Crashing an Atheists’ Love-In

Posted by on Apr 7, 2012


So how did you spend your Good Friday evening? I went to the Richard Dawkins in San Diego event at the San Diego Concourse in the marrow of downtown San Diego, and brought with me the audio engineer of Catholic Answers Live, Matt Tuszynski (bearing audio and photographic equipment) and Rick Soldinie, fiance to Leah Darrow and, well, let’s just say his Special Forces experience provided some peace of mind. Thanks, Rick! Looking back, some kind of hostile incident was a very real possibility. For all their self-described bonhomie, atheists can turn surly on a dime.

I went because I wanted to confront Dr. Dawkins on his own turf with an invitation to appear on Catholic Answers Live for an interview. The whole evening was quite the education. Near the line-up outside, there were a few fundamentalist Christians holding badly scrawled placards, “GIVE ME TEN SECONDS AND I’LL PROVE THE LORDSHIP OF JESUS CHRIST” and “NATURALISM COMMITS THE FALLACY OF INFINITE REGRESS.” One Radio Shack bull-horned protester was trying to goad the bored-looking queue of atheists into a debate of some kind. All I could catch was, “But Jesus Christ was not a Jew.”

Good job, representative of theism.

Inside the foyer stood long tables displaying the books, DVDs and other free thought and secularist paraphernalia. One featured a poster of Hitler counterposed with a poster of Jefferson. The apparent gist was that Jefferson was a good secularist who invented the Dogma of the Separation of Church and State, and Hitler was, well, um (koff koff) the fact that Hitler was a militant atheist himself I’m sure didn’t pose a threat to the pedagogical message that the theocrats are coming, the theocrats are coming. I got my picture taken in one of those carnival images in which you stick your face through a hole so you’re part of a comical tableaux. This one depicted the image of a flying spaghetti monster — Dawkin’s pet icon for the non-existent Christian God. Those willing to separate themselves from their hard-earned $1000 ($1500 for couples) could attend a private soiree and rub shoulders with the man himself, and chat, one supposes, about the immanent return of the ghost of Jerry Falwell.

The main event enjoyed a decent-sized crowd, in the low 2000s in my layman’s estimate of the size of the ballroom and balcony. It was sponsored by the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason & Science, US Branch and a handful of local secular humanist clubs. Dr. Elisabeth Cornwell and Maine-based politician Sean Faircloth of the above-mentioned Foundation, spoke first. I mentioned the atheist tendency toward angry reactions. Rudeness was in the air from the get-go. Halfway through Mr. Faircloth’s earnest demagoguery, one attendee had had enough and shouted, “We came to hear Richard Dawkins, not Sean Faircloth!” He was promptly booed and hissed until silent. All in all — and I know this may be my pro-theism bias — but the crowd didn’t seem to be having a great time. Apart from the standing O when Dawkins strode center stage, the applause was polite, even tepid. Further, the laughter at the sarcastic digs against religious people and their foolish belief systems seemed pinched, not the rapturous, freely embraced laughter you’d expect when a revered figure talks to his fans. Odd.

The mission of the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science (aka the RDFRS-US, and I thought our side had forgettable acronyms) is “to support scientific education, critical thinking and evidence-based understanding of the natural world in the quest to overcome religious fundamentalism, superstition, intolerance and suffering.” Sounds fine to me. But defining terms was not on the agenda last night, nor was making key distinctions. We got instead a marathon of half-truths, classic misrepresentations of theism, standard conflations of Islamic terror with “Christian jihad,” cliched fears of a theocracy that lurks just around the corner — causing what specific damages to atheists was not clear. (I mean, the worst fate that would befall a meeting of Richard Dawkins fans is that a Catholic might show up and ask a question that didn’t begin with, “Doctor Dawkins, you are a real inspiration to me.”) Robert and John Kennedy, along with Martin Luther King, JR, were repeatedly held up as models of secularist leadership. That two were Catholics and one an ordained Christian minister didn’t get in the way of the fiery rhetoric.

Another mantra with no basis in fact was the bitter complaint that “atheists can’t get elected.” Give us all a break. Mr. Faircloth himself served multiple terms in public office in Maine including being elected Majority Whip! The Prime Minister of Australia, Julia Gillard, is an atheist as have been many of Israel’s elected leaders (start that list with David Ben Gurion, Golda Meir, Moshe Dayan, and Yitzhak Rabin). India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehr, was an atheist. Same with Jesse Ventura, former Governor of Minnesota. The list is much longer, but the point is, this is one example of disengenuity on display last night. If I were an atheist, I swear I’d be embarrassed.

The mikes were opened for questions, and I got in line fast. The first guy meant well but made himself and his faith look foolish. He started off fine with, “God loves even you, Richard Dawkins,” but ended up asking “What makes your arguments more powerful than the Lamb that was slain for me?” Dawkins shot him that famous glare and, to the exultant jeers of the offended throng, dispatched the young man with, “Yes, died for you. And what a disgusting, sadistic doctrine!” Applause and extended catcalls ensued. (Dawkins had already advertised his misunderstanding of the atonement — did the well-meaning Christian not even listen to the talk?)

Another question followed, a softball from a fan.

I was next.

The video footage may be available at some point, but my main goal was to ask him a yes or no question: would he appear on a top-rated Catholic radio show before an international audience to talk about his atheistic worldview? No debate, no questions about why he refuses to debate his nemesis, Dr. William Lane Craig, no gotcha ambushes.

The crowd went silent and turned from me to Dawkins. After a beat, he began a filibuster about why he would not share the platform with a man who supports genocide (Dawkins has a favorite Bible passage that he thinks proves God is a moral monster — Saul’s commandment to wipe out the Amaleks in 1 Samuel 15), and a longish discourse on the fact that he only debates archbishops and cardinals — including his upcoming Easter Monday debate with George Cardinal Pell. He pointed to the next questioner, but I wanted to make sure his adoring supporters plainly saw that his answer to my public invitation was to refuse the challenge. I went on (I may be misremembering the actual words), “I’m neither a cardinal nor a trained philosopher; just a lowly radio host. And I’m inviting you to have a civil, respectful conversation that gets at the specifics of your atheism. You would have a large audience around the world in which to do so. Yes, or no?”

“I have answered your question sufficiently,” he huffed, to the satisfaction of the crowd. As I was walking back to my seat, someone thought it best to share with me his belief that I am an asshole. In foyer as we were leaving, two T-shirted atheists gave me the eeeevil eye. One announced, CHRISTIANS ARE ASSHOLES, the other ARREST THE POPE, complete with a rat-like caricature of Pope Benedict XVI.

A lot of lerv in that room!

But back to Dawkins. I couldn’t help but think that at least some of the assembled atheists had to wonder why he ducked my question, posed as it was in my Sunday Best Tone of Bemused Patience. Interestingly, before I reached my chair another man handed me a pamphlet with the word Atheism on the front. He grinned at me and I figured it was one more pro-Dawkins agitprop. When I got home, I opened up the trifold. The whole pamphlet was blank! Evidently, Matt, Rick, and I weren’t the only Christians who showed up to hear the maven of militant atheism.

Dr. Dawkins will be getting a followup email from me, on the very off chance that he actually thought I was suggesting a debate with William Lane Craig. If he still refuses, then atheists everywhere will know that Richard Dawkins is not serious thinker interested in grappling with contrary viewpoints, but a mocker who only comes out to pay when he knows he’s not debating someone his own size, as shown by his eagerness to debate fundamentalist actor Kirk Cameron, confused Catholic pundit Bill O’Reilly, or disgraced evangelical Ted Haggard.

Please join me in praying for Richard Dawkins. Beneath the cantankerous shell beats the heart of a wounded person for whom Jesus suffered and died. With a bit of luck and a lot of grace, perhaps the avatar of atheism will encounter so much kindness that he….changes. It happened with Texas activist Patrick Greene, whose whole atheist worldview crumbled in the face of overwhelming kindness — folks belonging to the very Christian community he spent years mocking and opposing. (The fact that he’s a lapsed-Catholic-cum-rehabilitated-Baptist is a separate story we may cover in the future. And please note the childish responses by atheists in the HuffPo com box.)

Which brings me to my final recollection. At one point, in the context of making fun of the events of Good Friday, one of the Powerpoint images was Jesus on the cross — a shot of Jim Caviezel in the extremity of The Passion of the Christ. Dawkins paused and looked up at it, as did the whole crowd. Time stood still. For one terrible moment, it was like Dawkins’ pants had fallen down. A wave of fake-sounding, nervous guffaws spread throughout the hall. Clearly, the image of the Suffering Servant was kept up on the giant white screen for too long. A bit too much for a bit too long. Dawkins segued to a derisive crack about the sadism of the bloodthirsty Christian deity.

But it was too late. Something had happened in that room. I have no empirical evidence for this observation but there it is. Something happened. Some tiny backfire infiltrated the proceedings.

The sight of the crying, bereft and abandoned Jesus was enough to break the hard heart of a rough Roman soldier on the Day when the real crucifixion went down. God willing, we’ll read of similar breakings, and mendings, in our day.