Last night I attended my first Lifetree Café gathering at a Lutheran church in my area. Lifetree Café is a casual café-type setting where a session leader directs discussion based on accompanying videos and pre-selected Christian topics. The topic of discussion last night was atheism — more specifically, Giving Up on God: The Rise of Atheism. I heard about the gathering when a friend forwarded a local newspaper clipping announcing the event. After doing some research on Lifetree, I decided I would attend and see what their perspective was as well as seize the opportunity to shed some light on any misconceptions that may be discussed.
Here’s my synopsis of the one-hour meeting:
I walked into a room of about 50 people (I’m guessing), a large handful of whom greeted me as soon as I walked in, offering me coffee and making me feel welcomed. I was told I could sit wherever I wanted and introduce myself. In front of me were several 4-person tables, a TV screen queued up with a video presentation, and a presenter area ready for the session leader to take the reigns. I poured my coffee and took a seat at one of the tables with 3 people already sitting at it. They graciously introduced themselves and provided me with a name tag and a pen.
Of course, the first question I was asked, as expected, was, “Do you go to this church?” I quickly said no, only to be presented with the follow-up, “What church do you go to?” I answered, “I don’t,” and could see I took my tablemates by surprise. The gentlemen who asked the question, Steven, apologized quickly, possibly not knowing how to react to that. I assured him it’s no problem. That’s not even close to offensive. I would expect that a room full of Christians would assume I’m also one and ask that very question. It’s just a request for information, not a judgment. Anyone who follows this blog knows I’ve had some really offensive things hurled my way. This was not such an occasion. I quickly told the table I was raised Catholic, was once a born-again Christian, and am now unaffiliated. (I didn’t say I was an atheist at first because I wanted to avoid having people get their defenses up right off the bat.)
On with the meeting.
The format was not what I expected. The session leader read from materials provided by LifeTree, showed some slides and/or video clips, then asked the tables to discuss amongst themselves for a few minutes. After that, we’d move onto the next discussion topic. I expected more of a group discussion, but I can see how that could derail the meeting if 50 people each want their turn to address the crowd. In the video clips, we hear from a former Christian-turned-atheist and a former atheist-turned-Christian. More about that in a bit.
First topic: People of different cultures. Discuss when you befriended someone of a different culture. Interesting lead-in to a talk about atheists. I wouldn’t go so far as to say we’re from a different culture, but I get where that’s going. The nice thing here is that they’re setting up a discussion about trying to understand or accept differences. Encouraging.
On to the next topic. We’re starting to get into the nitty gritty now. We were provided the definition of atheism — a lack of belief in a deity and lack of belief in anything supernatural. I’d go with the former and drop the latter. Atheism doesn’t reject supernatural concepts by definition; it just refers to the lack of belief in gods. While it’s true most atheists reject all supernatural ideas, some do believe in ghosts or spirits or other supernatural concepts not related to gods.
Second question to ponder: What do the majority of Americans have against atheists? Prior to the question, the session leader quotes recent survey results regarding the views Americans have about atheists. As we all know, those results were disconcerting. In my 4-person table group, I opened up a bit more about the fact that I’m an atheist and mentioned that it’s really a lack of understanding that drives these statistics. Everyone seemed to agree and I thought the acceptance I was feeling at my table would carry over to the room. But when the session leader asked if anyone wanted to share their thoughts with the room, one woman at the table next to me spoke up, “I don’t have a problem with atheists. I just feel sorry for them.” Thanks for your sympathy, but I’m good. I just smiled and brushed that one off. I bet she had no idea one was sitting near her.
Next up was a video containing clips from interviews with the atheist and Christian I mentioned. The atheist gentleman was just ok. Considering who his audience was, I think he could have explained some of his thoughts a bit more clearly. He was relatively unpolished and may not have known what he was being interviewed for. The Christian woman, on the other hand, despite being a former atheist, was fairly dismissive of atheism. She mentioned that atheism had an attraction because it meant there was no one to answer to and that life was meaningless. I’m paraphrasing, but that’s the feeling I got from her viewpoint. As one of my readers suggested in comments on my last post, she seemed to compare atheism with nihilism, which is a totally false equivalence.
Another discussion topic dealt with where people turn for guidance. While Christians may turn to God, atheists may turn to other people or their own reasoning. Can atheists be good without God? Obviously, we know they can. Here’s how I explained it to my group. When you’re making a decision not to lie, cheat or steal, or whether or not you should do something good for someone, are you doing it because you took a moment and thought, “Is this ok with God?” No. You’re doing it because it’s good for the people it benefits, right in front of you. When someone falls down, do you pick them up because the Bible says you should, or are you doing it because you have natural empathy? There are good and bad people on both sides of the God argument. Belief or nonbelief does not dictate that. Interestingly enough, an older woman at our table told a story about how a devout Catholic took advantage of her charity and took over her home and life until she had to file legal orders to remove her.
During that discussion I also mentioned being the author of Understanding an Atheist, and that bridging the divide between believers and nonbelievers was very important to me.
In the video portion for the Good without God section, the Christian woman suggested that Christianity was the source of morality in the world. News flash: morality predates Christianity. She also suggested that Christianity should be involved in governance of the people, because we had governments of atheism in the past — that was called Communism. That got a mixed reaction from the room. The atheist in the video spoke about morality in the animal world and many in the crowd snickered or gasped, seemingly dismissing that notion. Because we’re not monkeys and all.
All in all it was a positive experience. And the aforementioned Steven at my table… well it turns out he has atheist children and has trouble understanding how anyone could be an atheist. I left him with a signed copy of my book. He seemed excited to read it.
When the session was over, I stayed for about a half-hour longer and talked with the table about atheism, my book, and my background. They seemed genuinely interested in what I was trying to accomplish. A few others came to our table and joined in the discussion, asking Steven if they could borrow the book after he was done with it.
I left my first Lifetree meeting feeling encouraged that common ground could be found between believers and nonbelievers if we take the time to listen to each other and make an effort to understand each other. As I mention in the book about discovering someone you love or respect is an atheist,
You may disagree on the topic of religious belief or origin of the universe, but in the end, your friend or family member is still the same person you love, trust, and respect. Atheism is a lack of belief. So just like anyone else, atheists are not defined by who they’re not. They are defined by who they are – the same person they were, but without religion.
Again, I encourage all of my readers to stay up to date on what topics are going to be covered by Lifetree in your area and attend if you can. Instructions for finding that out are in my previous post. Next month (12/12 for me), Lifetree is presenting “In the Beginning: An atheist professor considers intelligent design.” I smell a God’s Not Dead strawman argument here, but I’ll keep an open mind and see what happens. My cover is blown now, but I’m still optimistic that the people at Lifetree will remain open with their thoughts and accepting of my attendance.