The Village Atheist

First published at on March 5, 2010

This past week I had a new experience: debating Glenn Stanton, Focus on the Family employee and frequent opponent of mine, before an audience of people who mostly sided with him.

This has happened perhaps only once before: at a marriage debate at Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia, voted by the Princeton Review as the number #1 university “where ‘alternative lifestyles’ are NOT an alternative.”

But this past week’s experience was different, because we weren’t debating same-sex marriage. We were debating the existence of God.

I’ve been a non-believer for the past fifteen years or so. I’m not a fanatic about it. I don’t hand out tracts in airports or burn big question-marks on people’s lawns. But I don’t believe in God.

Frankly, there’s a part of me that feels a bit impolite even bringing up the subject. I’m trying to get over that feeling, since I believe this nation could use a healthy dose of religious skepticism. A great deal of mischief gets licensed in the name of faith, giving people “infallible” backing for their prejudices.

So when my speaking agent phoned and asked if I’d be interested in doing a debate on God’s existence, I jumped at the chance. Glenn seemed a natural foil: over the years, we’ve spent countless hours on the road discussing our contrasting worldviews, and that conversation was worth sharing. In my religious days I would have called it “witnessing,” and the term is still apt: it’s talking openly about things I find important, regardless of how (un)popular.

Make no mistake about it: atheism is unpopular. Polls regularly show in excess of 90% of Americans professing belief in God. Our debate was in Missouri, and even with efforts by the atheist, agnostic, and humanist student groups to rally the troops, I’d say that no more than 25% of audience members raised their hands when Glenn asked how many either didn’t believe in God or weren’t sure.

(Again, I thought such a direct question was impolite. With such reticence, you would think I had been raised Episcopalian.)

Here’s my position in a nutshell. I think there’s something deeply mysterious about the fact that human life—or for that matter, anything at all—exists. But I don’t see the point in trying to explain that mystery by appealing to something even more mysterious, and I don’t think that belief in God is supported by the evidence.

Do I think that it’s POSSIBLE that some kind of deity is out there? Sure—just like it’s possible that there’s life elsewhere in the universe. (It’s a pretty damn big universe.) So if your notion of God is vague enough, you could classify me as an agnostic.

But when it comes to the God of traditional theism—an omniscient, omnipotent, omnibenevolent creator who loves and cares deeply about us and reveals himself in scripture—I’m a flat-out atheist.

I don’t think the traditional picture of God is coherent, for two main reasons. One is the familiar Problem of Evil. The other, sometimes known as The Argument from Silence, is the tension between the claim that God wants us to know and love him, and the fact that he—though allegedly omnipotent—fails to make himself manifest to many people. That’s just not compatible with the image of God as a Loving Parent.

I don’t intend to establish any of these points in a short column. For that matter, I didn’t intend to establish them, in any final way, with most members of my audience this past week.

Instead, I aimed to do something akin to what I did when I started my public speaking career—in Texas, in the early 1990’s, often with hostile audiences. Back then, a big part of my mission was to provide an example of a thoughtful, real-life openly gay person to people who had never knowingly interacted with one. Replace “openly gay person” with “open atheist,” and you’ve got what I’m doing now.

Even after an hour of Q&A, I had dozens of Christians lining up to ask me personal questions. (I invited them to, so it wasn’t impolite.)

Question: “What do you think happens to you after you die?”
Answer: “The same thing that happened to me before I was born—nothing.”

Question: “What do you say to people who claim to have direct experience of God?”
Answer: “Are they actually hearing voices? Then they should see a doctor. Are they just having a ‘deep-down feeling’? Then how do they know it’s God?”

And so on.

Do I worry that my being outspokenly atheist will undermine my efforts as a gay-rights advocate (perhaps by feeding an image of gays as amoral heathens)?

I used to, but I don’t anymore. As I said, I think society needs a healthy dose of religious skepticism. And while I no longer believe in God, I still very much believe in truth, and courage, and integrity.