14 May 2007
In the first of a series of interviews, the O Project’s Hamish MacPherson talks to Pastor Mark Clawson about his experiences of Christian-atheist dialogue
Mike, can you tell me a little bit about yourself?
I’m the founding pastor of a small new church in the suburbs of Chicago, Illinois (USA), called Via Christus Community Church (Via Christus is Latin for “the Way of Christ”). Before that I was a youth pastor at a small Baptist church. My wife co-pastors the church with me and we have a 2-year old daughter named Emma. I was raised as a conservative evangelical Christian and went to a Christian college where I studied Philosophy in undergrad and got a Masters in Intercultural Studies. Since college my faith has undergone a radical transformation into a more progressive, less conservative form and I’ve gotten very involved in what is known as the Emerging Church movement, which seeks to discover a new kind of Christianity that is concerned with living Christ’s way of compassion and justice in the world.
Can describe the nature of your dialogue with atheists?
I dialogue with atheists primarily online. There are several websites I frequent, including Hemant Mehta’s Friendly Atheist blog as well as the Off the Map blogs and message boards [Off the Map is a Christian Ministry that fosters these kind of discussions and were the ones who originally hired Hemant as the “eBay Atheist” to blog about his experiences going to church as an atheist]. I’ve gotten into many deep conversations with numerous atheists on these sites about the nature of my faith and about those areas (usually politics and social justice) where we share many common ideals and goals.
How did you get started?
I first got involved about a year ago when I first heard about the eBay Atheist and started frequenting the Off the Map sites. My original motivation was to represent a new kind of Christianity to atheists other than the fundamentalist style faith that most of them were used to. I would especially try to correct blanket accusations and gross over-generalizations made about Christians by some of these atheists. May of their complaints about us were accurate, but not universally accurate. For every loud, intolerant fundamentalist Christian out there, there are just as many intelligent, respectful more progressive Christians who simply aren’t as noticed because they’re more interested in living their faith than in beating people over the head with it.
Is there a theological argument for this kind of positive contact with atheists?
The argument (for both sides) ought to be humility – i.e. the recognition that none of us has it all figured out and there is always something we can learn from others. In theological terms we are “fallen” (imperfect) and “finite” (limited) beings, which means that everything we claim to know or believe is subject to doubt and ought to be constantly questioned and refined. My dialogues with atheists have certainly helped me to refine and improve my own beliefs, and I hope I’ve done the same for some of them as well.
The other thing I’d say is that Jesus was a great example of someone who deliberately hung out with people who thought differently, believed differently, lived differently from him. He talked with them, he partied with them, he made them the heroes of his stories and made the good upstanding religious people the villains. For those of us trying to follow the way of Christ, this kind of embracing of the Other has to be primary, non-negotiable, not at all optional.
What has the reaction been from your fellow Christians?
Some (the more conservative ones) wonder why I would care what atheists think of Christians in the first place. But most Christians I know think it’s great that I am able to have good, respectful conversations with atheists. Some like it because they think I’m evangelizing (I’m not, or at least, not in the traditional sense of that word) while others realize that it’s a great opportunity for both sides to learn from each other. The folks in my church like it because I’m constantly bringing stories from my conversations with atheists back to church to use in our sermons and discussions. It gives them a window into this whole other worldview.
Have you encountered any resistance (from either side)?
Not really resistance per se. I’ll occasionally run into militant atheists online who really aren’t interested in mutual understanding and just want to tell me why all my beliefs are irrational and stupid. If they think that, that’s fine, but it’s kind of hard to have a conversation with someone like that. I’m not really too inclined to go on listening to what they have to say after they’ve insulted and attacked me, and I’m not going to waste my time explaining my beliefs to them if I know that they’re not really interested. So the ones who just want to fight I just try to avoid or ignore as much as possible.
Where do you think conversion fits into the Christian-atheist dialogue?
I’m not interested in persuading people to become Christians if that means convincing them to simply join a religion or assent to a certain set of beliefs. However, I am very interested in persuading people to follow the “way of Christ” by which I mean the way of compassion, justice, celebration, peacemaking, generosity, reconciliation and love that Jesus taught, modeled and died for. I do think it’s possible for people to follow this way of life without necessarily “believing in Jesus”, and in truth, I’ve talked with many atheists who seem to be doing a better job of following the way of Christ than many Christians I know. I want to encourage atheists to go on pursuing these ideals, even if they don’t see them as coming from the same source as I do, while at the same time I want to motivate more Christians to actually follow in this way of life as well. (I think Christians often need to be converted to the way of Christ just as much as anyone else.)
You say you’ve never met any atheists in real life – why do you think this is?
Well, “never” would be an exaggeration. I know a few, mostly friends from high school or childhood, and a few that I’ve met in person after connecting via the Off the Map blogs. But for the most part I’ve lived in a rather isolated Christian bubble most of my life. I grew up in a small rural town where most people were at least nominally Christian, went to a Christian college and then got into full-time church ministry – so all the people in my “world” were already Christians. I’ve only recently been breaking out of that bubble, but unfortunately I still live in a small town where the vast majority of people are religious in some way. It’s just not that easy to find honest-to-goodness atheists out where we live. That’s why most of my interactions with them have had to be online.
Would you like to? How do you think you could?
I’d love to. There are more formal atheist groups in Chicago which is an hour or two from us, so I could probably make more of an effort to connect with these groups. Unfortunately lack of time is always an issue. Believe it or not, but being a pastor can be very time consuming.
What I would love to see is for our church to partner with a secular humanist or atheist group in our area for some joint service projects. Maybe we could work together on a food drive or a river clean-up or something like that. I’d love to create opportunities for Christians and atheists to work together for goals that we can all affirm.
Do you see any limits to this sort of dialogue?
Online dialogue can only do so much. To really know and respect someone who is different from you, you have to know them face-to-face. Online is a good place to start, but I’d like to start seeing more real-life gatherings between atheists and Christians – maybe, like I described above, times for us to work together on common projects a well as chances to just get to know each other as real people and not just an online debate partner.
Is there anything you’d like to see atheists do differently?
I’d like to see genuine a-theists (people who simply lack a belief in God) do more to speak out against the angry and insulting rhetoric of the anti-theists (people who think that all religion is irrational and harmful and want to eradicate it), in the same way that more progressive Christians like myself need to speak against the extremism of Christian fundamentalists. Extremists on either side get in the way of truly cooperative and productive dialogue. Both sides need to find a way to respectfully disagree without having to demonize or insult the other. That’s why I support things like The O Project. There are too many issues of suffering and oppression in this world for people who care about such things to waste a lot of time arguing over differing metaphysical beliefs.
Have you gained anything from this dialogue? Do you think your atheist counterparts have?
Like I said, my beliefs have been refined and improved. I’ve also come to a much better understanding of what it is that atheists actually believe – which has helped me have a much greater respect for them than I once did as I’ve realized that I had a lot of misconceptions of atheism. I hope I’ve had the same effect on my atheist friends – that they’ve overcome some of their misconceptions and biases against Christians – or at least seen that not all of us are fundamentalists.