Monday, November 24, 2008

A Non-Believer in Church: Yellow Leaf Baptist in Oxford

(Hello, Mr. Jerry! Thanks for visiting the site. To everyone else: This post will be longer than usual. I'm going to include more of my thoughts on the lesson and discussion afterward.)

Since first seeing the Church and State billboards around Oxford, I've been curious as to who did this promotion work. I contacted the Lamar Sign Company and they informed me that it was the work of the Yellow Leaf Baptist Church. A group somewhat associated with this church known as the "Citizens for God and Country" is responsible for the billboards, as well as for the yard signs that say "Let's Honor God in America again." The group was recently highlighted in The Oxford Eagle and The Daily Mississippian. So I did what I do best: I visited this church to ask someone about their signs.

Services at the Yellow Leaf Baptist Church begin at 10:30 AM. For being an out-of-the-way country church, it was unexpected to see an attendance of over 150. At least 8 people took the initiative to welcome me to their service. There was even a small girl who ran up to me and asked, "What are you doing?" I had to tell her, "I'm getting ready for church." She quickly ran away. Walking into new churches for the first time still makes me nervous, so I appreciate it when they are friendlier.

The service began with the morning announcements and the recital of the following lines (which was repeated at various times throughout the service):

(The pastor says) "God is good!"
(The audience says) "All the time!"
(The pastor says) "And all the time..."
(The audience says) "God is good!"

I filled out the visitor card and wrote "msatheists.org" on it and slipped it into the collection plate.

The pastor's message was titled "An Attitude of Gratitude: A Hebrew Thanksgiving". The supporting verse came from Psalms 100. At the beginning of his talk, he reminded the congregation that the Bible was the infallible word of God. It was a five part lesson that covered the following areas why we ought to be thanking God:

1) He is God. YAHWEH.

Thanks for clearing that up. Not only do we have to believe in God, we need to thank him too.

2) He is our creator. He designed us.

He asked everyone to turn to someone and say "You are a masterpiece." It was at this point that he mentioned that our stomach acid is capable of eating through "18 inches of concrete." I would have liked to have asked him: so is this an example of good design or bad design? (I spent part of my afternoon researching gastric acid and hydrochloric acid to see if there was any truth to this. I found that hydrochloric acid is capable of softening concrete to make it more pliable. I'm a skeptic: I double check all scientific claims.)

3) God is benevolent.

He barely mentions this point. With everyone repeating the "God is good" line, apparently we don't need to discuss this further. Why is God good? Has any positive event ever happened that must be attributed to a supernatural creator? If you can answer that one, let me know.

4) God is merciful.

He told us the story of "Brownlee North", who (supposedly) was threatened with death if he preached Christianity. North preached anyway because God is merciful. (I tried googling that name but nothing came up.)

5) God is the truthful one.

The Bible is infallible, God's truth does not change, and God will only speak truth to you. (Come on. You are pulling my leg. Not one tiny little error in the Bible? This is my favorite oddball mistake in the Bible.)

The lesson ended. (We repeated the "God is good" line again.) It was announced that there would be a "Feast on the Grounds" immediately after the service. Usually I leave after the service, but I still wanted to ask about these signs, so I stuck around for the meal.

I caught up with the pastor after the meal and had a long chat with him. I got permission to use his name: Jerry. Someone already alerted him that my visitor card mentioned an atheist website, so he asked if I was an atheist. I told him "yes". Jerry was kind enough to talk with me about the billboards. He also seemed eager to defend his faith right then and there.

He asked me to prove that there is no God. I wasn't ready to debate him, so I just told him that there isn't sufficient evidence to make the claim for a God and that proof rest on Christians. The way he sees things, it us, the atheists, who are responsible for proving our claim. I tried to explain that it is very difficult to prove a negative claim, which is what the Christian is asking of the atheist.

He asked me where we all come from. I told him that it was a good question and I didn't know the answer. Saying "I don't know" is perfectly reasonable. His answer (and I'm paraphrasing) was that God created everything and put us here. We have no proof of God, so we have no proof that "God did it." This is the crux of skepticism: only speak where you have sufficient evidence and demand evidence from those who speak.

He was concerned about how many people I have lead away from Christ due to this blog. (If I lead you away from Christ by simply talking about churches, please let me know. I would love to hear your story.) In a round-about way, he gave me the Pascal's Wager argument for why I should return to being a Christian. I think my eyes glazed over as soon I noticed our old friend Pascal's.

We talked some about the signs. I explained some of the errors found on the billboards and he defended them saying that the group researched each quote. He claimed that the billboard regarding the quote from "Supreme Court, 1811" is a real example of our Christian heritage because the defendant in the case lost his appeal. I still contend the trial never went to the United States Supreme Court (which is what the sign depicts). He had little to say over the mistake regarding the James Madison and Benjamin Franklin mix up.

He mentioned that some people are trying to rewrite the Christian heritage out of our country's history. I'm not denying that there has always been a strong Christian presence in America's history. Our founding fathers wanted to make sure of two things: the people may practice their religion however they wish and the government is not allowed to endorse a religious viewpoint. Our founding fathers may have paid lip service to Christianity's better qualities, but they created a religion-neutral government. This is a heritage of which we can be proud.

As I drove away from the church, I passed another one of this group's billboards that said, "It is impossible to rightly govern the world without God and the Bible. -George Washington". That quote has also been debunked. We have no proof that he said it. Three billboards; three historical goofs. If atheists sponsored billboards to say anything, there would probably be public outcry. This group prints three billboards promoting a skewed view of history and has historical goofs to top it off, and they get a positive review in local papers.

One last thing: I want to put Jerry at ease about the content of this blog post. We pretty much disagreed (respectfully!) on everything we discussed. He recommended a book to me: Evidence that Demands a Verdict. For all of my regular atheist readers, if you need any winter reading, try digesting part of this book. I plan to read at least part of it over the break. I probably couldn't digest all of it; 800 pages is a bit much.

Mr. Jerry: The other post in this series are found here. If you are not interested, you are welcome clear your browser's history. We won't be bothered at all.