A Christian/Atheist Dialogue in Bloomington July 19, 2010

A Christian/Atheist Dialogue in Bloomington

Last night, I was at the Evangelical Free Church in Bloomington, IL for an atheist/Christian dialogue (I don’t do debates). I sat alongside Dr. Todd Daly (left, below) of the Urbana Theological Seminary, and we were moderated by Pastor Brett Miley.

Picture taken by Lori Ann Cook-Neisler of The Pantagraph

I love it when churches hold these kinds of events — it’s incredible to me that so many Christians would be willing to hear what an atheist has to say about their faith and (for the most part) tell me how much they appreciated it afterwards. When you think of church services, how often does that kind of event come to mind?

(There were a handful of atheists in the audience, too, which was fantastic.)

There were a few questions that I knew would be asked beforehand, but the bulk of the time was spent answering questions from the audience — they texted the pastor if they wanted to ask something or wrote their questions down on notecards and passed them along to an usher, who filtered out the crazier ones. If anything, I feel like the audience agreed with me on many of the things I said about my problems with religion.

There’s audio of the entire event available if you subscribe to the church’s free podcast. (There may be video available soon, but I’m not sure about that.) You can judge for yourself how useful you thought the event was.

In the meantime, there was also a nice story about the dialogue in today’s local paper, The Pantagraph:

Miley, along with Mehta and Daly, wanted to break away from a debate style because they said they felt it does not strengthen relationships between opposing ideas.

“I hope that if anything there are some stereotypes of atheists that can be displaced,” said Mehta.

He said he lives by the Golden Rule — treat others as you would like to be treated — and does not feel the necessity to use religion as a reason to do good. Daly had other advice for living your life.

“The world would be a better place if we all lived like Christ did,” said Daly.

Here’s hoping other churches are courageous enough to hold more dialogues like this one.

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  • muggle

    “The world would be a better place if we all lived like Christ did,” said Daly.

    Does he really think the world would be a better place if we divided families and whipped vendors and overturned their stalls for selling on the Sabbath. Or killed fig trees for not bearing fruit out of season? Or condemned everyone to a concentration camp that was constantly burning if they didn’t kiss our ass? Is he giving away all his possessions?

    I’m curious. On one hand, yeah, cool. On other hand, do you dare ask things like that?

  • muggle

    Of course, I take issue with the golden rule too. 🙂 It’s just so damned egotistical.

  • MaleficVTwin

    “The world would be a better place if we all lived like Christ did,” said Daly.

    Indeed. Cursing fig trees and swine, trashing the bank, telling you to hate your family before you can kick it, and so forth.

  • Brice Gilbert

    “The world would be a better place if we all lived like Christ did,” said Daly.

    He said he lives by the Golden Rule — treat others as you would like to be treated —

    This is why it’s so hard for me to even have a conversation about religion. I try my hardest. I don’t raise my voice, I don’t laugh, and I don’t sound in any way like an asshole. But when you can find holes in every single point that they make they tend to not want to talk for long.

  • Denise

    Well, good for you for doing this event & others like it. I think it’s important to remember that a great many people who are raised in the church drift away from it, and that this process doesn’t happen ovenight. There were probably some people in that audience who have been struggling with doubts about religion, but afraid to examine atheism because of the stereotype of all atheists being angry, hateful, amoral, etc. By showing up & being nice & intelligent & well-mannered, you probably gave some people a reason to give themselves permission to move a little further down the road of doubt. Keep up the good work!

  • Pete

    Well said Denise.Agree, humans have many different situations and personalities etc.

    Nice one,well done Hermant

  • Aj

    I thought Hemant did well to pick up and explain the confirmation bias in Todd’s anecdote, I hope that got some people thinking. Not ever having believed in any supernatural beings, so never having had such a being “communicate” with me, I am rather scared when believers say they have God talking to them in sentences. My reaction is to think they’re crazy. Am I wrong in this reaction? It would be quite unsettling because of the superstitious side of it, looking for “signs” for what to do, but to actually say “God spoke to me and said this” is something else entirely. When Bush said it, his sanity was questioned.

    When a Christian asks what would make you believe in God, ask them for a logical definition of God with predictable interaction to the universe. If they can’t then you can’t possibly come up with an example of evidence, they can’t justifiably claim anything about God, and God is no different to an imaginary friend. Without a working definition of God, it’s like you asking them what would it take for them to believe in galactic skidellagons without saying anything more about them. Hitchens uses a great phrase: “it’s like white noise to me”, and that describes what I’m thinking when Christians talk about God, they could literally be talking gibberish and I would not know.

    To say science will never explain where memory comes from, is not only unjustifiable, it’s actually a denial of what science already knows. There’s more than enough evidence from brain damage to suggest that memory comes from the brain. Neuroscience actually knows quite a bit about the formation of memories, models of connections of neurons that fully describe memory physically will hopefully be available in my life time. I think the reason for the denial of this science, is because it makes believing in an afterlife extremely hard, and completely contradicts nearly everything believers have said about the afterlife.

  • Dan W

    The Golden Rule sounds to me a far better moral system than “living like Christ did”. There’s the bit about Jesus cursing the fig tree for not being in season to bear fruit, as others mentioned already. I suppose that’s one of those parts of the bible that Christians ignore or take “metaphorically” or something.

    Still, it’s good to have these dialogues with Christians. I’d much rather have a dialogue than a debate, because it’s hard to reason with people about beliefs that they didn’t arrive at through reason in the first place. Dialogues are better, because both sides can learn about each other, and we can hopefully displace stereotypes about atheists.

  • I find that obedience to the Golden Rule creates friction between myself and others. I get much better results treating others the way (according to my best estimate) THEY would prefer to be treated.

    I suppose the Golden Rule works well for people whose personalities don’t deviate much from the norm, sometimes referred to as ‘neurotypicals.’

  • Here’s the direct link to the talk for those interested: A Friendly Conversation with an Atheist and a Christian

    (It doesn’t start until 7:30)

  • Rieux

    Dan W:

    The Golden Rule sounds to me a far better moral system than “living like Christ did”.

    I agree, and I’m pleased to see that several commenters here recognize the pitfalls in the widespread and unthinking practice of just buying Christians’ notion that Jesus was self-evidently a swell guy. (Even Richard Dawkins, of all people, has occasionally fallen victim.) Several worthwhile examples of Jesus’ ugly behavior have been cited above; I’d emphasize that the most repeated and adamant portion of the guy’s program was the notion that his enemies were (are) going to Hell. (He preached about his enemies’ damnation an order of magnitude more times than he preached anything about love for neighbors, or blessings for the meek, or the Golden Rule.) And here are two more doozies:

    But those mine enemies, which would not that I should reign over them, bring hither, and slay them before me.

    – Jesus, in Luke 19:27

    And from thence [Jesus] arose, and went into the borders of Tyre and Sidon, and entered into an house, and would have no man know it: but he could not be hid. For a certain woman, whose young daughter had an unclean spirit, heard of him, and came and fell at his feet: The woman was a Greek, a Syrophenician by nation; and she besought him that he would cast forth the devil out of her daughter.

    But Jesus said unto her, Let the children first be filled: for it is not meet to take the children’s bread, and to cast it unto the dogs.

    And she answered and said unto him, Yes, Lord: yet the dogs under the table eat of the children’s crumbs.

    And he said unto her, For this saying go thy way; the devil is gone out of thy daughter. And when she was come to her house, she found the devil gone out, and her daughter laid upon the bed.

    – Mark 7:24-30 (italics added)

    So there we have Jesus
    * promising to order the genocide of everyone who doesn’t accept his rule and
    * refusing to heal a woman’s sick daughter because they’re Greeks, and Greeks are “dogs.”

    Nice guy, eh?

    So the Golden Rule can hardly avoid being better than the nastiness that the Gospels’ Jesus traffics in. That said, I also agree with Lori that that Rule is less fabulous than its reputation, too.

    The Golden Rule presumes (1) that everyone wants to be treated in more or less the same way and (2) that everyone deserves to be treated the way we all want to be treated.

    But anyone who’s read a Savage Love column knows that (1) is flat false. As an attorney, though, I think that (2) is the more frequently troublesome assumption: criminal justice, to pick one prominent testing ground, necessarily requires that we violate the Golden Rule left and right.

    As a thought experiment, imagine a man who has demonstrably committed rape. (Maybe, to hint a little absurdly at presumption (1) again, his libido and the Golden Rule led him to some seriously screwed-up notions of what he was obligated to “do unto” his victim.) Clearly, I think, we would like to see the police arrest the man, a government attorney prosecute him, a jury convict him, and a judge sentence him.

    But now imagine that cop/prosecutor/juror/judge applying the Golden Rule. Does the cop want to be arrested? Does the prosecutor want to be prosecuted? The juror convicted? The judge sentenced? Obviously not—presumption (2) is simply false in this situation, and indeed in any situation involving justifiable punishment. And yet I can’t imagine how you could possibly create a criminal justice system deserving of the name without cops/prosecutors/juries/judges who very specifically do unto others as they would not want done unto themselves. The Golden Rule simply fails to yield the proper results in situations like these.

    (Of course, (1) and (2) are valid, most of the time. Which is a major reason why the Golden Rule is also valid—with the same caveat. That’s a better record than Mr. “bring hither, and slay them before me” can claim.)

    All that said, I’d like to hear from Hemant, the math teacher who claims to live by the Golden Rule: do you ever give out bad grades—Cs, Ds, Fs? Would you want someone to “do” that “unto” you?

    (One obvious reply here is that bad grades can have salutary consequences—so perhaps giving a student a lousy grade is in fact doing him a good turn. I’m skeptical, though; in my experience, bad grades usually just suck, and nothing good ever comes of them. It seems to me that the moral justification(s) for giving bad grades has much more to do with notions of fairness than with arguably Golden Rule-compatible “tough love.” There’s nothing about fairness in the Golden Rule at all.)

  • Muggle, I was thinking the same thing while reading the dialogue.

    On the subject of the Golden Rule I think that rather than treat people as I would wish to be treated I prefer to treat people fairly and expect that same treatment from others. Of course “fair” is vague and unhelpful in working through a moral system but like good art you know it when you see it.

    That said if there are any millionaires out there then of course I would give away millions if I had them. Hint, hint.

  • Valhar2000

    Perhaps Ebonmuse’s version of the Golden Rule is better. I can’t find a link to the post where he explained it, but it was something along the lines of “Do not do unto others what you would not want others to do unto you”.

    I do think that one is more effective in that it will result in fewer instances of you doing things to other people that you do like, but that they don’t like.

  • Aric

    I just want to say good job. I think these kinds of talks are much better than debates. So many benefits…

  • dave

    It’s always good hearing about your dialogues, Hemant. You do a great job of representing atheists.

    A few months ago, I had a pastor stop by my house, and evangalize a bit. Which is odd – I live on Long Island, and usually, we only get Jehovah’s Witnesses. Anyway… I had some time, so I spoke with him a while – about my atheism, belief, science, etc. He was very nice, and courteous the whole time. Even prayed for me (or more like, “over me”), which was… odd.

    Looking back, I should have offered to stop by his church and dialogue with his paritioners. Maybe next time he stops by…

  • Always like when both sides can meet together in a civil discussion. It’s the best for everyone.

  • Brett

    I was the moderator of the event – the guy in the middle of the photo. Thank you Hemant for coming. I’ve told people at our church that I respect you for participating because you came into an environment where you knew that the majority of the audience would reject your beliefs… that takes courage.

  • pastol

    I was at the “dialogue” and was very happy with how Hemant handled the discussion.

    Twenty minutes into it, Daly was saying he was not absolutely sure about the existence of God. That’s pretty much how it went from there on out. Many times he made Hemant’s point. But, I’m sure I have a prejudiced view.

    I was shocked at Daly’s inability to give a direct answer to more than one question. An example was when Hemant asked him if he believed that he (Hemant) was going to hell. A resounding yes was the correct answer for him. But he hesitated so long it was comical. The ensuing answer was open ended. Odd, I thought.

    Thanks to Hemant for doing this. And by the way, did anyone ever tell you that you could probably do a GREAT impression of Christopher Walken?

  • flawedprefect

    I’ve just begun reading “The Science of Good and Evil” by Michael Shermer. A pretty good history of The Golden Rule is found in the first few chapters. Worth a look. http://www.amazon.com/Science-Good-Evil-People-Gossip/dp/0805077693/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1279717695&sr=8-1

  • Hilary

    As our society seems to becoming more polarized, these types of events are very important. This story inspired me to contact a Christian friend of mine to set up a dialogue since I know I fall into the “diplomat” category. He is really excited and thankful to me for asking him to be involved in something like this. So cool.