On the evening of November 21st, the Antelope Valley Freethinkers (AVF) in Lancaster, California held an open panel of five atheists to answer anyone’s questions about atheism, agnosticism, Humanism, and other issues around religion. I was very honored to be invited to participate on the panel. We were hosted by the Center for Spiritual Living. AVF President David Dionne described it this way:
This isn’t a debate with winners and losers; it’s an opportunity to address biases and misconceptions, and promote better understanding and acceptance of nonbelievers through civil discourse. Our goal is that everyone who participates will come away with something positive and affirming. Consider bringing a religious friend or two!
Written questions were submitted by local Christians, atheists, and people who were on the fence. Some questions were sent in via Facebook before the event, and others were hand-written or texted to the moderator while the discussion proceeded. We did not know beforehand what the questions would be. Many of them were the familiar ones about how we came to be atheists, if we had a purpose or meaning for our lives, how we had morality, what the misconceptions were about atheism, and our attitudes toward religion.
Despite advertising in the local paper and sending direct invitations to the area’s many houses of worship, the number of Christians attending the event was disappointingly small. Most of the audience consisted of fellow atheists and friends. At a later meeting we discussed this, and we think that some factors might be the cause of the poor turnout of believers:
- Antelope Valley is a very conservative area. The reflex animus that conservatives often have for atheists might have been too much for any good-natured curiosity to overcome.
- Local church leaders who were contacted might not see any benefit for themselves if they were to pass the word along to their congregants. They might only consider it a risk that they could lose some church members if atheists were seen as decent human beings.
- Although the Center for Spiritual Living which graciously hosted us is one of the local churches, members of other, less liberal and less inclusive churches might only have been interested if we were to come to their turf, their church, where they might feel more confident. The difficulty with that would be to convince them to invite us at all.
Nevertheless, the benefit of having the event on video is that a wider audience of both believers and nonbelievers can see it. I think you’ll find it interesting and I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.