An Evening with Atheists

by Drew Dyck

An Evening with AtheistsChristians love talking about atheists. Generally, however, we’re less excited about talking to them. 

Well, one night last winter I set out to change that, at least in my own life. I attended an atheist gathering in my neighborhood.

But first I had to go online and join their “meet-up” group.

I remember my hand freezing on my computer mouse, unable to click the “join us” invitation. For a moment the cursor hovered over the button. Did I really want to do this?

I had already interviewed dozens of atheists for the book project I was working on, but most of my interviews had been conducted over the phone or via email. Somehow the prospect of sitting face to face with them was more intimidating. I wasn’t afraid of an intellectual assault. Yes, there would be plenty of God-bashing in these meetings, but I wasn’t likely to hear anything new. Thanks to my peculiar habit of reading reams of atheist literature, I’d heard most of the arguments against Christianity before, and all from the movement’s most eloquent spokespeople.  

Rather it was the personal nature of these encounters that I found unsettling. These weren’t disembodied stories or abstract arguments. These were real people, and they’d be venting disdain for the God I believe in and loved. Talking to them over the phone was one thing; sitting face-to-face, eating chicken wings together at a local restaurant would be different.

Frankly, I was surprised to learn that an atheist group even existed in my neighborhood. Wheaton, Illinois, is a Christian powerhouse, an “evangelical Vatican,” as The New York Times has stated. Throw a stick and you’ll hit a church—and probably a parachurch organization too. I work in the area at Christianity Today International, a magazine and online publisher that reaches a total of six million readers. The sprawling campus of Tyndale House—publisher of the bestselling Left Behind series—sits so close to our offices that they literally walk over advance copies of new books. Just down the road loom the castle-like buildings of Wheaton College, known as the “Christian Harvard” and the alma mater of Billy Graham. There’s no shortage of churches either. According to some estimates, Wheaton has the most churches per capita of any city in the world.

No wonder area skeptics felt outnumbered. “Looking to meet like-minded individuals in a nation that is cuckoo for Christianity!” wrote one atheist on the Meet-up site.

“In a suburb filled with people that seem to be extremely narrow-minded and faith-centric, it’ll be nice to meet like-minded folks,” wrote another.

I began to see that these weren’t people meeting merely for intellectual stimulation; they were huddling together for warmth, the surrounding Christian culture an ever-present challenge to their beliefs. Still, they had an impressive network of “free-thinkers.” Just scanning the site opened my eyes to a whole underworld of doubt. There was a “Skeptics in the Park” group, a “Free Inquiry” club, even a “Latino Atheists Meet-up.”

When I finally worked up the courage to click the “Join Us!” button to receive meeting details, I was greeted by a picture of Greg, the group’s organizer. I guessed Greg to be in his mid-thirties, not much older than me. He was dressed impeccably, but looked dangerously thin with a head that probably appeared larger than it really was thanks to his slight frame and receding hairline. He looked directly into the camera with serious, intelligent eyes that seemed to dance with doubt. I had to chuckle—he fit my mental image of an atheist to a T.

Judging from the online comments of the members, however, These meetings weren’t somber, academic affairs. In fact, for most participants fun and community seemed to be the big draws.

“Nogodformethanks” boasted on the message board, “We have a fun, friendly group!”

They met at local pubs, or in homes. Some of the online pictures taken at their house meetings were indistinguishable from the church small group I attend every Wednesday.

The next meeting would be at a pub less than a mile from my house. I showed up feeling a little jittery. When I signed up I described myself as a “Christian writer” and I was nervous about how they’d respond to my presence.

When I walked into the pub, I didn’t know where to find them.

“I’m looking for a group of people,” I told the host.

His face was blank. Obviously there were many “groups of people” in the pub.

“They’re, um, atheists,” I offered.

Those were the magic words. He pointed me to three large adjoined tables near the back of the bar where a large group had already assembled. I walked over and introduced myself to the young man opposite the table from me. He shook his head.

“I saw your profile. I know who you are.” He let out a mock groan. “Why did I have to sit on this end of the table?”

Before I could respond, a gray-haired woman smiled warmly in my direction.

“I don’t think I’ve seen you here before. What’s your name?”

“I’m Drew,” I said cheerfully. “I work just down the street at Christianity Today.”

Her brow furrowed.

“When did you become an atheist?”

“I didn’t. I’m a Christian.”

The word “Christian” seemed to hang in the air. The conversations around the table died, and I felt twenty-five pairs of eyes fasten upon me…

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