I had lunch last week with a friend of the family who is on staff at one of the largest churches in my state. It was an enjoyable conversation that probably gave each of us plenty to talk about. Would that all conversations between Evangelicals and atheists exhibited such mutual respect. It’s amazing how pleasant a conversation two people can have when they’re a) not jerks, and b) not deeply insecure about what they believe. It’s my observation that most conversations go sour (I call those “nonversations”) because one or both of those things are missing. Hopefully these interchanges will continue, as I suspect each of us could learn something from talking more about the issues both of us face as sample representatives of two very different subcultures.
Before we met up I asked some non-theistic friends of mine what they would say to a Baptist minister if they had the chance to sit down and have a conversation like this. Their reactions were as strong as they were varied, telling me as much about the people offering them (and their past experiences with religion) as they did anything else. But they raised some excellent points. I’d like to list a few of them here for future reference because none of these things can be adequately addressed in one single conversation. They will need to be revisited again and again if ever there is to be a fruitful dialogue between these two opposite camps.
Why Even Have Such a Conversation?
Why would either camp even want that, you ask? A fair question, I know. Most atheists I know would rather throw themselves down a steep hill than try to have a productive conversation with a Baptist minister. And in all fairness, they’ve got good reason for feeling that way. The condescension and churchy vocabulary they usually encounter make this nearly impossible for most skeptics to endure. You’ll find that a majority of Southern Baptists aren’t willing to value their own critical thinking above their tradition’s interpretation of the Bible (an assertion which I’ll illustrate in a minute). But these people vote and tithe and buy movie tickets, which influences both our political climate and our cultural context in ways we’d be foolish to ignore. Where I live, Baptist theology significantly sways public policy, affecting multiple aspects of public life including but not limited to: marriage equality, gender equality, sex education, access to birth control, science education, medical research, and even whether or not you can buy a Long Island Iced Tea in your town. Ignoring them won’t make them go away. At some point, it behooves us to start a dialogue.
Also, why would Baptists care what an atheist thinks about anything? Why should they even give me the time of day? In the case of my friend, it’s a personal matter. He works closely with people in my own family, and the church he helps lead was my church home long before he even came to be on staff there. There’s a connection there that has value for both of us without any reference to the larger issues this post will address. But there are larger issues, and my leaving the fold doesn’t invalidate my voice on those matters. On the contrary, as one who used to be a functioning member of that world, I think what I’ve got to say should carry a great deal more weight precisely because I was once an insider. In that sense you can think of this as an exit interview, of sorts. I also represent a growing demographic among whom Southern Baptists are losing their marketshare with breathtaking speed. So if they have any interest in staying in touch with how their evangelistic prospects think, now’s their chance to listen in and learn a little better what makes us tick. Besides, if you maintain that even a donkey can become the mouthpiece of God for the instruction of his people, why not an atheist?
What I’d Like to Say to My Home Church
1) You have GOT to drop the gay thing. Seriously. I don’t think you have any idea how badly you are shooting yourselves in the foot here. Not only have you picked the losing side of a cultural battle about which the writing on the wall is crystal clear (marriage equality will be the law of the land; it’s only a matter of time), but you’ve also picked an apparently arbitrary hill to die on. The reason Baptists are against homosexuality is because the apostle Paul appears to have been against it. But there are other things he condemned which you have embraced.
At my home church, where my friend admitted there are many closeted LGBT members, the minister in charge of the entire religious education program is a woman. The apostle Paul was clear that he would never allow a woman to teach or have authority over a man yet this church placed one over the entire Sunday School program. She happens to do a great job of it, by the way, despite Paul’s unambiguous prohibition of such an arrangement. But why are you willing to overlook Paul’s words about women teaching in the church but then you become adamant that homosexuality is unnatural and must be stopped at all costs? I just don’t get it. It’s cherry picking and your leaders have chosen to make it a defining identity marker for your tradition. It’s fantastically inconsistent.
2) It doesn’t matter how nice you are to your closeted church members, they still know you oppose their social acceptance and equal treatment under the law. Perhaps you let them remain in the choir because if you didn’t, you’d lose half your tenor section and would probably gut your drama ministry beyond recognition. But when they read in the news that a new legislative initiative has put up yet another barrier to their rights as citizens, they know good and well that Southern Baptists were behind it.
My former denomination has eagerly embraced being the national face of opposition to marriage equality. When the Boy Scouts of America announced they were taking a step forward toward accepting LGBT’s, it was the leader of this very church at the time who stepped forward to threaten them with a nationwide boycott as punishment for doing so. As CEO of the Southern Baptist Convention, no one was better situated to speak for the denomination than he was. And when the Mississippi legislature handily passed their own version of Arizona’s “Turn Away the Gays” bill, it was the Southern Baptist lobbyist housed right next door to your church who pressured the lawmakers to pass the bill. Your LGBT church members know this. So it really doesn’t matter how nice you are to your gay friends to their face. Actions speak louder than words, and your actions disenfranchise them on a regular basis.
Southern Baptists are some of the nicest, most hospitable people ever to have stood in the way of social progress.
3) Stop outsourcing your moral decisions to a book. The reason I’m harping on your discriminatory behavior toward the LGBT community is because it is a microcosm of everything else that’s messed up about Southern Baptist life. As one who grew up in that culture (and who basically still lives in it), I am well qualified to speak knowledgeably about it and this is my observation:
As a group, you are very good at looking good on the outside and using the vocabulary of love and grace. But as long as you keep delegating your social norms and your ethical reasoning to a book written so long ago by people in a faraway land, you’re going to keep making decisions that aren’t really appropriate for the time and place in which you live.
That’s mentally lazy, folks. You are capable of doing far better than that. Your more liberal Christian brothers and sisters have already figured this out; but your tradition has demonized them, too, so that you’re no more willing to listen to them than you are to listen to me. We are essentially speaking with one voice about this. Like me, they are telling you that you can’t use the Bible the way you do without screwing up a ton of complex issues and questions (e.g. human origins, gender roles, sexual ethics, conflict resolution methods, and sometimes even complicated geopolitical disputes). You treat the Bible like it is a Swiss army knife, capable of handling a wide variety of tasks, but it’s nothing of the sort. At some point you should take upon yourselves the responsibility of thinking through these complicated questions without always resigning yourself to adopting whatever this one particular subgroup of ancient Mediterraneans told you to think. You can do better than this.
One of the questions implicit in my conversation with the minister was “What could a church do to better reach a group of people like you?” My answer to that is as curt as Jesus’s reply to the rich young ruler, and it is likely to meet with the same response: Throw your doors wide open to the LGBT community and learn to accept them exactly as they are, no longer clinging to the outdated notion that something is wrong with them. Stop opposing their equal treatment under the law and instead take up fighting for marriage equality as a defining characteristic of your denomination. Basically the opposite of what you’re doing right now.
I know good and well they aren’t going to do that. If my old church did that tomorrow, they’d lose three quarters of their membership overnight. And they don’t have the motivation for such a radical change anyway because religious traditions don’t work like that. They will cling to this dogma until other churches who are more accepting of social progress come along to replace them. Natural selection will eventually change the religious landscape of the Deep South. Until then, my old church will remain warm and friendly, extending the right hand of fellowship to a portion of our community while their left stabs them in the back, because the Bible told them it’s the right thing to do, and you can’t disagree with The Book. End of discussion.