Our third conversation took place on Tuesday, December 9th. The mix of participants was slightly different from the previous one, but the number involved was seven as at that meeting. We seem to have difficulty getting everyone who was originally invited to participate to make each of the meetings, but I suppose that is likely given the demands of jobs, family and whatever. Despite this, we continue to move “forward” as far as I can tell.
For this meeting we planned to explore a list of issues developed by Herb Silverman and a newspaper editor that represented points on which an atheist and a progressive Christian would likely agree. The list can be found here. For the most part, the list reflects what I would consider to be a secular/humanist orientation with the possible exception of the tenth item regarding the “war on drugs”. Some of the participants in our conversation suggested editing that they would like to do on the list, but none of the changes suggested would change the fundamental nature of the list.
It wasn’t surprising that both the CPC and GRAF participants would find common ground in this list given the content of our previous conversations. An initial question from a CPC member was expected. The charge is often made by those who don’t really know anything about atheists that we can’t have any basis for our morality or values because we lack a book of scriptures or theological teachings on which to rely. My CPC interlocutor didn’t seem to really hold that perspective, but just wanted to know if I had followed a different path than he had. It turned out that we had followed essentially the same route of developing our adult identities during adolescence, early adulthood and continuing until now. While he had taken inspiration from his religion in some part, that was a small difference between us. I could easily state that religious teachings per se had no role in my development of a secular/humanist perspective. In fact, I think I used religion as a counter example for myself. He on the other hand had developed an admiration for Jesus as an exemplar of humanism. I didn’t raise any questions about the reality of Jesus as an actual historical figure or point out any of the non-humanitarian perspectives attributed to him. None of that seemed crucial at all given that we had both arrived at mostly the same place.
Others in the group appeared to be quite in tune with the process we described. Their own processes of living and growing were the source of a progressive and humanistic set of values with some emphasizing the importance of religion and others not. The dominant theme became realization on their part that atheists could represent a group they could trust because of our shared values. They were intrigued by the realization that atheists were no more homogeneous than Presbyterians and were interested in the points of contention which are currently at play in the atheist community. They are much more appreciative also regarding the discrimination experienced by atheists as they had all seen the article in the New York Times regarding unconstitutional prohibitions against atheists running for or holding public office in several states. They seem much more inclined now to take our claims of discrimination seriously.
The CPC members also shared their frustration in being counted in the same camp as crazy fundamentalists and like some Muslims complain about the extreme elements “hijacking” their religion. It will be interesting at some point to see if they can handle the idea that they are enabling the fundamentalists by using the same bad epistemology and giving it “support”. So who are the true Christians? The fundamentalists or the progressives? As far as I can tell, all the arguments that can be made against the fundamentalists must rely upon using a humanistic set of values that are mostly divorced from religion (GRAF members have the same values for the most part). Challenging the faith claims by offering your own faith claims begs the question of how you are to verify which faith is true given the total absence of any evidence to support any faith claim. An issue for another day I think.
I took the opportunity to spend a little time at the meeting to voice the concern that we will eventually have differences in views that can’t be resolved without addressing the faith “elephant” in the room. Perhaps not with the current CPC members, but certainly with any new CPC members who are more traditionally aligned. There wasn’t any strong worry about that in the group, but I felt it needed to be mentioned. It is also likely that some GRAF members may feel they are having to bite their tongues if the faith idea never gets mentioned much as is the case so far. I don’t want to see the group shut down those questions in all cases. I’m not sure how we deal with them without damaging the relationship we have right now. Since the current CPC participants seem so close to being atheists, the GRAF members don’t encounter points where we might argue. The reference to Jesus as an inspiration offered a small opportunity since his existence may be as only a myth. I suppose myths can be inspiring.
This meeting ended with a decision to meet again in January, but to verify that most if not all of the original members can and will make it to the meeting. Our next task is to begin the process of inviting others to join in. That would mean both CPC and GRAF members. We need full participation from all the current members to be sure that everyone is comfortable with that and up to speed with those who have attended most of the meetings. We don’t know how many new people to invite, but we do know that they need to be prepared to follow the rules we have been living with successfully. I’m not sure how hard that will be. From that point we will work toward opening things up to religious folks who are not associated with CPC. That may be a real challenge. The CPC members cautioned against expecting too much from the possible discussion with some “bible thumpers” we are considering. They agreed with me that listening to “Testimony” wasn’t going to go well.