Saving believers: Former Christian finds calling to preach the good news of atheism
By EILEEN E. FLYNN, AMERICAN-STATESMAN
Added: Wed, 21 Mar 2007 00:00:00 UTC
Thanks to Richard Prins for the link.
Sunday, March 18, 2007
This is the call Matt Dillahunty has been waiting for. He's been preaching on the air for almost 90 minutes, and so far, there has been no robust debate with his viewers. No real challenge.
Then a viewer named Cory calls, wanting to know how someone can reject the idea of a divine creator. Cory has a 1-year-old baby. "If not God, who do I thank for the gift of my son?" he asks. "For this creation?"
Matt Dillahunty leads the Atheist Community of Austin and hosts the 'Atheist Experience' on TV. He keeps a Bible nearby to ensure that callers quote it correctly.
What's this? Dillahunty's eyes flicker. After a few uneventful calls, he's struck gold.
Tall, bald and broad-chested, Dillahunty is the public face of non-belief in Austin. He is president of the Atheist Community of Austin, a prolific blogger and writer, and host of the weekly television show the "Atheist Experience" and an Internet radio show called "The Non-Prophets."
Dillahunty's vocation is shocking for his parents, who raised him in a devout Southern Baptist home and had once expected him to enter ministry.
Dillahunty's pursuit for biblical truth took him on an unexpected journey. Instead of trying to win souls for God, the 37-year-old preaches the gospel of science and provable reality in the hope of keeping someone else from spending years on religion.
On this Sunday afternoon, he's in a narrow room with cinder block walls in a public-access TV studio trying to liberate believers from what he considers the shackles of religion.
Dillahunty may have been destined for this. If you believe in destiny. Which he doesn't anymore.
His faith led him to accept Jesus twice. Once when he was 5 at a revival in Kansas City and again as a teenager. He was worried that the first time didn't count. He believed in the Bible, believed it could save people.
He still wants to save people. And in a way, he's become a preacher, using TV and the Internet to get his message out.
His vestments this Sunday are a brown-and-white Guayabera shirt and slacks. His altar is a folding table. The Atheist Community logo hangs on the wall. A worn Bible with pages edged in gold leaf is at the ready.
Dillahunty has no idea how many people will be watching. He has faithful followers around the world who catch the show online. Local viewers often stumble upon the show while channel surfing. Some will call to argue. Some to agree. Others will babble nonsensically.
But Cory, who's still on the line, wants to have a real discussion. Dillahunty's co-host, Ashley Perrien, jumps in first, suggesting that Cory should take credit for creating his child.
But Cory says he wants to give glory to God, that having faith is comforting.
"You're basically saying you believe things because they make you feel good instead of believing things because there's a good reason to," Dillahunty says.
Then Cory reveals his past as an alcoholic, a result of his "sinful nature," he says. God delivered him, he insists.
Dillahunty asks for evidence.
"It's belief, and it's faith," Cory says. "I can't give you evidence."
"I'd much rather that you take credit for what you accomplished," Dillahunty says. Then he leans forward and looks directly into the camera, "When I talk about evidence, I'm talking about ev-i-dence," he says, stressing each syllable. "Not anecdotes. Not gut feelings."
His voice is calm, patient. But this is where the conversations start spinning in circles, and he wants to force the question: How do you know?
Losing his faith
For most of his life, faith came naturally. Dillahunty felt a shiver of goose bumps in church and was sure it was the Holy Spirit. He prayed and listened for God to guide him.
At age 18, Dillahunty wasn't positive that God was calling him to the ministry. In 1987, he began an eight-year stint in the U.S. Navy, after which he moved to Austin to pursue a career in software. He still considered himself a believer, but he had drifted from church life.
In 2001, after the tech bubble burst and he lost his job, he began to worry that God was punishing him for not entering ministry. With a sizable severance package, he put the job search on hold and threw himself into reconnecting with his faith. He reread the Bible, consumed volumes on religion and philosophy, debated with atheists on the Internet and began thinking about going to seminary.
Then it all fell apart. Not in one fell swoop, but in stages. Dillahunty remembers arguing in an online discussion forum about a biblical passage in which God sends two bears to kill 42 children who were taunting a prophet.
That's just immoral, he remembers thinking. Why had he never noticed it before? At first, he was angry with himself. "You really should have investigated this earlier," he thought. "You've believed things that aren't justified for so long."
He started talking to members of the Atheist Community after seeing the cable show. In 2005, he began doing a guest spot on the program. In January 2006, he took over as host. By May, members had elected him president of the group of about 100.
People are pleased with Dillahunty's leadership, longtime member Keith Berka said. "Matt is superb," he said. "He knows more theology than most Christians."
Finding his calling
The work consumes Dillahunty. He spent five hours on a recent Monday deconstructing Jesus' Sermon on the Mount for an e-mail debate he was having with a Christian. He also speaks out on issues of church-and-state separation — a key priority for the community — and bigotry against atheists. A recent University of Minnesota survey showed that atheists are the least-trusted group in the country.
Last year, after a relative discovered Dillahunty's work on the Web and confronted him, Dillahunty realized that he would have to tell his parents. His father was stunned. He sent Dillahunty an apologetic letter saying he had failed him as a father and a spiritual leader. He said he regretted that his son would never be able to love anyone because atheism is a selfish belief.
His mother gave him books on Christianity and vowed to keep trying to return him to the fold.
He doesn't expect to convince them that their beliefs are wrong. But it's hard to shake his frustration with the labels they've given him: selfish, immoral, lost.
"You can build a moral code rationally from a few philosophical precepts," Dillahunty said. His basic principle of ethics is "do the most good and the least harm possible."
Even when dealing with shrill, dogmatic callers on his TV show. He tries to hold his caustic tongue, although he doesn't always succeed. But Cory is polite and hesitant and, most importantly, sincere.
"But how do you explain us?" Cory persists.
With a mischievous grin, Dillahunty begins to lecture about the sperm and the egg. Then he grows serious. He wants the caller to understand. It's more important, in Dillahunty's mind, to have understanding than knowledge. "Even if we don't have an answer . . . that's still not a good reason to say we have a God."
"What do you think is going to happen after you die, bro?" Cory asks.
"I think I'm going to be dead."
The conversation starts to build. What does it mean to have faith? Why should someone follow the Bible? But Cory's call came too late. Dillahunty's clock ticks down the final seconds of the show. "The show's going to cut off in . . ." he tries to tell Cory. Then they're off the air. "Now."
There's no caller ID. Technicians say the station can't track Cory down.
Dillahunty wants to stay engaged, to keep the discussion going. There's always the hope that Cory or other viewers will show up at the restaurant where the atheist crew gathers after the show (the public is invited to join members for dinner). Dillahunty packs up his Bible and laptop and heads for the door.
On the Web: For more information on the Atheist Community of Austin, go to www.atheist-community.org.
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