My Afternoon with the Atheists

Note to self: Next time, bring Christ

Shortly after Christmas, I was invited to take part in a “friendly discussion” at the monthly meeting of a local chapter of self-described “freethinkers.” I’m not sure how they decided to approach me. Possibly they went window shopping on the websites of local universities, saw my name somewhere on the Catholic Studies page, and figured that I would be a suitable target—I mean, honored guest. I learned from Mr. F., the nice fellow who contacted me, that this meeting would be a special one: It would be graced by the presence of Dan Barker, internationally known atheist-convert and co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), the parent organization of their own group.

A wary acceptance

I told Mr. F., by way of declining his offer, that I didn’t think any group of people so stridently bent on the eradication of free religious speech would really be capable of free thought or friendly discussion. I also shared with him my impression (formed from the FFRF website and several YouTube videos) that Dan Barker was a manipulative propagandist who seemed more interested in preaching the gospel of atheism than in exchanging ideas. “Thanks,” I said, “but no thanks.” As a person who says “yes” to almost every request and winds up regretting it too often, I was impressed with myself for so decisively sidestepping this engagement.

However, Mr. F. was politely persistent, and true to my nature, I did reconsider the invitation, thinking that maybe some good could come of my going to this meeting. For a week I exchanged e-mails with Mr. F. and did further research on the Freedom From Religion Foundation. I was struck by the contrast between the cheerful goodwill of Mr. F.’s e-mails and the one-dimensional bigotry that suffuses Barker’s website. There is a great deal more to the FFRF than its purported civic mission to promote the separation between church and state. The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a full-fledged anti-crusade, not content with merely articulating the philosophical basis of atheism—which it does embarrassingly poorly—but rather seeking to vilify the religious worldview and the people who hold it. Having lived my life in a confused, divided, and often dysfunctional Church, I can understand why people get upset with religion and want to check out—but for the life of me I don’t know why anybody would spend his life trying to destroy something he thinks isn’t real.

I tried to get Mr. F. to tell me what the format of the event would be. I’ve participated in public lectures, conference panels, round-tables, keynote addresses, after-dinner talks, and debates,and I’ve learned that it’s very important to know exactly what’s going to happen when one is speaking on potentially hostile turf. Unfortunately, I could get no solid answer, so I proposed a format of my own: I would speak for 15 or 20 minutes on a variety of themes related to consciousness, virtual reality, and the spiritual world, all under the provocative title “Christianity Is the Only Truth,” and let the chips fall where they may.

A confession

I want to make clear that the purpose of this reflection is not to bash or belittle the “freethinkers” of my community, or even Barker—although he is indeed a manipulative propagandist by any measure—but to make a public confession of my own shortcomings as a Christian.

I did not think the day would end in any kind of success for me or my quasi-christologic chat, but I figured that I could, through the presentation of novel ideas, appeal to the legitimately thoughtful people in the crowd and maybe get a discussion going. I thought at least a couple of Ayn Rand devotees, libertarians, or transhumanists would be there who might give me an interesting argument. In retrospect, I realize that in adopting this strategy, I made two crucial mistakes: 1) I reduced the event to a short public-speaking gig of no real moral consequence, and 2) I decided, for safety’s sake, to leave Christ on the periphery of my comments.

You see, I figured that since there was probably no way to move the hearts of this crowd, I wouldn’t even try—and I would deny them the opportunity to do what I imagined they really wanted to do, which was to use me as a kind of piñata. In the end, I did become a piñata, and the only heart that was moved was my own—to a state of abject frustration and anger. Had I brought Christ with me, the outcome would have been different. By this I do not mean that I would have necessarily won any hearts or minds; I mean that I would not have given them exactly what they wanted to see—a distraught and bewildered Christian, freely dispensing profanities, walking off the podium, and finally telling the head of the group that I thought his people were a bunch of “(expletive deleted)” morons.

I didn’t say the afternoon was completely devoid of satisfying moments. Jesus, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner!

Banquet of unbelief

When I got to the meeting, which took place in the banquet room of a nationally known family restaurant (one finds robust support for atheism in the oddest places!), I was greeted by a succession of boisterous and affable people, almost all middle-aged or elderly. They invited me to sit down, order food—I opted for this restaurant’s “world famous” deluxe cheeseburger—and enjoy myself. A fellow very much in charge of the group (though not Mr. F.) sat down and enthusiastically told me about the group’s plans to introduce legislation to remove the words “In God We Trust” from American currency and coin.

I found it all very jarring—not only because he was wearing a T-shirt with the word “Atheist” printed on it—but because his comments were so openly insulting to a guest known to be religious that it was already clear that the “friendly” nature of this gathering was a veneer at best. What if, I wondered, I were a woman and some guy wearing a shirt that said “Misogynist” sat down and began gushing about his plan to take the vote away from women? I believe the effect would have been very much the same, and I’m sure I would have been within my rights to protest. But the atheist, I reckoned, is incapable of seeing his own incivility because he knows he is the “free” thinker; he is the one defending sanity, common sense, and humanism. The superstitious, intolerant Christian has no valid protest to make; it is his place to be edified by the atheist’s earnestly articulated drivel—in this particular case, framed as a claim on First Amendment rights.

Taking the bait (and pulling out my handy, pocket-sized copy of the Constitution), I asked the leader how he reasoned that printing the word “God” on a dollar bill was equivalent to what the First Amendment refers to as “the establishment of religion.” I was already sensing the familiar pull of the idiot-quicksand that usually engulfs my spirit whenever I ask, for example, pro-abortion people how they figure that a baby in the womb is anything but a person. It’s that strange existential horror known to all of us who defend life or religious morality with clear and careful logic, only find that we’re talking to people who not only cannot grasp our logic, but have none of their own with which to answer it. Please God—not this—not again—what did you make this brain for? We’d be better off if we were all cats.

Fortunately, I suppose, this high-speed collision was averted when the real guest of honor (remember—I was just the piñata) walked into the room. Dan Barker! The man became an evangelical preacher at the age of 15, lost his faith at around 35, and has been an evangelical atheist ever since. As I noted above, he is the co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, whose ranks boast such luminaries as Julia Sweeney, formerly of Saturday Night Live fame, and Ron Reagan, Jr., of no particular fame at all. When Barker is not consulting with this brain trust, he can be found attacking Christian public servants, performing de-baptisms, and suing people who have the gall to erect manger scenes in the public square.

When Barker sat down, he and my atheist host got into a lively discussion about how stupid it was to think that Jesus (who didn’t exist!) was born in December—after all, Barker sagely pointed out, even the Bible (which is full of lies!) said at the time of Jesus’ alleged birth, the shepherds were watching their flocks, and nobody watches their flocks in the winter! The idiot-quicksand was fast approaching my chin when I heard myself called to the podium.

My clever, failed speech

I am so clever. My comments were carefully geared not even to raise the topic of religion. I began by observing that we were living in a tragically divided age and that given the nature of our polarities, no amount of new information or skillful argument seemed capable of moving committed people away from their ideological positions. Accordingly, I would not try to raise any points of debate concerning religion or atheism but rather invite the freethinkers to think beyond the confines of predictable, unresolvable conflict. I talked about several more-or-less cutting-edge theories from philosophy and physics. I talked briefly about process, digital consciousness, virtual reality, and the “simulation hypothesis” of Nick Bostrom, and asked aloud if the possibility that we might be inhabitants of a virtual holographic reality encourages us to think in new ways about the supernatural.

I offered my own take on these tantalizing theories, suggesting that if—as many physicists seem to be hinting—God were indeed the programmer of a great video game, and if divine Truth could be thought of as the running program of a vast creative process, then it seemed highly likely that the only way to transcend the fear, anger, and division that operated as a virus in our reality was to surrender to love. Moreover, I speculated, if Christ is the essence and icon of love itself, then were we not justified in saying that Christianity is indeed the only Truth?

Was this presentation dialectically brilliant? Well, compared to deconstructing the oppressive “fiction” of Jesus’ December birthday, then maybe—but no. Was it rhetorically persuasive? Never. Was it thought-provoking? Fantastically so, but (and here was my third mistake) I was clinging to the hope that anybody present actually wanted to think about anything. Among the lessons I learned that day were 1) calling oneself a freethinker does not necessarily make one a freethinker, and 2) being a self-styled free thinker does not necessarily make one a quality thinker.

The first question I took came from a man in his 60s who asked: “So who am I supposed to I sue if this process doesn’t work in my favor?”

Somewhat taken aback, I replied: “Well, you’re an atheist. You can sue anybody you like. That’s what you people do, isn’t it?” The crowd booed and hissed and chided me for not being friendly.

The man followed up with another incisive question. “What does any of this have to do with the amygdala?” I mean, really—isn’t that what inquiring minds everywhere want to know? To my surprise I actually gave him a coherent answer. My familiarity with the function of the amygdala gained me no points, unfortunately.

Then a woman asked me what I thought of Pope Francis, at which point it was clear beyond any doubt that nobody had the slightest interest in anything I had just said. I told the group—to my shame—that I thought Pope Francis was a splendid man, but that I didn’t come to talk about God, the pope, or the Church, but to engage in the discussion of ideas that they said they wanted to have. At this point another man in his 60s expressed some dismay that I wasn’t trying to persuade them to accept an argument. When I repeated that it was not my purpose to persuade, he muttered “then what do you teach for?”

The interrogation

At this point, again to my shame, I blew up and said in a raised voice that I teach in the hope that maybe two people in a classroom full of 30 might have enough synaptic excitation to look at the world or their lives in a different, more creative fashion, but that the odds were usually against it.

Several minutes later, after a few other pointless questions, I trudged back through the quicksand to my seat, stared at the partially eaten deluxe cheeseburger in front of me, and asked myself what the hell I was doing and why I ever thought this would be a good idea. Notice I did not say, “I asked my God,” who might have given me an answer.

I sat and listened to Barker give his remarks, which were not a response to anything I said, but rather an enthusiastically received battle report of the FFRF’s successful campaigns against religion and superstition everywhere. I learned that the Foundation had increased its legal staff to seven, and they were ripping down plaques inscribed with the Ten Commandments from the walls of courthouses all over the country. Life was good.

When Barker was done, somebody had the great idea that the two of us should field questions together, and I once again wondered what insane impulse was keeping me in that room. In something of a daze, I went to the front of the room, and before I knew what was even happening, found myself being asked if I ever changed my mind about things. I responded that my life was a process of learning, and that the greatest moments I ever experienced were those in which I was disabused of a false conception—so yes, I said, I often change my mind about things. “So when,” he followed up, “are you going to become an atheist?”

Again taken aback, I replied that I wasn’t ever going to become an atheist because I had no interest in becoming dumber than I was at present.

That did not go over well, and I noticed two things beginning to happen: one was the sound of outraged people rising to the level of small roar, the other was Barker assuming the role of Inquisitor. “Let me ask you,” he said, “what you think of birth control.”

“I’m a Catholic,” I said. “You don’t have to ask, and I don’t know what this has to do with anything I’ve shared with you today.”

Still, I explained the Church’s teaching on birth control—to a room now fairly rocking with howls of ridicule. Adopting a technique that tends to grab people’s attention in a college classroom, I used some colorful expressions to describe the teleological relationship between human sexuality and the appearance of children. I explained that given her privileging of the sanctity of life, the Church cannot approve of sexual acts that are not open to the possibility of procreation. I then explained that such practices as the Creighton Method and other natural family planning techniques are approved by the Church and are statistically more reliable than condoms or pills. I also suggested (and this went over really well) that if women would take the time to learn the rhythms of their bodies (as my beautiful wife has done) instead of making endless claims about their legal ownership of their bodies, there would never have to be another abortion in this country.

Abortion is a blessing”

As the din became even louder, Barker looked at me and said, “You know what I think? I think abortion is a blessing.”

At this point I said—“I’m done.” I extended my hand to him; he regarded it as if it were a baggie filled with excrement. “Abortion is murder, and I’m finished with this discussion.” I headed for the back of the room, impressed but hardly comforted by the fact that even some of the atheists were protesting Barker’s outrageous remark. As I grabbed my coat and made for the door, Barker continued to intone: “Abortion is a blessing. Abortion is a blessing.”

The chapter president met me on the way out and said, “Whoa! I didn’t think this was going to turn out the way it did.”

I said, “I had no doubts that it would…this is what that guy (indicating Barker)does for a living. And these people are (expletive deleted) morons. Thanks for the burger.”

After driving home in a state of supreme agitation, I found a couple of e-mails from the members apologizing for the rude conduct of some of the more outspoken people in the group. That was nice, I suppose. A few days later I received an envelope in the mail at work from an anonymous FFRF member filled with xeroxed pages explaining why the belief in God, spirits, and other hallucinations are a sign of a disturbed brain. The following week I got an e-mail from a person who chided me for not being a good Christian at the point that I got mad and walked out. Only an atheist can condemn a person both for being a Christian at all and for not being a good enough one!

Opportunity missed

And yet, he was right. As I go over the strange events of that day in my head—and I have done so many times—I am convinced that there was no way the day would have ended with a win, but I surely could have put together a more fruitful loss. In my misdirected attempt to keep God, the Church, and my ego protected from assault, I dodged an opportunity to give witness to Christ. I don’t think I would have “moved” anybody to Christ, but “we” never do so, anyway—it is Christ who animates our hearts, but only if we give him the chance.

Had I played that day in any one of a dozen other ways, I could have left those people with the memory of a good, serious Christian who tried to share his faith, instead of that of a profane and agitated college professor who got ticked off because nobody thought what he had to say was interesting. I showed them that I definitely didn’t cotton to the idea of abortion being a blessing—so I suppose that was good—but all things considered, the impression I left the atheist-freethinkers, as embarrassingly honest as it was, didn’t do a thing for their souls. And their souls are passionately loved and missed by God, even if somewhere along their respective ways they came to feel that he couldn’t possibly exist.

As for Dan Barker, I’m not sure what he is. Maybe it was fatigue from his travels, but he came across as a rather dim, dark, and one-dimensional person, which is strange because he presents himself to the world as a smiling, creative spirit; a piano-playing, happy guy “saved” by atheism. Indeed, he is the Godless mirror image of the born-again Christian: no less fervent, no less fundamentalist, no less dogmatic in his partially thought-out pronouncements, no less willing to travel around the country to meet people in the back rooms of family restaurants to spread his gospel, no less single-minded in his desire to save the wayward masses from perdition.

But anybody who could move so easily from the passionate but simplistic love for God possessed by the evangelical preacher to the passionate but simplistic disdain for God possessed by the talk-show atheist—without seeming to stop anywhere in between—is in serious need of something. I can only offer prayers, and there is surely no better reparation for my failed performance among the atheists than to do so.

If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!

Click here for more information on donating to CWR. Click here to sign up for our newsletter.

About Dr. Eric Cunningham 0 Articles
Dr. Eric Cunningham is Associate Professor in the Department of History at Gonzaga University. He specializes in modern Japanese history and also teaches courses in world and East Asian history.