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.
Seems to me that this is exactly the sort of thing we need to be doing more of -- engaging believers in a polite, friendly way, but without molly-coddling them or refusing to speak our minds. One can be firm in the legitimacy of non-belief without "framing" -- and equally without being an arse about it.
I should add a disclaimer, though: for some reason that attitude, on a larger scale, often doesn't seem to work. Readers of a popular book, for example, are often so polarized already that they've made up their minds a priori that the author is a "militant atheist" or whatever, and the message gets lost. So it's on the scale of conventions and small talks, I think, that actual progress can be made.
If they are "prepared to take that message on board", how do you think they will modify their behaviour ?
Perhaps less involvement in the political arena ?
Or less inclined to push religious eduction in public schools ?
Given how well funded they are there is a law of bureaucracy at work such that any attempt to move out of the political and educational arenas will be resisted in order to protect the funding.
I actually doubt that one talk like this could have much effect at all one way or the other. I suppose I'd at least hope to have encouraged them not to join in the ongoing demonisation of publicly forthright atheists, and perhaps to nudge them in a certain direction in their current thinking about gays. The latter is a hard issue for them, because they can't get away from the clear words of the Bible, which they are not inclined to read in a liberal way, but all their instincts are telling them that they have to give gays some sort of acceptance, that the old attitudes of evangelical Christians to gays no longer make sense even within their own worldview. Or at least that's my impression from talking to a couple of people.
"I actually doubt that one talk like this could have much effect at all one way or the other."
If one expects instant results, probably not. I tend to feel like it will be 1-2 generations before noticeable changes happen. You give a talk today that influences some of those present to explain things slightly differently to their kids... I wouldn't sell yourself short, Russell -- I feel as if these sorts of efforts can't help but be useful, unless we flub them so badly as to harden their stance.
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