Forums on Faith and Freethought!

Forums on Faith and Freethought! January 28, 2019

Editor’s Note:  Do you want  to feel better about whatever you believe?  Want to get educated about some of the good things that are happening between believers and non-believers?  Then read this.  I know a lot, but I learned a few things reading this.  Perhaps the biggest thing I learned is that a lot has changed for the better since I started the non-believing clergy study over ten years ago. Believers and non-believers are talking to each other with respect in a beautiful way that simply didn’t happen back then. / Linda LaScola, Editor


By Chris Highland

“I look forward to more opportunities for these dialogues. Thank you for bringing your experience and story to share.”

“Thank you for your leadership and teaching last Sunday evening. I really enjoyed the conversation and heard a lot of good feedback from the participants.”

These comments were received from a pastor and a lay leader following two of my presentations in a local church. One was held in the sanctuary, sitting in front with one pastor while another pastor sat in the audience of curious folks (some church members and some not). The other was a Sunday morning adult education class on “Religious Wounds” with parishioners and non-members sharing how they’ve been hurt by the Church in some way.

In the sanctuary session I read a few passages from my book, A Freethinker’s Gospel, and took questions from the pastor and others. People were mostly interested to hear my thoughts on slippery words like “sacred” and “secular” and what freethinking, as a radical practice of fearless questioning, can mean for believers and non-believers alike.

In the class session I joined an Episcopal priest who is also a practicing Buddhist for a discussion of our non-theistic views and how theologies and creeds were too limiting for us to remain in traditional churches. The emphasis was not on how we’ve personally been hurt (that’s not my story) but the alterative ways we have discovered “well-being” outside the Church.

A good number of those who attended these gatherings read my columns regularly and appreciate my angle on religious subjects. Though many consider themselves people of faith, they find my reasonable and gentle approach to issues of faith (with a few sharp edges) thought-provoking and reflection-stoking.

I see my weekly columns on the Religion page of our local paper as invitations to engage in these kinds of open and respectful conversations. My intention is to help create more opportunities like these. How refreshing to have honest questions raised in environments that often restrict, consciously or not, the most troubling concerns of faith.

On the same day as the Sunday school class I gave a talk at our local Ethical Humanist meeting—another welcoming group with many excellent comments and questions. Discussing the importance of building relationships across the borders of belief, I encouraged people to challenge me on the way I use the word “gospel” and my view that heretics, even the founders of the world religions, could be freethinkers.

Asking if people of faith can actually be freethinkers, most in the gathering agreed. One young man challenged that and I commended him for speaking out. An older man said he thought the using the word “gospel” was too restrictive. It was a lively exchange.

After the Humanist hour, one leader told me,

“Thank you for an excellent presentation/ discussion … I believe you challenged and broadened views and understanding on Freethinking. I know my own understanding was broadened.”

The enthusiasm I’ve felt from these events has further convinced me that the time is right and ripe for freethinkers to “get invited” to faith communities. Providing the physical and mental space for these forums may be challenging but to me the immense benefits are worth the effort.

During my years as a chaplain I often brought unhoused people into the “houses of God” to tell their stories, read their poetry or perform their music. These were always deeply meaningful times for all of us and I would even say some congregations had “conversion” experiences—their “come-to-Jesus” or “come-to-Moses” moments.

This is a little how I’m feeling when speaking openly about a secular, humanist, freethinking outlook in the context of a religious community. A kind of “come-to-our- senses” moment. When moderated by someone who values respectful listening and learning, it’s a win-win for everyone—since “winning” is not the intent.

Several of my recent talks were presented on the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday weekend. My wife Carol, a Protestant minister, enjoys reading passages from Dr. King with me each year. Since we had visited Birmingham, Alabama in recent months, I was rereading portions of the letter he scribbled from his Birmingham City jail cell. The famous lines struck home a little more this year. He was “gravely disappointed” by

 “…the white moderate who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice….”

There seem to be some clear parallels with what I sense when stepping back into a church. In the Sunday class I described my disappointment and discouragement with the Church. Heads were nodding in agreement. I was raised in a denomination that prides itself (oh so humbly) on its “order.” Services, rituals, meetings all follow prescribed order from either the Book of Worship or the Book of Order (both indispensable for more orthodox ministers).

King’s words ring loud and true in the face of this fixation with orderliness, since justice is not always so neat and orderly— it’s rarely comfortable. Continually seeking an “absence of tension” belies the life and teachings of the very dis-orderly and rebellious heretic the church claims to follow.

A positive peace is the presence of justice. There’s a lot packed into that phrase. As our cars require regular alignment and balancing to move forward, so do we. Justice could be described as an aligned and balanced vehicle carrying peacemakers over the bumpiest roads.

As I see it, opening the discussion for freethinking dialogue in a congregational context is steering in the right direction. Not every non-believer will have interest in doing this and certainly many congregations and clergy won’t sign up. Yet, that’s too bad for people in both camps who will miss out on opportunities to widen understanding, dispel misunderstandings and nurture potentially new relationships across the barriers that divide.

Precedence for these open dialogues is growing. If you haven’t watched Neil Carter’s “Interview an Atheist in Church” videos, or other similar face-to-face conversations hosted by churches, I recommend them. The Life Center Church YouTube video interviewing two atheists is pretty good. The Bridge (Orlando Sentinel) hosted an excellent discussion of Religious Freedom by a Baptist megachurch pastor and an atheist from the Freethought Community.

If you’ve tried this in your own community I’d be interested in your experience. In my opinion, it’s important to expose large numbers of people to these forums not only locally but also nationally. As I see it, these are far better than the distraction and divisiveness of fruitless theological debates.

As a more wide-open model, NPR’s “1A” devoted an hour to “Ask an Atheist” with representatives from Black Atheists, Secular Student Alliance and the Ethical Society. Listeners called or wrote in with questions and comments, eliciting thoughtful, reasonable responses.

Dr. King understood that a direct approach to connecting people of differing views could be risky and tense. He put it in these terms:

“Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open where it can be seen and dealt with.”

Drawing out these non-violent lessons from the sphere of racial justice, I think “religious justice” (rational, aligned action) has similar needs. Applying this wisdom to something as simple as a Sunday school conversation between believers and non- believers can be productive and constructive. It makes sense to acknowledge the “hidden tension” and let it come to the surface. If the setting feels safe and leadership is sensitive and respectful, various viewpoints can be brought out in a manner that everyone can learn from.

And if someone doesn’t think this is workable or worth the time, all I can say is that you’re missing out. Considering the responses I’m hearing, freethinking is a real gift to the faith and faithless communities (especially since we share the same community). Freethought is a tool or template for constructive, positive next steps in truth telling, fearless education and peaceful inclusiveness.

The “gospel” of Freethought needs to spread!


Chris Highland was a minister and chaplain for many years in the San Francisco Bay Area.  Now teaching courses on Freethought in Asheville, North Carolina, he writes a weekly “Highland Views” column for the Citizen-Times. His new book, A Freethinker’s Gospel, is now available from Pisgah Press.  Chris has been a member of The Clergy Project since 2012. To learn more, see

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  • mason lane

    Chris, great to hear how well this is going for you. I love the title of your book.

    “The enthusiasm I’ve felt from these events has further convinced me that the time is right and ripe for freethinkers to “get invited” to faith communities.” Has your successful dialogue been will only liberal Christian faith groups or have you done this with Evangelical groups? I can imagine this being acceptable to Episcopalians but not any of the Evangelical churches I know.

    Of course the Evangelical world is in significant some chaos right now with the continuum being stretched between far far right Trump die hard loyalists and others who are backing away from him and even becoming liberal towards LGBTs.

  • Linda_LaScola

    Good question, Mason — eager to hear from Chris about this, but I suspect the fundamentalists are having none of it. In 2010, when our pilot study came out, the liberals were also having none of it – but they’ve changed – perhaps seeing the handwriting on the wall – and thinking more about their own relationship to religion.

    This certainly seems to apply to the Baptist megachurch minister in the Orlando Sentinel podcast (I listened!) who said several times that he knew religious people would be in the minority soon. He may not be very representative, but he’s out there and he’s talking about it.

    He thinks that what atheists and him (perhaps not all religious advocates) have in common is a belief that the government should stay out of religion: “We don’t need the government propping up our faith.” He also has respect for the breath of knowledge that atheists have about religion.

    In short, these days, thanks to the growing voice of atheism, there is much more understanding and acceptance of the concept of not believing in a supernatural god – and there are many more people who no longer believe or accept that non-believers are inherently bad people.

    Thus, the successful anti-atheist advertising campaign of the 50’s is being reversed.

  • Thanks, Mason.
    Yes, of course, most of these conversations are happening with liberal believers.
    Yet I’ve also had some good talks with evangelicals and baptists who seem intrigued by my non-atheist-evangelical approach.
    I really think it’s too bad that more non-theists aren’t even trying to cross these bridges.
    As one pastor asked me, “Are you like so many atheists who just think I’m delusional?”
    This is one reason I tend not to defend (or try to represent) the “atheist community.”
    The level of ridicule and disrespect I hear from non-theists makes it even more challenging to “cross the divide” for constructive conversation.

  • Thanks, Linda. I guess I’ve just been involved in interfaith work for so long, the openness to these conversations just seems natural, not that unusual at all. I think you’re right that there is a shift happening though, with more interest and curiosity on “both sides” of the god-question. As I said to Mason, however, the anti-religious mud-slinging I continue to hear from atheists even drives me away from that “community.” I think I’ve said it fairly clearly that it’s one major reason I don’t call myself an atheist.

  • Linda_LaScola

    I think that in the case of atheists, the mud-slinging often comes from their own awful experiences in Christianity — the experiences you and I luckily did not have.

    I did go through an angry period when I was mad about having been deceived, and truly stumped at how clergy who went to an academic seminary could learn what I had about religious history and then go out and preach the Sunday school version. This combination of anger and curiosity was a good thing because it led to the clergy study, which led to the clergy project!

    I enjoyed getting involved with the DC area atheist community. I needed people to talk to and it was refreshing to find people with similar points of view that, in the past, were simply not expressed very much.

    I think there’s a “place” for all types of free thinkers/atheists/humanists — whatever people are comfortable calling themselves — and that as the conversation continues, it’s benefitting “both sides” and making it easier to be openly atheist.

  • I hear that, Linda. As the article states, I have certainly had disappointments with the religious community, some could maybe be described as awful. Maybe a parallel to divorce. I had a terrible experience with my first wife but it didn’t make me give up on marriage, so I married again. And, of course, I was discouraged by the church and left but didn’t give up on some of the good people I befriended along the way.
    Some may interpret my columns, current book and essays like this one as glossing over some serious issues I have with religion, but I think I make it fairly clear that I don’t give the Church, in particular, any special pass. This is one main reason I’m attempting to bring more Freethought into congregational settings. I can “speak the language” and since I still have some of my “chaplain’s heart” I can be sensitive to the process it takes for people to evolve/emerge/exodus. I think it may give some “insiders” the freedom to “come out” with their true beliefs–something I wish had been encouraged more in me years ago. It also helps a lot to have an ordained wife, which gives me more leverage in alternative views I present!

  • Linda_LaScola

    I think that there is not one right way to do this — whatever “this” is — and I think just about anyone who makes an effort, in their own way, is helping us all move forward.

    And tremendous strides have been made in the 10+ years since I started thinking about religion.

  • mason lane

    I’ve never seen/heard anything from the liberal Christian brands that, although they may have irrational IMHO, supernatural beliefs & creeds, that would warrant ridicule and disrespect them, practices, indoctrination of children etc. Now the Evangelicals, Baptists, Pentecostals, other fundamentalists,… that’s another story. Mental child abuse, misogyny is rampant in those sects.

    Lots of non-believers aren’t comfortable the atheist label, that only means non-belief in any deity. I think it’s because of concern about ridicule and disrespect and far worse from theists that they shy away from a word that accurately describes their non-belief. I also would never defend the “atheist community”, as I have no idea what that would be, and there are certainly some lousy atheists when it comes to human quality.

    In my ridicule and disrespect for theistic belief I always attempt to take special care to clarify the contempt is about the belief, not personal. Ridicule can be very effective in helping to snap people out of their theistic delusions. Christopher Hitichens RIP (I assume you weren’t a fan 🙂 ) was very successful in helping to change peoples beliefs with ridicule. I’ve personally read at least a hundred bios, maybe more, of applications for membership and bios on The Clergy Project that listed Hitchen’s books as a major influence in their reaching non-belief in any deity.

    I know I’ve used ridicule of Evangelical/Bible belief, in a friendly joking way to influence scores of people to dropping their irrational faith.

    My contention is both the bridge building and the bridge deconstructing via ridicule work. Also, most all the liberal Christians I’ve ever met, were already pretty much agnostic and most Evangelicals still today consider the liberal brands of Christianity false prophets. I actually do a hybrid using both methods.

  • mason lane

    Often crossing the divide isn’t at all necessary to assist a person out of their irrational deity belief and religious delusions. Madalyn O’Hair had a shocking and profound influence on my ridiculous beliefs, although I believed she was the Devil’s instrument the first time I heard her on the Phil Donahue TV Show.

  • See Noevo

    As I said to Mason, however, the anti-religious mud-slinging I continue
    to hear from atheists even drives me away from that “community.”

    Sounds as though you wouldn’t want to be in a community of people like Mason.

    Same here.

  • carolyntclark

    Last year, a local Evangelical minister organized a “CAN WE CO-EXIST ? ” seminar. It attracted over a hundred at the Maine Colby College venue.
    Invited to the panel were clergy… Catholic, Protestant, Rabbi, Imam, Buddhist, Evangelical visitor from Tennessee, and Tom, the soft spoke atheist
    president of our local FFRF chapter.
    After presentations from each, during a Q&A, someone asked “where do atheists get their morals”. With Tom’s thoughtful answer, the Tennessee
    Evangelical cut in with “and atheists have the morals of a potato”. … I guess the topic at hand was lost on him. or the answer was “NO”.

  • Yes, Carolyn, obviously, for that one pastor, we cannot co-exist. Though I wonder why he’s so judgmental of potatoes.

  • If ridicule works for you, builds relationships and opens up constructive conversation. . .
    I’ll stay with what fosters relationships, even with disagreements.
    btw, I appreciate a great deal of what your hero Hitchens said. I just don’t think his approach is constructive for the way forward.
    We’re beyond the “new atheists” now, aren’t we?

  • mason lane

    good one Chris!

  • mason lane

    When it comes to what works, … I’m ambidextrous … I say Hitchens has helped millions world wide to move constructively out of theism 🙂 After centuries of abuse, persecution, and even sentence of death, atheists have had enough and are engaging in very assertive and often aggressive push back, and it’s IMHO more than well deserved.

  • Linda_LaScola

    Chris is in a community with Mason — The Clergy Project

  • Linda_LaScola

    “New Atheists” is a term invented by the media, as is “The four horsemen of new atheism.”

    I think what made them “new” in the eyes of the media (which is always looking for a good story) is that they were outspoken and intellectual. All four of the “horsemen” were established writers and/or academics before they starting speaking out about atheism. They were hard to ignore and hard to typecast as evil or wrong — so they called them “new.”

    That’s my theory, anyhow.

  • Linda_LaScola

    I think of Hitchens the way I think of political hecklers – people who, for instance, are focibly removed for yelling out their opinions at congressional hearings. I would never be one — not my style — but if I agree with their message, I’m usually glad they’ve done it.