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An Evening with Atheists

Christians love talking about atheists. Generally, however, we’re less excited about talking to them. 

Well, one night last winter I set out to change that, at least in my own life. I attended an atheist gathering in my neighborhood.

But first I had to go online and join their “meet-up” group.

I remember my hand freezing on my computer mouse, unable to click the “join us” invitation. For a moment the cursor hovered over the button. Did I really want to do this?

I had already interviewed dozens of atheists for the book project I was working on, but most of my interviews had been conducted over the phone or via email. Somehow the prospect of sitting face to face with them was more intimidating. I wasn’t afraid of an intellectual assault. Yes, there would be plenty of God-bashing in these meetings, but I wasn’t likely to hear anything new. Thanks to my peculiar habit of reading reams of atheist literature, I’d heard most of the arguments against Christianity before, and all from the movement’s most eloquent spokespeople.  

Rather it was the personal nature of these encounters that I found unsettling. These weren’t disembodied stories or abstract arguments. These were real people, and they’d be venting disdain for the God I believe in and loved. Talking to them over the phone was one thing; sitting face-to-face, eating chicken wings together at a local restaurant would be different.

Frankly, I was surprised to learn that an atheist group even existed in my neighborhood. Wheaton, Illinois, is a Christian powerhouse, an “evangelical Vatican,” as The New York Times has stated. Throw a stick and you’ll hit a church—and probably a parachurch organization too. I work in the area at Christianity Today International, a magazine and online publisher that reaches a total of six million readers. The sprawling campus of Tyndale House—publisher of the bestselling Left Behind series—sits so close to our offices that they literally walk over advance copies of new books. Just down the road loom the castle-like buildings of Wheaton College, known as the “Christian Harvard” and the alma mater of Billy Graham. There’s no shortage of churches either. According to some estimates, Wheaton has the most churches per capita of any city in the world.

No wonder area skeptics felt outnumbered. “Looking to meet like-minded individuals in a nation that is cuckoo for Christianity!” wrote one atheist on the Meet-up site.

“In a suburb filled with people that seem to be extremely narrow-minded and faith-centric, it’ll be nice to meet like-minded folks,” wrote another.

I began to see that these weren’t people meeting merely for intellectual stimulation; they were huddling together for warmth, the surrounding Christian culture an ever-present challenge to their beliefs. Still, they had an impressive network of “free-thinkers.” Just scanning the site opened my eyes to a whole underworld of doubt. There was a “Skeptics in the Park” group, a “Free Inquiry” club, even a “Latino Atheists Meet-up.”

When I finally worked up the courage to click the “Join Us!” button to receive meeting details, I was greeted by a picture of Greg, the group’s organizer. I guessed Greg to be in his mid-thirties, not much older than me. He was dressed impeccably, but looked dangerously thin with a head that probably appeared larger than it really was thanks to his slight frame and receding hairline. He looked directly into the camera with serious, intelligent eyes that seemed to dance with doubt. I had to chuckle—he fit my mental image of an atheist to a T.

Judging from the online comments of the members, however, These meetings weren’t somber, academic affairs. In fact, for most participants fun and community seemed to be the big draws.

“Nogodformethanks” boasted on the message board, “We have a fun, friendly group!”

They met at local pubs, or in homes. Some of the online pictures taken at their house meetings were indistinguishable from the church small group I attend every Wednesday.

The next meeting would be at a pub less than a mile from my house. I showed up feeling a little jittery. When I signed up I described myself as a “Christian writer” and I was nervous about how they’d respond to my presence.

When I walked into the pub, I didn’t know where to find them.

“I’m looking for a group of people,” I told the host.

His face was blank. Obviously there were many “groups of people” in the pub.

“They’re, um, atheists,” I offered.

Those were the magic words. He pointed me to three large adjoined tables near the back of the bar where a large group had already assembled. I walked over and introduced myself to the young man opposite the table from me. He shook his head.

“I saw your profile. I know who you are.” He let out a mock groan. “Why did I have to sit on this end of the table?”

Before I could respond, a gray-haired woman smiled warmly in my direction.

“I don’t think I’ve seen you here before. What’s your name?”

“I’m Drew,” I said cheerfully. “I work just down the street at Christianity Today.”

Her brow furrowed.

“When did you become an atheist?”

“I didn’t. I’m a Christian.”

The word “Christian” seemed to hang in the air. The conversations around the table died, and I felt twenty-five pairs of eyes fasten upon me.

I had told several friends and family members of my plans to attend the meeting. Some of them weren’t sure about the idea. My wife, Grace, was particularly worried. She knew all too well my argumentative nature, and was worried about how atheists might react to my presence. Suddenly I was wondering if she had been right. I thought they’d be grateful for the chance to discuss their beliefs with a Christian. Instead they seemed irritated, even hostile.

As I sat at the table, questions started coming from every direction.

“Why did you come? Why are you writing this book? How can you believe in God?”

I tried to keep my answers short. I didn’t want to monopolize the conversation. After all, I was there to observe. I wanted to listen to them. But as the night wore on, I found myself embroiled in passionate but courteous debate. Some around the table seemed to warm to me, as I proved willing to engage in dialogue.

Somewhere in the midst of our conversations, a jovial young man named Jeff came clean as a former Christian. He’d left the faith only months earlier.

“I was in the Assemblies of God all my life,” he said. “I even played in a Christian band.”

What had caused his crisis of faith?  

“I always believed the earth was 6,000 years old,”  Jeff said bitterly.

“But now I know it’s not.”

For years Jeff tried desperately to maintain his belief in the young earth theory. He read material from Answers in Genesis, a Christian apologetics organization, consulted his pastor and people in his church. But ultimately he said he just couldn’t deny what he saw as the evidence that the world was much older than 6,000 years.

“That’s when I realized that Christianity just wasn’t true,” he said.

Inwardly I cringed at the false-alternatives scenario that Jeff had set up in his mind. For him, one geological question (which the Bible doesn’t even address explicitly) was the deciding factor for faith. However, for Jeff, the question of the earth’s age was paramount, and in his view Christianity had failed.

There were most sophisticated skeptics in the group. The middle-aged Englishman to my right was brilliant. Other members of the group seemed to defer to him. His training was in physics, and I ribbed him playfully about recent advances in the field that seemed to point to a creator.

“For hundreds of years the universe was thought to be infinite with no beginning or end,” I said. “But now we know that it had a definite beginning. Doesn’t that smack of creation to you?”

He smiled wryly.

“Well, the church got along perfectly fine for hundreds of years without that scientific knowledge.”

That exchange led to an interesting conversation about a variety of topics. We discussed physics, where his expertise clearly outmatched mine. Then we talked about the life of Jesus and the history of Christianity, where the tables turned in my favor. He even came to my defense when another atheist disagreed with my claim that the question of God's existence entails a discussion of philosophy.

At one point, I addressed the gaping chasm between the Christian and atheist worldviews.

“I don’t blame you for rejecting any claims of the supernatural,” I said. “In fact, I’d be surprised if you didn’t.”

Eyebrows raised around the table.

“From what I’ve heard here, most of you are naturalists, meaning that you deny reality beyond the physical world. Is that right?”

Several of them nodded.

“So if naturalism is the lens through which you view life, then any supernatural claims are rejected a priori. Your worldview simply doesn’t have room for such claims.”

Again, they agreed. One even admitted that he’d encountered phenomena that he couldn’t explain, but that it didn’t trouble him. “I just shrug and move on,” he said.

I had some good conversations with my new atheist friends. But I could sense that my presence was disruptive to the regular flow of the meeting. And ultimately, it wasn’t welcomed. Halfway through the evening, I was gently but firmly disinvited to future gatherings. They had come to the meeting anticipating a relaxing night of making fun of televangelists and passing around creationist tracts. Having to engage with a real-life person from the other side probably wasn’t what they had in mind on that Wednesday evening.

But the night was definitely worth it. I had some interesting exchanges, and think it helped me correct my own perceptions about atheists. I’m as guilty as the next person in the pew of harboring stereotypes. We view them probably much like they view of us: as hostile, homogenous. In reality, they’re a diverse bunch. Some at the meeting were thoughtful, some were not. Some were warm, some were standoffish.

Strangely enough, the experience also gave me hope. I sensed that the God they had rejected was still somehow active in their lives. Simmering just beneath the language of even the most hardened skeptic boils a cauldron of spiritual desire. When people lash out at God, I see it as a sign of life. It’s often a way of screaming that they wished he were there. As Christians we need to talk to atheists, and be ready to show them that he is real indeed.

This post is adapted from my forthcoming book, Generation Ex-Christian

Comments

I have always had a few questions when it came to atheism? I had always been somewhat confused of those who claim to be an atheist, why? because I have always been bothered by the fact that if, and when it came to a so called Free Thinking atheist, why they would argue, talk, make fun of believers, and even use the Lord's Name in vain, if they didn't believe in the existence of God? I have asked this simple little question of Free thinkers only to be threatened with many unchoiced words that also implicatd God. Can someone out there help me with this quest? Thanks if you can.

Drew, In response to your article's conclusion and to the previous guest's question, I'd just like to say that people of all the world's religious beliefs (or people with no particular religious beliefs) have been known to make fun of everything--excepting of course their own beliefs. That's simply human nature. Also, for centuries Christians have not merely satirized other religions and beliefs, but condemned them in a most forceful manner. I'm just glad that Christians such as yourself can take a joke these days.

Ed the agnostic

Everybody else’s religion always appears stupid. For example, if you read about some religious sect in India that believes God wants people to drink their own urine you don’t say to yourself, “Isn’t it amazing, the diversity of belief systems Man has developed in his never-ending quest to understand and cope with the intricate moral dilemmas posed by a complex and uncertain world?” No, what you say to yourself is, “These people have the brains of trout.”

Meanwhile, over in India, the sect members are getting a major chuckle over the fact that some American basketball players cross themselves before they take foul shots. “As if God cares about foul shots!” the sect members howl, tears streaming down their faces. “Say, is this my urine or yours?”

Dave Barry, “At the Risk of Being Smitten”

RELIGIOUS JOKING ABOUT OTHER RELIGIONS

Jews do not recognize Jesus as the Messiah.
Protestants do not recognize the Pope as the leader of the Christian church.
Baptists do not recognize each other in the liquor store.

Source unknown
____________________________

Dear God,
It’s OK that you made different religions but don’t you get mixed up sometimes?
Arnold

Children’s Letters to God, compiled by Stuart Hample and Eric Marshall
____________________________

There are some...who believe that no desirable “change of heart” can be brought about without supernatural aid. There must be, they say, a return to religion. (Unhappily, they cannot agree on the religion to which the return should be made.)

Aldous Huxley, Ends and Means: An Inquiry into the Nature of Ideals and into the Methods Employed for Their Realization
____________________________

Every other sect supposes itself in possession of the truth, and that those who differ are so far in the wrong. Like a man traveling in foggy weather they see those at a distance before them wrapped up in a fog, as well as those behind them, and also people in the fields on each side; but near them, all appears clear, though in truth they are as much in the fog as any of them.

Benjamin Franklin as quoted in Benjamin Franklin: His Wit, Wisdom, and Women by Seymour Stanton Block

Drew, My response to the conclusion of your post and to your guest's comment is to note the universal practice of people making jokes or disdaining the things they don't happen to believe, including Christians joking and denouncing the beliefs of other Christians:

CHRISTIANITY RUNS THE GAMUT…

From silent Trappist monks and quiet Quakers -- to hell raisers and serpent-handlers;

From those who believe nearly everyone (excepting themselves and their church) will be damned -- to those who believe everyone may eventually be saved (“Universalist” Christians);

From those who argue that they are predestined to argue in favor of predestination -- to those who argue for free will of their own free will;

From those who argue God is a “Trinity”-- to non-Trinitarian Christians (that include the “Arian” churches of early Christianity, Unitarian-Universalist churches, some Messianic Jewish groups, some primitive Baptist churches, some “cults,” as well as millions of Oneness Pentecostals (and of course Christianity's parent religion, Judaism, remains non-Trinitarian, since God’s chosen people in the earliest “testament” were taught, “The Lord Your God is One God”);

From those who “hear the Lord” telling them to run for president, seek diamonds and gold (via liaisons with bloody African dictators), or sell “Lake of Galilee” beauty products -- to those who have visions of Mary, the saints, or experience bleeding stigmata;

From those who believe the communion bread and wine remain just that -- to those who believe the bread and wine are miraculously transformed into “invisible” flesh and blood (and can vouch for it with miraculous tales of communion wafers turning into human flesh and wine curdling into blood cells during Mass);

From those who believed that priests who delivered communion should never have ever denied their faith in the past even under threat of persecution -- to those who believed it did not matter whether or not priests forsook their faith when threatened with persecution (I am speaking of a major controversy in early Christianity between “Donatist” and “Catholic” Christiians, both of whom presumed they were the true church on the basis of the division cited above, a division that was never healed, and which ceased only after the North African region where most Donatist churches were located was overrun first by Vandals then later by Muslims.);

From the many Christians that once taught (or teach today as Reconstructionist Christians do) that heretics and apostates ought to be executed -- to Albigensian and Cathar Christians who outlawed violence and taught that the shedding of blood and the killing of any living thing, even the slaughtering of a chicken or ensnaring a squirrel, was a mortal sin (a belief they based on the spirituality and metaphors of Christ’s meekness and forgiveness in the Gospel of John). [See The YellowCross: The Story of the Last Cathars’ Rebellion Against the Inquisition 1290-1329 by René Weis];

From Christians who believe in damning their enemies by calling down God’s wrath on them (as in certain imprecatory psalms) and who cite the verse, “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” -- to Amish Christians (among others) who believe in helping the families of those who have offended them. (Case in point, in 2006 a man entered an Amish schoolhouse, gunned down several young female students then shot himself. The Amish later asked what they could do to help the family of the shooter. They planned a horse-and-buggy caravan to visit Charles Carl Roberts’s family with offers of food and condolences.);

From Christians who view Eastern religious ideas and practices as “Satanic”-- to Christian monks and priests who have gained insights into their own faith after dialoging with Buddhist monks and Hindu priests;

From castrati (boys in Catholic choirs who underwent castration to retain their high voices) -- to Protestant hymns and Gospel quartets--all the way to “Christian rap;”

From Christians who reject any behavior that even mimics “what homosexuals do” (including a rejection of fellatio and cunnilingus between a husband and wife) -- to Christians who accept committed, loving, homosexual relationships (including gay evangelical Church groups like the nationwide Metropolitan Baptist Church);

From Catholic nuns and Amish women who dress to cover their bodies -- to Christian nudists (viz., there was a sect known as the “Adamites,” not to mention modern day Christians in Florida with their own nude Christian churches, campgrounds and even an amusement park), and let’s not forget born-again strippers;

From those who believe that a husband and wife can have sex for pleasure -- to those who believe that sex should be primarily for procreation -- to those who believe celibacy is superior to marriage (i.e., Catholic priests, monks, nuns, and some Protestant groups like the Shakers who denied themselves sexual pleasure and only maintained their membership by adopting abandoned children until the last Shaker finally died out in the late 1900s)--all the way to those who cut off their genitals for the kingdom of God (the Skoptze, a Russian Christian sect);

From those who believe sending out missionaries to persuade others to become Christians is essential -- to the Anti-Mission Baptists who believe that sending out missionaries and trying to persuade others constitutes a lack of faith and the sin of pride, and that the founding of “extra-congregational missionary organizations” is not Biblical;

From those who believe that the King James Bible is the only inspired translation -- to those who believe that no translation is totally inspired, only the original “autographs” were perfect -- to those who believe that “perfection” only lay in the “spirit” that inspired the writing of the Bible’s books, not in the “letter” of the books themselves;

From those who believe Easter should be celebrated on one date (Roman Catholics) -- to those who believe Easter should be celebrated on another date (Eastern Orthodox). And, from those who believe that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son (Roman Catholics) -- to those who believe it proceeds from the Father alone (Eastern Orthodox view as taught by the early Church Fathers). Those disagreements, as well as others, sparked the greatest schism of church history (the Schism of 1054) when the uncompromising patriarch of Constantinople, Michael Cerularius, and the envoys of the uncompromising Pope Leo IX, excommunicated each other;

From those who worship God on Sunday -- to those who worship God on Saturday (Saturday being the Hebrew “sabbath” that God said to “keep holy” according to one of the Ten Commandments) -- all the way to those who believe their daily walk with God and love of their fellow man is more important than church attendance;

From those who stress “God’s commands” -- to those who stress “God’s love;”

From those who believe that you need only accept Jesus as your “personal savior” to be saved -- to those who believe you must accept Jesus as both savior and “Lord” of your life in order to be saved. (Two major Evangelical Christian seminaries debated this question in the 1970s, and still disagree);

From those who teach that being “baptized with water as an adult believer” is an essential sign of salvation -- to those who deny it is;

From those who believe that unbaptized infants who die go straight to hell -- to those who deny the (once popular) church doctrine known as “infant damnation.”

From those who teach that “baptism in the Holy Spirit” along with “speaking in tongues” are important signs of salvation -- to those who deny they are (some of whom see mental and Satanic delusions in modern day “Spirit baptism” and “tongue-speaking”);

From those who believe that avoiding alcohol, smoking, gambling, dancing, contemporary Christian music, movies, television, long hair (on men), etc., are all important signs of being saved -- to those who believe you need only trust in Jesus as your personal savior to be saved;

From Christians who disagree whether the age of the cosmos should be measured in billions or only thousands of year -- whether God pops new creatures into existence or subtly alters old ones -- even some who disagree whether the earth goes round the sun or vice versa;

From pro-slavery Christians (there are some today who still remind us that the Bible never said slavery was a “sin”) -- to anti-slavery Christians;

From Christians who defend the Biblical idea of having a king (and who oppose democracy as “the meanest and worst of all forms of government” to quote John Winthrop, first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, with whom some Popes agreed, as well as some of today’s Protestant Reconstructionist Christians)--to Christians who oppose kingships and support democracies;

From “social Gospel” Christians -- to “uncompromised Gospel” Christians;

From Christians who do not believe in sticking their noses in politics -- to coup d’etat Christians;

From “stop the bomb” Christians -- to “drop the bomb” Christians;

From Christians who strongly suspect that the world will end tomorrow -- to those who are equally certain it won’t.

All in all, Christianity gives Hinduism with its infinite variety of sects and practices a run for its money.

E.T.B.
____________________________

Live long enough and you’ll encounter a lot of folks who say you are not really a Christian for a host of reasons. I’ve found the “no-true-Christian-would-do-or-believe-XYZ” game one of the more popular among, well, Christians.

Jonathan ( jge642000@yahoo.com ) at the yahoo group ExitFundyism

This topic is not to be taken lightly. While many agree that belief in a good God is rationally possible, others contend that the existence of such God is improbable due to the nature of the evil which we see in the world. - Carmack Moving and Storage

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About
Drew has a passion to equip and inspire church leaders, parents, and everyday Christians to bring young people back to the Faith.


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