That's how it was for me a little over a week ago when I debated the spokesperson for Freethought Arizona, which describes itself as "a community of freethinkers, humanists, skeptics, agnostics, and atheists based on reason, science, and critical thinking" working together to "maintain separation of church and state, advance education and science."
In August, I invited Dr. Gil Shapiro, a local podiatrist and spokesperson for the group, to present his worldview to a packed Reason Why event at Catalina Foothills Church in Tucson, AZ. Dr. Shapiro has enjoyed the attention of southern Arizona through his many public speeches and dozens of op-ed articles in the Arizona Daily Star newspaper. When it came time for our church to study atheism, I figured there was no better way than to hear from the man who best represents that position. The response was overwhelmingly positive.
Last week's debate was a favor returned. I was honored and immediately welcomed the invitation to come speak for their group when asked this summer. Dr. Shapiro told me his board would prefer to have the secular humanist response immediately after my presentation and offered a debate in lieu of a one-sided presentation by a Christian. That sounded fair so a debate was born.
The debate was what you'd expect. I gave four points that supported Christianity as the best explanation of reality and Dr. Shapiro gave his case why it wasn't. I plan to blog a detailed analysis of the ideas exchanged but want just to give my overall feel for how it went and what I learned from it. After all, the question I continue to get by those who want to know is, "How'd it go?"
My knee-jerk reaction is to smile and say "It went great!" Dr. Shapiro probably does the same. For me, that's only partially true. It would only be truly great if people responded by digesting the information and telling me how it changed them. Afterwards, I was approached by a line of attendees, both believer and skeptic alike lauding their praises on a job well done. The organizers treated me well, the reception was nice, but the question remained, "Did anyone really listen?"
To their credit, Freethought Arizona expressed their interest in continuing the dialogue on more specific questions of public interest like abortion, same sex marriage, religious freedom, education, and other controversial policy matters. While we disagree in big ways, they seem to really want to engage in the marketplace of ideas. I can't tell you how refreshing this was. This is what Christian apologists live for! I've worked on projects like this with other atheist groups but haven't had the olive branch extended quite like this. This may lead to other public conversations on radio or other live events which is very exciting indeed. Amidst the joy though, there was also some concern..
I could be wrong, but they seem genuine in this effort. From the very start of our conversation, everyone on the FAZ board treated me with respect and fairness. It was as if they were shocked a Christian actually contacted them at all. In fact, when Dr. Shapiro came to Catalina Foothills Church, he said it was the first time in over 20 years anyone invited him to church. That was a compliment with a simultaneous punch to the gut. I'm honored to be the one, but where have the Christians been the last 20 years?
I don't know about your city, but Christians, atheists, agnostics, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and Jews work together in Tucson every day striving to make this a better place. Religious views don't need to get in the way. And if they don't get in the way in everyday life when we pretend they don't exist, why do they have to get in the way when they're right there in front of us? I don't know about you, but I never ask someone what they think about Jesus before I decide to work their mail theft case or not. I don't care the religious perspective of the offender I'm going to arrest. We work together in our jobs, whatever we do, regardless of whether or not we agree on the big things of life. This doesn't mean that those conversations shouldn't come up. Religion and politics are so important, they BETTER come up!
Since when did our culture get so sensitive that the thing we base everything on, our worldview, must stay hidden? The answer is obvious, of course. People's feelings are going to get hurt. Well too bad! I'm sorry to be crass, but my feelings are hurt that Dr. Shapiro encountered cowardly Christians over the last 20 years who decided not to offend him by steering clear of religious conversations or even a church invite. We need to man up and get real. If we think the issues that really matter don't need to be discussed, we're in big trouble. We're obsessed with the Titanic's deck chairs.
I'll leave you with one illustration before I close out this blog post. When in the course of human events, do we set aside the most important issues because someone might be offended? Should doctors stop recommending diets, should bosses stop doing reviews, should athletes all be awarded trophies...? I think you get my point. Real love is truth. Maybe 80's sensation Rick Astley was onto something about the pain of real love: "What is love? Baby don't hurt me. Don't hurt me no more."
We don't have to be rude. In fact, it's the exact opposite. It may take a little courage to start asking our friends, family, and even strangers the kinds of questions we're all thinking about but nobody is asking. Debating publically isn't for everyone's but talking to people and loving them is. In fact, if we take our Lord seriously, it's a command (1 Peter 3:15-16). So, let's start now all of us. It may be hard, but let's study the big issues of life and look for them in every meaningful conversation we have with people. Life is short, people matter, and we've got to start now.
Gil Shapiro has become my friend. We may not have changed our positions, but we've both been faced with hard questions that made us think. It's not ultimately up each Christian to change hearts and minds to Christ (2 Cor 10:5), but it is our duty to allow God do his work of bringing attention and fame to him by and through gifts he's given each of us. What could be bigger than that?