An Atheist in Church

August 10, 2011

My Evening Behind the Orange Curtain

 When I got a call from a woman named Lindsey inviting me to appear at the Moment Church during their Sunday evening service, some warning bells went off in my head. She sounded like a nice enough person, but why would they want me, a career atheist, to even be at their church, much less have a voice there?

This ain’t no UU Church, by the way. Moment’s  “what we believe” statement of faith on their website represents what I would call pretty hardcore Christianity – God is the ubiquitous, all-knowing creator of the universe; the bible is inerrant; you get to heaven through Jesus; marriage is between one man and one woman. You get the picture.

I’ve always been an experience junkie, so I said yes. My friend Spencer, an ex-cop, half-jokingly asked me if I wanted to borrow an old Kevlar vest. I laughed and said no… thought about  lunatics with guns for a second, and said no again. Was I missing something here? Could these people be for real? I asked them if I could bring some other secular types along and shoot our own video — just in case something memorable happened. They said yes to both. That eased my mind a bit, but I still wondered if there was something up their sleeve.

Moment’s Pastor Tony Wood called on the Wednesday before to talk about how he’d like the service to go. He emphasized that he didn’t want this to turn into a debate or argument. It would be more of a chat that might build some bridges between our very different communities. That sounded fine to me. It meant less preparation and less stress.

I’ve accompanied CFI L.A. Chairman Eddie Tabash many times deep into the hinterlands of fundamentalist Christianity for his formal debates, and have been in lots of heated theological discussions with red-faced, veins-a-bulging Christians incensed at the idea of someone so casually blaspheming before them. That’s an evening you have to be in the mood for.

The ride down to Orange County from CFI  in Hollywood was full of speculation about what might happen. Karl and Craig, two CFI members keen to experience this encounter, ran through a litany of arguments our side has been using on apologists for ages – just in case it turned out to be an ambush. I was like a boxer going through a pre-bout warm-up.

The church itself is in an industrial park in Irvine, which immediately brought back memories of a double exorcism I once attended at a church in Sacramento – also in an industrial park. Location’s where the similarities  ended, though. Moment Church sublets from a larger church that has many of the bells and whistles that mega churches have – live, big-screen overhead projection, a slick P.A. system featuring light-show elements and a smoke machine, and streaming video.

When we finally found the front door (there were a couple of Spinal Tap tries) we were all greeted warmly and I was allowed into the pre-service briefing. They run their Sunday services pretty tightly, and I told them their script reminded me of the Oprah Show, which I had been a guest on. Tony seemed impressed by this, but neglected to ask me what the show topic was. (The topic, incidentally, was “Should you have sex before marriage?” As a Chicagoan in my mid 20s at the time, I felt it an obligation to represent the Ayes.)

Pastor Tony and James Underdown

The crowd of 200 (250?) seemed young – lots of teens and twenties – which explained the band opening the service with some (Christian) rock and roll, the big screens, and the text-in-your-questions format.

As Pastor Tony prayed before inviting me up to the stage, it occurred to me that they were taking a bit of a chance on me being there. I was largely an unknown element to them. But I saw no reason to change the warm and fuzzy tone of the service by going off on a rant –  maybe with examples of the gospels contradicting each other, or by explaining how free will can’t exist if God is omniscient. These people really did sound sincere, and I had been listening hard for ulterior motives in the tone of their voices! So I relaxed and had a good time.

The interview went well, I thought. Tony seemed genuinely interested, and I don’t think I offended too many of those in attendance.  I threw one bone to the non-believers in the crowd when I said “You (Christians) stole Christmas from us (non-Christians who celebrate the winter solstice).” Whether Tony knew what I was talking about or not, he didn’t bite, and we rolled respectfully onward.

Pastor Tony and Executive Director Jim

After the interview, the dozen or so atheists in the crowd politely sat through a heartfelt sermon about prayer that used background music for added effect, and then retired to the lobby for a few post-service pics and some abbreviated theological discussion.

Both camps went to the same restaurant afterward, ate amongst their own (we had beer, thank goodness), then reconvened for more discussion. Some of the kids that I spoke to wanted to know about paranormal investigations I’d been involved with and actually seemed fairly skeptically minded. I tried to underscore for them the similarity between belief in the paranormal and belief in the supernatural. (See my ReasonFest talk here)  I’m not sure if they saw the connection, but the conversation was enjoyable in any case.

I never did pick up on any sinister ulterior motives they might have had for inviting me there. Maybe they just wanted to pray for someone as outwardly hell-bound as me. It’s hard to take offense at that, even if I do think praying is a waste of time.

It seemed to me that these young evangelists are less angry, more tolerant, and more open to interacting with their secular neighbors than their parents’ generation. Time will tell if those qualities will ever find their way to elections, school board meetings, and their treatment of good people who don’t share their views. It’s a start, though. It is a start.

If you want to see the video of what happened, have a look. Thanks to Bruce Gleason for shooting this footage: