Christians and atheists start a calmer dialogue

Atheist militancy followed Christian vehemence; now some on both sides see the need for cooler rhetoric.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Wednesday night on ABC-TV, two televangelists took on nonbelievers from the Rational Response Squad in a bid to prove the existence of God (see "Nightline Face Off" on ABCNews.com).

The TV polemics come in the wake of a rash of bestselling books by atheists challenging religion. Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens, among others, go beyond questioning God to charge that religion is a plague that needs to be eliminated. Their vehemence, some suggest, is in response to Chris­tian attacks on evolution and stem-cell research.

"It's Christian militancy that has evoked a backlash of atheist militancy," says Michael Bleiweiss, a physicist and atheist from Methuen, Mass.

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Amid the rising heat of this latest culture clash, though, a few people on both sides are finding calmer ways to engage, seeking to build bridges and even learn from one another. Some Christians, concerned that millions of Americans never cross the threshold of a church, want to understand why, as well as learn what it is in evangelistic efforts that turns people off. Some atheists, worried that polls show they are the least accepted social group in the country, want to break down stereotypes and change people's attitudes.

So both are willing to sit down together in different venues, discuss their divergent perspectives, and, in some cases, jointly visit church services across the United States. As a result, they are sparking a growing Christian-atheist dialogue on the Web.

At a conference in Salem, Mass., last Saturday, for example, Christians from several states listened to atheists and neopagans talk about who they are, the origin of their ethics and beliefs, and what challenges they encounter in a society that is predominantly Christian.

"I've never understood treating a people group as [the enemy] because their belief system is different," says Phil Wyman, pastor of The Gathering, a Salem church that sponsored the conference.

Jim Henderson, a former Evangelical pastor from Seattle who moderated the atheism discussion, has been getting an earful for some time. Frustrated at his inability to draw more people to his church, Mr. Henderson set out to learn how "the unchurched" respond to various kinds of worship services – what it is they find appealing and what leaves them cold. He began to pay nonbelievers $25 to go to a church and tell him what they thought.

"I also became intrigued by why evangelism bothered everybody, including me," he says in an interview. "I decided to devote my life to reimagining evangelism ... how to do it and be 'normal.' "

Soon, he got wind of an auction on eBay in which a student at the University of Illinois in Chicago proposed "selling my soul" to the highest bidder. Young atheist Hemant Mehta had been raised in Jainism, but left the faith in his teens. Mr. Mehta was curious about Christianity and whether it could provide any evidence for the existence of God. Wondering if he might be missing something, he offered to attend church with the winning bidder.

High bidder takes atheist to church

With the top bid of $504, Henderson asked Mehta to visit 15 churches, fill out a survey on each one, and share his perspectives on Henderson's website (off-the-map.org).

The experience has changed the lives of both men. Mehta, now an honors graduate in mathematics and biology, has not converted, but the two have become friends. Mehta has started his own blog (friendlyatheist.com) and travels to speak to churches and humanist organizations. He has written a book – "I Sold My Soul on eBay" – that explains why he is an atheist and gives churches advice on what it would take to reach nonbelievers.

Henderson has gone on to pair with another atheist, Matt Casper, for further church visits across the US, and they've written "Jim and Casper Go to Church." Both books offer insightful, revealing, sometimes humorous critiques of what a variety of Christian services, in churches of different sizes and denominations, look like to the uninitiated.

Henderson also conducts interviews with men and women who are non­believers as an event at church and pastor conferences. Many Evangelicals "are obsessed with conversion," he says, and always speak of non-Christians as "lost." The interviews show Christians immersed in their own culture and how that sounds to the people they approach.

At the Salem conference, Mr. Bleiweiss recalled a co-worker who "worked Jesus into every conversation we had."

Henderson's experiences have led him, with his "Off The Map" venture, into "something larger than evangelism," what he calls "otherliness." Otherliness – "the spirituality of serving others" – involves "drawing people into the idea of paying real attention to each other, of listening." He wants to teach individuals and groups of all kinds how to do a much better job of listening to those they interact with.

For his part, Mehta is still open to "any compelling evidence of the existence of God." He describes positive elements in some churches, such as top-notch speakers and impressive community outreach. "The more work churches do for everyone, the more respect they'll get from outsiders," he writes.

Yet churchgoers are missing the mark, he says, when they think non­religious people lack a basis for ethical values, look down on non-Christians, or fail to speak out against religious leaders who make outrageous public statements.

What would convince him? A miracle.

During church services, they often fail to explain traditions or rituals, which leaves visitors confused. "Why is the structure of the service always the same?" Mehta wonders.

Zeroing in on "what it would take to convert me," he says a church would need to appeal to his sense of reason, challenge him to think more deeply, and allow for asking questions. "I wasn't confronted with a new line of thinking that challenged my commitment to scientific empiricism," he writes. Also, he'd want a church where "men and women lead on an equal basis."

Most important, he states, what would convince him would be "a miracle – an undeniable miracle that has no natural explanation."

While on their tour of the most prominent megachurches and stylistically innovative churches, Mr. Casper asked Henderson, "Is this what Jesus told you guys to do?"

The 30-something father of two is generally unimpressed with the multi­media "killer" church services they attend. Articulate in explaining his reactions in detail, he, like Mehta, also finds in the predictable format of services that "certainty is boring, certainty is closed off."

When a healing is mentioned in one Pentecostal service, though, he reacts strongly. If that man can heal, he says, "why is he ... hanging out in this building?... Get out there, then! There are people who need your help."

Saying that he loves the teachings of Jesus, along with those of other important teachers, Casper concludes: "The question that just came up for me again and again ... is, What does the way Christianity is practiced today have to do with the ... words and deeds" of Jesus?

For Henderson, Wyman, and Mehta, the value of talking and listening to those with differing worldviews has become crystal clear.

Pastor Wyman has been reaching out to non-Christians in Salem, and particularly to the large neopagan community here (attracted, no doubt, by Salem's identification with witchcraft in Colonial times). His stereotypes about witches were often wrong, he says. Having formed respectful relationships, he's now being asked to come to pagan events to speak about Christian perspectives.

"Christians for quite some time have been creating events and trying to draw people into our little box, and we call that 'outreach,' " he says. "This is an exciting opportunity – people are opening, listening, and seeking out spiritual things."

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