By Kile Jones
BUILDING NEW BRIDGES
A few months ago, a random idea popped into my head: What if pastors interviewed atheists as part of their Sunday service? Having been a youth pastor at one point, and now an atheist, it was as if I was trying to connect two different stages of my life. More importantly, I thought about some of the benefits this might generate amongst atheists, pastors, and congregants alike.
Maybe we could challenge the notion that atheists are the least trustworthy group in the United States (Edgell et al, 2006) by putting flesh and blood to the “idea” of an atheist. It was important for me that this process be humanizing. Instead of a debate format, these interviews would be much more personal and non-confrontational. Thus was born “Interview an Atheist at Church Day.”
When it began, I figured it would be a relatively small project. I assumed we might get a handful of pastors willing to interview an atheist during service. I was wrong. Once the Friendly Atheist (Hemant Mehta) picked it up and did a post on it, we were bombarded with emails from atheists all around the U.S. and a few in Canada, Australia, and the U.K. In a couple of weeks we had more than 160 atheists willing to be interviewed and a handful of pastors willing to interview them.
My partner Tia Carley and I decided to build a website, revamp our social media, and create a document that would help us vet the atheists. We did not want an angry atheist telling churchgoers they are ignorant or pastors trying to convert theirguests.
Interview an Atheist at Church Day got going even faster after two things happened: I began emailing pastors in the areas where atheists were willing to be interviewed. And Doug Pagitt, an “emergent church” pastor in Minnesota, suggested that we take the “day” literally and set up a nation-wide event for May 5, 2013. “I think churches would benefit greatly from having open discussions with atheists, for many reasons,” Pagitt said. “One big reason – every church I have ever known has atheists in its pews, normally keeping a very low profile. So, Interview an Atheist at Church Day is a chance to hear not only from outsiders, but from people within our churches.”
Building New Bridges
I deliberately reached out to progressive and liberal churches, knowing they would be more interested and willing than some of their conservative counterparts. I contacted United Church of Christ, United Methodist, Episcopalian, Unitarian, Christian Reformed, emergent congregations, and a few Presbyterian-USA churches.
Pastors who were Facebook friends of mine started signing up. Meanwhile, Doug and I spread the word about our national event, with the hopes of getting a bunch of pastors to interview atheists on May 5. So far we have 18 interviews set up and more being planned, half of them actually occurring on May 5.
Some pastors have been ahead of the game. Rev. Gretta Vosper, pastor of West Hill United, a progressive Christian church in Toronto, signed on immediately. “Having explored the edges of faith and beyond, West Hill United has welcomed atheist speakers into its ‘pulpit’ on several occasions,” she says. “The opportunity to interview an atheist will allow the congregation to get ‘up close and personal’ and continue to build bridges between the two communities. We're very excited about it.
“After all, we believe it is time the human community stops focusing on what makes us different – like beliefs – and start focusing on what makes us the same – we all search for love and want to find ways to be happy. May 5th will be an opportunity for us to bridge the beliefs that have divided us for millennia by helping us focus on what we have in common. It opens up a whole new world of possibility for both believers and atheists.”
Continuing the Dialogue
It seems important to me that these interviews be video recorded. I want people to be able to watch how something like this happens. Luckily enough, every pastor contacted so far can video record the session. I confess surprise at the willingness of pastors all over to welcome something like this into their congregational lives. It has been a genuine awakening to see so many atheists and pastors excited about talking to each other. So much for the cynics! So much for the snarky battling billboards. Here’s an alternative, and the good stuff has already started to happen. Kyle Thompson, a fellow student here at Claremont, put it well:
“I honestly believe that theists and atheists have more in common than is usually acknowledged, and this project is a perfect way to make this reality more apparent. Like my religious brothers and sisters, I strive to be loving, forgiving, patient, compassionate, empathetic, and sincere; these similarities are too important to be marginalized because of our divergent views on the cosmos.”