It’s all over the news: people (especially Millennials) are leaving the churches in droves and flocking to more humanist-oriented circles. “Bad news for the Religious Right!” headlines scream, before going on to proclaim Christianity all but dead. Baby Boomers are aging, which means that the generation acting as life-support for the living god is on life support itself.
But is it really? How weak is the religious pulse? The internet seems to have breathed a little new life into the waning Christ Culture, and with its revival comes a new fear of extinction and a panic-stricken will to live. Communication is faster and easier than ever, and with the new capability to organize comes a new creeping crud of conspiracy and home-grown terror. In no domain is this more evident than politics, where the demand for equal treatment for non-believers has been interpreted as religious persecution. Fundamentalist Christians, who have long been undisturbed, are feeling the sting and objecting loudly. And we atheists push back, rubbing salt into the wounds with our smugness and scathing attitudes.
None of this is helping. Whether or not religion is making a comeback, we must coexist as a society. We can either stew in our respective juices, or we can work to improve the situation for everyone. Not all religious people are fanatics, and we tend to overlook that as we clamor for freedom from religion instead of freedom to it. “Normalize atheism!” is the battle-cry, but it may be time to recall our troops and try a different tactic.
Recently, a pastor from Prosper, Texas made waves by inviting an atheist couple to come and speak at his church. There was plenty of skepticism from the secular community, who eyed the question-and-answer session as a disguised opportunity to recruit the couple, Kyle and Janie Oyakawa, into their church. We were wrong. “I’m surprised by some of the negative feedback,” Janie lamented in response to some skeptics’ raised eyebrows. She went on to praise Pastor Doug Kriz as kind and rational.
Well, color me surprised. Who’d have guessed – a member of the Christian community, eager to reach out and give atheists a voice? Someone willing to see past the bleak stereotype and look for common ground? And he’s willing to keep the ball rolling. “This conversation is very important,” Pastor Kriz assured me. “We’ve been approaching it all wrong.” He is onboard with the idea of dissolving the unflattering image of atheism, and contends that such a task is more palatable to Christians when it takes place in a familiar and safe place, such as their own churches. “It’s a way to get us interested,” he says. “A more social situation wouldn’t have the same pull.”
And I can see his point. It’s never easy to examine something you’ve seen as distasteful, at best, and evil, at worst. It’s surprising that he managed it in such a small and sheltered community. Pastor Kriz credits the lack of bureaucracy in the Disciples of Christ denomination. “I didn’t have to go through miles of red tape to get permission to invite atheist neighbors into the congregation,” he says. “I just thought it would be a good lesson.” Here he stresses that he is interested in picking the brains of atheists rather than agnostics: “They’ve worked out their arguments,” he laughs. “They’ve made decisions and can give concrete reasons for them.” He adds that it may be easier for the religious to view atheism as another “religious group.” While that may ruffle a number of feathers in the nontheist community, it does give Christians a starting point when it comes to interaction with secular groups.
So the ball is in our court. How do we continue the conversation? What can we atheists do to make ourselves more approachable and less threatening? The pastor’s response is immediate: “Don’t be so angry!” We should not view every mention of God as an attack. Most church-going folks aren’t trying to solicit more members. And it seems that many of us are willing to listen to him. When asked about community feedback, he smiles, “The buzz was overwhelming and immediate. Almost all of the attention was from the atheist community,” he says, sounding a little surprised. He recently participated in the popular podcast Dogma Debate with David Smalley, and expressed interest in revisiting that forum. “Five hours of grueling questions,” he chuckles. “Interesting conversation, though. That’s a conversation that could go on and on.”
Pastor Kriz’ efforts may or may not succeed, but they are certainly admirable. His effort was the first time I’d heard about a member of the clergy reaching out and trying to gain a clearer view of atheism, and it will be exciting to see just how far it will go. Pastor Kriz understands how separation of church and state benefits the general public and wants to focus on issues that can bring easier solutions to more people. Perhaps this is a bandwagon worth climbing aboard? After all, when life hands you olives...