I spoke at the Crossway Conference yesterday, and I should start by reporting that this was a very positive experience. My talk seemed to go well, the questions were generally courteous, sincere, and sensible - and they gave me a chance to make some important points that I'd dropped from the talk itself because of time constraints. Many people approached me afterwards to thank me for my perspective and for my courage in addressing them (not that it really took that much courage - it's not as if I was going to be physically attacked or something!). Everyone was kind and gracious to me, and there were some very interesting moments. I ended up seated at lunch with some young guys from a Christian rock band, who were fun to talk to and didn't even mind when I joked about Eric Cartman's Christian rock band in South Park. Perhaps my own background makes it easy for me to get along with people like this: more-or-less progressive evangelical Protestants, not greatly different from what I once was myself. However, it's not just that: the staff, attendees, and other speakers, etc, were all pleasant and professional. I can't fault the way they treated me.
So thanks again to Pastor Dale Stephenson for inviting me along, and to all the staff who helped out and the others who spoke to me. This was all very classy. (It was certainly a marked contrast to the weird Christian who berated me at the Atheist Society gig the week before.)
There's much to learn from this kind of interaction. It was interesting seeing the presentations from the speakers immediately before and after me, both of whom were humorous and slick, but also came across as very genuine. Dale spoke about his own conversion experience and his grounds for accepting the truth of the gospels - not very strong grounds in my view (of course), but that's not the point. What I got out of it was how pivotal it had been to him that someone he respected for totally different reasons turned out to be an evangelical Christian. The other speaker - a young evangelist from the US - emphasised the need to be friendly to people and sincerely interested in them, rather than shoving religion down their throats. Above all, basically, don't be weird. I'm sure that's good advice, and many religious folk - and others, no doubt - could benefit from accepting it.
There seemed to be a lot of acceptance of my points about the "New Atheism" - that it's not really new, but rather the new development is that there's now a large market for critiques of religion, since many people Out There are concluding that religion is not benign and that criticism of religion is worthwhile; and that it's no good demonising the "New Atheists" - even if this is successful in a PR sense, those who indulge in it will be misleading themselves and doing themselves a disservice. They'll fail to understand why it is that many tolerant, reasonable, good-willed people have come to the view that Christianity and religion in general are not benign but have a dark side of authoritarianism, intolerance, and worse. I may be wrong, but it seems that many of these folk were prepared to take that message on board. I only wish that all of my fellow atheists were as willing to accept these basic points. What the Crossway people do with this message, even assuming they accept it, is, of course, up to them and beyond my control.
Those of us on the "other side" have a lot to learn from organisations like Crossway about the professional organisation of conferences - though of course one difference is that such an organisation has enormous resources, with a small army of paid staff. No secular organisation can match this. Still, they deserve praise for the efficient way they run their show, while also making guests feel very welcome and addressing possible glitches well in advance. It's worth dealing with an organisation like this not just to see how the "other side" thinks ... but also to see how, with their resources and experience, they do things.
Once again an interesting and positive experience at my end, and I'm pleased to have been to invited and to have taken part.