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Christians and atheists start a calmer dialogue

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

By Jane LampmanStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 10, 2007



Salem, Mass.

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).

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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.

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.

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