Atheists & Christians Dialogue in Portland

Last night several hundred atheists and Christians viewed Collision at the Bagdad in Portland. In the backstage bar, at the conclusion of the film my dream came true: 30-40 atheists engaged in lively, in-depth conversation with six Christians, myself included! One person described for me the glue holding his atheist friends together: “Nathan, our group shares one thing in common – we disagree with you. In most other respects we are totally different.” Another person described himself as a doubting Thomas said, “Nathan, you should feel the weight of your responsibility to provide me with the evidence I need to become a Christian.” Another person said, “You can believe whatever you like, just don’t twist the facts, or manipulate me.”
The film, Collision, did its intended job of getting the dialogue going. Christopher Hitchens says that Christianity is immoral in that it relieves its followers of their responsibility for their actions. Douglas Wilson says that the universe doesn’t care about immorality and so he wonders why atheists care. He thinks that atheists have to borrow their morality from Christianity and then use it to accuse Christians of immorality. At the Back Stage Bar, the atheists I talked to, presented themselves as morally responsible individuals. One person claimed that as an atheist, he has been far more morally responsible than he ever was in his fundamentalist Christian past. Another person told me that as a Christian he became increasingly frustrated in his attempts to mobilize his fellow Christians to undertake evangelistic and apologetic missions. In his experience, his fellow Christians did not care to share their faith, proclaim the gospel or interact with lost souls. In his new atheist community he has found freedom from this lack of responsibility.
The eight individuals I spoke to at length, all describing themselves as atheist, all have a Christian past. Part of each of their stories is bitter disappointment with the community of faith. They have been hurt, frustrated, betrayed, and used. They reference their experience and at the same time, they insist that they have come ’round to atheism through a purely rational process, an intellectual pilgrimage. These few line up with most agnostics I have conversed with over the years. Broken relationships, dreams destroyed, religious hypocrisy have been a part of the cause, indeed a much more significant part of the shift from theism to atheism than is admitted. Of course, I can not speak for the entire atheist community. I am sure that there are those who have come to it through a purely intellectual exercise, if such a path exists.
One of the beautiful aspects of the growing atheist community is its insistence that we should all speak our minds plainly and not take offense with the person who disagrees with us. Such intellectual integrity is valued, though difficult for most polite, well-trained Americans to pull off consistently. Nevertheless, last night at the Back Stage Bar, we enjoyed the space we made for such lively dialogue. I discovered that these atheists, who were formerly Christians, became sick and tired of the silence and the spinning of substantive issues in the church, stifling, if not shutting down the dialogue, the conversation, the space necessary for intellectual, even relational pursuit. At the Bagdad last night we made a little space, which expanded at the Back Stage Bar. Hopefully, in the future, we can continue to meet and to expand this space.

Upcoming Opportunities for Dialogue:
Science & Religion Discussion Group in Beaverton, Wednesday, December 16 at 6 p.m.

Published in: Apologetics | on December 14th, 2009 | 13 Comments »

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  1. On 12/14/2009 at 5:28 pm Margie Said:

    You get to have the most interesting discussions, Nathan! Wilson’s argument about morality is essentially VanTillian, I think. Also, it seems that most people who try to disprove the existence of God using purely intellectual methods tend to end up joining the ranks of folks like C.S. Lewis. Anyway, sounds like a fascinating evening, and hopefully God will give you many more opportunities to continue the discussion! God bless!

  2. On 12/14/2009 at 10:23 pm Tim Dugan Said:


    You and Matt have pulled off something that could never happen in 100 yrs in the evangelical seeker-friendly approach. I tried for 10 yrs to invite my intelligent nonChristian friends to events, activities and such at Greater Portland Bible Church. Two came. My friend Mike came to hear Rosie Greer, and it was a spectical. My father-in-law came to “Blood Bought” a greusome passion play, also a spectacle. Most don’t take the bait. They know that the so-called neutral thing we’re doing on our turf is just a hook to get them to join our club.

    This conversation you are starting is truly Christlike. To stand apart from both the religious “club” and the world, to provide a place for the purity of truth to become known, and to get nothing out of it for your club is truly Christlike. You are pouring out the Gospel into the “public domain” with no control over the results. The soul that is being called by the Holy Spirit can sense that vulnerability and knows there is something special to hear. Just like the Samaritans who came to see Jesus after he insulted their friend at the well about her private life. Just like the Africans who knew that Jonathon Livingstone could have been killed when he slept in their village without armed guard.

    I know we need our “club” to stay true to our creed, and many others seem to need theirs. But we can’t get them to join our club if they don’t trust or believe us. These types of conversations start to prove to people that they can trust us and believe us.

    I have a strong empathy with skeptics. I understand them. I felt like I liked Christopher H after the movie. His honesty and willingness to stay in conversation showed guts. He actually learned from Doug. My take on Christopher is that he has the morality and intelligence from his English Christian culture and classic schooling without the core faith (his father kept that from him). That created a toxic contradiction. His strong sense of morality created a huge need for self vindication, for self-righteousness. His rebellion against religion created a vacuum, a need to develop a world view that could answer “How can I be good without God?” His incredible mind gave him the ability to construct a shield to hide behind words, with enough truth in his reasoning that he can hide for 50 yrs or so from the consequences of his thinking.

    Doug on the other hand is a good counterpart, a good spokesman for a man of faith. However, he might not be the best one to answer a skeptic’s substantive questions about the apparent contradictions between science and faith. Honest skeptics, particularly scientists, believe they are being true to truth by holding to their scientific methods. They see Christians as not respecting truth by not answering their real questions, and by disrespecting their professional integrity. They see Christians as intellectually dishonest and lazy by not even trying. I tend to agree with that perception. When an athiest brings up the slaughter of the Amalekites, that’s a moral issue, which I think Christians answer pretty well. But when they bring up a question about Joshua stopping the sun, they do not get a satisfactory answer. I certainly didn’t hear one from Doug. I would hope that more spaces could be opened up where both science and God can be discussed. Let the chips fall where they fall. Let the Christians learn a thing or two about holes in their thinking. Let the athiests see our vulnerability, and Christ will shine through our weakness. We will pour hot coals on their heads.


  3. On 12/15/2009 at 5:44 am Mal Bicker Said:

    What a great challenge and opportunity! I Cor. 2:1-5

  4. On 12/15/2009 at 8:30 am nathan Said:

    couldn’t have said it better, Tim. Matt and I need you on the team.

  5. On 12/15/2009 at 2:01 pm Kent C. DeForrest Said:

    If everyone who saw hypocracy in the church left the church, there’d be a shortage of full pews on Sunday. I, personally, come face to face with a Christian hypocrite once a day just after lunch. I know, I know, I should brush my teeth more often, but if you’ll just pay attention, you’ll realize that what I’m trying to say is this: the church doesn’t save people; Christ does. And people who don’t need to be saved don’t need Christ or the church. The church is full of disappointing sinners, leaving little room for saints (although there always seem to be empty pews up front). Anyone who “leaves” Christianity because they were disappointed in the behavior of the faithful wasn’t worshiping Christ, they were worshiping Christians. No wonder they left!!!

    When Christopher Hitchens and I die, only one of us is going to be surprised. I won’t be surprised to go to Heaven and be with Christ. Neither of us will be surprised if he’s right, and there is no Heaven (we’ll be dead for eternity). The only possibility for surprise comes when he checks into the VIP suite at the Hades Hotel and realizes that the fireplace listed in the brochure IS the VIP suite…

  6. On 12/15/2009 at 8:13 pm mike Said:

    Couldn’t have said it better Kent. Thank you!

  7. On 12/15/2009 at 10:46 pm Bernie Dehler Said:

    Pastor Nathan-

    Thanks so much for willing to come out and share. And I hope more Christians will attend the monthly interfaith/atheist discussion group I host. It is difficult to get Christians to attend. Where are the apologists and evangelists? So I really enjoyed meeting you and Mat, and I enjoyed seeing you put your faith to action in meeting those who would like to talk about religious issues.

    Thanks for posting the link to my monthly Wed. event (12-16-09):

    We will be talking about the birth of Christ. Imagine that- God really came to Earth in the form of a man? I think many (most?) Christians can get numb to what a world-shocking and world-rocking idea that is. The God of the universe became a man!? We’ll be looking at the Gospel nativity stories, and discussing apparent contradictions and errors. We have both a Christian and atheist presenter.

    I hope some of your apologetic-minded members can attend. And don’t worry, it’s not a life or death situation. Come, relax, meet some new people, and share some ideas. It is ok (and liberating) to say “I don’t know and I’ll check it out later” when confronted with a difficult question.

    Church members should ask themselves “Do I know any atheists? Why not? Is my life sheltered? Am I avoiding others?” This is a great forum to get to meet some.

    There are all kinds of atheists, just like Christians (some are wacky in any group).

    Looking forward to meeting more of you…

    …Bernie Dehler

  8. On 12/15/2009 at 11:29 pm wes Said:

    Thanks for your efforts with regards to this movie at the Bagdad.

    I was not able to speak with you, as I was engaged with your 3 colleagues there. I would like to just add one thing to your above observation about why evangelicals leave the faith.

    I myself just left a couple of years ago (I am now an agnostic) after 46 years as a solid, soul-winning evangelical: ThB from Multnomah, missionary in Europe, etc, etc. Yes, I saw hypocrisy in the church, but I also saw people emulating the example of Jesus. But it was not the hypocrisy that drove me away. The catalyst was the doctrine of hell, as expressed by the previous commenter, Mr DeForrest. As I examined it and compared it with my fatherhood of two sons, it made less and less sense. (For a more detailed insight, go to the This American Life website ( and do a search on Bishop Carlton Pearson, and listen to that archived show). Then I start reading voraciously about the origins of the O. and N. Testaments again (without the rose colored glasses that were standard equipment during my theological training at Multnomah). Evangelical doctrine and dogma was a stack of cards that just collapsed when examined closely.

    In summary, I have read many other “testimonies” of people who have left the faith, and a significant number did so through pure rational reasoning and examination of biblical theology and doctrine, without any reference to hypocrisy in the church. So be careful not to blame the local church for all us apostates!

    To read my “de-conversion” in length:

  9. On 12/15/2009 at 11:39 pm Jon Peters Said:

    Nathan -

    I offer myself as one who left his Christianity on a primarily intellectual path that you mention may be rare. At the time I was very active and happy in the church. But I was finishing my BS in Zoology and what I was learning contradicted many areas of the Bible. If the Bible is the inerrant word of God in the original, and one is careful to read it in context, then to hold to it’s narratives means turning one’s back on rationality in the face of increasing knowledge which contradicts many of its stories, some of them that are eligible for testing. So I slowly left, giving up friends, family, and causing a rift in my marriage that has never healed. It cost me everything, but I cannot turn my back on the truth. Four times in the Bible there are references to the sun standing still and there is no geological evidence (at least three verses seem clear on this). There is no evidence for a worldwide flood (saying it’s local just dodges the issue). Hundreds of thousands of Hebrews wander the desert for decades and no archeological evidence exists. The list goes on and on. But for me it was the astounding evidence for the Big Bang, evolution, geology, cosmology, radiometric dating, and how it all fits together, validating each part. Yes, you can reinterpret the Bible’s stories to try and match the findings of science, but eventually the accommodations become untenable. And in the last few years, evidence for macroevolution is pouring in, including human chromosome 2 fusion, endogenous retroviruses, and transitional fossil forms like Tiktaalik. Like Mormonism that can’t really explain adequately the lack of Mideast DNA markers for native Americans, science has enough data now to pretty much challenge the validity of any religion. The evidence for human evolution is now well established; the entire DNA sequence of Neanderthal man has been sequenced and compared to ours.

    For three decades I have tried to have a dialogue with Christians about the caustic nature science is to Christianity, recently even meeting half a dozen pastors in the Portland area in 2009 to look for interest. They are uninterested or do not understand the gravity of new scientific findings to their faith. No matter how you reinterpret the Biblical stories, the collection of stories will not stand up to the new evidence. Many of us in the non-theist/atheist/agnostic community have been waiting for years to have a civil, respectful dialogue with you (OK, I’ve had to learn that and have been guilty often for not exhibiting those traits – but I’m learning and growing in that area I hope) . Are you really ready? Are you willing to question all that you hold as true, to follow the evidence wherever it leads? Are you truly seekers?

    Why should the aspiritual community care? Each probably has a different answer; for many of you are our friends, our family, our fellow Americans. We need to live together and solve problems from a perspective of true reality, not mythology. I care about you, what you think and why you hold the narratives you do. If I’m in error, I want to change. But if you’re mistaken, are you willing to change?

    “If you would be a real seeker after truth, it is necessary that at least once in your life you doubt, as far as possible, all things” – Descartes

    Veritas Super Omnia

  10. On 12/16/2009 at 11:26 am nathan Said:

    Thanks for your comments, Benie, Wes, and Jon. I hope that you will read my “Parable of the Identical Twins, Love and Science” as my humble response to your personal pilgrimages. I look forward to learning more from you towards informing my faith.
    One of my particular interests is language and this is not in any way removed from science. For example when Wes writes above, “pure rational reasoning,” he heaps three words to redundancy to make his point, I suppose, that no emotive or experiential influences played a role in his discovery. My only point in this observation is this: such redundancy is not the language of any responsible science, but is clearly the folk language we use regularly to drive our point home. When I attend Linus Pauling lectures, I hear this same kind of folk language from astute scientists who are doing a fine job communicating their complex research to a wide audience. I can’t tell you how many lectures have been littered with metaphor and illustrations to help me “get” the science. I love it! Ironically, when a theologian uses metaphor and illustration, let alone the Bible, scientists and atheist tend to discount it as less responsible language.

  11. On 12/21/2009 at 4:46 pm Bernie Dehler Said:

    Pastor Nathan said:
    “Ironically, when a theologian uses metaphor and illustration, let alone the Bible, scientists and atheist tend to discount it as less responsible language.”

    For the most part, I don’t think that is true. I think the real problem comes in seeing if the overall message is still coherent when saying something is metaphorical when traditionally it was literal, and theology seems to be built on the literal (RE: Adam and Eve, a worldwide flood, etc).


  12. On 2/3/2010 at 10:32 pm John Said:

    I realize that professional Christ rejectors have a stack of books and arguments all ready to be shot out like a cannon. Ive read many many an atheistic response. In the end, its not DNA or evolution or anything else that is touted as “science that challenges the validity of any religion”.
    Atheists just like any other person have a ‘god-hate’ nature that selects the most appropriate method to express that hatred. Intellectual-kind Atheists do it with science and logic.

    I hate to be the kill-joy but in the end the stalemate in inevitable. What evolves is Christians bringing forth their own logic and biblical propositions to stand in opposition against atheistic philosophy.

    No atheist will ever come to Christ unless God does a regenerating work in him. So while I as a Christian offer academic answers to hopefully honest questions, I realize that even if I am perfectly believed, I am openly accepted and I walk out of the debate with a conquering victory over every argument that has arisen; I am still waiting upon God himself to regenerate and bring faith and repentance to God’s enemies.

    All I’m saying is, the atheist is not going to disprove the scriptures, he’s not going to rock any true believers world, he’s only going to satisfy himself in maintaining his ‘nature’. All is safe and all is neat and boxed up nicely for another day of Christ-rejection. The realities of God and eternal judgment can be debated, but they are not up for a vote. God has made his eternal decrees and atheists with books, sciences and quotes from doctors will not remedy the imposition God has put upon all men. God will not stop requiring obedience and submission to his word.

    Its a laugh when I read “well is it literal”? or “thats just a metaphor”.
    God’s word expressly teaches that atheists cannot receive the things of God. 1Co 2:14 The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.
    1Co 2:15 The spiritual person judges all things, but is himself to be judged by no one.

    So, yea I do have to admit the atheist while he is fully exerting every effort to discredit the things of God only fulfills the word of God in doing so. I cant get away from the truth, the empirical evidence in front of me that demands I come to the same conclusion as Paul the Apostle…
    Rom 3:11 no one understands; no one seeks for God.
    Rom 3:12 All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.”

    An atheist coming to Christ to be saved is as common as dirt on the road, but an apostate is irrecoverable, impossible to bring back to repentance.

    Playing the agnostic-college-intellectual game is fun if your only in it for a few laughs. But if its held to as a world-view there is nothing to look forward to but doom. WE do not live in a ‘God may or may not be here neutral corner’. We live in God’s world and are subject to God’s decrees believe them or not.


  13. On 12/3/2010 at 3:12 pm Bernie Dehler Said:

    John said:
    “Its a laugh when I read “well is it literal”? or “thats just a metaphor”.
    God’s word expressly teaches that atheists cannot receive the things of God. 1Co 2:14 ”

    Apparently neither can evangelical Christians interpret, since they interpret all over the map (young earth creationist, old earth creationist, evolutionary creationist, gap theory, ID, framework hypothesis, etc).


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