“Interview an Atheist at Church” Takes Off

Building New Bridges

A few months ago, a random idea popped into my head: What if pastors interviewed atheists as part of their Sunday service? Having been a youth pastor at one point, and now an atheist, it was as if I was trying to connect two different stages of my life. More importantly, I thought about some of the benefits this might generate amongst atheists, pastors, and congregants alike.

Maybe we could challenge the notion that atheists are the least trustworthy group in the United States (Edgell et al, 2006) by putting flesh and blood to the “idea” of an atheist. It was important for me that this process be humanizing. Instead of a debate format, these interviews would be much more personal and non-confrontational. Thus was born “Interview an Atheist at Church Day.”

When it began, I figured it would be a relatively small project. I assumed we might get a handful of pastors willing to interview an atheist during service. I was wrong. Once the Friendly Atheist (Hemant Mehta) picked it up and did a post on it, we were bombarded with emails from atheists all around the U.S. and a few in Canada, Australia, and the U.K. In a couple of weeks we had more than 160 atheists willing to be interviewed and a handful of pastors willing to interview them.

Kile Jones and Tia Carley visiting the Golden Gate BridgeMy partner Tia Carley and I decided to build a website, revamp our social media, and create a document that would help us vet the atheists. We did not want an angry atheist telling churchgoers they are ignorant or pastors trying to convert their guests.

Interview an Atheist at Church Day got going even faster after two things happened: I began emailing pastors in the areas where atheists were willing to be interviewed. And Doug Pagitt, an “emergent church” pastor in Minnesota, suggested that we take the “day” literally and set up a nation-wide event for May 5, 2013. “I think churches would benefit greatly from having open discussions with atheists, for many reasons,” Pagitt said. “One big reason – every church I have ever known has atheists in its pews, normally keeping a very low profile. So, Interview an Atheist at Church Day is a chance to hear not only from outsiders, but from people within our churches.”

Building New Bridges

Doug PagittI deliberately reached out to progressive and liberal churches, knowing they would be more interested and willing than some of their conservative counterparts. I contacted United Church of Christ, United Methodist, Episcopalian, Unitarian, Christian Reformed, emergent congregations, and a few Presbyterian-USA churches.

Pastors who were Facebook friends of mine started signing up. Meanwhile, Doug and I spread the word about our national event, with the hopes of getting a bunch of pastors to interview atheists on May 5. So far we have 18 interviews set up and more being planned, half of them actually occurring on May 5.

Some pastors have been ahead of the game. Rev. Gretta Vosper, pastor of West Hill United, a progressive Christian church in Toronto, signed on immediately. “Having explored the edges of faith and beyond, West Hill United has welcomed atheist speakers into its ‘pulpit’ on several occasions,” she says. “The opportunity to interview an atheist will allow the congregation to get ‘up close and personal’ and continue to build bridges between the two communities. We're very excited about it.

“After all, we believe it is time the human community stops focusing on what makes us different – like beliefs – and start focusing on what makes us the same – we all search for love and want to find ways to be happy. May 5th will be an opportunity for us to bridge the beliefs that have divided us for millennia by helping us focus on what we have in common. It opens up a whole new world of possibility for both believers and atheists.”

Continuing the Dialogue

It seems important to me that these interviews be video recorded. I want people to be able to watch how something like this happens. Luckily enough, every pastor contacted so far can video record the session. I confess surprise at the willingness of pastors all over to welcome something like this into their congregational lives. It has been a genuine awakening to see so many atheists and pastors excited about talking to each other. So much for the cynics! So much for the snarky battling billboards. Here’s an alternative, and the good stuff has already started to happen. Kyle Thompson, a fellow student here at Claremont, put it well:

“I honestly believe that theists and atheists have more in common than is usually acknowledged, and this project is a perfect way to make this reality more apparent.  Like my religious brothers and sisters, I strive to be loving, forgiving, patient, compassionate, empathetic, and sincere; these similarities are too important to be marginalized because of our divergent views on the cosmos.”

The interviews will be available on our website and Facebook page, so stay tuned.


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Reader Comments (6)

Thank you Kile, for this well written piece and thank you for all the under-appreciated effort and difficulty that I'm sure goes along with this excellent project. As an atheist and as a counselor of nonbelievers and their families, I have seen individuals, families, friendships, neighborhoods, and communities split and torn asunder by misunderstanding, misconceptions, myths, and sadly, outright lies about people who are simply unconvinced of deities. The strife and suffering it causes is all so tragically unnecessary. I very earnestly, eagerly want to participate in these positive, constructive dialogues. Please keep this project going beyond May 5.

April 17, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterRichard Wade

I have recently come to the conviction that interfaith dialogue should include the voice of atheism as one of the religious voices at the table. We routinely think of dialogue as being needed between, say, Muslims, Christians, Jews, Hindus, and Buddhists, but atheists are almost always overlooked. Yet the fastest-growing religion in America, according to the Pew Research Group, is in the category "none." The non-affiliated religious sector is growing faster than the fastest-growing megachurch, or any other religious group, including Mormons (which appears to be the second-fastest growing group, another often overlooked faith community).

While not all non-affiliated Americans are atheists, many are, and like adherents to the major religions, atheists are affected by the quarrels and politics of those who belong to a religion. They deserve to be heard in any dialogue which aims to promote peace, understanding, partnership and co-existence, for these are desired goals of most atheists. Too many believers fail to see the humanity of atheists, and fail to consider that they, too, want to live happily in peace with other human beings.

Additionally, religious persons can learn from atheists! While believers may balk at this idea, many atheists have much to teach the rest of humanity, such as expanding our understanding of the world by scientific knowledge, or by sharing practical solutions to problems we all face. Issues such as global warming, ending poverty, ending war - these concerns are shared by atheists as well as believers, usually.

Interfaith dialogue includes NO faith, along with differing faiths. We all can learn something good and positive from one another.

July 10, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJeff Courter

Thanks for sharing.

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“Interview an Atheist at Church” is excellent

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