Last night I attended a panel discussion which was long overdue. The panel, which was brought together by a Christian pastor, included 3 panelists of very different beliefs (a Buddhist, a Christian and an Atheist). At first glance you can imagine how most people attending should have been pretty apprehensive. Now before you start getting ideas of this being a debate like Bill Nye and Ken Ham let me point out to you the ways in which this was different and why it worked so well.
Firstly this wasn’t a debate. It was a chance for 3 people that had very different belief systems to describe their own history of belief. Following this description, there was an open forum for the audience to ask questions. In the spirit of goodwill there wasn’t any group attacking another, no one focused on the shortfalls of anyone else. It was merely a way for people to interact with someone of another faith and to hear how they got to be where they are today.
While the stories were very heartfelt and descriptive, what they really did was set the right “mood” for the rest of us who were attending. This setting allowed us to interact with those from different faiths in a new light. Far too often we as the atheist/agnostic crowd do one of two things, we either fade into the background for fear of persecution or proselytizing, or we go on the offensive and attack and debase various beliefs around us. This didn’t happen last night and it was amazing. The openness that was expressed confounded me. Maybe it was the mood I described, or the fact that it was in a bar and people could talk and drink, or maybe everyone was just feeling very comfortable with those around them. As the night went on Christians started speaking of their tendencies toward occasional loss of faith, and that they have been skeptical too. Atheists started recounting their experiences with supernatural and unexplained phenomena, while those of other beliefs around them just listened. Agnostics had the Buddhist 8 fold path explained to them and people were asking about meditation and other practices they had never experienced. The end of the night produced people of different beliefs exchanging phone numbers and email addresses, promises of attending various meetings of other beliefs or even an agnostic attending a church service as a guest.
Maybe this night was due to some cosmic planetary alignment unbeknownst to those in attendance; perhaps someone slipped the whole group some valium before the discussion. Or maybe, just maybe could it be that even with all of our misgivings, our apprehension, we all just realized that there are other truly good people out there. Yes they can be different from us, many come from a background that traditionally does not even accept us, but this night was about people not organizations. The individuals in that room had made a choice to come together and work towards a common goal of understanding. This personal decision is what made this collaboration possible. Hopefully this magical combination was not just a one-time anomaly. It will be up to us to continue this opportunity to forge relationships between those of varying groups and turn this instance into a catalyst that brings our community together.