I was invited to speak about atheism at a local Lutheran Church. In order to get a better idea about what I was walking into, I went to the Church website, which offered no help. After Googling the Pastor, I guessed that my audience would probably be an older white crowd. The Church is in a pretty liberal town and they did invite an atheist to speak as part of their series on learning about other beliefs (or non-beliefs in my case). So I reasoned that they would probably also be fairly liberal.
My reasoned guesses were proven correct. Last night, I went to the Church to give my presentation. To start with, I asked the Pastor if I could tape a letter to the Church door as part of my presentation. He allowed it. My letter was a list of 10 things that all atheists agree about. Each numbered item was a particular deity that atheists lack a belief in. I tried to pick a mix of deities what were mostly pretty well known. Of course the last deity on the list was Yahweh.
It was a pretty informal setting with me speaking for about ten to fifteen minutes and then a Q&A for the rest of the hour. The meeting was held in a small conference room with chairs arranged in a circle. I wrote out a speech, but I am horrible with reading speeches. I should have just written an outline. So I pretty much used my speech as an outline and added and subtracted stuff on the fly.
I started by introducing myself and the organizations I am part of and the websites I write for. Then I told that crowd of about fifteen people with an average age of 70, that since this was a Lutheran Church, I have stolen a page from Martin Luther by posting a note on the church door. I showed them the note and passed it around and then called attention to the fact that they probably don’t believe in nine of the ten gods listed. They were at least 90% atheists already and I was just getting started.
That gag actually went over pretty well so I pushed my luck and told them that there were actually hundreds maybe even thousands of gods that I didn’t list that we all probably don’t believe exist. So in actuality, they are probably closer to 99% atheists and they didn’t even know it.
I went on to explain that I wasn’t absolutely dogmatically certain that the Egyptian sun god Ra doesn’t exist. Nor was I dogmatically certain that the God of the Bible doesn’t exist, but that I have no reason to believe they do exist. I lack knowledge and therefore lack belief. I wanted to make sure they understood that atheists aren’t dogmatic. Most of us are agnostic atheists and that usually it is the religious believers who are absolutely certain of their position. The caricature that atheists must be absolutely certain that no gods exist and are unwilling to change was something I wanted to dispel. If valid evidence is presented, then that evidence should be followed regardless of where it leads. In invoked Dawkins here to illustrate my point.
Next, I wanted to point out that not all atheists believe the same things. The only thing atheists have to have in common is a lack of belief in deities. However, many atheists do have some shared values and that we are starting to build a community around those values. We value reason over faith, science over superstition, skepticism over dogmatism, education over indoctrination, and subscribe to a humanistic set of ideals. That is to say people who believe in being good without gods.
The reason over faith part didn’t go over very well and that was expected. I took a few minutes to reassure them that I am not saying that they are unreasonable people, just that when reason and faith conflict, for us reason wins. Of course many of them didn’t seem to think reason and faith conflict at all. The Pastor mentioned that even some scientists are religious. I pointed out that according to one study, about 7% of the National Academy of Scientists are religious and most of those don’t even believe in a personal God.
I went into my background a little bit and gave my “testimony” about my de-conversion. In this story I mentioned some of my college friends who were religious and included some who were religious at the time but have since de-converted. One man asked if I knew why they de-converted. “It varies depending on the person,” I responded. I then talked about one friend who studied the Bible in seminary and that learning about how the Bible was put together probably had a lot to do with his de-conversion. At this point I plugged Bart Ehrman’s book, “Misquoting Jesus” and Karen Armstrong’s book, “The Bible: A Biography.”
The Q&A time was a lot of fun. Morality was a popular theme that came up. One question was, “how do you get morality through the scientific method?” That was an easy one. I talked about empathy being an evolutionary trait and how empathy leads us to compassion. The more we can identify and empathize with someone, the more we feel for them and want them to be happy.
One person pointed out that since evolution is survival of the fittest, shouldn’t atheists be all about competition and conquering? Here I had to explain that 1. Evolution is about the survival of the best able to adapt, not necessarily the fittest and 2. Evolution is a biological description of what happens; it is not a prescriptive moral system of what ought to happen. 3. When everyone does better, everyone does better.
The issue of how atheists think about wealth came up. Again I pointed out that there is no doctrine of atheism and that atheists are free to disagree on this issue and many do disagree on this issue. However, most atheists within our community of reason tend to be pretty progressive. Speaking for myself only, I mentioned that I liked the idea of a basic income and plugged Marshall Brain’s recent article on the subject. This started to stray the conversation into politics instead of religion, so I tried to steer it back on course.
The audience seemed curious about how I would raise my kids. It was a topic that came up a few times but was sidetracked quite a bit. The best answer I was able to give was that I would teach them how to think critically and at some point expose them to multiple religions. One woman said that even though atheists are trying to take down crosses all over the place, at some point my kids will see one. She wanted to know what I would tell them.
Well that was a loaded question. I got so sidetracked from the statement that I never really got to the answer. I had to explain that atheists aren’t trying to take down crosses all over the place. We only want to stop Christians from using government to advertise their beliefs for them. They can put up as many crosses as they like on their churches, homes, etc., but not on public property. Then she mumbled something about America being founded on Christianity so I had to take a minute to shoot that down. I actually had another woman take my side on that one and we talked briefly about how a local church was responsible for getting “In God We Trust” on our coins during the Civil War and all the other religious wording that was added during the Red Scare.
My favorite question of the night was, “When times are tough, who do you pray to?” Umm, no one! I think I also added that sometimes I jokingly pray to the Flying Spaghetti Monster, but that atheists tend to rely on actual people to help us in tough times. I do think the issue of community is an important one and it is an issue that the atheist community is just starting to address. I told them that we do need to do more on that issue, but for right now, most of our community is online with a few groups here and there.
One person mentioned that she was a Lutheran because when she was in a tough spot the Lutheran Church was the group that helped her out the most. She mentioned that it may be a “crutch” for her. Sure, I could have antagonized the situation here and talked about how she can kick the crutch away or that the fact that a group of people helped her does not justify the beliefs that those people hold, but I didn’t. Instead I just pointed out that atheists need to do better in that department – and we do.
Somewhere in the Q&A I talked about the fact that many atheists are in the closet because for us there are very real consequences associated with coming out godless. I briefly told Alber Saber’s story about being arrested for Blasphemy in Egypt and how even in America many atheists are only open about being atheists online.
One question that I thought was interesting was from a guy who asked how I, as an atheist, view Christians. I said that it depends on the Christian, but that I didn’t think that all Christians were stupid or anything, just wrong. This got a laugh from everyone.
The Pastor called an end to the questions and made a few announcements. Next week, an Episcopalian will be coming to the Church to talk and in a few weeks there will be a Pentecostal. Last week there was even a Baptist. I do think it is funny that the church is trying to get people of different beliefs and they mainly get other Christians who pretty much believe the same stuff they do. Still, I joked with some members of the audience that they probably will have way more in common with me than they will with the Pentecostal.
Everyone seemed to really enjoy my talk even when we didn’t agree. They all thanked me for coming and shook my hand. No one said that they would pray for me mainly because that question did come up in the Q&A. I think I gave my standard line that as it is with all things, it is the thought that counts. Sometimes religious believer will say that they will pray for me when they know I’m an atheist and their intentions are to get a last dig in at me but if someone is sincere, I might thank them for their prayers, but inform them that I am an atheist or I just might thank them and move on depending on the situation.
I did talk with a few people afterward in the parking lot for a few minutes. One guy said that he thought that all religions pretty much said the same thing. I disagreed on that one. Another guy said that he thought the stuff that Jesus said was pretty good and that he liked the commandment to love thy neighbor. I briefly explained to him that by “neighbor” the Bible means member of your tribe and that Jesus was particularly nasty to one woman who wasn’t Jewish saying that you don’t give the children’s food to the dogs. I did mention that according to the Bible Jesus did reluctantly help her, but the key word is reluctantly.
That is one think about liberal religious believers that I always have to point out. It is easy to say that Jesus was all peace and love, but that isn’t the Jesus in the Bible. The Jesus in the Bible was kind of a dick.
In any case, I probably left out a bunch of stuff from the presentation and Q&A, but I think I gave a pretty good run down. Of course there were lots of things that could have been said in my presentation that didn’t get said and that is unfortunate. But I think I hit most of the basics. It was a great opportunity and I hope I gave them some things to think about.
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- Response: ‘5 Lies Atheist Tell’ (examiner.com)
- Interview: Atheist running for congress – James Woods (examiner.com)
- Atheism Isn’t a Choice (skepticink.com)