On May 2 of 2013 – following announcement and explanation of my intentions to attend – I protested “Circle the Square with Prayer” – an annual event held on Public Square in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania presented by the National Day of Prayer Committee of NEPA in observance of the United States government recognized National Day of Prayer. Members from more than 20 local churches and religious groups including youth ministers, faith-based campus organizations, and prominent pastors were in attendance. Throughout the day, hundreds of people — including curious passersby, prayerful individuals, and accidental participants – convened at the 7+ hour function which included kiosks, vendors, prayer walls, and a bandshell from which music was performed and speeches were delivered.
I attended in protest to — with the help of posterboard, permanent markers, and shoddy art skills – share my non-prayerful perspectives: (1) “nothing fails like prayer,” (2) “religion and state are a dangerous mix,” and (3) that people ought to have and express reasons for their beliefs if people ask [1 Peter 3:14-16 graced the reverse side of my sign]. Throughout the protest, I had hours of critical engagement with theists – some of whom agreed with points (2), almost all whom agreed with point (3), and none of whom agreed with point (1).
Theists, for the most part, were extremely respectful and willing to defend their ideas when asked (in addition to those who did not need to be approached). I had asked various persons asking who they were, why they were attending, and what their reasons were for believing in the efficacy of prayer. Mostly, though, people come up to me with questions, arguments, and preaching. Not one person – despite my open disagreement with the core ideas and presenters undergirding the event — accused me of harassment, suggested I should be banned, contacted the organizer with ‘concerns,’ or made efforts to have me removed.
Rather than creating a hostile unwelcoming environment or treating me with derision, the function’s chief organizer – Rev. Michael Brewster of Mount Zion Baptist Church – approached me, shook my hand, and thanked me for attending. He explained that he values my alternative perspectives being peacefully and respectfully represented. Rev. Brewster and I found some common ground, touched on disagreement, and had a joint picture taken. I had asked Rev. Brewster if he would be interested in partaking in a special community event – a formal “Does the Christian God Exist?” debate hosted in his church in which the general public is invited and optional admission donations are sent to a mutually agreed upon charity. Rev. Brewster agreed to debate in the near future and work with me to craft a plan to make my vision a reality.
I had also met Dan Nichols, a pastor from the newly formed Restored Church who – like many others – was happy to see me and engage in discussion. In the past, Pastor Dan and I had met for lunch to discuss church/state separation, our perspectives on religion/religious belief, and the inappropriate vandalism of the Freedom From Religion Foundation banner I was responsible for erecting. Pastor Dan, similar to Rev. Brewster, agreed to meet in the future for a recorded discussion.
I had fun and interesting impromptu debates with many theists — not all sharing the same perspectives, but most, at least those whom I chatted with, had similar beliefs — who believe that I deserve to go to Hell because I disobey God’s law(s) and reject God, I reject God because “something happened to me” in my past, I disbelieve because I had not attended the “right church,” and that all of my reasoning pertaining to why I do not believe any gods exist is circular because I assume reasoning is reliable and use reasoning to justify reasoning. Explanations of God’s ways being a mystery/higher than ours/having a higher purpose were given to respond to the problem of evil in addition to ‘the fall,’ Satan, and man’s disobedience being the answer to the problem of evil. Also discussed was free will, science, and morality.
When asked if I could prove God doesn’t exist, I responded saying I can offer arguments which show the Christian god does not exist. One person, responding to this, told me that I cannot possibly disagree with Bertrand Russell because Russell – according to this individual – believed that one may not ‘prove a negative.’ I found this response laughable because Russell also did not believe the Christian god exists. How, I asked, can this person possibly disagree with Russell? A self-professed “man of science” had also told me that there are “lies in the [science] textbooks” and that, once these alleged lies are removed, evolution is shown to be false…and since I have no other explanation – according to another man — besides God and evolution, it is reasonable to believe God exists.
Another interesting assertion was that belief in the resurrection of Jesus is justified – according to one man – because the apostles who witnessed Jesus raised from the dead were willing to die for their convictions. I had asked this man how this is a reliable mechanism to arrive at truth – noting that many people throughout history (and even in modern times) have been and are willing to die because of their convictions. All that ‘dying for a belief’ shows someone, I explained, is the ardent character of an individual – that one’s belief is so strong that they would be willing to ‘go to the grave’ because of it rather than, for example, renouncing a belief on pain or torture or simply maintaining to live.
Overall, I had an amazing time at the “Circle the Square with Prayer” event and – although I came representing a diametric contrary perspective – was treated with respect. At no point had I or any theists threatened violence, committed an act of violence, or expressed feeling threatened or uncomfortable. Some – in particular one women who had said to me, “Maybe this isn’t a good place for you to stand” after I had openly expressed that my feet were hurting – may have been upset with my presence because I held contrary ideas and had expressed them, but this was no reason for anyone to claim that I was a hostile individual.
I remained calm, as I always do when engaging theists in critical discussion, and walked away fulfilled – excited that people were respectful, welcoming, and willing to engage in discussion with me. No one had branded me as a ‘Christian hater,’ an agent of Satan, argued that I wanted to take away the rights of Christians, or engaged in mass-shunning. I walked away learning more about the diversity of Christian thought, reasons for why people believe what they believe, and experienced a great deal of compassion from people who had major disagreements with my perspectives.
A handful of people — expressing their want to meet me in person and to thank me for attending — noted that they had visited my website on the Skeptic Ink Network, read about my disagreement with the event itself, and read my arguments against Christian beliefs. Respect and openness to discussion, although there was fierce disagreement, was the order of the day. I did not pull any punches in my debates whatsoever; I had provided refutations to arguments which were presented and fiercely disagreed with Christian belief.
Soon after a ‘prayer chain’ has ‘circled’ Public Square and balloons were released, I walked away with a now significant other who had accompanied me – not only providing moral support, but also actively engaging prayerful individuals and holding her own in discussion. We had partaken in a well-earned Chinese buffet later in the evening with lively memories and hopes that individuals who promised to debate in the future keep their promises.
Feel free to — especially if you had attended the event in prayer — leave comments below. As always — and as was shown at the “Circle the Square with Prayer” — I welcome open discussion and disagreement. Stay tuned for more announcements of activism/protests, perspectives on issues of church/state separation, and more thorough refutations of arguments for the Christian god (which are not the focus of this piece). Additionally, consider listening to the May 4 and May 11 episodes of Brave Hero Radio — an online radio show which I co-host alongside Karla Porter — for mention of the event, related discussion, and more information. I would like to thank Rev. Brewster, Pastor Dan Nichols, and prayer individuals in attendance for welcoming disagreement, showing respect, and engaging in spirited impromptu debate.