Lifetree Cafes Offer Space for Tough Topics

Axel Lauer/Shutterstock.

Avenue of blossoming trees. Axel Lauer/Shutterstock.

On a recent Monday evening, a room inside Christ Community Church was transformed into a coffeehouse with fresh-brewed coffee, plenty of popped kettle corn and the thorny subject of racism on the table.

For an hour, about 20 people gathered around tables, shared personal experiences about racism, watched a short documentary and answered questions meant to stimulate conversation.

The event is called Lifetree Cafe, and it’s a new evangelical tool gaining popularity with churches reaching out to potential members.

One Scouts Ban Remains Intact: Atheists

RNS photo by Gregory A. Shemitz.

A Boy Scout marches with his troop during the Memorial Day parade in Smithtown, N.Y. RNS photo by Gregory A. Shemitz.

The decision by the Boy Scouts of America to accept openly gay Scouts has raised the question: Are atheists and other nonbelievers — the only remaining group BSA still bans — next?

No one is holding their breath, least of all Neil Polzin, an Eagle Scout who was fired from his job in 2009 as an aquatics director at a Boy Scout camp in San Diego after he admitted to being an atheist.

“I don’t see that happening, at least not in the immediate future,” Polzin said. “The focus has always been on the Scouts’ discrimination against gays and it seems atheists were always on a back burner or not discussed at all.”

But that doesn’t mean nonbelievers — atheists, humanists, and other nontheists — have abandoned their quest for inclusion. In the wake of the BSA’s May 23 vote that led to the inclusion of gay Scouts — but not gay scoutmasters — every major organization of nonbelievers has issued a statement condemning their continued exclusion.

A BSA official declined to comment, but issued a statement that said, in part, that since the organization had “just completed a lengthy review process, there are no plans for further review on this matter.”

The problem for atheists lies in an oath in which scouts promise to “do my duty to God and my country.” Some nonbelievers have suggested their sons change the word “God” to “good,” but the BSA has remained firm. Some atheist children have been asked to leave after years in Scouting when it was revealed that they did not believe in God.

Meet Robert Ingersoll, America’s Most Famous Forgotten Atheist

Print shows Robert G. Ingersoll speaking from a stage in an auditorium. Photo courtesy RNS/Library of Congress.

Meet Robert Ingersoll, the most famous American atheist you’ve probably never heard of.

A self-educated attorney and atheist, Ingersoll was a Victorian-era rock star who could pack theaters from Texas to New York with people who came from hundreds of miles around to hear “The Great Agnostic” lecture against religion.

He was courted by politicians, his likeness was carved in stone, and when he died in 1899, newspapers around the country carried his obituary. A Civil War veteran, he was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

Does Pope Francis Endorse Heresy? No, But He Does Raise Questions

RNS photo courtesy Graphic News.

RNS photo courtesy Graphic News.

Is Pope Francis endorsing heresy?

It might look that way from the eye-catching headlines this week that made it appear everyone was bound for heaven — “even atheists!” — thanks to Jesus’ death on the cross.

The passage that prompted the reports came from Francis’ brief homily at the informal morning Mass that he celebrates in the chapel at the Vatican guesthouse.

Speaking on Wednesday, Francis said that as human beings created in the image of God, everyone has a “duty to do good.”

“The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ: all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone! ‘Father, the atheists?’ Even the atheists,” he said, answering his own query. “Everyone! And this blood makes us children of God of the first class! We are created children in the likeness of God and the blood of Christ has redeemed us all!”

Cue the jaw dropping and head scratching. Atheists were pleasantly surprised, conservative Catholics were dazed and confused, and the pope’s comments raced around the Internet; for a while they were the second-most shared piece on Reddit.

So was Francis preaching a form of “universalism?" That is the unorthodox teaching that says, essentially, that all faiths are equal and all are going to heaven, especially if you are nice to people here on earth. It’s also a heresy that Francis’ predecessor, Benedict XVI, spent a career quashing every time he thought he thought he spied a hint of it in some theologian’s writings.

Atheists Rally Around Jailed Bangladeshi Bloggers

An international consortium of nonbelievers is planning rallies Thursday outside Bangladeshi embassies and consulates to demand the release of several Bangladeshi bloggers who were arrested on charges of blasphemy.

The rallies are in support of four Bangladeshi men arrested earlier this month for “hurting religious sentiments,” a crime tied to an 1860 law that can carry up to 10 years in jail.

The four men — all bloggers — staged a sit-in at a public square demanding a ban on the country’s largest Islamic political party; Islam is the official state religion in Bangladesh.

The Problem Isn’t God; It’s Certainty

Boy covering his ears,  3445128471 /

Boy covering his ears, 3445128471 /

Uncertainty about the existence of God is not the same thing as certainty about the non-existence of God.

I’ve enjoyed taking part in the “Subverting the Norm” conference this weekend with many of the forefront thinkers in what has been called “Radical Theology.” Although the word “radical” has sensationalist connotations for lots of people, it really just means a theology that isn’t firmly rooted. I know that in itself sounds scary to some folks, but the radical theology camp might suggest that fear stems from an addiction to certainty.

A Year After Losing Faith, Atheist Pastor Finds a New Calling

This Easter, Teresa MacBain will mark an anniversary that’s uncommon for an ordained  minister — her first year as an atheist.

Last March, MacBain, now 45, stood at a podium before hundreds of people in a Maryland hotel ballroom at the national convention of American Atheists and told them that, after a lifetime as a Christian and 15 years as a pulpit pastor, she had lost her faith.

Her coming out was national news, and she expected it would cost her her position as pastor of a United Methodist church, and she expected she might lose some friends and family members. In the last year, she has lost all those things.

But there have been gains, too, including a new career, the embrace of a new community that she had been taught to distrust and a newfound sense of confidence.

One Woman’s Journey Out of Faith, Family, and Fear

RNS photo by Sally Morrow

Samya enjoys peaceful places, she likes music and attends meetings with other atheists once a week. RNS photo by Sally Morrow

On a summer night in a Western town of flat fields and hazy sunsets, a young woman stood outside a Greyhound bus with a ticket in her hand and a backpack over her shoulder. Boarding the bus, she said later, would be the hardest thing she had done in her 18 years.

Harder than saying a last goodbye to her mother, father, and five siblings that morning. Harder than the two years since as she tried to make a new life, alone, in a strange city.

Now 20, she asked to go by the name Samya. If her true identity were known, Samya believes, her family would seek her out and possibly kill her. They would certainly try to persuade her — if not force her — to come home.

Her parents, she said, think she is guilty of two serious crimes: She rejected a marriage arranged by her father, who came to the U.S. from the Middle East when Samya was an infant. And perhaps more serious to her parents: She has become an atheist.

Waiting for God in the Dark Night of the Soul: On Peter Rollins' Atheism for Lent

Peter Rollins, via theexileinny / Flickr.

Peter Rollins, via theexileinny / Flickr.

I love Peter Rollins' honesty about his dark night of the soul.

He's popularized a term for the intellectual position accompanying the dark night of the soul: a/theism. I interpret Peter's thought as being in relation to an experience of God's absence. [Note: corrected this paragraph's content from "even coined" to "popularized. Turns out another author coined a/theism."]

I thought it was hilarious that Tony Jones challenged Peter to give up atheism for Lent on the Homebrewed Christianity podcast.

But I took it seriously when Micah Bales, one of my best friends, wrote a post challenging Peter Rollins' Atheism for Lent. You can't give up God because God is a felt presence. (Peter later responded to Micah. And Brian Merritt a piece about who Micah is.) Our conversations got me thinking about what I value about Peter Rollin's voice and what I might challenge about a/theism as I understand it. In order to talk about why a person believes or disbelieves in God, you have to talk about a personal spiritual journey.