Lifetree Cafe: The Rise of Atheism
Earth tones of tan and green, dark wood tables, the fragrant welcoming of coffee and cupcakes, such familiarities would lead any unsuspecting being to jam a knuckle in their eye to wipe away the crusty residue of sleep and prod any recollection of deliberately entering a Starbucks. But where is the barista with the flat-ironed hair, or the one with the stretched earlobes who shares my contempt for Starbucks’ bastardisation of the macchiato? They’re not here. Then again, this isn’t Starbucks. This is Lifetree Café, a new Christian movement priding itself on not being like any church experience you’ve had before.
I decided to attend California’s first Lifetree Café located inside the Campbell Creek Connexion (Arcata Nazarene) after reading an advert in the local paper announcing a lecture on atheism. Although a Christian organization drawing mainly Christian patrons, Lifetree is open to the public. I hoped my presence would be welcome considering that if there were no atheists in the room to behold a film and discussion titled Giving Up on God :The Rise of Atheism – made by and for Christians – the scene would not be much different than a group of white neighbors gathering to discuss the black family who just moved into the house on the corner.
I was warmly greeted at the door by Tami, a recent born again, who upon asking if I attend a church in the area, was met with a kind and gentle, “I do not.” † She promptly introduced me to Pastor Bob Dipert. Dipert and I chatted as we adorned ourselves with official Lifetree nametags. Soon a whirlwind of people engulfed the café. Frequenters of the group took turns introducing themselves. After several inquiries as to what church I was from or how I had heard about Lifetree, I confessed that I was an atheist and the newspaper advert had worked brilliantly. A momentary look of horror swept a few faces as though a dragon had just shown up to their D & D game. We casually conversed a bit more and the tension soon eased. I was informed that the host, Ken, had forgotten the packet with the video on atheism. No matter, I stayed for the discussion and video on stress and returned the following week for The Rise of Atheism.
The similarities between the world’s largest coffee chain and Lifetree are intentional. In fact, the aesthetic down to every last detail is mandated at the 50+ Lifetree franchises across the country. Everything from the circumference and height of the tables, each with four chairs, to the length of the discussion breaks during the video, have been tested to generate a particular level of comfort and conversation. From start to finish the meeting is exactly an hour long. With only five to ten minutes given to a group of four to discuss a particular question, the depth of the conversation is never more than that of a tide pool. Even so, after attending two meetings I felt I learned something about the people at my table, though not anymore than I have about the baristas at the coffeehouses I frequent.
As we took to our seats a definition of atheism taken from the American Atheist’s website was scrawled across a large television resting on the back wall:
There are no forces, phenomena, or entities which exist outside of or apart from physical nature, or which transcend nature, or are “super” natural, nor can there be. Humankind is on its own.
Hmmm, that last sentence struck me as odd. There are an abundance of life forms on this planet for which a symbiotic relationship is integral to survival. Being without God doesn’t mean we’re alone – it means we prefer real relationships to imaginary ones. Ken, a college professor and host of the meeting, aware of such distinctions, also found fault with the definition.
The video then cross-edited a dreadfully inarticulate member of a campus atheist club against English professor and Christian Apologist, Holly Ordway. The young man defending atheism gave it a go, though he claimed disbelief as something atheists, “don’t necessarily like more than belief, they just find more reasonable.” I must say, I couldn’t disagree more. The very idea of compulsory love, being punished for thought crime and forced to ceaselessly worship the wicked practice of scapegoating, which one cannot ever be freed from – even in death – is extremely unappealing. I do not wish for a heavenly dictator. Such is the difference between the religiously dismissive atheist and the antitheist, a term perhaps more appropriate for yours truly. Most atheists and antitheists alike do not claim that a grand utopia will be revealed once the religiosity of society is reduced, after all, mankind created religion and is responsible for its atrocities. What the antitheist position argues further is that our species will benefit greatly from the removal of oppression, misogyny, ignorance and vulgarity derived from belief in a celestial dictator. We now know for a fact that when education and equality is granted to women, no matter a societies cultural and ethnic makeup, the floor beneath poverty is raised. All traditional religions fail to recognize the necessity of equality and have built an unnatural divide through the very center of humanity.
Professor Ordway, for whom the video dedicates a great deal of time, attempts to argue that her “academic training,” not her faith, has provided her with sufficient evidence of God’s existence and the divinity of Christ. She follows with a series of remarks each more dim-witted than the next, leaving many of us in the room, believers included, wondering if she has ever cracked a a book more challenging than Harry Potter. She states that Christians, and only Christians, traveled the world spreading nothing but charity and goodness; that communism and the atrocities of Mao and Stalin were due to atheism; that the atheist position is not based on reason. I could write all day long about such erroneous statements, and I have in past articles, so instead I’m going to address her inanity with a couple reading recommendations. First: George Eliot’s “Evangelical Teaching: Dr. Cumming.” Second: An essential classic work and document of the Cold War by six early twentieth writers including Arthur Koestler, André Gide and Richard Wright, on their conversion to and subsequent disillusionment with communism: The God That Failed.
During the discussion breaks my table of believers were neither hostile nor argumentative. Some in the room had never met an admitted atheist. In a matter of minutes they went from fear, to being shocked by my politeness, to asking genuine and sincere questions. The question that came up the most: where do you derive your morality from, if not the Bible?
Due to the time limit I refrained from answering with biology or science. A hard to grasp academic response would not be affective. And quoting classical texts and philosophy would probably close off all interest in what I had to say. So I simply stated that morality evolves. Books, movies, cultural figures, the way we are treated by others, our daily experiences and observations, these are the things that create our moral perspectives. Morality is honed, not derived from a priori. It’s not tied to religious texts, but to literary tradition. Through Plato and Hegel, Shakespeare and Jane Austin, Thomas Paine and Abraham Lincoln, even the Lorax and the Grinch, we learn moral lessons. Reason, knowledge, and discourse are applied and the failed rudiments of past moral codes are stripped away. The Bible and other religious texts are also part of that very literary tradition; They don’t need to be thrown out, instead we should recognize them for what they are – fiction. And there’s nothing wrong with that, we’re all moved by fiction.
If one were to layout the laws in Leviticus, slowly crossing out the ones the church now deems immoral and despicable, while writing the date of its dismissal, the arc of the church’s relevance, as well as the splintering off of 33,000 and counting denominations, could be drawn. Once belief is extracted from the equation a more authentic and applicable morality, one that acknowledges the ethical malfunction of faith, can be found. Faith is not something that warrants credibility, faith is the eye of the needle through which any yarn can be spun.
As morality evolves, religions either grow more secular or face extinction. Lifetree Café admits such and also acknowledges the church’s dwindling parishioners. That’s why they’re attempting to make Christianity more secular. What they fail to grasp is that human decency is not derived from religion, it predates it, and has managed to survive despite it. Packaging secular interactions in a socially engineered Christian box with timed discussion breaks only dilutes the genuine experience of conversation. The effectiveness of such a ministry is not due to the method, but to the lack of weekly secular gatherings being ‘advertised’ under an ideology. Book clubs, dinner groups, collectives, all exist but are not readily advertised within many communities. This is perhaps because most secularists don’t have leaders making a living off conversions. Nonetheless, positively engaging community is something everyone, believer or not, need to work on.
As the video came to an end a beautiful solo piano piece set the mood. As the music played a narration of this fable originally printed in the London Observer began:
Imagine a family of mice who live all their lives inside a large piano, just as you and I live our lives in our fragment of the universe. To the mice in their piano-world came the music of the instrument, filling all the dark spaces with sound and harmony. The mice were much impressed by it. They drew comfort and wonder from the thought that there was a Someone who made the music—invisible to them, yet close to them. They loved to think of the Great Player whom they could not see.
Then one day a daring mouse climbed up part of the inside of the piano and returned to the colony very thoughtful. He had discovered how the music was made. Wires were the secret—tightly stretched wires of graduated lengths that trembled and vibrated. Now the mice must revise all their old beliefs. None but the most conservative could believe any longer in the Unseen Player.
Years later, another explorer mouse came back with still further explanations. Hammers were the secret; numbers of hammers leaping and dancing on the wires to produce the beautiful sounds. This was certainly a more complicated theory than the one their forefathers knew. But it proved they lived in a purely mechanical and mathematical world. The Unseen Player came to be regarded as a myth.
And the pianist continued to play.
Lifetree augmented the ending to say a majority of the mice still knew, based on “the evidence,” that the music was coming from The Unseen Player. To this I uncontrollably blurted, “If God is playing the piano, I wonder what Hurricane Katrina sounds like.” The room pleasantly filled with laughter, exposing such imprudent fables as the rubbish they are.
Afterwards many people approached me and engaged in pleasant chat. Some were rigid in their faith, some new to the church, all were friendly and embracing Lifetree’s step towards secularism. Many atheists in conversation with the religious, perhaps due to thousands of years of persecution or simply at the hand of disinterest, have chosen to avoid discussing why they don’t believe. These days, however, it’s best if atheists speak up. As the church grows in its secularism atheists should engage the religious, not only for our rights, but as a way to embrace our communities. At this juncture American atheists may not be able to successfully run for the presidency, but we can demonstrate compassion and positively impact the religious through the way we live our lives. Secular societies such as Norway, Sweden and Iceland have the longest life expectancies, least amount of crime, and the highest levels of social equality. As religious ideology declines more propaganda such as Giving up on God: The Rise of Atheism will be created. When it is, the fallacy of faith will be forevermore illuminated.
† The author was asked if he attended church in the area, though it may not have been by Tami.