An Evening with Atheists
November 4, 2011
TODAY'S BIBLE READING:
As we continue in our sermon series “God’s Answer to Atheism” at College Church, guest blogger Drew Dyck, managing editor of Leadership Journal, shares with us his experience attending an atheist gathering in his neighborhood: Christians love talking about atheists. Generally, however, we’re less excited about talking to them. Well, one night last winter I set out to change that, at least in my own life. I attended an atheist gathering in my neighborhood. But first I had to go online and join their “meet-up” group. I remember my hand freezing on my computer mouse, unable to click the “join us” invitation. For a moment the cursor hovered over the button. Did I really want to do this? I had already interviewed dozens of atheists for the book project I was working on, but most of my interviews had been conducted over the phone or via email. Somehow the prospect of sitting face to face with them was more intimidating. I wasn’t afraid of an intellectual assault. Yes, there would be plenty of God-bashing in these meetings, but I wasn’t likely to hear anything new. Thanks to my peculiar habit of reading reams of atheist literature, I’d heard most of the arguments against Christianity before, and all from the movement’s most eloquent spokespeople. Rather it was the personal nature of these encounters that I found unsettling. These weren’t disembodied stories or abstract arguments. These were real people, and they’d be venting disdain for the God I believe in and loved. Talking to them over the phone was one thing; sitting face-to-face, eating chicken wings together at a local restaurant would be different. Frankly, I was surprised to learn that an atheist group even existed in my neighborhood. Wheaton, Illinois, is a Christian powerhouse, an “evangelical Vatican,” asThe New York Times has stated. Throw a stick and you’ll hit a church—and probably a parachurch organization too. I work in the area at Christianity Today International, a magazine and online publisher that reaches a total of six million readers. The sprawling campus of Tyndale House—publisher of the bestselling Left Behind series—sits so close to our offices that they literally walk over advance copies of new books. Just down the road loom the castle-like buildings of Wheaton College, known as the “Christian Harvard” and the alma mater of Billy Graham. There’s no shortage of churches either. According to some estimates, Wheaton has the most churches per capita of any city in the world. No wonder area skeptics felt outnumbered. “Looking to meet like-minded individuals in a nation that is cuckoo for Christianity!” wrote one atheist on the Meet-up site. “In a suburb filled with people that seem to be extremely narrow-minded and faith-centric, it’ll be nice to meet like-minded folks,” wrote another. I began to see that these weren’t people meeting merely for intellectual stimulation; they were huddling together for warmth, the surrounding Christian culture an ever-present challenge to their beliefs. Still, they had an impressive network of “free-thinkers.” Just scanning the site opened my eyes to a whole underworld of doubt. There was a “Skeptics in the Park” group, a “Free Inquiry” club, even a “Latino Atheists Meet-up.” When I finally worked up the courage to click the “Join Us!” button to receive meeting details, I was greeted by a picture of Greg, the group’s organizer. I guessed Greg to be in his mid-thirties, not much older than me. He was dressed impeccably, but looked dangerously thin with a head that probably appeared larger than it really was thanks to his slight frame and receding hairline. He looked directly into the camera with serious, intelligent eyes that seemed to dance with doubt. I had to chuckle—he fit my mental image of an atheist to a T. Judging from the online comments of the members, however, these meetings weren’t somber, academic affairs. In fact, for most participants fun and community seemed to be the big draws. “Nogodformethanks” boasted on the message board, “We have a fun, friendly group!” They met at local pubs, or in homes. Some of the online pictures taken at their house meetings were indistinguishable from the church small group I attend every Wednesday. The next meeting would be at a pub less than a mile from my house. I showed up feeling a little jittery. When I signed up I described myself as a “Christian writer” and I was nervous about how they’d respond to my presence. When I walked into the pub, I didn’t know where to find them. “I’m looking for a group of people,” I told the host. His face was blank. Obviously there were many “groups of people” in the pub. “They’re, um, atheists,” I offered. Those were the magic words. He pointed me to three large adjoined tables near the back of the bar where a large group had already assembled. I walked over and introduced myself to the young man opposite the table from me. He shook his head. “I saw your profile. I know who you are.” He let out a mock groan. “Why did I have to sit on this end of the table?” Before I could respond, a gray-haired woman smiled warmly in my direction. “I don’t think I’ve seen you here before. What’s your name?” “I’m Drew,” I said cheerfully. “I work just down the street at Christianity Today.” Her brow furrowed. “When did you become an atheist?” “I didn’t. I’m a Christian.” The word “Christian” seemed to hang in the air. The conversations around the table died, and I felt twenty-five pairs of eyes fasten upon me. I had told several friends and family members of my plans to attend the meeting. Some of them weren’t sure about the idea. My wife, Grace, was particularly worried. She knew all too well my argumentative nature, and was worried about how atheists might react to my presence. Suddenly I was wondering if she had been right. I thought they’d be grateful for the chance to discuss their beliefs with a Christian. Instead they seemed irritated, even hostile. As I sat at the table, questions started coming from every direction. “Why did you come? Why are you writing this book? How can you believe in God?” I tried to keep my answers short. I didn’t want to monopolize the conversation. After all, I was there to observe. I wanted to listen to them. But as the night wore on, I found myself embroiled in passionate but courteous debate. Some around the table seemed to warm to me, as I proved willing to engage in dialogue. Somewhere in the midst of our conversations, a jovial young man named Jeff came clean as a former Christian. He’d left the faith only months earlier. “I was in the Assemblies of God all my life,” he said. “I even played in a Christian band.” What had caused his crisis of faith? “I always believed the earth was 6,000 years old,” Jeff said bitterly. “But now I know it’s not.” For years Jeff tried desperately to maintain his belief in the young earth theory. He read material from Answers in Genesis, a Christian apologetics organization, consulted his pastor and people in his church. But ultimately he said he just couldn’t deny what he saw as the evidence that the world was much older than 6,000 years. “That’s when I realized that Christianity just wasn’t true,” he said. Inwardly I cringed at the false-alternatives scenario that Jeff had set up in his mind. For him, one geological question (which the Bible doesn’t even address explicitly) was the deciding factor for faith. However, for Jeff, the question of the earth’s age was paramount, and in his view Christianity had failed. There were most sophisticated skeptics in the group. The middle-aged Englishman to my right was brilliant. Other members of the group seemed to defer to him. His training was in physics, and I ribbed him playfully about recent advances in the field that seemed to point to a creator. “For hundreds of years the universe was thought to be infinite with no beginning or end,” I said. “But now we know that it had a definite beginning. Doesn’t that smack of creation to you?” He smiled wryly. “Well, the church got along perfectly fine for hundreds of years without that scientific knowledge.” That exchange led to an interesting conversation about a variety of topics. We discussed physics, where his expertise clearly outmatched mine. Then we talked about the life of Jesus and the history of Christianity, where the tables turned in my favor. He even came to my defense when another atheist disagreed with my claim that the question of God’s existence entails a discussion of philosophy. At one point, I addressed the gaping chasm between the Christian and atheist worldviews. “I don’t blame you for rejecting any claims of the supernatural,” I said. “In fact, I’d be surprised if you didn’t.” Eyebrows raised around the table. “From what I’ve heard here, most of you are naturalists, meaning that you deny reality beyond the physical world. Is that right?” Several of them nodded. “So if naturalism is the lens through which you view life, then any supernatural claims are rejected a priori. Your worldview simply doesn’t have room for such claims.” Again, they agreed. One even admitted that he’d encountered phenomena that he couldn’t explain, but that it didn’t trouble him. “I just shrug and move on,” he said. I had some good conversations with my new atheist friends. But I could sense that my presence was disruptive to the regular flow of the meeting. And ultimately, it wasn’t welcomed. Halfway through the evening, I was gently but firmly disinvited to future gatherings. They had come to the meeting anticipating a relaxing night of making fun of televangelists and passing around creationist tracts. Having to engage with a real-life person from the other side probably wasn’t what they had in mind on that Wednesday evening. But the night was definitely worth it. I had some interesting exchanges, and think it helped me correct my own perceptions about atheists. I’m as guilty as the next person in the pew of harboring stereotypes. We view them probably much like they view of us: as hostile, homogenous. In reality, they’re a diverse bunch. Some at the meeting were thoughtful, some were not. Some were warm, some were standoffish. Strangely enough, the experience also gave me hope. I sensed that the God they had rejected was still somehow active in their lives. Simmering just beneath the language of even the most hardened skeptic boils a cauldron of spiritual desire. When people lash out at God I see it as a sign of life, a way of wishing that he was really there. Drew Dyck is the managing editor of Leadership Journal and author of Generation Ex-Christian: Why young adults are leaving the faith…and how to bring them back (Moody]]>
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Josh Moody (Ph.D., University of Cambridge) is the senior pastor of College Church in Wheaton, IL., president and founder of God Centered Life Ministries, and author of several books including How the Bible Can Change Your Life and John 1-12 For You.
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