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.