On Saturday, February 23rd, I participated in a panel discussion titled “A Christian Response to Atheism,” arranged and hosted by the Master’s College, a Christian liberal arts college in southern California.
We were two unknown atheists facing Pastor Douglas Wilson, best known among this crowd as someone who frequently debated the late Christopher Hitchens — their fiery debates and their offstage friendship were the subject of a film called Collision. My atheist partner was David Leisure, an actor and comedian best known for his character as the hilarious lying pitchman Joe Isuzu in the Isuzu commercials, and later as Charley Dietz in the sitcom Empty Nest.
I have been holding off posting about the event because I was waiting for the video of the discussion that the college recorded, but it looks like it might be too long of a wait. So today I’ll describe it in general terms and talk about my emotional experience, which was considerable. When the video becomes available, I’ll feature it in another post and you can get your own impressions.
The event was first proposed by Joe Francis, a biology professor at the college who is a friend of one of the members of our atheist and freethinkers Meetup group. A Christian, Joe is a very gracious, fair-minded, and earnest man who genuinely wants to promote positive dialogue between believers and nonbelievers. At first we hoped to arrange a debate between Pastor Wilson and Michael Shermer, but that didn’t work out. So after a long hesitation, I agreed to participate in a discussion with Rev. Wilson rather than a debate, since I have never debated anything. I don’t even like to watch religious debates even when they’re done by well-matched and competent opponents.
The many hundreds of letters I’ve received for the Ask Richard column have made me kind of an expert on the awful things that can happen when atheists come out to the believers around them. As a result, I have been very cautious about how “out” as an atheist I am in public. Although I can be very outspoken on this blog, in the three-dimensional world, I am much more circumspect and discreet.
So there I was, outing myself to Christians for the very first time in just about the most intimidating situation I could imagine. I wasn’t at a warm and welcoming Unitarian Universalist Congregation, or a loving and liberal Episcopal Church. No, I was in front of 600 biblical literalist, Young Earth Creationist, fundamentalist Baptists. Pastor Wilson was a seasoned and eager debater who had faced the Hitch, and I was a novice who didn’t want to fight at all stepping into the ring with a heavyweight. I was very grateful to see the friendly faces of several of my fellow atheists scattered through the audience.
Joe Francis set a positive tone with an introductory statement about not being afraid of our neighbors and promoting courteous and candid dialogue. He showed a brief trailer of Collision, introduced the three of us by reading our short written bios, and then I stood up to make the first remarks of the discussion. Out of my briefcase I took two olive branches. I silently handed one to Rev. Wilson and then raised the other to the audience, offering it to them, and laid it on the front of the stage. To my relief, they immediately understood and responded with applause and approving laughter. I asked them to just ignore any symptoms of acute anxiety I might exhibit, which I listed, making them laugh again. Then I read my five minute speech:
I am not here to try to change your beliefs about God. I’m here hoping to change your beliefs about atheists.
I’m not here to have a debate. I have no skill in that. There are other ways that we can productively interact besides “colliding.”
The title of this discussion is “A Christian Response to Atheism.” I hope that we can do more than talk about abstract ideas responding to other abstract ideas. I’m more interested in Christians’ responses to atheists, and our responses to you. I’m interested in people responding to people.
I hope that tonight we can set aside the usual suspicion and contempt, and the usual attitudes of trying to defeat each other, and instead work to accurately understand each other.
Not all, but many Christians have misconceptions and negative stereotypes about atheists that cause serious harm to good, decent people. Now, what I’m going to describe is not an indictment of you. I’ll list some negative things, but my message is positive. Please take this simply as information that I think you need to know if you want to avoid harming good, decent people who mean you no harm.
These misconceptions and stereotypes about atheists include:
- believe with certainty there is no god.
- have no morals.
- cannot be trusted.
- are evil.
- worship the devil.
- hate God.
- just want to sin.
- are rebellious.
- are angry and rude.
- are not in foxholes.
- are unpatriotic.
- are not real Americans.
- want to destroy religion.
- are waging a war on Christmas.
- don’t believe in anything.
- have meaningless lives.
- cannot feel gratitude.
- are depressed.
As a result of these and many others, there are often severe penalties when someone reveals that they are simply unconvinced of God: Despite being a loyal and hard-working employee, their boss fires them. Despite being a supportive and faithful friend, their friends reject and shun them and warn others away. If they’re in high school, they face harassment, bullying, vandalism, and death threats.
Despite being a loving and loyal member of their family, doing their part, getting good grades, staying out of trouble, their parents start screaming and yelling at them, insulting them, accusing them of ridiculous things, ransacking their rooms, throwing out their books, forbidding them from seeing their friends, taking away their privileges, forcing them to go to church more often, having the preacher browbeat them, threatening to kick them out of the house, and threatening to not pay for their college education, all unless they start believing in God again.
As if coercion, punishment, and blackmail could ever produce a sincere, heartfelt belief. No, it all backfires. It just drives the young person further away, and teaches him that in this family, being honest is punished and faking appearances is rewarded.
Now, I know that people have misconceptions about Christians, too, and I hope that we can discuss those as well.
It’s in YOUR interest as well as ours for us to accurately understand each other, because our numbers are growing, especially among the young. As time passes, you are more likely to have non-believing people as your co-workers, fellow students, friends, and even in your families. If you want to avoid causing all that unnecessary pain to people you care about, please be willing to look at your misconceptions, set aside your eagerness to win a fight, and you’ll find that we have far more in common than we have differences. Thank you.
David Leisure followed me, and throughout the whole evening he was awesome! His humor was disarming yet right on target. He was very knowledgeable, remarkably well prepared, quick as a cat, and he was able and willing to mix it up with Rev. Wilson in what became at times an actual debate. He also provided a few minutes’ change of pace with a funny sketch about Galileo talking to the Pope. I think David and I were a good combination, not as opposites, but coming from different angles: He was the witty, adroit, good-natured, challenging atheist, and I was the warm, caring, people-oriented, patiently explaining atheist.
The evening went very well. The three of us took turns responding to questions from the moderator and from the audience. We managed to keep most of the interaction focused on the goal of accurately understanding each other and dispelling misconceptions and stereotypes. I disagreed openly with Rev. Wilson on a few things he said, coming from clarifying our point of view, and contrasting the many real atheists I know from the imaginary atheists that Christians often object to. He seemed to respect the spirit of what we were trying to do. Although he was skilled and formidable, David and I were able to hold our own with him.
I think the outcome was what we wanted: to illuminate the actual positions most atheists hold rather than the common straw man positions that Christians often argue against, and to humanize our image without humiliation. We made it clear that, yes, atheists do have morals, and that we’re good, decent people. We made it clear that we’re willing to interact respectfully even though we disagree, and we want and expect the same in return. The audience was very receptive and appreciative, and hundreds of them came up later to David and me to thank us for coming and helping them to understand us more accurately.
Then out of the crowd came two Christian couples who live right on my street, thanking me with genuine friendship and good will. So I thought, “Okay, now I am well and truly out. I’m literally your friendly neighborhood atheist.”
Of course, I now think of all the things I wish I had said or wish I had said more strongly. Those will be things to say in the future. This is a learning process for me, and I’m looking forward to more opportunities. Make no mistake, an olive branch is not a white flag. Working for accurate understanding is not appeasement. Being accurately understood is necessary for our being accepted by society and by individuals. Our movement needs both the firebrands and the ambassadors. Mine is just one voice in a broad conversation.
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