Why the Christian Church Should Consider what Atheists are Saying and Listen to them…

A horrific case of child sex abuse in Dearborn, Missouri and an article at The Friendly Atheist are what inspires today’s post. After my faith crisis I have always believed that Christians should be open to  atheists and consider what they are saying. Too often I believe many evangelicals dismiss and fail to comprehend other points of view. It is the evangelical Christian church’s loss when it ignores atheists. I hope Lauren Nelson’s post at The Friendly Atheist gives evangelicals pause to reasses what atheists are saying. 

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There is a discernment quiz here for you to look at and analyze. It is from the membership page of a local Evangelical Free Church in the D.C. area called Ambassador Bible Church. How would you analyze their membership requirements? By practicing your discernment, would you get involved in Ambassador? After giving people an opportunity to review then I will write a post and discuss Ambassador Bible Church’s membership requirements. That will happen next week.

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“I only wish I could find an institute that teaches people how to listen. Business people need to listen at least as much as they need to talk. Too many people fail to realize that real communication goes in both directions.”

Lee Iacocca

“Be a good listener. Your ears will never get you in trouble.”

Frank Tyger

“You have to be willing sometimes to listen to some remarkable bad opinions. Because if you say to someone, ‘That’s the silliest thing I’ve ever heard; get on out of here!’—then you’ll never get anything out of that person again, and you might as well have a puppet on a string or a robot.”

John Bryan

To answer before listening— that is folly and shame.

Proverbs 18:13 NIV

Greta Christina speaking at The Reason Rally in Washington, D.C. March 24, 2012

This post will touch on child sex abuse however, that is not the goal of this article. What I am hoping to explore is why, we, collectively as the Christian church should listen and be open to what many in the atheist or secular community are saying. There are many lessons that can indeed be learned. There are many reasons why people reject Christianity, and those reasons are all across the board. For some its intellectual reasons, for others what was taught didn’t work, and yet for others being burned and hurt by fundamentalism is yet one other reason why some walk away. It’s a very complex issue with no easy answers with many reasons driving it. I also know that there are many camps and differing points of view in atheism and secularism.

When I was in my faith crisis I attended the Reason Rally on the National Mall here in Washington, D.C. One thing I will long remember is a talk by well known atheist blogger Greta Christina. On a wet and overcast Saturday afternoon she mounted the stage and went off as to why she is angry as an atheist. With that she listed off reason after reason, of harm, tragedy, discrimination, pain and other issues that came from Christianity and religion. When I was attending I was under incredible pressure to attend Redeemer Arlington, and I had read up on SGM Survivors of all the problems and issues within Sovereign Grace. When Greta Christina ranted about the Catholic church covering up child sex abuse, and why that made her angry I clapped thinking of the behavior of the SGM denomination. I wish many Christians would have been there and listened to Greta Christina. I wish many would actually open their minds and consider what is said. In what is said it is often wise advice that just boggles my mind that many Christians ignore.

A Child Sex Abuse Situation in Dearborn, Missouri

Darren Paden was, and I guess in this case remains, a well respected member of Dearborn, Missouri. He had served in the Persian Gulf War in 1991, and who was a Chief of the Volunteer Fire House in  the community in which he lived. He also had another secret, he had been sexually abusing a girl for ten years, which began when this girl was five. It is estimated that she was raped 200 to 300 times over that ten year period. The girl went a presentation in school by law enforcement on sex abuse and realized that what happened to her was illegal and she subsequently reported it. What happened next is stunning.

The police brought in Darren Paden and in an interview he admitted that he sexually abused the girl in question. It was true, he did not deny it and opened up to the abuse. Despite his confession, this favorite son of community had the town rally around him. In the process the town shunned the girl. In 2013 Darren Paden was charged by law enforcement. The girl, who was the victim faced shunning in her community. This is how it was described in the Kansas City Star.

For two years, tension over the case has frayed allegiances in Dearborn.

On one side there has been Paden, backed by a contingent of supporters that has included family, church elders, the former bank president and other prominent residents.

On the other side was the victim, now 18, who said this week that although she has received some strong words of support, she largely has been ostracized and even been declared a liar by some in the community where she also has lived her entire life. All she did was tell — and much of the community turned its back on her.

“I know there are a lot of people who support me,” she said this week in a personal interview in Platte City. But what she has experienced most is the chill from “the people who refuse to believe me…”

“I called a lady about a house she was renting,” the victim continued, “and I told her my name, and she said, ‘What’s your name again?’ and I told her and she said ‘I don’t want to rent to you’ and then hung up on me.”

Some townspeople have shunned or turned away from her.

“Before this, there were people who would come up and talk to me and have conversations with me,” she said. “Now they won’t even look at me or talk to me.”

Her mother believes her, the victim said.

In September a number of citizens of Dearborn filed letters with the court in support of Darren Paden. They included family members, a church deacon, and the former president of a local bank. Sheila Goodlet and aunt to Darren Paden said the following, “I did that (wrote a letter) in support of his family because they are pretty devastated over this whole thing, I just wanted there to be some hope in a hopeless situation.… I also want the judge to be aware that Darren has had a lot of good, positive things in his life, too.” Other letters mentioned his service in the Air National Guard. Stephen Goodlet, Darren Paden’s uncle wrote, “He went overseas during the Gulf War and served in mobile hospitals to help wounded soldiers.” Paden’s great-aunt, Dixie Wilson, wrote of her great-nephew’s service as a junior deacon at New Market Christian Church. In her letter she said,  “I could go on and on,” she wrote, “but would just be repeating that he is a good man!” In a telephone interview, Wilson stated,  “My opinion is, most people don’t believe it happened. Are you for a child molester? Absolutely not,” said Wilson, 82. “But I don’t think we’re talking about a child molester.” New Market Christian Church embraced the sexual abuser and held prayer circles for him. A close friend Adele Brightwell wrote in a letter,  “Darren is one of the most admirable people I know,…He holds fast to his morals…” Jerry Hagg a former bank president wrote of Paden’s contribution to the community. Meanwhile more support from New Market Christian Church for Darren Paden was forthcoming.  Gene Blankenship wrote that “Only God, Darren and (the victim) know what truly happened. I feel Darren may have admitted to things he did not do after hours of interrogation and all the pressure to admit guilt.” Then Darla Hall Emmedorfer wrote the following  “I truly believe that Darren has already suffered extensively for his actions by being kept away from his young children and his home life, and by not being able to provide for this family,” Emmendorfer wrote. “Because of the significant difficulties that will face his innocent family, I would ask you, Judge Van Amburg, to grant Darren a sentence of probation or at least the lowest possible sentence.” The support for the molester and the way the community treated the sexual abuser stunned the legal system. Platte County Prosecutor Eric Zahnd in a prepared statement called the lack of support for the victim, “deeply troubling.” He continued by saying, “There are certainly a few good people in the community who have offered their support to this young victim. It is shocking, however, that many continue to support a defendant whose guilt was never truly in doubt. If it takes a village to raise a child, what is a child to do when the village turns its back and supports a confessed child molester?”

An Article at The Friendly Atheist

I read about this situation in Missouri in social media and I just cringed. It seemed horrific and disturbing. Then I was killing some time late in the evening surfing and reading through many atheist blogs. I love to read The Friendly Atheist, there is a lot of stuff there that challenges me and my thinking. So in reading at The Friendly Atheist I read the following article by Lauren Nelson. Lauren Nelson is one of the writers at The Friendly Atheist, plus she also blogs at Rethink the Rant. She writes a lot about politics, social justice and faith related issues. When I read this I knew I had to write about it. This article is a good way to illustrate why Christians should read and be open to atheist perspective. There’s a lot of good writing in this article, and I don’t want to break it up. What I am going to do is reprint a good chunk of the article here. I like what Lauren says. Please read her commentary below.

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As Raw Story explains:

Darren Paden was sentenced to 50 years in prison Friday after pleading guilty in August to two counts of first-degree statutory sodomy — but friends, family members, church elders and community leaders begged a judge to go easy on him.

Prosecutors said the 52-year-old Paden sexually abused the girl up to 300 times over a decade, beginning before she was 5 years old. His 28-year-old son, Anthony Paden, was also charged with sex abuse, although his case remains pending.

But community members have turned their backs on the girl, who is now 18 years old and testified against her abuser in court, and rallied around Paden.

Take a minute to let that sink in. This was an adult who raped a young girl for ten years and admitted to it. Instead of feeling anger towards the abuser, or heartbreak for the young girl, or terror over the fact that something like this had been going on in their town for so long, the community rose to the defense of a monster.

Prior to the sentencing, dozens of letters were sent calling for mercy on him. They referenced the man’s family, his service in the Air National Guard and the local fire department, and his position as a junior deacon at New Market Christian Church. They asked the judge to consider all the good deeds he’d committed over his lifetime. The actually argued that the man had already been punished enough, just by going through the trial. As one woman wrote:

I truly believe that Darren has already suffered extensively for his actions by being kept away from his young children and his home life, and by not being able to provide for this family. Because of the significant difficulties that will face his innocent family, I would ask you, Judge Van Amburg, to grant Darren a sentence of probation or at least the lowest possible sentence.

So mental anguish is apparently on par with a decade of sexual abuse endured by a victim. But that’s only the tip of the iceberg. The defenses got more and more twisted the further you read.

Nevermind that Paden already confessed to the crimes, said others. Gene Blankenship, a trustee at Paden’s church, proclaimed:

Only God, Darren and (the victim) know what truly happened. I feel Darren may have admitted to things he did not do after hours of interrogation and all the pressure to admit guilt.

Paden’s 82-year-old aunt Dixie Wilson has shrugged off the flabbergasted public response to the community’s support for a child molestor, saying she’d feel sorry for the girl if she’d actually been abused, but that it wasn’t the case. The whole situation, she claimed, was a test of their faith:

Our community is one that we deeply believe in God and we’re not going to buckle under anything. We’re not going to let it destroy all of us. We’re going to keep doing our good works and doing what we believe and rely on each other.

We’re talking about a young woman who was sexually abused by a church leader for ten years, who resorted to self-harm and wrestled with the idea of suicide. Since coming forward, she’s been denied service and housing and called a liar at every turn. So many sexual assault survivors don’t come forward out of fear that no one will believe them; too many end up facing it with a hefty serving of victim blaming to boot. But this young woman in Dearborn is living the survivor’s nightmare in extreme fashion, being ostracized by her community for having the courage to report her abuser.

Perhaps in this close Christian community, such a reaction should not surprise us. We’re talking about a faith whose foundational texts diminish the significance of rape or attempt to justify it. We’re talking about believers who can justify that Christian husbands who want to force sex with unwilling wives can still do so as long as they don’t look at their faces. We’re living in a world where people continue to support denominations that actively worked to cover up sexual abuse of children for decades.

So much for Christian love.

Why The Christian Church Should Listen to Atheists

In that article above by Lauren Nelson there are a lot of good points and observations that need to be said. As someone in the Christian faith the points she makes are well said, and need to be heard. Let me select a few parts and highlight them below:

  • (In response to the community shunning the girl) Take a minute to let that sink in. This was an adult who raped a young girl for ten years and admitted to it. Instead of feeling anger towards the abuser, or heartbreak for the young girl, or terror over the fact that something like this had been going on in their town for so long, the community rose to the defense of a monster.
  • (On a comment about how Darren has suffered mental anguish) So mental anguish is apparently on par with a decade of sexual abuse endured by a victim.
  • (In response to a woman who said that the community’s faith in God will remain strong) We’re talking about a young woman who was sexually abused by a church leader for ten years, who resorted to self-harm and wrestled with the idea of suicide. Since coming forward, she’s been denied service and housing and called a liar at every turn. So many sexual assault survivors don’t come forward out of fear that no one will believe them; too many end up facing it with a hefty serving of victim blaming to boot. But this young woman in Dearborn is living the survivor’s nightmare in extreme fashion, being ostracized by her community for having the courage to report her abuser.
  • We’re living in a world where people continue to support denominations that actively worked to cover up sexual abuse of children for decades.

Those are all good observations and responses. They deserve to be pointed out and I am grateful that they are being pointed out. Here’s the problem as I see it. Many evangelical Christians don’t respect, show courtesy, or think highly of atheists. That is indeed tragic because there are many good attributes and features of the atheist community. To dismiss someone just because they don’t believe in God or used to be a Christian is indeed tragic. There is a lot that atheists can say, and teach and there is much that we can learn from them. This article by Lauren Nelson at the Friendly Atheist illustrates wisdom, and good questioning that the Christian church should listen to, and deeply consider.

To not be open to other points of view is indeed short sighted and indeed tragic. Education comes not when you listen to like minded people and stay in familiar territory, education and growth comes when you venture into unknown territory. This is part of the reason why I consider my faith crisis that consumed half my thirties to be a gift – probably one of the greatest gifts of my life.  Had that not happened I would not be the person I am today and I wouldn’t be writing this article.  In 2008 I knew next to nothing about atheism. Today while I am in the Christian faith, I still read, and follow the atheist movement, and I still respect the community. Its a learning experience and there is so much indeed to learn. If Christians would just take a step back and listen to what many atheists would have to say I think they would be surprised. I respected and loved Christopher Hitchens when he was alive because I think he was searching. Greta Christina and Seth Andrews (Thinking Atheist) ask good questions, and make good observations. But consider Lauren’s many take aways…she points out the trauma that a person of sexual abuse endures, questions where is the love in such environments, and inquires about mental anguish being on par with a decade of child sex abuse among other things to consider. These are all necessary things to point out. One of the things I am hoping for in the course of time is to break those barriers between the differing movements and associations. The internet is a great tool, and social media allows for conversations to take place that would not happen elsewhere. It would be great if atheists and Christians can meet and discuss these kinds of issues. It would be fantastic if atheists could say, “the problems I have with Christianity are _________” It would ne nice in return if Christians could open up and say, “Yes I have problems to, and all that I was taught didn’t work the way I thought it would…but here’s what I struggle with….” I would suggest in the end that we are much closer than we often think we are. We may not admit, or say that, but I think there’s more in agreement than we often can acknowledge. For the past 3 years or so I had come to believe that there is much that the church can learn from atheists. While there are many articles that I read which re-iterate this point, I saw a lot of potential in this one and wanted to raise this while it was in the news.

On a quick side note you know what would be beautiful? If Christians and atheists combined their efforts and opened and ran a gofundme account for the sexual abuse victim. What would that say if two people on differing sides of the fence came together for a common purpose….that of helping someone who was tragically harmed. My hope in the course of time is that both sides get to know each other and speak with each other, not past or ignore. There is a lot in atheism that we Christians, need to acknowledge responsibility for, especially when it comes to discrimination. I have a post I am working on about Christians and discrimination of atheists. That is another conversation that we need to have. That will be a conversation that we need to have another day. In parting I will leave you with a song from The Rescues. As always I love you guys!

3 thoughts on “Why the Christian Church Should Consider what Atheists are Saying and Listen to them…

  1. I for one would never say evangelicals can learn nothing from atheists. Yet I just don’t get why you make the claim that ‘the faith diminishes the significance of rape or attempts to justify it’. Atheists say this, and quote the version used in the article, but a bit more study of the subject would lead them to modify this claim, not least by comparing how other versions translate the passage in the old testament. Rape was a capital offense. That makes it important and unjustifiable.

    In any event, given atheism is true, why shouldn’t males force their way with weaker females? Isn’t this how evolution just happens to have made us? An accident of chance whose only purpose is to reproduce. Does it matter how?

    OK they are right to complain at hypocritical behavior in churches who are not living up to their own standards, but then they themselves nearly always reject the sexual ethics religious people are supposed to abide by.

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  2. On one side there has been Paden, backed by a contingent of supporters that has included family, church elders, the former bank president and other prominent residents.

    “…a contingent of supporters that has included family, CHURCH ELDERS, …”

    Didn’t Boz T say that in all his years as a prosecutor specializing in child abuse, he had NEVER seen a church take the side of the victim? Only throw in 1000% for the pedo/perp?

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  3. It would be great if atheists and Christians can meet and discuss these kinds of issues.

    The nice thing about the internet is that we can. Sure it’s a bit more anonymous and removed, but I find that actually a benefit due to the subject matter. Religion is a fairly important social and personal identity belief and disagreements about it can be heated. The internet gives us not only the opportunity to meet and discuss but also that nice little space we all get since the discussion is rarely in real time.

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