Reporting on an Evening with Atheists
Although I seldom participate in highly-charged public forums with little notice, I was interested in doing this because without me there would have been no Christian response. Further, I was familiar with the basic arguments of the film and was able to mine quite a bit of material on it and the producer on line.
The event nearly filled the theater. The first half hour or so was taken up by an audio presentation of a comedian who recounted her loss of Catholic faith and her turn to atheism. It was the most uncharitable presentation of the teaching of the Bible I had ever heard in one sitting. The Old Testament is nothing more an amoral mess. Jesus isn’t as nice as he thought. After all, he was impatient with his disciples, and so on. The Catholic priest who taught her the Bible was a fideist, who said she had to have faith and that he would pray she had faith. That was not good enough, and eventually “God disappeared” for this poor soul. Then came the film. The best thing about it was that it was mercifully short: sixty-two minutes. The film advances the solidly refuted claim that Christianity was started by Paul, who invented a Jesus out of whole cloth—the cloth of mystery religions. There are so many inaccuracies that I don’t know where to begin, so I won’t. However, Mike Lacona has written a long and thorough piece on the movie. Christians were presented as rapture-bedazzled nincompoops who wanted to take over America and persecute as many infidels as possible.
After this torment was over, Will and I took the stage before about 125 people. I made an opening statement that focused on the films three basic arguments (if I can so dignify such propaganda): (1) the claim mystery religions influenced, (2) that Christianity leads to persecution, and (3) that Christianity is intrinsically irrational. Will spoke for just a few minutes on what atheism meant to him. He did not address the film at all. We then took questions from the audience for about 45 minutes. Most of the questions were aimed at me. The audience was largely made up atheists, it seemed; although a few Christian friends attended. I infer this because when Will or a questioner made a point against Christianity or God, people tended to applaud. I would sometimes interact directly with Will—a young and presentable Iranian man in law school—but he didn’t have too much of substance to say except that he based his philosophy on reason and not faith. He also made positive allusions to Saint Ayn Rand. The questions—or sometimes just accusations against Christianity—related to issues such as the concept of truth, the supposed sexism of the Bible, hell, and so on. They really started piling on about hell at the end. In some cases, people would yell things from the audience instead of going to the microphone. When I presented an egalitarian account of gender relations (with ample reference to Rebecca Merrill Groothuis’s books), someone yelled, “Read Paul!” I have, amazingly enough, and he was no sexist.
This was easily the most hostile group I have ever addressed in twenty-seven years of public speaking. I spoke after an hour and half of anti-Christian propaganda and was on stage with an atheist before an audience of many atheists. Nevertheless, I think my opening comments refuted important claims in the film—I needed several hours to respond to all the errors, many of which were absolute howlers—and attempted to fairly and calmly respond to all the questioners. I was not stumped by any of the questions or comments, but I always wanted to say more. (I am a professor, after all.) I tried to give Will ample time to respond, but he often wanted to move on to the next questioner. He seemed quite nervous. At several points, I was able to present the essential gospel message, once in response to a question on hell: Jesus came to save us from that fate.
I hope that people who attended this event will post comments. You are better judges of me than I am, and you may be able to add your own observations of the event as a whole. Nevertheless, I offer a few reflections. I solicited widespread prayer for this, which is my custom (and was the Apostle Paul’s custom as well). This makes a tremendous difference. Despite the antagonistic crowd, I did not feel threatened or panicked. Several questioners wanted to back me into a fideist corner, but I never said that Christianity was without reason or evidence. I provided arguments and no subjective testimony or “I just know in my knower.” The caricature was applied because most Christians do not give reasons for their faith, even though they are commanded to do so in the Bible (1 Peter 3:15). A philosopher defending Christianity as rational probably blew some of their materialist circuits. It was also heartening to talk with several people afterward who seemed to be genuinely interested in Christianity. One of the co-owners of the theater was every enthusiastic about having me there and complimented me on my ability to respond reasonably to questions. He had probably never seen such a thing before. I hope to follow up with him. I also received an email from a man who is an agnostic who would like to interact with me.
My final blast is this (although I’ve said it a thousand times): We need more thoughtful and well-informed Christians in the market place of ideas, even in the hot spots. As Os Guinness as stated, most of American Christian evangelism in America is aimed at those already very interested in Christianity, but don’t know how to become Christians. This leaves out a vast number of souls who are hostile to Christianity or have no interest in it at all. We are called by Jesus Christ to engage these people as well.