Monday, July 1, 2013

Making Friends with an Atheist

My daughter brought the above flyer home from the local university where she was studying a number of years ago. She didn’t take it to discourage people from attending the meeting of the Atheists and Agnostics Club (after all, the flyers were everywhere); she took it because she knew I’d be interested. And she was right.

I actually thought the use of the fish image was pretty clever. So, I accessed the contact information at the bottom of the page (blacked out for the sake of anonymity) and emailed the contact person. I said that I was a pastor, explained how I had obtained the flyer, and asked if he would he be willing to have lunch with so that I could hear about his club? It turned out that he was the president and founder of the club, and he agreed to meet.

He was a commuter student and lived 35 or 40 miles away from the campus, so we met at a coffee shop somewhere in between. He was bright and assertive, and I liked him right away. I learned that he had been raised in a very conservative Christian household and was the only member of his family to discard Christianity and embrace atheism. His family and other people had, apparently, challenged him many times about his views of faith, and he figured I would continue that process. He started asking multiple questions, all of which seemed designed to get an argument going.

I’m afraid I disappointed him, at least at first. I said I really didn’t care about debating some of the things that others might desire. I just wanted to know why his atheism was important to him and why he felt he needed a club. Mostly, I just wanted to know about him.

Gradually, our conversation shifted. I asked about his life, what he was studying, what he wanted to do in terms of work, and so on. He had a number of high aspirations in terms of education and, like many college students, was still trying to work out what he would pursue in terms of a career.

The university where he and my daughter were studying had about 30,000 students at the time. I figured that my young friend’s club had a respectable number of members. Imagine my surprise when he told me that there were only eight people who had joined. And they were all his friends.

I couldn’t help but laugh. But it wasn’t a laugh of mockery or disdain. You see, I was a pastor of a church that I had planted, and I constantly wondered where all the people were. So I said to my new friend:

“I’m sorry. I’m not laughing at you. I’m just feeling your pain. I know that it’s really hard work to draw a crowd when the topic is ultimate reality.” We both laughed at that.

After a while, he became quiet, and I could tell he was thinking about something. He said,

“It just occurred to me that you have nothing to gain by talking to me.”

I agreed. I told him that I didn’t come to get him to do anything, or to convince him to come to my church. I just wanted to hear his story and find out about the heart behind the conviction. He said he might surprise me someday and come to a service. I think he actually showed up once.

He did, however, call me a year or so later and asked to have lunch again. This time we met not far from the university, at a favorite pub of mine. He was excited about his next step in life, moving to a respected and prestigious university campus where he would pursue his PhD. I told him I was glad for him.

Then he smiled at me and said, “I have to tell you something: I’m not an atheist anymore.”

This, of course, caught me attention. “What happened?” I asked.

“I’ve decided that I’m really more of an agnostic.” I wondered if our prior conversation had anything to do with that shift in his beliefs.

His face darkened as he spoke. “But,” he said, “when I told my friends in the club about the change in my thinking, they became angry. They voted me out.”

I was sad for him. His friends excommunicated him from fellowship because of an honest shift in his belief system. I was sorry that he had to carry the cloud of abandonment and rejection into this new season of life. But I was glad that he chose to come and tell me about it.

I’ve thought about those conversations a lot over the years. It bothers me that our culture—and I mean the culture as a whole—is short on listening and long on anger. I worry that we are becoming a people that uses terms like love and hate to categorize those who agree with us against those who do not. I am troubled when we see human beings as mere symbols of ideology rather than as real people with stories to tell and hearts that long for meaning and acceptance.

We who claim to follow Jesus ought to be good at listening and caring, but I’m not sure that we’re any better at those things than anyone else. There is something in the Bible about this:

You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. (James 1:19-20)

Let it be so among us.

1 comment:

joy said...

Great post, Mike. I love how you identified your church planting experiences with his challenges in starting this group.

We so often see people as their position, rather than seeing them as travelers, folks on a journey, just like us. So we can't handle when they disagree, and we especially can't handle when someone close to us finds themselves on a different part of the path.