SPRINGFIELD, Mo. (RNS) Jason Testerman is a pastor’s kid. He grew up in church. His wife is a Christian. He worked as a missionary in India.
But when people started asking him difficult questions about God and the Bible, he started struggling — there were some questions he couldn’t fully answer.
“I won’t say I felt guilty,” he said. “But I felt like I wasn’t giving sufficient answers.”
Soon, he just couldn’t handle it anymore.
“It was a rapid ascent — I won’t say decline — to my atheism from that point on.”
Now, he’s on a different mission: Get atheists into church. But it’s not what you might think.
Testerman is the founder of Free Thought Exchange, a Denver-based organization created within the past two years to foster dialogue and understanding between Christians and atheists.
He spoke about the organization at Skepticon, an annual skeptics conference held here in a region often referred to as the “buckle” of the Bible Belt. The conference, which runs through Sunday (Nov. 17), draws skeptics of all types — secular humanists, atheists and more — and features a variety of workshops and speakers focused on secular living.
Here’s how it works: Through Free Thought Exchange, atheists go into churches — typically those with fundamentalist or evangelical leanings — in search of dialogue with Christians.
Often, he said, people think of atheists as immoral, unethical or lacking direction. These sessions allow people a chance to talk about those misconceptions and shed light on what atheists are really like.
But, why would a pastor even want to let a group of atheists speak in church? Testerman said building a relationship with the pastor is key.
“It’s important to work as partners with the pastor,” he said. “We are always co-moderating the meetings.”
The discussions happened in a controlled environment — in the churches — so they’re on the Christians’ home turf. It’s a safe environment for asking and answering questions.
Evangelization is to be expected from the believers — and as Testerman sees it, that’s OK. Most of the atheists who go and speak are in no danger of re-converting.
On the flip side, it’s important for pastors to understand that the atheists aren’t coming in to “steal their flock.”
“We’re there to plant a seed,” he said, “but we’re not going to take their people away from them.”
That said, some people have had a de-conversion experience spurred on by a Free Thought Exchange. For others, the events have helped them better understand their atheist friends and family members. One woman told Testerman she had never really understood her atheist husband until she attended one of the sessions.
Regardless of the outcome, Testerman urged attendees to be compassionate toward believers, and try to understand the passion behind those beliefs — even if they themselves have been burned by religion.
This kind of outreach can create controversy — some see it as a form of evangelization, and try to label atheism a religion because of it.
One conference attendee posed the question: If you’re not trying to de-convert people, then what’s the point? Again, Testerman emphasized understanding.
“I feel like atheism is very much misunderstood in our society and culture,” Testerman said. “My goal is to help destroy those stereotypes.”
(Kellie Moore is the editor of Columbia Faith & Values.)
KRE/AMB END MOORE