Thursday, February 26, 2009

An Interview With An American Atheist

Let me start by making it clear that my intent is not to get in the habit of mixing my own personal views, ideals and ethics with my chosen career path of law enforcement as a practice here at, however, this is another timely anecdotal experience I thought many readers might find interesting.

Last week I was contacted by a co-worker (a fellow officer) and asked if I would be willing to submit to an interview and answer some questions “as an atheist” for a theology course he was taking. This actually wasn’t the first time something like this has happened to me. In fact, this was the third officer in as many years to think of me as a resource for helpful information and it still gives me that hopeful feeling that I am on the right track in my approach to the issue of being proactive, vocal and civil in presenting my perspective as an atheist in the open marketplace of ideas.

This particular inquiry was even more valuable to me for two important reasons:
  1. The request was presented in a completely non-judgmental and polite tone from what appeared to be a sincere quest for information and from someone I had not known for very long.
  2. The fact that I was contacted specifically because I was “an atheist” meant that I could be certain that my non-belief in God(s)ess(es) was now mainstream common knowledge.
(The latter is always important because I want to be clear and unambiguous regarding my own personal perspective.)

Anyway, never one to decline an invitation to engage in a “face to face” discussion about atheism and what it is like to be an atheist in a culture steeped in Christian religious dogma and ritual of one form or another, I instantly accepted the offer to be interviewed.

I was provided the disclaimer that there would be a questionnaire involved and that I did not have to identify myself for the purposes of the course he was taking. Naturally, I directly requested that my full identifying information should be annotated on any resulting report for the class in case any follow up was required. We then scheduled a time that would be good for both of us after he was off-duty and we would be free from interruption.

When it finally came time to meet, I was immediately impressed with the character of the officer and it became quite clear that he was a believer in Christianity and an adherent that was in the process of learning apologetics in depth. We made some initial small talk, ground rules sort of stuff, and then we began to go over the printed list of questions he had on a few sheets of paper.

Right after the first question was read, I recognized that the questionnaire was not conforming to any known college survey standard. The first few inquiries on the list were quite obviously relative questions seeking absolute answers. They were linguistically irresolvable without expounding further on philosophical concepts but, by default, the test disallowed such lengthy answers.

Most of the one-liners were also framed in highly subjective and ill-defined ways within the rigid and intentionally deceptive directive that the subject must only answer “Yes or No” without any further elaboration or articulation that could actually provide a greater understanding.

In short, they were intended to support false presuppositions by inference much in the same mold as:

“Mr. Atheist, have you stopped beating your wife?”

“I don’t beat my wife, that wouldn’t be right. I love my wife and have discovered that my life is better lived if I treat others with kindness and care.”

“For the purposes of this particular survey, Mr. Atheist, you must answer either yes or no.”

Once I pointed out how highly subjective and limited this approach was for a survey, I did note that he smiled and seemed to agree that he understood the limitations inherent in such an approach. There were about three pages of these sorts of questions (if I recall correctly) along with some that were scaled (1-10) on how familiar I was personally with Buddhism, Hinduism, The Upanishads, Siddhartha Gautama, Wicca, Anton LaVey, Satanism, Catholicism, Scientology, etc.

From that portion of the survey I did learn that I know very little about “legalism” and “soul sleep” as concepts from the Seventh Day Adventists. He explained them to me implying that they are criticized as incorrect and can be deconstructed and refuted philosophically by his denominational version of Christianity.

I also learned that studies of Christian adherents revealed that the number one reason they didn’t spread the gospel (proselytize) as they were directed to do in the bible was because they felt they would be ostracized after exposing their belief.

Now, my own guess was that it was because they really hadn't spent a whole lot of time personally studying not only their own sacred texts and were not comfortable putting them to a critical analysis by others, but had also not ever considered studying the assorted competing religious holy books for themselves, relying instead on their own authority figures to define and reject them.

He agreed that that was probably high on the list as well. I then expressed my own skepticism that Christians had any support for the notion that they would be outcast for their beliefs given the obvious saturation of their religious symbols and rituals across our great country, most especially here in the bible belt. We moved on without delving further into that tangent.

Here is my perspective on what I hope he learned from me (derived from some of the comments he made during the intervening discussions that still occurred during the interview):

1). I am a well read atheist who is very familiar with other religions and more than adequately informed regarding the Gospels, Christian themes, mythos (what I personally call the “Monster Manual” of Judeo-Christian-Islamic-Mormon lore), evolving religious principles and main creeds of Christianity.

2). That I am dedicated to polite and civil discussion regarding topics of atheism and religion and freedom of expression and not at all interested in being overtly malicious or offensive.

3). That we share a disbelief in the tenets and claims of other religions based on standards of logic and lack of evidence (polytheism, reincarnation, legalism, soul sleep, etc.) and that I further applied the same evenhanded standard and critical analysis we utilized on other religions to the Christian one and that I came to the same conclusion, while he did not.

4). I am open to examining the claims of religious adherents when they make claims about the real physical world and can explain how certain religious claims are intentionally framed in ways that have no quantity or quality can ever be tested, proven or falsified.

5). That I do have moral and ethical standards.

6). That I do not claim to know everything.

Somewhere during our tangents and discussions he made a stark statement that surprised me because up to this point he was so very open about his desire to learn from his experiences studying the thoughts and views of others.

He told me in no uncertain terms that no matter what, nothing could ever change his faith in Christianity even though so much of what I said “rings true”. I expressed to him that this statement seemed to reject, or at least directly contradict, the very effort we were engaging in.

I went on to explain that science was based on the notion that should new and better evidence be discovered, new theories could be derived.

My own view is that based on available empirical evidence related to claims regarding God(s)ess(es) and as a result of the critical analysis of such claims, no God(s)ess(es) actually exists. Should he be the one to provide something new and testable to support his religious claims that his deity was the one true god then I would certainly be open to taking a look at such purported evidence and, depending upon the result of the tests, be willing and open to changing my position.

In the end we had a wonderfully civil discussion without a trace of patronization or veiled insults. I honestly respect that approach and we agreed that more of this was needed from both theists and atheists in the general forums of debate and discussion.

We exchanged resources on our respective worldviews, I gave him the website and my personal email as a contact if follow up would be necessary and we parted ways respectfully.

It is my hope that more exchanges like this occur on both a small personal scale in casual conversation and on the larger public venues.

We should all recognize that fear, irrational responses and outright hate for others is derived from a basic lack of education incorporating all of the facts and circumstances surrounding the topic at hand.

The bottom line for atheists is that we should always strive to be informed in order to present a rational and intelligent counter to religious claims.

Anyone up for Sunday morning Qur’an study?