Well and Truly Out: My First Public Event as an Atheist

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:

Making my introductory remarks (photo courtesy of Sandra Cattell)

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:

All atheists…

- 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 making his opening remarks (photo courtesy of Sandra Cattell)

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.

Rev. Wilson, David Leisure, & Richard Wade (photo courtesy of Sandra Cattell)

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.

About Richard Wade

Richard Wade is a retired Marriage and Family Therapist living in California.

  • HA2

    Can’t wait for the video! Or a transcript! ;)

    • John_in_Vegas

      Looking forward to it also!

  • Andrew L

    Well done, Wade. Thank you. (I also love that David Leisure is an atheist, if we ever have a talent show with the Christians, we will spank them)

  • Mario Strada

    Can’t wait for the video. I can totally understand your apprehension going against Pastor Wilson. I mean, the guy was honed and sharpened by The Hitch! He is now qualified to debate his own god if he so chooses.

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/chidy/ chicago dyke

    i really struggle to be a “friendly” atheist. i always get into trouble. good for you for being so olive-branchy.

    but i admit, my tolerance for fundies of any kind is very low.

    these are the people who cause wars against differently believing people. the people electing leaders who subsequently turn around and reduce funding for alternative energy, and deny climate change. people who want to introduce mythology in science classes, making our nation less economically competitive. who deny the basic tenants of feminism, and that homosexuals should have equal rights. who once endorsed slavery of african americans and only recently decided that black people had ‘real’ souls.

    i am intolerant of hatred. period. and i know, from lots of experience, that very little gets thru to them. they are, as are many of their leaders, very often child rapists and woman beaters and cheats and con artists. many of them spend a lot of money not on the poor, the sick, the helpless, but themselves.

    i would not share a stage with a Nazi. yes, Goodwin’s law, i’m going there. but i have backed out of speaking engagements with believers, because they are so intractable. i’d rather engage the young, who are Reason’s best hope. i hope a lot of young people were at this debate, Richard. it sounds like you did a good job.

    • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

      It seemed that the audience was mostly young people, and I was always speaking to them, even if sometimes I was looking at Rev. Wilson. What motivates me to speak are the young atheists who have shared their frustrating, sometimes appalling stories with me and elsewhere on this blog. Their young Christian sisters and brothers were out in the audience. I was planting subtle seeds of accurate understanding and questioning prejudice in fertile ground. As for the adults and the parents, maybe some will reconsider, but for others, we’ll just have to wait for their generation to pass. I will have died before then, but that’s okay. Planting seeds sometimes means knowing you’ll not live to see the fruit harvested.

    • Claude

      who once endorsed slavery of african americans and only recently decided that black people had ‘real’ souls.

      I hear you about fundies, but what? Evangelicals out of the Second Great Awakening started the abolitionist movement in the US.

      • http://www.flickr.com/photos/chidy/ chicago dyke

        mormons.

        • Claude

          O.K…I missed the tip-off. But broad brush.

  • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

    If Hemant is the friendly, then surely you must be the patient.

  • Steve

    Just to say this is one atheist who believes with certainty there is no god.

  • http://twitter.com/FelyxLeiter Felyx Leiter

    Richard, this seems like an appropriate time to thank you for the perspective you consistently bring to this site. I completely understand where people come from when they don’t want to extend the olive branch, so to speak. I see red when people use an irrational belief as an excuse to mistreat another human being, to the point that it’s gotten me in trouble more than a few times. There are people who will never change; who are so set in their worldview that they will find an excuse, however deluded, to convince themselves that they’re correct. But there is also a large swath (especially at a Christian college) that responds to gentle reason and common sense and they’ve simply not been exposed to another perspective. Atheism needs ambassadors from all walks because we all respond differently. Richard’s approach is exactly the kind that convinced me to consider the possiblity that deities were not a given. And again, I realize this doesn’t work for everyone, but I owe my personal freethinking perspective to it. It doesn’t always have to be about outright de-conversion; basic acceptance is an excellent place to begin. Some people will continue to follow the path and end up where all of us have, and even if many don’t, being able to view people with a different point of view with respect and basic dignity, even after being indoctrinated otherwise, is a damn good start.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1285481603 Brad Feaker

    Richard – I agree…it is NOT appeasement. It is a useful and needed dialog. Thanks!

  • Paul LaClair

    That opening statement was brilliant, reframing the issue around human values and concerns.

  • Karen

    Sounds like a good exchange all around. Wish there were more such things.

  • Karen

    Sounds like a good exchange all around. Wish there were more such things.

  • Ibis3

    Our movement needs both the firebrands and the ambassadors.

    Thanks for this, Richard. Way too often firebrands are the target of ambassador anger and criticism. I like the idea that there’s room enough for both.

  • baal

    Thanks for keeping up the good fight and I look forward to an eventual video (should it appear).

    “As if coercion, punishment, and blackmail could ever produce a sincere, heartfelt belief.”

    QFT – I tried recently to make this point and was surprised that I got “citation needed” as a response. One of the reasons I pay attention to your comments is to learn how to better express myself.

  • maevwen

    brilliant

  • EthicalVegan

    I am SO glad you wrote this, Richard… and ever so glad that both you and David Leisure represented us.

    It was a remarkable experience for the handful of us atheists who showed up — I mostly to offer both of you support and smiles and hugs, as needed. I couldn’t have done it, and I thank you.

    Your “review” of this coming-out experience is fantastic — you’re an excellent writer, and how you portrayed our night is spot on. As ridiculous as it may sound, I’m bloody proud of you and David!

    Love,

    Susie

  • Rick Wiggins

    Richard knows, but for those who don’t, I was there. Richard was challenging without being harsh, businesslike without superfluous bluntness, and generous without submission. Not bad at all for a beginner. The occasion came off rather well for the friendly attitude displayed by all onstage. The Christians in the room, seeing my Scarlet Letter immediately identified me as one of Richard’s tribe and seemed truly friendly, even if one of them seemed a bit scared to be in the presence of an actual atheist.
    I hope this becomes an annual event there.
    Thanks, Richard, for a job well done.
    Rick Wiggins

  • Claude

    Mr. Wade, your remarks were excellent, and…

    I was in front of 600 biblical literalist, Young Earth Creationist, fundamentalist Baptists.

    …you are brave!

  • CJ

    Good job Richard, keep it up buddy.

  • Barefoot Bree

    Wonderful opening statement, and good job, Richard! Also looking forward to the vid – I hope it gets the wide audience it will deserve, and become as famous and massively watched as some of the Hitch vids!

    • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

      Thank you, Barefoot Bree and everyone else. I hope the video is useful, but I don’t expect that it will be that popular or exciting. It was utterly different from a Hitch encounter. Very few sparks flew, and I expect that some atheists will not agree with some of the things I said. That’s just part of our nature, as I mentioned near the beginning of the discussion when I could see that someone needed to explain to the audience our “herding cats” joke. There were so many things I wish I had more time to clarify, but David and I had to split our time between us to equal the time Rev. Wilson had for himself. In other words, if he had ten minutes to respond to something, then David had five, and I had five. Oh well, the main thing was I got through the whole evening without my fly being open.

  • TheAnti-Coconut

    I wish I had been there to hear you three! It sounds like you did us proud. Thank you for approaching the discussion with the intent of clearing up misconceptions and sowing seeds.


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