Apologetics Now, Redux

Two outstanding Texas treasures.

Two outstanding Texas treasures.

As I mentioned last year when I visited an apologetics conference at Watermark Church in Dallas, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life’s report on the rise of the “Nones” in America was just another in a long series of warnings to the American Christian Church. Society, the Church has said for decades, is slouching into secularity; now the data suggest that more and more people are not even interested in the pretense of a religious label.

This pronounced rejection of religious affiliation has a strikingly demographic bent. While 90% of those 65 and older still consider themselves affiliated with a religious organization, only two-thirds of those younger than 30 are similarly labeled. And trends in the data over the past decade indicate that this disparity is only going to grow wider.

Among American Christendom, the hardest hit are Protestant denominations, both evangelical and otherwise. Since the 1970’s, the percentage of American Protestants has declined from almost two-thirds of the population to now just barely half, while the percentage of Catholics has remained the same (presumably due to immigration) and the percentage of “Nones” has more than doubled.

In response to this inevitable sociologic trend, Dallas Theological Seminary has expanded the scope of their Hendricks Center for Christian Leadership which since 1986 has existed to support pastoral leadership development. In December of 2012, DTS announced that Dr. Darrell Bock, a world-class New Testament scholar and expert in the theology of Luke-Acts and the Historical Jesus Quests, would be appointed the new Executive Director of Cultural Engagement at the Hendricks Center alongside Dr. Andy Seidel.

In this new role, Bock has sought to reach out beyond the ivory tower to connect with the public through a series of podcasts. The literally-named “The Table Podcast” features Bock with a rotating selection of Christian guests discussing issues seated around a bare table, adorned only with state-of-the-art recording equipment. Available in both studio quality video and audio versions, the goal of these podcasts is to “help Christians think biblically and theologically about issues and how to engage them in a gracious and forthright manner.”

In this, they succeed amazingly well. Podcasts produced thus far are clear, respectful discussions among people who have interesting things to say about how Christians can interact with homosexuality, the media and the arts, and other religious traditions in the context of a changing American culture. Unfortunately, these discussions have been manifested thus far as mutual confirmation sessions (i.e., Christians agreeing with Christians), designed apparently to provide questions for answers, and not the other way around.

Dr. Bock in his element.

Dr. Bock in his element.

I saw the same phenomenon repeated at the first “Table Conference,” held on a warm spring weekend in Dallas and given the theme, “Presenting God to Those Who See Christianity Differently.” As one of the rapidly growing number of people in Dallas who does, in fact, “see Christianity differently,” I couldn’t keep myself away. Bock, the architect of the conference, had assembled a small number of highly-respected New Testament scholars for the event. These included Dr. Daniel Wallace, a fellow DTS faculty member, one of two worldwide masters of New Testament textual criticism and most likely the world’s foremost expert on Biblical Greek; Dr. Craig Blomberg of Denver Seminary, an expert in parables and Historical Jesus studies; Dr. Charles Hill of Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, who is an expert in John’s Gospel and the early canon; and finally Dr. Michael Svigel also of DTS, a junior faculty member there who specializes in study of the history and theology of the early Christian Church. To open the conference, Bock had invited Lee Strobel to speak, the bestselling author of several pop-apologetics books cast in the same mold as his original “The Case for Christ.”

Though the conference was obviously Bock’s baby, that Strobel had been chosen to set the tone for the weekend spoke volumes; this was not to be an event where Christians could grapple with real-world issues and criticisms, be asked to think critically about their faith, or even to seriously consider a different point of view. Rather than actually “engage” with the perspective of the “Nones,” much less that of the explicit apostates that are also captured in that designation, the only atheism on display were Bock’s recollections of being a (somewhat boring) middle-school agnostic, and Strobel’s dramatic testimony where his life as an atheist included routine inebriation, domestic violence, and self-loathing. Such a caricature is painfully unfamiliar to me in my travels among atheists, and I know of far too many instances of troubled Christians for this emotional appeal to resonate with me. But I can see the value of having Strobel’s participation, aside from his celebrity in the pop-Christian circuit; in addition to his loudly trumpeted intellectual bona fides as a legal journalist, he really does seem to reflect the earnestness that apologetic-minded American Christians routinely demonstrate.

Following his testimony, Strobel was interviewed by Bock onstage at the eponymous table. He relayed a story which I found quite fascinating: although his wife’s conversion precipitated his own, neither of them were able to make any headway towards converting her father to Christianity. A lifelong skeptic (presented as a bit of a curmudgeon by Strobel), he was tolerant of their religious revolution but didn’t want any part of it for himself. That is, until the end of his life when, afflicted by multiple strokes, he was virtually on his deathbed, watched over by his son-in-law. Strobel recounted how he hounded and harassed the man to consider converting, a process that took several of his father-in-law’s final hours. At long last, he agreed to accept Jesus as Savior, and the family celebrated until that evening when another stroke occurred, and his wife’s father was whisked away by ambulance to the hospital where he finally passed. His last words to Strobel were given indirectly through his wife, “Tell Lee I said ‘thank you’.”

For Strobel, this was a triumphant vindication of several decades worth of prayer and evangelism. Mere moments from Death’s grasp, he was able to save his father-in-law from eternal torment.

But I wonder.

Told from Strobel’s perspective, to a Christian audience, that’s no doubt the most plausible explanation, but I heard a story about a long-suffering atheist who was able to tolerate and love a son-in-law who went from being a rational thinker to a faith-driven evangelist and apologist, and who spent an entire afternoon pleading with him to accept his worldview under the approaching specter of death. Perhaps Strobel’s father-in-law felt sorry for him and his daughter, knew the pain that they would feel if they thought that he died without Christ. Perhaps he chose to show one more kindness to a man who would soon need it much more than him, and simply pretended to assent. I don’t know. It’s possible, and there are several atheists I know who would do the same in that kind of situation.

Including atheists who’ve been exposed to so-called “faithbuster” classes, as Bock mentioned several times during his tenure at the podium. The unstated thesis of the weekend seemed to be that there is bad information being presented to our culture about religion in general and Christianity specifically, and if Christians simply became better educated with good information (as taught by DTS, natch), they’d be better able to resist the faithbusting influences in their lives, and potentially be able to win over their skeptical family and friends to Christ. This promise was tempting, and as someone whose faith had been “busted” about a decade earlier, in no small measure due to textual and critical analysis of the Bible, I was hopeful that there would be a plethora of new information that would prompt me to rethink at least some of my previous conclusions.

Although the weekend was enjoyable and informational, it was not as educational as I had hoped, at least not for me. Though the gathered scholars were clearly able to expound with much more sophistication and subtlety in other company, the introductory-level material they shared with the lay audience was known already to me. Oddly enough, an ongoing theme became apparent as Bock and his colleagues repeatedly dragged out the still-living ghost of Bart Ehrman, who through archived video clips savaged the worldview of the gathered Christian attendees. Indeed, so often was the straw beaten out of Ehrman over the course of the conference that I wondered eventually whether it should rather have been titled “The Bend Bart Ehrman Over A Table Conference.” I suppose it makes sense to target so much of their criticism towards Ehrman; the books he’s written for a popular audience are seeming to have as much of a cultural impact as Bock’s own. And as a highly-respected New Testament scholar with a deconversion testimony from Christian to agnostic, Ehrman is something of a mirror-image of the scholar archetype that DTS seeks to elevate. An “Antibock,” if you will.

I was of two minds during the lectures: on the one hand, these were the highest-level Bible scholars with which one could hope to spend time, but on the other hand, their presentations were awash with warmed-over apologetic tropes the likes of which had been hammered to death within the first year of my apostasy. Things like Lewis’ Trilemma, the analogy of multiple witnesses at a car wreck, implicit trust of Eusebius, heavy-handed harmonizations, defining early alternative Christianities as deviations, and interpreting possibilities as strong probabilities. In this last instance, Wallace, also Executive Director of the Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts (which itself had held its first conference a few weeks earlier and a few miles away, with Bock as a speaker), argued that since there is insufficient evidence to show that Greek was spoken in the region of Galilee during the first century C.E., there is thus insufficient evidence to show that it wasn’t spoken, therefore it probably was! And thus of course we can assume that Jesus himself spoke Greek, and thus of course we can assume that his disciples did as well, and thus of course we can assume that fully half of them could write Greek, and thus of course we can assume they wrote the autographs of the Gospels.

The other conference speakers took similar liberties with logic at various points during the weekend. Blomberg had no trouble claiming that since Luke’s version of Jesus’ anointing is so different from the other Gospels’ it’s possible that it happened twice, therefore it must have happened that way. Svigel noted that without a historical resurrection, the Diversity and Conflict model of the early Church development is most likely, but since we all know the resurrection had to happen, it’s not a viable option. And Hill suggested that the early canon was assembled because the early Christians were able to “recognize” authentic books from inauthentic the same way that one might recognize one’s mother in a crowded room.

The best thing by far that I experienced at the conference was the suggestion by Bock that Christians should be seeking out conversations with religious skeptics, approaching these with patience and kindness, and leaving the onus of conversion to the Holy Spirit and the skeptic herself. This was underlined at the end of the conference with a short skit by some of the DTS students helping to run the event. One pretended to be a religious skeptic, while the other acted out the Christian side of the conversation that Bock had earlier recommended. It was a little silly and ham-handed (as skits tend to be), but I couldn’t help but feel the irony of being an atheist seeking conversation with Christians in the middle of a conference where the only example of that on display required a Christian to play-act at being a nonbeliever.

Interestingly enough, this conference was held across the street from the massive Prestonwood Baptist Church where Christopher Hitchens had been invited years ago to provide students there with an actual atheist to listen to and engage with. That event, whatever the motivation of the Prestonwood organizers, presented students with a fair assessment of atheist objections, with Hitchens in his own words and in real-time, able to defend himself and mount his own attacks. Perhaps next year’s Table Conference will take that much-needed step of inviting Ehrman to speak on his own behalf, rather than quoted conveniently to play counterpoint to seminary professors.

Or even better, perhaps the Executive Director for Cultural Engagement would be interested in actually engaging with the cultural force of atheism in his own community that claims more and more Christians like me each year. It’s possible that Bock and his colleagues are still under the impression that the godless among them are little more than village atheists, opposed to Christianity for no better reason than a preacher looked at them crossways. To the contrary, we are more likely to come from Christian backgrounds than ever before, we’ve done our theological homework, and we tend to be better-informed about Christianity and other religions than their own adherents. We are a new breed of atheist, and we aren’t just in need of a kind Christian to patiently talk with us.

Dr. Bock answers questions from Christian students.

Dr. Bock answers questions from Christian students.

I don’t mean to sound too critical of Bock and his inaugural Table Conference; I very much enjoyed the lectures and helping with their photo booth during the breaks. And I agree that far too few Christians are aware of the information about the Bible and the early Church that one might learn at DTS or other seminaries. The weekend was, essentially, a series of 101-level lectures that all Christians (and atheists) should climb over each other to attend. But I do find it problematic that the information is presented with the conclusion already determined. As a Christian seminary, DTS is not actually interested in exploring other religious possibilities, it’s interested in providing intellectual support to a particular set of doctrine. I’ve met several former DTS students who’ve told me that in order to matriculate there, they had to sign assent to the Core Beliefs* of the DTS Doctrinal Statement, and they had to re-sign it in order to graduate. More than one have admitted that it was difficult to sign it a second time, and one individual flat-out refused to sign it, gave up his degree, and transferred to a secular university instead. He noted the irony of having to waive assent to a list of doctrines due to the education he’d received at the very institution which taught them.

If Christians are to remain relevant in American culture, they don’t just need to get smarter about the doctrines their pastors tell them they believe in. They don’t even need to become intellectually confident about their doctrines to the point where they’re comfortable discussing them with other Christians and religious skeptics. It really doesn’t matter how many proof texts you can provide for your belief in dispensationalism or eternal security when you’re talking with an atheist in line at a coffee shop. For both Watermark’s and this conference, I didn’t leave with a sense that my fellow attendees were well-prepared to have a casual conversation with me about the real issues that matter. Nor that they had any sense of what modern religious skeptics’ actual objections are to Christianity and other faiths. Being able to critique a handful of Ehrman sound bytes is a far distance from being able to engage with an real live atheist, especially a well-educated former Christian, right in one’s own hometown.

I’m hopeful that next year’s Table Conference takes its mission to engage with “those who see Christianity differently” a bit more seriously. Otherwise, Bock and his colleagues, for all their best intentions and highest expectations, are just play-acting.

*edited to specify “Core Beliefs of”, 5/8/2013

The Death of God

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When the sixth hour came, darkness fell over the whole land until the ninth hour. At the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?” which is translated, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” When some of the bystanders heard it, they began saying, “Behold, He is calling for Elijah.” Someone ran and filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on a reed, and gave Him a drink, saying, “Let us see whether Elijah will come to take Him down.” And Jesus uttered a loud cry, and breathed His last. And the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. When the centurion, who was standing right in front of Him, saw the way He breathed His last, he said, “Truly this man was the Son of God!”

-Mark, Chapter 15

For a religion that purports to bring joy to the world, Christianity seems preternaturally focused on death. Indeed, without the death of Jesus as God, atonement within Christian theology would be impossible. So great is this event, that Christians around the world commemorate it as “Good Friday.”

On this point, we can hopefully find no small level of agreement.

The death of God is of incredible significance for those who have moved beyond traditional religious beliefs and practices, and seek now to advance a humanistic ethic in a world where we have no benevolent deities to beg for blessings, nor tyrant gods to blame for miseries.

Humans have been commemorating the deaths of gods as far back as the Mesopotamian culture, in which the goddess Ishtar dies and ventures into the underworld, only to return days later in triumph. In the ancient Greek and Roman cultures, the goddess Persephone goes below and her return marks the beginning of Spring, as celebrated by the Eleusinian mystery cult during the time of Jesus. Among the Old English tribes, the goddess Ëastre (also called Ôstara by the Germans) represented rebirth and new life; the Christian scholar Bede noted that her name had been appropriated by Christians to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus, the latest god to seek death for the benefit of humans.

Is_God_DeadThomas J. J. Altizer, writing in The Gospel of Christian Atheism, acknowledges that “the death of God is a Christian confession of faith.” However, unlike traditional Christian orthodox views of atonement, Altizer suggests that “through the events that faith knows as the Incarnation and the Crucifixion, God empties himself of his sovereignty and transcendence, and not only does this kenotic sacrifice effect the dissolution of the opposition between Father and Son in the new epiphany of God as universal Spirit, but so likewise vanishes the opposition between God and the world.” In other words, God (as Christ) actually died on Good Friday, emptying Himself into the world and collapsing any division between them. Thus, rather than viewing the world as a dark place still in rebellion against God, Altizer sees the world as filled with God, following the self-negation of His transcendence.

Though the theology of Christian atheism is not resonant for me, I appreciate its directional tack. The America we live in is increasingly hostile to God – not only explicitly, through the rise of the New Atheist movement and encroaching secularism in government, but also implicitly, through the rise of the Nones and diminishing interest in religious institutions. To be an evangelical Christian in 21st-century America is to be always on the defensive, but to be a Christian atheist in the Altizer mold is to revel in the many permutations of divine manifestations in our art, literature, and scientific achievements. The Humanist in me recognizes that, whether we realize it or not, we have become the Gods of our own overlapping Universes, and that it is incumbent on us to rise to the responsibilities we face with such a title.

In Mark 16, the followers of Christ seek his dead body, but it is gone. In the original version of the story, there is nothing more to tell; confronted by supernatural visitors, the earliest Christians disobey their directives and flee from the truth. I wonder at times if the Easter season doesn’t suffer from the typical fast-forward from Good Friday to Easter Sunday. Although trumpeting the resurrection of the god does put the Spring back in one’s step, it also resets the clock for the next iteration of the cycle, another repetition of the death and rebirth of the deity next year. Perhaps if Good Friday were punctuated, at least with a comma, but hopefully with a semicolon, Christians might reflect on the significance of the death of God in their lives, and in the lives of their Humanist friends and neighbors.

Regardless, it is my sincere hope that we all can celebrate together during this season of death and rebirth; while my Christian brothers and sisters are able to find joy in the sacrifice of the figure of Christ Jesus, my Humanist siblings are likewise jubilant at the death of God, and we embrace the necessity of sacrifice from one for each other, in the interest of advancing a human-centered ethic that benefits us all.

A very Good Friday to you, and a very happy Easter to all your friends and family that celebrate it.

The Good Atheist

I can remember it like it was yesterday.

Standing at a microphone in the back room of his large Southern Baptist church, a young guy with an short but athletic build and close-cropped red hair stared blankly at the three atheists who were being interviewed for an adult Sunday School class. One of their number, a thin middle-aged man with glasses and a limp brown ponytail, had just asked the redhead what he would do if he discovered that God, in fact, did not exist.

“I suppose,” he began with some trepidation, “I’d go out and rape and steal and murder.”

The atheist replied, “Then I think we’ve all learned something about your character, no matter whether or not there’s a God.”

That moment stuck with me, hard. The entire experience did, in fact. I spent the next couple years with feet in both worlds; on most Sundays, I could be found right back at that Southern Baptist church, listening and discussing issues of theology and apologetics with the others in that Sunday School class. And once a month, I made my home with the atheists who’d come out that day, learning with them and discussing issues of philosophy, ethics, and the human experience.

I was attracted to both groups for a number of reasons. For one, I had only recently apostatized from orthodox Christianity, and I was exploring the idea of retaining my Christian identity while realigning my beliefs as a freethinker. For another, I was frankly disturbed to read about the terrible experiences my fellow apostates posted with relentless regularity online; I had grown up with only good experiences in churches, and with fellow believers, and I was hoping to reassure myself that houses of worship were still home to many, many good people. And finally, although spending time with the freethinking atheists was a tremendous joy for me intellectually, it did little to exercise my charitable impulses.

For that, I had to spend time with the Christians.

My favorite activity was something the church called their “Evening Stars” program. One Friday a month, members and other volunteers show up at the church’s children’s center at 6:00PM where families can drop off their special-needs children (and siblings) for an evening of respite. For my wife and I, it was a bit out of our comfort zone (having no children of our own, and precious little experience with them either), but at only a few hours a month it was an easy thing to do. And not, unfortunately, an activity that we could find among our local atheist organizations.

But that began to change. As our band of heathens began to expand and mature, those of us with experience in community outreach began to suggest activities that were less cerebral, and more charitable. Soon, I found myself doing as much good in my neighborhood in the company of infidels as I had previously with the faithful. And then when I heard that Dale McGowan, already considered by many to be the man who beat the humanist heart of the New Atheist movement, was starting a new foundation to encourage and empower charitable expression among the growing demographic of nonbelievers, I latched on immediately.

The Foundation Beyond Belief started in 2010 with little more than Dale’s good intentions and hard work, entering a landscape already dominated with some of secular humanism’s heaviest hitters. Both the American Humanist Association and the Center For Inquiry had charitable initiatives that had been in place for several years, and the Richard Dawkins Foundation had also recently started its very own. However, these existing charities all focused primarily on disaster relief, whereas the Foundation Beyond Belief sought to encourage regular giving patterns among atheists and humanists. As if that wasn’t enough of an uphill battle, Dale also felt strongly that the Foundation Beyond Belief should be able to work together with non-proselytizing religious charities who share our humanist values, despite their deep and profound theological disagreements with the atheists he hoped to recruit as members.

And yet, somehow it worked.

Today, the Foundation Beyond Belief has announced that their effort to herd the cats of the atheist community around the banner of the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society has resulted in a total donation of $430,000, the largest-ever amount raised by a non-corporate team for the Society’s “Light the Night Walk.” Co-sponsored by the Stiefel Freethought Foundation, who matched every individual donation dollar for dollar, this achievement brought together 150 teams of atheists all over the country, all over North America even, with contributions and support by local and national groups like American Atheists, the American Humanist Association, Atheist Alliance of America, Camp Quest, the Center for Inquiry, the Freedom From Religion Foundation, the Secular Student Alliance, and the United Coalition of Reason.

But that’s only part of the story. The Foundation Beyond Belief also has over 1300 members who in just a few short years have donated enough to bring the grand total of humanist giving through the Foundation to nearly $900,000. And the Foundation Beyond Belief isn’t just all about the money. There is a network of grassroots organizations, just like my own in Dallas, which participates in volunteer outreach activities like bringing meals to lonely veterans, spending time with animals in shelters, and donating gallons of blood to patients in desperate need. Nearly three thousand atheists, agnostics, and secular humanists participate in the Volunteers Beyond Belief program, each of whom give of themselves, give of their time, give of their talents, not because a book tells them to, not because a god tells them to, but because their conscience, their empathy, their basic human decency propels them into it.

I’m not worried about how I would respond to a world without gods. I have no inclination to rape, murder, and steal; my previous beliefs did not bind my worst instincts, but neither did they give flight to the better angels of my nature. As my fellow freethinkers begin to experience the thrill of secular charity, or the humanist compassion that is embodied by organizations like the Foundation Beyond Belief, then I think that people like my redheaded friend will find that life’s most perplexing questions have answers they didn’t quite expect.

The Spectrum of Atheism

prism-and-refraction-of-light-into-rainbow-AJHDThere’s a story we tell ourselves as atheists. It goes a little something like this: “I used to believe silly things, but now I’m different. I’m smarter than what I was, than what the people that I was like still are, and I don’t fall for the things that they still do. All I need is a good set of books, some friends to discuss ideas with, and I can solve any problem.”

This story is a lie.

The truth is that we’ve given up our previous beliefs for any number of reasons. The truth is that we’re not all that different from people who still believe. And the truth is that we can’t just rely on ourselves to think our way out of every problem.

We have made great strides in little more than a decade. Long the domain of esoteric philosophers and apologists, the intellectual force of atheism is stronger now than ever, and a cultural tide is already building underneath the waves. We have much to be proud of, many successes, many victories. But in many neighborhoods, those triumphs ring hollow. Because although we have done reasonably well welcoming women and sexual minorities into our movement, when it comes to engaging with and connecting to other communities, we have failed.

We have FAILED.

We have failed the young Black woman who showed up years ago at an atheist group I attended, who had one simple question that none of us could answer: “Do you know any other Black atheists?”

We have failed when hundreds queue for hours for the chance to get an autograph from an old white guy at a national atheist convention, yet only one person appears at the hour-long signing scheduled for the only Black woman who spoke at the event.

We have failed the two young Black guys who traveled to a skeptic convention to learn and sharpen their debating skills, but returned back home without a community to benefit from their knowledge, and without an audience to encourage them.

We have failed as long as our conventions and grassroots organizations’ speakers and attendees consistently under-represent background demographics. Many, many of us have thought long and hard about how to solve this problem. And yet still we gather together, a sea of white faces barely peppered with color, unable to transform our movement into the inclusive, diverse tapestry that we hope (I hope!) for.

These failures pass silently by White suburbia; they aren’t felt in the Apple Store. They cross into other neighborhoods where they fester in the sun, slowly eating away at communities that friendly, open-minded, White folks like me never see except on the evening news. These failures are easy to ignore when we’re surrounded by schools that are well-funded, our public spaces are immaculately landscaped, and we eat cheap fried food as a sinful indulgence, not as economic necessity.

The stench of failure is hard to bear, and no less so for me. My parents went to great lengths to teach me to love and respect people of all colors – taught by showing, and by doing. I was transferred to a predominantly Black school that had a tremendous yet unsung academic reputation. There, for the first time I was in an environment where Black was the norm, where most of my teachers and friends didn’t look like me. And so I didn’t hesitate when I crushed hard on the cute girl who wore blue ribbons to hold back her kinky black hair, who was the only other person in class to beat me in multiplication drills, and who kissed me in gratitude after I beat up the boy calling her names on the playground one day.

But look, I’m no Freedom Rider. I was just a kid relating naturally to the people around me, doing the best I could. Years later, I was asked to help organize an aging atheist group in North Texas. The people were intelligent, interesting, and in severe demographic deficiency. So overwhelmingly monochromatic was its collection of old White men, that it heightened my own label-awareness even more than being a token White kid in a Black grade school. I don’t like thinking about myself that way, even though Louis C.K. is right, it is pretty awesome to be what I am. To have the labels I have. The opportunities I’ve been given. But there’s a darker side as well.

How much of who I am comes from me, and how much comes from the advantages I had, the privileges I enjoy? Did my parents and my teachers, even my Black teachers, encourage me more than other students because even subconsciously they thought the little White boy should be smarter than the rest? Did I get considered for jobs over other candidates because someone thought, “now there’s a White guy I can trust?” Why is it I’ve never seen a single store security officer watching me? Never been stopped ‘randomly’ by the police? Petty anxieties, I know, but what’s most troubling is this: do I really know what’s going through the head of someone of a different color, someone who is treated so differently by our culture than me?

The answer, I think, is NO.

For me to feel the queasiness of demographic insignificance, I have to work especially hard. I have to cross those railroad tracks, I have to walk into a Black Baptist church, I have to wrench my assumptions free of the White Supremacist culture that nestles and comforts primarily those who look like me. But for some among us, the weight of ethnic identity begins to crush as soon as they walk out their front doors. And no matter how hard I try, no matter how rational I try to be, no matter how successful I am at looking past my significant cultural privilege, I just can’t share that experience. And neither can any of my White brothers and sisters in the atheist movement. The moment a new person of color walks in the door of our Freethinking and Humanist organizations, no matter how inclusive and understanding we want to be, there is a cultural divide that we simply cannot fathom.

And the only way to cross that divide is to acknowledge, first and foremost, that we can’t navigate it ourselves. That we can’t think our way past this problem. That we are not qualified to be ambassadors to members of a population that has been systematically beaten down by the same culture which raises us up. Don’t get me wrong, being nice White folks is necessary. Being open to conversations about diversity and cultural privilege is necessary. Being willing to cross those tracks and feel uncomfortable and experience minority is necessary.

But it is NOT sufficient.

We have been exceptionally fortunate. The atheist community has been lucky enough to attract a first wave of Black activists who have been willing to step into a community that privileges intellectualism and academia over the real-world concerns of their communities of origin. They have crossed our thresholds sometimes leaving one foot outside, waiting for that sinking-stomach feeling of ethnic isolation yet again, and perhaps only staying because their biological family is on the other side of a smoking bridge, or because their kids need friends to play with, or because they lucked into a personal connection. We have been wise enough to recognize some few of them as pioneers, invite them to our gatherings, and offer them our podiums. But we have not listened to them. We have not listened to the criticisms of the atheist community as a function of the overarching White culture, we have not listened to stories of personal struggle that are fundamentally different from our own, and we have not listened to the urgent pleas that ask our movement to increase its focus on social justice and diversity outreach. We have been presented with clear directions, clear guidance, and clear leaders, but we do not take them seriously.

That is why it has become necessary to create a new paradigm to serve our atheist brothers and sisters of color. Not because we don’t want to be inclusive (of course we do), not because we have given up on promoting diversity (though we can still do much better), and not because Black and Latino atheists are just sick of waiting for us to get our collective act together (though they could hardly be faulted for feeling that way). It’s because, despite our best intentions and efforts, the atheist community as it exists today, as an overwhelmingly White culture, simply cannot provide a home that is welcoming enough, nor supportive enough, for people whose experiences so profoundly transcend our own that we cannot even properly empathize with them.

But we CAN help.

We can help by refracting our communities. The general atheist and skeptic community at large is not going away, and it will remain overwhelmingly White for years to come. But we can adjust the optics if we set at least one room aside, specifically for our Black brothers and sisters to come together to be able to share their experiences with each other and empathize with their own unique struggles. We can dedicate a percentage of our resources every day, not just once a year, to advancing an agenda on behalf of minority populations who otherwise would not have a sufficiently loud voice in our forum. We can do this, and we should do this, for our brothers and sisters in the Black community, the Latino community, all our atheist sisters and people of non-privileged sexual identities. We should create these areas of specialization, these safe ports of entry, and then purposely and considerately support them within the context of the general secular community. Doing so will not diminish our goal of inclusiveness, but it will maximize the impact of our full spectrum.

There are many ways this can be done. Outreach projects can be spearheaded by those who have ties within the culture they serve, but be promoted and supported by the wider community at large. Social connections can be forged first at the level of shared experience, serving a special minority population, and then integrated into the larger calendar of events for each community. Large gatherings are the perfect opportunity to bring those from several different populations and demographics together to learn and share with each other. Nothing we do should happen in a vacuum. Every major city in America now has a robust grassroots secular community, overwhelmingly White, heterosexual, and male – now is the time to refract them, to build specialized areas within those communities to reach out to and welcome atheists of color, women, those with marginalized sexual identities, and any other non-privileged groups that exist. This is a call for diversity, not homogenization. Diversity brings new flavors and new experiences to the forefront, but homogenization blends everything together into a milky mess. Diversity also breeds strength and flexibility – what the general secular community cannot do on it’s own, our Black brothers and sisters can find a way to achieve. Or the Black and Latino communities working together, or the Latino and Women’s communities, or the Women’s and GLBT communities, or any possible permutation of these, each with the weight of the general secular community behind them in support.

That is my vision for the future of the atheist community. We do not need color-blind atheists, we need our community to be color-aware. By celebrating our differences and respecting our boundaries, we have the potential to go beyond the best efforts of our religious friends and neighbors, to create a Humanist kaleidoscope view of the world which is able to understand, empathize, and work with any community of people anywhere in the world.

We have failed, yes. But the lessons our failures teach are usually the most important of all. We are now on the cusp of a new chapter in our community’s history. Will we continue to insist on viewing our world monochromatically, as we have always done? Or will we take the step that admits our limitations, acknowledges our privilege, and creates the brilliant rainbow that I think we’re all desperately searching for?

After the Advent

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“So come down from your mountain and stand where we’ve been

You know our breath is weak and our body thin.”

–Mumford and Sons, “Babel”

The Advent

Even if not embraced as historical event—the abdication of the ultimate power; the willing subjection of the self to conquer evil in a way that creates love—the Advent provides a sublime picture of the response to what ails us.

I’m stopped at a Buc-ee’s near Austin on my way to an early Christmas celebration with family in San Antonio. My wife is inside grabbing consumable essentials. I’m on my phone checking the Facebook news feed for social consumables. My chest tightens and my brain begins the long division that deciphers unimaginable atrocities through my wavering theological filter when I read that a town I had never heard of has experienced a pain I hope to always avoid. I latch onto the idea that children have been gunned down. My toddler is asleep in the back seat, blissfully unaware of the horror glowing from my screen. When I hear about things like this, my reaction is, Really, God? Selfishly, I don’t immediately pray for survivors, for friends, for neighbors, for those who have suffered inexplicable loss. I immediately pray for what I feel I’m losing in those times—my faith. And then it starts. I check the back seat again. My boy is safe. I had better park closer to the building. Probably need to face the storefront. I need to go to the bathroom so I’ll pull right up to the door, then when my wife gets in I’ll lock her and my son inside the car and set the alarm. I wish the key fob had some kind of alert on it. I’ll have my phone and she’ll have hers. God, please don’t let anything happen to them while I’m in the Buc-ee’s bathroom. It hits me: in order to pray, I need to trust the God I don’t trust right now. This terrible tension robs me of joy and of hope. God, please protect my family. Did those families pray the same thing that morning? Why did you not protect them? Are you able? Are you indifferent? How can I trust that this prayer will reach attentive ears? That it will reach willing ears? That my prayer makes any kind of difference to the God that watched this from afar? 

He came down from his mountain and stood where we’ve been. He embodied youthful innocence cut down by insanity. His family and friends shook and sat devastated at the news. His story was not over. And neither is the story of Newtown. Nor the story of our broken world, replete with Newtownian physics. Our answer to the tragedy is love. It provides no “answer”—no satisfying logical conclusion, no scientific demonstration, no psychological evaluation, no retribution. It provides the direction, the power to move forward, the plan for continuing to create our world anew. Love moves into the destructive present and quells its acidic drip into weakened hearts. It promises to carry on and stand as the balm for roughened skins. Love moves into the disorder. Love takes steps, makes progress, comforts, and provides. It goes. It runs. The significance of the advent does not stand or fall with its historicity. I am not promoting demythologization here; if historically true, the advent is even grander than its ethical fodder. But the story of Christ’s coming into the world climaxes at the resurrection—the defeat of death, the ensuing outpouring of the Holy Spirit, the reinstatement of God’s people to reflect his loving image into the rest of the world. Precisely because people are infused with this love, and are commanded to love others, this message is historical here and now. It is the fact of loving people working together, creating, moving, going. The mobilization of an abdicating, sacrificing love cannot solve the logical problem of evil. It is not a “because” to any “why?” We may never receive or concoct a “because;” but we can always choose to respond in love—the perfect counter to any evil set on utter destruction.

The terrible event in Newtown has brought destruction; in its aftermath love can slow the spread and encourage us to build again.

The Truce on Christmas

Oh I’m a Christian holiday; I’m a symbol of original sin.
I’ve a pagan tree and a magical wreath and bow-tie on my chin!
Oh I’m a pagan heresy; I’m a tragical Catholic shrine
I’m a little bit shy, with a lazy eye, and a penchant for sublime.
Oh I’m a mystical apostasy; I’m a horse with a fantasy twist
Though I play all night with my magical kite, people say I don’t exist.
For I make no full apology; for the category I reside
I’m a mythical mess with a treasury chest; I’m a construct of your mind.

-Sufjan Stevens, “Christmas Unicorn

Though an atheist, I still enjoy putting up Christmas decorations, and I’m not alone in that regard.

On my fireplace, a long plastic evergreen bough snakes between an Irish Santa Claus, a Polish Angel, and a sitting Buddha. To the right is my childhood Christmas teddy bear, wearing a red sleeping cap trimmed with white fur, and to the left are Christmas cards from friends and family. In my refrigerator, a turkey from some Muslim friends waits patiently for the tandoori treatment, while homemade peppermint ice cream slowly freezes below. On my Christmas tree, fragile glass ornaments from my wife’s family intermingle with clunky ceramic trinkets from my youth as well as those I’ve collected from my various skeptical and atheist organizations. Hanging behind it are stockings for our son, our two cats, and one that reminds children to fear the wrath of Krampus. Opposite the tannenbaum are a family of snowmen surrounding a menorah, driedel, and gelt. All are framed by glittering white lights that wash the entrance to my house with a warm glow, echoed by seasonal candles in every window.

I think Tertullian would approve:

“Let, therefore, them who have no light, light their lamps daily; let them over whom the fires of hell are imminent, affix to their posts, laurels doomed presently to burn: to them the testimonies of darkness and the omens of their penalties are suitable. You are a light of the world, and a tree ever green. If you have renounced temples, make not your own gate a temple.”

-Tertullian of Carthage, “On Idolatry”

No surprise then, to find out that this patristic Grinch didn’t celebrate Christmas. Indeed, it wasn’t even until the end of the Fourth Century that St. John Chrysostom in Antioch sought to make the 25th of December the official day to recognize Christ’s birth. A day which, as it happened, also celebrated the birth of the Unconquered Sun (Natalis Solis Invictus), though Chrysostom dismissed the coincidence: “But they call it the ‘Birthday of the Unconquered.’ Who indeed is so unconquered as Our Lord…? Or, if they say that it is the birthday of the Sun, He is the Sun of Justice.”

Thus the early Christian fathers snubbed the original “reason for the season,” namely axial tilt.

Cultures the world over, and throughout human history, have celebrated the annual death and rebirth of the sun, typically with feasting, lights, decorations, and singing. These serve a practical purpose as well as symbolic; the solstice is the darkest of the dark days of winter, when good cheer is at a premium; also heralding the beginning of the coldest months of the year, during which extra livestock become a liability. At this time, the beasts are slaughtered, the new wine is drunk, and the candles are lit while all engage in revelry.

“The delusion you’re trying to cure is called ‘Christmas,’ Duncan. It’s the crazy notion that the longest, darkest nights can be the warmest and brightest. And when we all agree to support each other in that insanity, something even crazier happens. It becomes true. Works every year, like clockwork.”

-Community, “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas

In many ways, the history of Christmas is the history of Christianity itself. As the Western and Eastern churches solidified their power and influence over Eurasia, Christmas adapted itself to the particular cultural mores of each society. The Catholic bishop of a minor Turkish town, whose only notable career achievement was being present during the routing of Arianism during the Council of Nicaea, inexplicably spawned a tradition of gift-giving among the children of Germanic people who lived a thousand miles away. Though the precise origins of this practice are lost to the mists of history, the myth has clearly eclipsed the man.

Saint Nicholas, usually with an unsavory helper (such as the demonic Krampus in Austria, Knecht Ruprecht in Germany, or Zwarte Piet in the Netherlands), settled into the well-worn route first used by the perennial visits of Odin during the midwinter festival of Yule. With Nick and friends were blended other traditions, such as the blood-sacrificing Wrenboys among the Celts, the harvest-celebrating Wassailers among the British, and the life-affirming Mistletoe throughout Northern Europe. Thus did Holy Mother Church pacify the newly-baptized heathens, by recontextualizing their idiosyncrasies within the ever-expanding boundaries of orthodoxy.

Undoubtedly, it was this Catholic indulgence of paganism that gave the Reformers absolute fits about the holiday. Martin Luther evicted the papish Nicholas and conscripted the Christ-Child himself to distribute holiday presents, and John Calvin (though he personally found moderate Christmas celebrations acceptable) through his theology influenced the Calvinist Reformers to abolish the holiday in Geneva in the 16th century, as well as in the Scottish Presbyterian Church.

“…holy days of certain saints commanded by man, such as be all those that the Papists have invented, as the feasts (as they term them) of apostles, martyrs, virgins, of Christmas, Circumcision, Epiphany, Purification, and other fond feasts of our lady. Which things, because in God’s scriptures they neither have commandment nor assurance, we judge them utterly to be abolished from this realm; affirming further, that the obstinate maintainers and teachers of such abominations ought not to escape the punishment of the civil magistrate.”

-Church of Scotland, “First Book of Discipline (1560)

This theology emigrated to the United States with the British Puritans, and though they could not always ban festivities, made it reasonably clear that European-style revelry was not welcome in the New World. As Cotton Mather suggested (when speaking of not celebrating Christmas), “Good Men may love one another, and may treat one another with a most Candid Charity, while he that Regardeth a Day, Regardeth it unto the Lord, and he that Regardeth not the Day, also shows his Regard unto the Lord, in his not Regarding of it…” Indeed, the traditional American Christmas was in danger of being stillborn, were it not for the “Knickerbockers,” a literary circle that included Washington Irving, James Fenimore Cooper, and Clement Clarke Moore. The former was the author of much of America’s early mythology, and reimagined the rowdy English customs of yore as quaint, cozy, and centered on the family. The latter is best known as the poet responsible for the 1822 verse “A Visit From Saint Nicholas,” (also known as ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas), which reoriented the European figure for an American audience.

It was just this gift-giving character that thrilled Yankee merchants eager to sell toys and other trinkets to parents who were increasingly becoming softer in their child-rearing. Thus this refocus on the commercial aspects of the holiday season also depended on the emphasis of familial connection, both of which persist to modern day. Between Thomas Nast and the Coca-Cola Company, the standardization of the Santa Claus imagery and costume by the beginning of the 20th century had become an internationally-recognized signal of the season. From there, it was really only a matter of time before Kris Kringle replaced the Kristkindle as the primary representative of the holiday, along with the department store endorsements, coruscating displays of excess, and pink aluminum Christmas trees that lead many to recoil from the season’s consumerism (though Libanius noted similar excess regarding Saturnalia/Kalends in the fourth century).

“I just don’t understand Christmas, I guess. I like getting presents and sending Christmas cards and decorating trees and all that, but I’m still not happy. I always end up feeling depressed.”

-Charlie Brown, “A Charlie Brown Christmas

As a boy, one of my earliest memories of the holiday is of the Ku Klux Klan seeking to and succeeding in placing a cross on Cincinnati’s Fountain Square, in competition with a menorah that had been erected to recognize the Jewish solstice festival of Hanukkah. Although the specific ramifications of the First Amendment to the Constitution were beyond my grasp at the time, I do recall understanding that, at least within a public space, even if one doesn’t like the message being presented, fair is fair.

Which is a concept seemingly inaccessible to the likes of Bill O’Reilly and his co-combatants in the War on Christmas:

Though his protestations and presumptions are likely to send atheists and Christians alike into apoplexy, O’Reilly voices the oft-irrational concerns of the common American: in this case, that the godless heathens are coming to take our Christmas trees away. And yet that couldn’t be further from the truth. What the long-suffering President of American Atheists (and, I daresay, most of the infidel contingent he represents) would like to see is for the holiday to resign from its government position, and instead to spend its time exclusively in the private sector. And certainly, when it comes to overtly religious displays (like a nativity scene or an angel or a cross) on public property, I think Silverman is justified in his push for state neutrality.

But I’m willing to consider a truce at this point.

In part because I love Christmas so much, in part because squabbling over the public square diminishes my enjoyment of the season, and in part because I think the holiday has already outgrown its religious heritage, especially here in America. Here’s what I propose: Christmas shall henceforth be treated as a secular holiday open to the interpretation and enjoyment of all. Christians are welcome to revel in the theological implications of the day’s symbolism, while atheists and others may pick and choose those aspects of the day which resonate with their own particular values. The Christmas tree in the square will be a malleable and inclusive symbol, able to support the weight of Magi, Menorahs, and Mohammed, as well as any other marginalized culture that would appreciate a little bit of cheer in the darkness of winter (including we joyless atheists).

Black night behind the tamarisks—the owls begin their chorus—
As the conches from the temple scream and bray.
With the fruitless years behind us, and the hopeless years before us,
Let us honor, O my brother, Christmas Day!
Call a truce, then, to our labors—let us feast with friends and neighbors,
And be merry as the custom of our caste;
For if “faint and forced the laughter,” and if sadness follow after,
We are richer by one mocking Christmas past.

-Rudyard Kipling, “Christmas in India

Is such a truce possible? Would it hold? I think so, and I think that many of us have already negotiated something similar with our own consciences. After all, if anything has been demonstrated over the past couple centuries in America, it’s that Christmas is a major part of our culture, and it has been able to adjust to the demands of a changing history. I think it can handle a few atheist decorations on the branch.

The Generosity Gap

Why should we give?

Ask a group of atheists, and you’ll most likely hear answers such as, “because it helps people in need,” or “because it makes society better,” or “because we might need people to help us someday.”

What you don’t hear very often is, “because God tells us to.”

Which is something that you might be likely to hear if you ask a group of Christians the same thing. And rightly so, because you can find gorgeous gems of generosity throughout the Christian scriptures, like “God loves a cheerful giver,” “Give, and it will be given to you,” and of course the classic, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” These are verses so profound that many people quote them blithely, not realizing their sacred provenance.

To say nothing of the magnificent story told by Jesus of the “Good Samaritan,” which comes to us uniquely from the Lukan Evangelist, quite possibly the most poignant example of a secular humanist parable within the canon. As the tale is told, a certain man was waylaid while traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho, beaten, robbed, and left for dead. Two religious men passed by and did nothing to help, presumably to avoid complicating their important errands of piety. Yet a third man, a Samaritan in fact (read: religiously unorthodox and socially despised, sound familiar atheists?), sets aside his travels to tend to the man’s wounds and make arrangements for his care. If ever the champions of humanism needed an icon to revere, it would surely be this Samaritan.

Though they may be scripturally fortified with compassion, we can yet be skeptical that Christians reflect this same kind of generosity to practical effect. But the Barna Group is eager to point out that within the general public, only one out of every three individuals gave at least $1000 to non-profit charities, whereas four out of every five Evangelical Christians met this minimal charitable level. And when compared to atheists, the differences are even more striking: Evangelicals gave an average of $4260 to non-profits, while atheists gave an average of only $467. That’s a order of magnitude difference. And that’s embarrassing.

One might be temped to hold these Barna data at arms’ length, especially given the fact that George Barna himself is an Evangelical Christian. And yet as it happens, I’ve conducted my own research here in Dallas-Fort Worth, and in an unpublished survey I helped run in 2011, when the Dallas-Fort Worth Coalition of Reason was compared to a local Methodist church, there was a similar order of magnitude difference in giving between the two groups. But perhaps we just coincidentally sent the survey to one of the wealthiest congregations in town, right? Well, we also compared the annual household incomes between the two groups, which turned out to be virtually indistinguishable. That is to say (not accounting for secular student organizations), both our local atheists and their Christian counterparts had the same relative ability to donate money.

So, why then is there a generosity gap?

I frankly don’t know. It’s certainly likely that if you subjected one group of people to regular inspirational talks that appealed to the highest ethical standards of their worldview, and then asked them to donate in front of their peers, you would probably see more systematic generosity than a comparable group that was told to simply give individually whenever the mood happened to strike. And yet there are some atheist organizations that do the former, without generating the same level of generosity that we typically see from churches.

That’s not to say there aren’t atheist organizations that are trying. At the Fellowship of Freethought in Dallas, there are regular cocktail party benefits, they adopt roads and lakeshores, they conduct food, blood, clothing, and virtually all other kinds of drives for all kinds of needy people, they cook dinner for HIV patients, volunteer at food banks, and help out with LGBT charities. They also regularly partner with other organizations in the DFWCoR, and encourage their members to join the Foundation Beyond Belief.

But as wonderful as those activities are, they’re still miles behind the average church. Most atheist organizations can’t even afford a building, to say nothing of professional staff, or the ability to sponsor outreach projects such as sending volunteers on emergency relief trips, building houses for the needy, running a soup kitchen, or any other kind of medium-to-large-scale charitable activity that churchgoers take for granted.

What will it take for atheists to approach the same level of generosity that our religious friends and neighbors manage with regularity? Again, I’m at a loss on this point, but I suspect that too many of the former group are needlessly skittish about systematic giving behaviors that remind them of the religious influences and patterns from which they’ve attempted to distance themselves. And it’s true that atheists may be able to rally every once in a while to make a big generous splash, but the real impact is made by the constant drip over a long period of time.

Look, the question of whether or not gods exist is interesting, and within a culture where theists enjoy the majority (for now), perhaps it’s costly enough to criticize those ideas which one finds problematic. But at some point we need to look hard at ourselves and the world around us, and ask ourselves the question of why, in a world without gods to make things better, aren’t we taking on the burden ourselves to build Heaven here on Earth?

At that point, perhaps the generosity gap will go away. I’m looking forward to it.

In the Lambs’ Den

One of the things I most enjoy doing is going to church. Even when I was younger and religious, and the pressure of familial attendance had diminished, there were few things that I would have preferred on a Sunday morning more than planting myself in a pew.

And I still find myself doing so even today, though I’m more of an explorer these days than a pilgrim. So when I received an invitation from a friend of John’s to attend their church, and even to be interviewed for their adult Sunday School class, I jumped on it. Going “inside the Lambs’ Den” in this way has always been a distinct pleasure, and I’m looking forward to more opportunities like this.

If you would be interested in a similar exchange at your DFW-area church, please contact me here.

The Atheist Con

If you wanted to find diversity, community, and humanism at Skepticon 5, you had to walk next door.

I love atheist and skeptic conferences. I really do. There’s something exhilarating about pulling into a hotel parking lot and seeing regiments of marching fish, stepping into a hotel lobby and noticing heretical trinkets dangling from seemingly everyone, and sitting down to eat in a nearby restaurant where the faithful are an obvious minority. Especially for those who live South of the Mason-Dixon line, such occurrences are rare enough that the novelty alone is usually worth the price of admission.

Which is why I was surprised to return from Skepticon 5 (the “fifth-most Skepticon yet”) weighed down by profound disappointment.

Not because the organizers did a bad job – far from it. In fact, the event itself was a fantastic gathering, a testament to their Herculean efforts and organizational proficiency. In fact, I would daresay that this year’s convention was damn near equivalent to other atheist and skeptical events with longer and more professional pedigrees.

Which is precisely the problem.

I’ve gradually grown weary of the popular edutainment and personality-driven nature of these conventions. I suppose that for the newly-unchristened, the novelty of attendance is sufficient to sustain interest, in much the same way that one’s first discovery of manual-genital congress is stimulating enough to attenuate the desire for more meaningful interactions. Unfortunately, the two most meaningful talks of Skepticon 5 were consigned to the literal margins – James Croft‘s excellent discourse on the value of secular communities, and Tony Pinn‘s crucial explanation of the challenges in reaching out to ethnically non-privileged communities. The former was placed at the earliest position on Sunday (while most attendees and other speakers were still nursing the effects of the previous evening’s debauchery), and the latter was given the final position of that day (after the vast majority of attendees had evacuated Springfield out of logistical necessity).

Croft’s talk represented the humanist soul (for lack of a better word) of the atheist and skeptical movement. It’s easy enough (relatively speaking) to stroke one’s rationality and reargue the nonexistence of gods, the silliness of creationism, and even the value of feminism. But it takes a good deal more intellectual and ethical rigor to hash out the particulars of building real value-driven communities. Particularly for atheists and skeptics, who have a poor track record of creating proactive and harmonious groups online, to say nothing of their capacity for contention in meatspace. Without community, the best we have to offer is either the intellectual one-night-stand of conventions like Skepticon or a passport to the Great Online Troll Sanctuary, where clashing tribes band together around the glow of their iPad screens and cast virtual spears at anyone who speaks differently. What we need, Croft says, are real places where people can look each other in the eye, forge long-term friendships, and celebrate life’s milestones. Or, as my friend Alix put it slightly more pragmatically, “people I can invite to my daughter’s first birthday party.”

Pinn’s presentation, delivered to a fraction of the weekend’s attendees, was particularly poignant to me. Most atheist and skeptical conventions have done a reasonable job of increasing the visibility of women within the movement, but for those from ethnically non-privileged communities, it’s been another story. Surveying this year’s larger conventions, I note with particular disappointment that non-white speakers comprise an average of 12% of each event, while African-Americans make up only about 7% (with Dr. Pinn’s appearances contributing close to half of that amount). This is, in a word, UNACCEPTABLE. These numbers should be at least twice what they are now, or higher. Pinn pointed out that the atheist and skeptical movement has not attracted minority participants because it doesn’t proactively include them, and also because it doesn’t proactively engage with the interests of non-privileged communities. And this isn’t the first time a Skepticon audience heard this message – Debbie Goddard said essentially the same thing two years ago, but the organizers apparently didn’t listen. No wonder, then, that less than 1% of the attendees this year, as in years past, were from ethnically non-privileged communities.

And most distressing to me was the breathtaking dichotomy I witnessed on Friday and Saturday as Skepticon organized on one side of the Springfield Expo Center, while the local organization Friends Against Hunger held their first “Meals a Million” event to pack low-cost, nutritious meals for needy families around the world. There had been an offhand mention ahead of time by the Skepticon organizers that this event would be coinciding with their convention, and the suggestion was made that those who weren’t attending the Friday workshops or film festival might possibly consider volunteering, but there was no official partnership or significant promotion.

Standing outside the convention center Saturday morning while chatting with some Christian “protesters,” I noticed ever-growing groups of people entering the doors behind me while wearing shirts marked with their church’s logo. At first, I was impressed that there were church members, apparently in large numbers, coming to Skepticon. After walking inside, I was disappointed to find that the Christians were walking downstairs with the atheists, but then turning to walk the opposite direction. When I realized that the Christians were there to pack meals for the needy, while the atheists were there to purchase snarky T-shirts and congratulate themselves on their intellectual acuity, I was disappointed again. Disappointed in us. As I stood at the bottom of the convention staircase, Christians and atheists walking in opposite ethical directions, I knew that I couldn’t in good conscience join those selling “humanist” buttons without first acting like one.

And so, irony be damned, I stepped in line behind a group of middle-aged Lutheran women, because I wanted to spend some time with real humanists at Skepticon.

I don’t share this to brag (I only had time to work a couple hours before I had to meet back with my family), or to unreasonably condemn the Skepticon organizers and attendees. I understand, people traveled from far and wide to attend and speak and meet other atheists and skeptics. I did too. But the lack of practical and positive expressions of humanistic values within the Skepticon crowd should be addressed by this time next year. For example, the convention organizers could partner officially with Friends Against Hunger, or a local blood bank, or some other worthy cause. But there needs to be SOMETHING, otherwise the labels we pin on ourselves are as superficial and meaningless as the aluminum and plastic from which they’re made.

Which brings me back to Croft and Pinn, both (like Friends Against Hunger) kept to the periphery of the Skepticon experience (intentionally or otherwise). At his website, Croft says that he seeks to create communities that inspire people to “build a better future for humankind.” So do I, and so do (I presume) most of the Skepticon attendees, organizers, and speakers. Pinn said about his frustration with the ministry, that “what [he] was saying and preaching was not translating into ethical action.” How much more do those words also convict those of us who attended Skepticon primarily to go drinking and take pictures with our favorite bloggers?

It is time for atheist and skeptical conventions to aspire to more than this. It is no longer enough to trot out some well-known names, hand out trophies, and show everyone to the nearest bar. The time for self-congratulation is over. Until we take seriously the need for practical humanism, until we set aside our privilege to listen to our non-privileged brothers and sisters, we don’t deserve the warm and fuzzy feelings that we get on our way out of Springfield. It’s time to stop the circlejerk, and get our hands dirty planting real seeds of humanism.

Apologetics Now

The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life recently released a new report confirming the trends we’ve been seeing for several years. Although Catholic adherence is pretty much unchanged at about a fifth of the population, the religiously unaffiliated, known as the Nones, are growing like crazy, apparently at the expense of Christian Protestants. In fact, the Protestants have just lost their majority in America, and in a couple years, there will be more Nones than there are Catholics. And this is a trend with a sharp demographic edge to it: among younger Millennials, one in three are Nones. For my son’s generation, if this trend continues, easily half of his friends and neighbors will be Nones.

This report, as with others that have concluded similar trends over the past decade, is widely heralded as good news for atheists and bad news for Christians. But some attenuation is necessary: although atheists (and agnostics, freethinkers, humanists, etc.) are included in the “Nones” designation, the former are a subset of the latter. Thus, many of the nones still retain some supernatural beliefs, including affinity for “spiritual” concepts, various forms of theism and deism, and even credulity in garden variety psychics, mediums, and newspaper astrology columns. However, in my opinion they’re much less disposed towards animosity against those who don’t believe in God at all. That is to say, I suspect that the Nones as an inclusive group will have much less of a problem with their son or daughter marrying an atheist, and even voting for an atheist for President.

As for the religious (read: Christian) organizations in this country, this trend does carry some concerning implications, at least inasmuch as they want to keep their adherence up and maintain the kind of cultural influence that they’ve enjoyed for, well, for a long-ass time. In response to the “New Atheism,” I’ve seen the rise of a “New Christianity,” which is just as new and homogenous as the godless socio-cultural movement that has brought us Four Horsemen, provocative advertising, and a robust grassroots community. In particular, there has been an increased theological polarization, typified by the widely different Mars Hill Churches in Grand Rapids (liberal) and Seattle (conservative), especially in regards to the doctrine of Hell. In addition, I’ve noted the rise of massive de-theologized churches, particularly the major megachurches like Prestonwood here in Dallas and Lakewood in Houston.

But another response, which is more popular among the religious denizens of the Internet than it is among the average “pew potato” (a term I borrow with gusto from Robert Price), is an embrace of Christian apologetics. As a Christian, I found such activities pointless – of course Christianity was true, why waste time defending it – but after my apostasy I encountered this realm anew and found unexpectedly kindred spirits on the other side of the theological divide. As such, I find myself perennially attracted to convergences of Christian apologetics, and when I heard several months ago that a Christian apologetics conference was to be held in Dallas, I registered almost immediately.

The scheduled speakers were the best of the best. The keynote speaker was to be William Lane Craig, who is currently the most widely-regarded living Christian apologist, as well as Greg Koukl, Frank Turek, and Ravi Zacharias. In addition to these, were local New Testament scholar Dan Wallace, John Stonestreet, and of course the head pastor of the host church, Todd Wagner.

I walked into Watermark Community Church on a dreary and rainy Saturday morning in Dallas. What took my breath away was the sheer enormity of the facility – the primary worship room holds about three thousand people I’ve been told, and there was overflow space on two different floors, both in a secondary auditorium upstairs that held several hundred, as well as a luxuriously well-appointed coffee shop (leather sofas as far as the eye could see), as well as outside on the patio scattered with wooden Adirondack furniture.

The place was frankly packed. Thousands of Christians (and at least one or two of the opposition) had assembled for the day, for a conference that was run more smoothly than just about any atheist conference I’ve attended, with more attendees, and no doubt half the effort. The megachurch model may not be your cup of tea, but it certainly has mass organization down to art form.

The event was billed as “Contending with Christianity’s Critics: Answering New Atheists and Other Objectors.” I noted with some disappointment that, for a conference dedicated to the “New Atheists,” there were none on the speaking roster, nor even any atheist or nonbeliever. Right off the bat, I found to be the a significant and egregious failure of the organizers: that it purported to give Christian attendees an accurate picture of atheist arguments, but without consulting any actual atheists. It would be just as unfortunate as if an atheist organization held a conference on Christian theology, headlined only by Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and other atheists. At least, according to the agenda, Zacharias’ talk (The End of Reason: A Response to the New Atheists) and Craig’s presentation (Richard Dawkins on Arguments for God’s Existence) promised some degree of focus on the stated purpose of the event.

Todd Wagner began the day with a call to action, arguing that Christianity is the cultural antithesis of modern America. As is typical of many apologetics events I’ve attended, Wagner’s target was not atheism but postmodernism, which demonstrated to me his profound and pitiable ignorance of the modern atheist and skeptical movement. He used his time to encourage the attendees to become active apologists, responding to cultural critics of Christianity with aggressive arguments rather than passive silence. “Don’t avoid having that conversation at the coffee shop,” he urged. “Don’t wish that you had Dr. Craig at the table with you, engage with Christianity’s critics on your own.” And yet I couldn’t help but wonder if teaching people to argue with postmodern strawmen was really going to be an effective strategy.

Greg Koukl, of the apologetic ministry “Stand to Reason,” and author of the book “Tactics,” was no stranger to me, and indeed I’ve taken him to task directly for the errors he’s made when talking about stem cell research (since ignored). Koukl continued Wagner’s theme of Christianity being “under assault” by the culture at large, and downplayed the wide variety of criticisms as coming from people who may be gifted with intelligence, but who are spiritually stupid. In his available time, Koukl engaged with more atheist strawmen, under the guise of presenting the “worst” arguments against Christianity. I, for one, really wished that he had spent his time contending with the best arguments, but such was the case. Koukl brought out the postmodern horse for another enthusiastic drubbing, declared that Christians should no longer use the word “faith” to describe their worldview, and took shelter from ad hominem attacks on Christian “stupidity.” Now, although these kinds of attacks may be common (and ancient, going back at least as far to the second century with Celsus), these certainly don’t qualify as arguments in my mind, bad or otherwise. But there is a fair point to be made when Christian adherence and atheism can be predicted, at least in aggregate, by educational attainment. Rather than engaging with this point, Koukl danced behind accusations of name-calling, another in a growing series of lost opportunities during the conference.

Dan Wallace was the next speaker, a professor at Dallas Theological Seminary and Executive Director of the Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts. As a New Testament Greek scholar, Wallace is beyond comparison, and has been involved with several recent Bible translations, as well as several debates with Bart Ehrman on the reliability of the New Testament manuscripts. Through rehashing his debate with Ehrman last year at SMU, Wallace argued that the manuscript evidence of the New Testament is better than any other ancient document, and provides sufficient reliability to support current orthodox doctrine. Although interesting, as one side of a debate it didn’t really help the audience evaluate the evidence critically, nor did it hold my attention to any significant degree. Instead, I met up with an atheist friend of mine who’d come to the conference as well, and we headed out to the spacious patio with box lunches to make some Christian friends.

We ended up settling on a large table that was occupied by a young pregnant woman named Tricia, who was pleasantly shooing other people away from the other seats she was trying to save for her husband, Daniel, and their friends. When they arrived, I munched on turkey and wheat while making superficial pleasantries. Eventually, Daniel asked if I was a member at Watermark, or if I’d come from a different church. “None,” I replied, “I’m an atheist, here to soak in all the apologetics that I can.” To his credit, this didn’t seem to faze Daniel at all, and he was curious to know more. His first concern was about whether or not I was an actual atheist or just an agnostic (because, obviously, one would have to know everything to be an atheist). I gently corrected him on that point, and explained the basic differences in terminology, from atheist to agnostic, as well as freethought and humanism. It pained me terribly to find someone at a conference focusing on atheism who was so overtly ignorant on the basics of that definition, as well as its surrounding philosophy. I was able to share a bit more about my religious background, and the arguments that I found particularly compelling against Christianity, but the lunch hour swiftly drew to a close.

Next up was Frank Turek, who is the co-author with Norman Geisler of the uncontroversially-named book “I Don’t Have Enough Faith to be an Atheist.” Turek has a dynamic stage presence to be sure, but also seems… uninterested in inheriting the earth, so to speak (someone with a less charitable assessment would simply write him off as an insufferable jerk). His assigned topic was the Problem of Evil, which is my personal favorite, and indeed is really the only problem worth talking about. His first move was in disproving the idea that the existence of evil disproves the existence of God. I’m right there with him generally, but he made a rather obtuse argument along the way, claiming that in fact the existence of evil is proof that there is a God. For if there is evil, there must be good. And if there is good, there must be a God. QED. He then went on to challenge the idea that God should protect Christians from evil and suffering, by pointing out first that God didn’t promise to do so, and that suffering is a good thing anyway. After all, Jesus suffered, and we want to be like Jesus, right?

He then addressed the question of why God doesn’t just stop evil in general by countering with the Free Will defense. That is, if God stopped me from murdering a million people he’d be interfering with my free will, so it’s just better for everyone that I go ahead with my genocidal plans. This argument of course does nothing to address natural evil, and further I find it to be invalidated by the concept of Heaven, in which free will ostensibly exists coincident with a sinless environment. Finally, Turek claimed that there is a purpose for evil in the world, because the ultimate purpose is for everyone to know Christ, and evil and suffering are motivations to bring us closer to Him. So it all works out in the end, and we don’t need to worry about six year old kids getting cancer because God needs more converts. All in all, a pretty disappointing presentation, at least on my assessment.

Then, suddenly in his last few minutes Turek took a bizarre turn into political issues, urging all the attendees to read the Manhattan Declaration (which had been signed by Todd Wagner) and get involved politically to support Christian values (read: the Republican Party) during this year’s general election. It was a strange departure from his assigned topic, but it did admittedly segue into the next talk by John Stonestreet, a Fellow at the Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview, and host of “The Point” radio show and podcast. Stonestreet’s presentation was a focus on our American culture, and how far removed it has become from Christian values. This was another one that I largely skipped, although I noted with some interest how little he referred to the New Atheist movement, and preferred to rail against the acceptance of homosexuality and religious critics in general.

The penultimate presentation was from Ravi Zacharias. I was really looking forward to seeing Zacharias speak, as he was the only notable apologist that I hadn’t yet seen in person. His talk at least claimed to address the New Atheists, but I didn’t see any of that in the performance I witnessed that day. Rather than a coherent defense of Christianity, Zacharias rambled and mumbled from one topic to then next, first criticizing secularism in very general terms, then pluralism, and then skepticism. Connections between these concepts were tenuous, aside from the fact that each were bad, and that each were causing the degradation of society by distancing it from Christian values. Somehow, with these three concepts loose in our culture, we have lost any sense of shame, any capacity for reason, and any sense of meaning. I’m sure it made sense to Zacharias, and I hope that it resonated with the other attendees, because to me (sad to say) it appeared to be someone just on the cusp of senility.

While disappointing, even Zacharias couldn’t quite compare to my utter disgust with the conference’s finale. William Lane Craig, who along with Todd Wagner was the architect of this conference, brought us a debate with an actual New Atheist, no less than Richard Dawkins. Or, maybe not an actual New Atheist. More like a virtual New Atheist. Or, well, a non-existent one. Because William Lane Craig debated an empty chair that was supposed to stand in for Richard Dawkins. Just like Clint Eastwood did to Obama at the Republican National Convention. In fact, that’s where he got the idea. An idea that was, in Craig’s mind, somehow a good idea to repeat. And then he proceeded to lecture an imaginary Dawkins about the Kalaam Cosmological Argument or some other such nonsense, I don’t really know, because I really wasn’t paying attention at that point. I was watching, dumbfounded, while Bill Craig, the most highly-respected Christian apologist in all the land, debated an empty chair in a conference that he himself had organized.

Now, before I get too carried away, what were the positives of this conference? Well, it brought the issues of apologetics to the forefront of the membership of a large and somewhat influential church here in Dallas, even if it was a bit poorly executed in terms of content. But I’d also say that given the tremendous response in terms of attendance, there’s a substantial audience for these topics in mainstream American churches, even nondenominational megachurches, which may not be populated exclusively by pew potatoes. And that, if nothing else, is encouraging because it presents me, the DFW Coalition of Reason, and anyone else who is interested with the conflict between faith and reason with a fertile population of Christians who are hungry for something more than just repetitive worship music and cherry-picked scriptural platitudes.

In the end, however, nothing else really captures my assessment of the conference better than Craig debating an imaginary Dawkins. Craig, Todd Wagner, and the folks at Watermark had an excellent opportunity to really help their members engage with the New Atheism, if only they’d thought to invite some, you know, actual atheists to the party. And Dallas is the perfect place for it – we have an incredibly active Coalition of Reason here, with as many as three thousand nonbelievers in our ranks, the vast majority of whom are former Christians. If Craig and Wagner had really wanted to learn about atheism, we’d have been more than happy to help. And I really do think they need the help: after absorbing this conference, if the Christian attendees think they’re prepared to engage with the atheists that I know in town, they are woefully misinformed.

Indeed, an atheist friend of mine who regularly attends the Watermark “Great Questions” class asked his Christian classmates (all of whom had attended the conference) the next Monday if they even knew what a “New Atheist” was. None of them had any clue. One wonders if the same could be said of Todd Wagner and Bill Craig.

If anything, this conference provided them with just enough information about apologetics to give them the confidence to go out and get exposed to more persuasive arguments on the atheist side. I suppose I should thank Watermark for the long-term boost in our local atheist contingent, but that’s really not what I’m after. What I would be most appreciative of is being taken seriously enough by local religious leaders that they recognize that most of the the people active in the local atheist movement are people who’ve left the very pews that these leaders preach at every Sunday. Until religious doubt is given a fair assessment and sufficient respect by apologists and other religious leaders, I’m afraid that megachurches like Watermark are fighting a losing battle. Because as the next generation comes up through the ranks, as the Pew Research indicates, the number of people who think religious organizations like Watermark have the answers is going to dwindle into insignificance.

Podcast cross-posted from Apologia