprised at the low percentage that believe #2. Almost all Christians, maybe 90%, believe that Christ is the one who saved all of humanity, and that anyone who goes to heaven would do so because He paved the way. The disagreement comes from who is saved, and how. On that front, I would guess that 70% believe that only by openly believing and professing faith in Christ is one saved.

        • http://www.facebook.com/lonborghini.funghini Lonborghini Funghini

          Of course you may as well posit that God is the ultimate source of all immorality. I would answer false either way.

      • Observer

        Most of the members of the church I grew up in did appear to be pretty shallow in the way they approached religion. If not a majority then a large minority.

        • ctcss

          And I daresay that there are a large number of voters who approach their participation in political matters (locally, nationally, and globally) in a rather shallow manner as well. That is certainly not an excuse for anyone to follow suit, nor to abandon their own thoughtful participation in political matters.

      • John of Indiana

        No, he has a fairly honest notion why somebody would pastor a church. The people in the pews might think the magic has some benefit, but the guy in the expensive shoes at the front of the room know exactly where that nice house and Mercedes comes from, and it ain’t a “gift from GAWD”…

        • ctcss

          It would appear that you and he are criticizing hypocrisy with regard to a person’s or a groups’s practice of religion, not criticizing a serious effort to engage in religious thought and practice. I am sorry you have never encountered anyone who cared enough about their religion to do the practice of it justice. One of my favorite, ironic quotes is “If you were accused of being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?”

      • http://www.flickr.com/groups/invisiblepinkunicorn Anna

        It really depends on the person. Not all people are in it just because they like community and rituals. Many of them seriously believe every single supernatural claim that their churches make.

        It also depends on the denomination. I know from our other discussions that you’re a Catholic who doubts some of the theology. Many Catholics are just like you, but there are also hardcore evangelicals and fundamentalists out there whose churches actively demonize atheists and atheism, and discourage any form of engagement with nonbelievers unless the goal is to convert them.

        I can easily see progressive and moderate churches getting on board with an honest panel discussion about atheism. Maybe even a Catholic church. But the “atheists are good people too” claim is controversial for many churches and denied by many religious people. Witness all of the atheist billboards with that message that have been vandalized, even though they said nothing offensive or insulting.

        • ctcss

          A very nice, thoughtful response. But, oddly enough, I have no idea why you would think I am a Catholic. It may be someone else you are thinking of.

          • http://www.flickr.com/groups/invisiblepinkunicorn Anna

            Sorry about that! You are right; I had you mixed up with “bethelj.” I did reply to you in another thread around the same time I had a conversation with her, so I must have conflated the two of you.

    • Blacksheep

      A more insightful Church wouldn’t use the “good people” platform. Christians are not “good people” but rather people who have chosen the path of following Christ because they are not entirely “good.” being good is no big deal, anyone can be “good.”

      • PietPuk

        Being good is the biggest deal there is.

      • http://www.facebook.com/lonborghini.funghini Lonborghini Funghini

        Of course, as Jesus demonstrates, not everyone can actually exist. But then to a christian, for their deity to not actually exist is no big deal. Anyone can exist except for mythical supernatural entities.

      • http://www.flickr.com/groups/invisiblepinkunicorn Anna

        I think that’s worse just because it’s so much sadder. Most of those types of churches just tell people they are bad, that they are sinners, that they are broken, and that the cure for their “affliction” is Jesus.

        I’m not hopeful that churches will ever stop telling people to believe in the supernatural, but at least I’d like to see more churches that build people up, tell them they are fine, that there’s nothing wrong them, that they were not born bad. And that they have worth simply because they are people, not because a god died for them.

  • http://www.facebook.com/jeff.c.straka Jeff Straka

    I think where this project will be embraced and effective initially will be at progressive churches. These will be the places that 1.) don’t think atheists (or Muslims or Jews) are going to hell, and 2.) won’t be “hell-bent” on evangelizing. This will provide a setting where true listening and learning is possible.

  • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

    I’ve been wanting to do this for a long time. I think my 3 1/2 years of writing “Ask Richard” give me some insight and “qualifications,” and my personality is well suited for this kind of “friendly atheist” dialogue.

    I will be doing my first “real live atheist” dialogue with Christians next month at a very challenging place: The Masters College in Santa Clarita, CA will be holding their annual all-day “Creation Science Symposium,” on Feb 23. http://www.masters.edu/creation-science-symposium.aspx

    From 7:00 to 9:30 PM there will be a discussion titled “A Christian Response to Atheism” with Pastor Douglas Wilson and a panel of atheists. That will consist of me and a friend of mine, David Leisure, an actor and comedian best known for his character “Joe Isuzu.” He’s very smart and creative, and he’s planning to share a couple of new brief comedic routines pertinent to the topic, one about Galileo. We have both made it clear that we’re not interested in the discussion becoming a “debate,” since neither of us are experienced in that, and neither of us are interested in that kind of thing anyway.

    My introductory message will essentially be that I’m not there to change anyone’s beliefs about gods; I hope only to change their beliefs about atheists. I hope to respectfully challenge people’s misconceptions about atheists, and to make the case that it is in their best interest to free themselves of their prejudice, since our growing number means it’s increasingly likely that atheists are among the people they know and care about.

    Doors open in the Music Recital Hall at 6:30 pm This session is open to the public for free. If you can make it, it will be nice to have a few allies in the audience.

    • http://twitter.com/InMyUnbelief TCC

      I wish I could be there. I’m sure you’ll do well, Richard.

    • Roger

      Do tell us how it goes

    • Bad_homonym

      I wish I could be there! I love your work here and I think the religious folks who hear you speak will find it refreshing. You put a very honest, open and friendly face on non- belief that I I think will be appreciated! Best of luck!

      Cheers

    • Megan

      Richard, this sounds interesting. Have you ever met or interacted with Douglas Wilson before? Most pastors tend to make me roll my eyes, but Mr. Wilson is one of the few who really skeeves me out. His beliefs about women and people of color are disgusting. I read your column, so I know you’re beyond capable of presenting the atheist point of view, but the title of the panel, “A Christian Response to Atheism” sounds like a hornets’ nest. Do you know if this discussion will be filmed and put on the internet? I’d love to see it. Best of luck!

    • JWH

      David Leisure is an atheist? When I think “David Leisure” and “atheism,” I think of his turn in Airplane!

    • http://www.flickr.com/groups/invisiblepinkunicorn Anna

      You should do a guest post about your experiences, Richard!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=5736566 Scott Maddox

    I actually recently had lunch with the new preacher at the church I grew up in to talk about my Atheism and I gave him a copy of The God Delusion to keep and The Magic of Reality to borrow, since I knew he was about to start doing an Apologetics course at the church in the next couple weeks.

    • fsm

      Some people are going to be very upset with you if that preacher actually reads The God Delusion and leaves the church.

      • Anti Iggy

        If a superficial rant like TGD causes him to leave the church, he didn’t have much going for him in the first place.

        • http://www.facebook.com/lonborghini.funghini Lonborghini Funghini

          Having been a preacher i can assure you that few have anything going for themselves in any place.

        • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=5736566 Scott Maddox

          I don’t expect him to agree with it, but I did tell him that it covers some of the most common Apologetics arguments and the Dawkins’ rebuttals to them. His Apologetics course is using Lee Strobel’s Case For Faith and Timothy Keller’s Reason For God. Strobel’s book is pre-God Delusion and Keller’s is post-God Delusion.

          I also gave him Magic of Reality so that he can see what the science is behind evolution and cosmology, from a scientist perspective. I told him that, in my opinion, apologists portray these sciences in a misleading or inaccurate light.

          I think TGD is more than a superficial rant. It has scientific arguments in it that support its premise. Since most scientists won’t outright say God doesn’t exist, you need to do the mental algebra of reconciling that the Bible and religion are full of plotholes and unscientific claims and that science answers stuff with fewer gaps and myth answers things in a way that creates more questions than necessary.

  • xeon2000

    “both sides would have to respect the fact that this would be a dialogue and not a debate”

    good luck with that

  • LesterBallard

    Pass. Funerals and weddings; pretty much the only reasons I’ll enter a church. Unless there is art or the church itself is a work of art.

  • Bdole

    PASS!

    Atheism and religion have opposing ends – no matter how it may appear on the surface.

    They think I’m going to hell and I keep trying to blow out all the votive candles in one breath
    while making a wish.

    Once, I took up a pastor-cum-blogger on his offer to atheists to have an open dialogue on his blog. Just awkward. The believers kept getting their feelings hurt over every little mention of just what it is about the Bible that makes it unbelievable.

  • Michael

    “We had an atheist in church today.”

    “What did they say?”

    “I don’t know, I didn’t listen.”

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Adam-Patrick/100000027906887 Adam Patrick

      Either that or misinterpret what the atheist said and turn it into something horrible.

  • AshleyJean

    I love this idea.. I was considering inviting pastors to talk….

    http://catholicismontherocks.blogspot.com/

  • John of Indiana

    Oh, yeah, a “dialogue”, like that “Reasoned Dialogue” we’re having about firearms in this country right now?

    “I don’t like guns, therefore you don’t NEED them, and should have them taken from you”
    “Screw you!”

    And it rapidly goes downhill from there…

    An Atheist might be treated respectfully by a Methodist or Episcopalian congregation, but a bunch of 4-Square Pentecostals or Baptists? Ain’t gonna happen…

    • http://www.facebook.com/lonborghini.funghini Lonborghini Funghini

      And we all know that followers of the prince of peace need guns, lots of guns.

  • Christine

    Aren’t most churches are a lot more likely to invite those within the congregation who identify as atheist to speak, instead of bringing someone in from outside? That’s always been my experience.

    • http://www.facebook.com/lonborghini.funghini Lonborghini Funghini

      The only way an atheist will be tolerated in a church is if they pose as seekers. If a person is an atheist, he can’t be a seeker. Of course few atheists would care to spend their valuable time in a church in the first place. I occasionally attend with my believing wife but that is a sacrifice i make for her. I could do without it.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/David-Tiffany/100001926356049 David Tiffany

    The only difference between an atheist and a religious person is that one has submitted to Jesus and the other hasn’t. Atheistlegitimacy.blogspot.com

    • PietPuk

      So Muslims and Hindoes are actually atheists? Wow, I never knew that.

    • baal

      Trolling for hits or witnessing for christ?

      @ OP, I’m tempted but have my fill of xtians all around me these days.

    • Wild Rumpus

      The only difference between an atheist and a religious person is that a religious person believes in supernatural magic and an atheist doesn’t.

  • MartyM

    Maybe a progressive church would be open to this, but in general, churches are not the place to go for the open exchange of ideas. From my experience their “mission” is to present a narrative and are not open to any idea that doesn’t fit that narrow story. I’ve tried a few times in a respectful and inquisitive way.

  • Richard T

    Seems worth a try. I’ve got a thick skin. Volunteering. Any suggestions for how I can prepare? No, re-reading Dawkins or Hitchens is not on the agenda: they’re gladiators, and I’m not. If anything does come of it, I”ll let you know on the forum.

  • http://twitter.com/InMyUnbelief TCC

    It’s really tempting, but I’m afraid that my still-believing wife might have some issues with that.

  • Bex N.

    When I was a Christian, our college group (the Wesley Foundation) had members of the Pagan Student Union come over for food and a friendly dialogue on religious diversity. If the fantastic pastor (one of those one-in-a-million who actually seem to reflect what Christianity’s supposed to be about) was still there, I’m sure she would invite members of the local atheist community to do the same. However, church politics led to her being replaced with a typical evangelical scumbag.


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