I see that Adrian beat me to the punch, but I also wanted to comment on last evening’s excellent adventure. First, thanks to DJ, Andy (Christian POV), Ted (Buddhist POV) and Kathleen (Atheist POV) for taking the hot seats in front of the group!
For those not in attendance, there were approximately 50 people there: one or two Buddhists, a slew of Christians from the new Church of the Vine (which is in the process of formation under the leadership of DJ) and the rest were some of the stalwarts from the monthly Skeptics and Atheists MeetUp group. DJ was Moderator, allowing each of the three presenters roughly 10 minutes to describe the paths taken to arrive at their personal philosophical/religious positions. Not that there was any doubt, but Kathleen represented herself and our community of non-believers with clarity, intelligence and grace. Questions from the audience followed, with the entire session lasting around 90 minutes or so. Personally, I would have continued for another 30-60 minutes, but maybe 90 minutes was a good time limit.
DJ, the pastor and founder of Church of the Vine, Durango, is an interesting and likable character. Very personable and outgoing, he explained that the idea behind this coming-together of people from different perspectives was to LEARN from each other…no overt proselytizing, but simply an opportunity to expand our social circles in unexpected directions. We were gently warned not to make speeches or try to poke holes in what the presenters said; instead, we were urged to ask questions that were probing, but respectful, to reveal nuances in the differing perspectives.
- Kathleen laid out her life’s journey from being a good, Christian girl to a thinking woman who questions Life, demanding provable evidence-based answers.
- Andy, the Christian representative, presented his life story as one of being raised and schooled as a Baptist/Christian through college who, as an adult, traveled the world engaging people of other beliefs. Ultimately his travels confirmed his belief in Jesus. He ‘hates’ structured religion, but values ‘spirituality’. The type of Christianity practiced by Andy, DJ and the Church of the Vine membership is less concerned with the mystical/superstitious/dogmatic and more concerned with interpersonal relationships among people of differing backgrounds. They seek the benefits that come from human fellowship that we’ve discussed so often (with envy) in our group.
- Ted, the self-described ‘pseudo Buddhist’ finds his center in mixing meditation practices with Christian spiritual beliefs. He was questioned directly about whether belief in a God is actually consistent with Buddhist practice (answer: No). It might have been interesting, in light of this month’s Atheist Book Club selection (Why God Won’t Go Away, the Neurobiology of Belief) to find out more about Ted’s techniques and benefits of meditation.
Most of the discussion revolved around Christian/Atheist misunderstandings. For instance, I was anxious to dispel the stereotype of Atheists as being ‘without morals’, lacking a belief in God. So I asked Kathleen to expound on the basis for morality from the Atheist perspective (basically observing the Golden Rule). Adam and Ben (an Atheist Buddhist, who knew?) both asked questions that probed the topic of separating belief in the Christian supernatural from the impulses to foster better human relationships and other earth/reality-centered pursuits. They were asking, ‘Do we really need to believe in Jesus in order to respect our fellow creatures and the environment in which we find ourselves?’ Andy claimed that this question made no sense…he has looked at all of the available world religious beliefs and has put ‘all of my chips on the table’ for the Jesus option…he cannot conceive of NOT believing in Jesus. This is an intelligent man and he made a touching statement at one point to the effect: “Can’t you just leave us in peace to believe in Jesus and accept us as we are?”
Of course, I think that is the position that most reasonable people make…we all want to be respected and included. This particular group of Christians claims to be making an effort not to be judgmental and not to be aggressive in promoting a restrictive social/political agenda. And, to all appearances, they seem to be walking their talk. So my answer to Andy’s plaintive cry is “Sure, we don’t care what you believe privately to help you through your day.” But we Atheists or non-Christian religionists want reciprocal behavior from the Christian majority in the US…and we are not getting it.
It is of no matter to me if groups of people want to believe in a magical best friend in private or in groups. The problems arise when ardent Christian believers take the position that they alone know The Truth and the rest of us are damned, deluded sinners. Even this wouldn’t be intolerable if it wasn’t for the intrusion of Christian dogma into the Public Sphere. Intrusions such as the manipulation of history textbooks (the current controversy in Texas to cite Moses as a ‘founder’ of the United States); intrusions into public policy (women’s health issues), the absurd insistence that Creationism be taught as a ‘science’ subject and the like.
The fact is that Western Culture is saturated with Christian perspectives, symbols and belief. Christians comprise the vast majority of the country’s population. Given this fact, it’s not in the power of the minority (i.e., the non-Christians and non-believers) to grant the majority the ‘right’ to believe as they wish…they do so already! It is the Christian Majority that has the power in this country, often impinging on the rights and freedoms of those who believe differently.
In discussing these issues with DJ after the meeting, it was interesting to find that he agrees with many of the sentiments I have just expressed. He is frustrated and irritated by Ken Ham at the Creation Museum and the anti-science bent of some evangelicals. He has no patience for political hacks using the Christian religion and public faux-piety as a cudgel to beat opponents over the head. He is much less interested in the fantastical, superstitious dogma of Christianity than he is in the (alleged) statements and philosophies of Jesus and their practical ramifications for the currently living. (I say ‘alleged’ because Jesus himself wrote not a single word, nor did the people around Jesus record anything contemporaneously. Everything we ‘know’ about Jesus was written 70 – 120 years after his death by people who never saw or heard him personally. Many specifics of the New Testament stories were concocted to address particular problems and political agendas of those ancient days). Still, the core ‘teaching’ of Jesus is hard to argue with: love your neighbors, your enemies and everyone else as you would love yourself. If we could just forget the nonsense and concentrate on this core value who, besides ISIS, would have a problem with Christianity?
In sum, last night was extraordinary. There is much more I would like to ask of True Believers: the existence (or not) of Free Will, the concept of Original Sin and the resulting need for ‘forgiveness’ for each human at birth, the concept of theodicy and how to reconcile an All-Good God with the miserable facts of our human existence, and on and on. I am comfortable explaining and defending my Atheism…so I expect that others who overtly trumpet their religious convictions to be able to do the same. I hope that we will have an opportunity to repeat this experiment, often, in the near future. Perhaps a gaggle (coven? murder? clutch?) of Skeptical Atheists should visit one of the Church of the Vine’s Wednesday night services at the Rec Center. However it is done, I hope we can nurture this tentative connection with people of good will (who reached out to US) who nevertheless espouse philosophies so different from ours…we have a lot to learn from each other and nothing to lose.