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What the hell is up with atheism?

To terrify children with the image of hell, to consider women an inferior creation—is that good for the world? — Christopher Hitchens Over the last decade, the "new atheism" movement has been gaining an incredible amount of traction. Thanks to best-selling books by Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins and...
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To terrify children with the image of hell, to consider women an inferior creation—is that good for the world? — Christopher Hitchens

Over the last decade, the "new atheism" movement has been gaining an incredible amount of traction. Thanks to best-selling books by Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins and Ayaan Hirsi Ali (sometimes known as the four horsemen of the non-apocalypse), the idea that religion is not only unessential but actually a harmful institution in need of abolishment has become a loud voice at the 21st-century American dinner table. Like confessing to homosexuality, identifying yourself as a "non-believer" would have been cause for scorn, isolation and harassment fifty years ago. But today "none of the above" is the fastest-growing religious status in the U.S., just ahead of Mormonism and Islam. Over the past seven years, the number of Americans who identify as "none of the above" has gone from 1 to 5 percent.

"A lot of people say that atheists are the new gays," says Thea Deley, comedian and star of the one-woman show Jesus Loves You (But Hates Me), which she performs two nights in November at First Baptist Church of Denver, at the invitation of Brian Henderson. "Because this is such a Christian nation, there's so much discrimination against atheists.... So many people don't see anything wrong with religion; they hear you grew up in church and assume you must be a good person, but it's a really insidious form of abuse. I want to stand up and say this has to change, so other kids don't have to experience this."

In the show, Deley digs into her past and takes a humorous look at the abuse she suffered at the hands of the Christian church. Covering subjects like abstinence-only education, female submission, child molestation and psychological mind games, she presents a world of unending stress and self-loathing that she and countless others endured throughout their developing years.

At one point, Deley recalls the moment when she came across a particularly ominous story in II Kings, in which a group of children heckle the prophet Elijah about his baldness and God responds by ordering a team of bears to tear the children to pieces. This, along with the number of sermons she'd endured describing the torments of hell, began to inform young Deley's every thought and action, she remembers. Particularly one evening, when she discovered that in the course of that day, she'd broken nine of the Ten Commandments.

"If God sent two bears to punish those children just for making fun of Elijah, what would he do to me for breaking nine of the Ten Commandments?" she wonders from the stage, performing as her ten-year-old self. "That night, like so many nights of my childhood, I cried myself to sleep, begging God to forgive me so I wouldn't have to go to hell."

You would think that a play that questions the historical accuracy of the Bible, mocks believers and accuses Christianity of being a form of child abuse would not be a welcome entertainment in a church — but despite one being an atheist and the other a Baptist minister, Deley and Henderson find themselves on the same page.

"Brian and I have a shared mission to push Christianity to evolve," says Deley. "As a non-believer, I'm outside the religion; I'm telling my story and pushing back from the outside, but Reverend Henderson is on the inside, pushing for change. Currently, Christianity is extremely divisive. But if we can rally around our shared value of love and kindness — and I'll throw in there personal responsibility and reason — then we can really do something in this world. And if I'm all, 'You're wrong and I'm right, and you're an asshole,' where will that get us?"

"I think, in some ways, hell is a dead issue," Henderson says, citing what perhaps separates him most from mainstream clergy. "Historically, Christianity has focused on what happens after you die — but that is a mystery. We don't know what happens. Within Hebrew tradition, the here and the now is the issue; how you live is what's important."

From the writings of Dante to the Hell House of Iowa, salvation from damnation has been one of the biggest selling points for Christian churches. "For me, there is no reason to scare people about whether they're going to heaven or hell," Henderson says. "Having had family members who died without following the path of the church that I was brought up in, it doesn't make rational sense to me that a good God would say, 'You can't come into heaven because you did not follow this formula.'"

After Deley's performance, First Baptist hosts a "speakeasy" in the basement of the church, serving wine and cheese and inviting attendees to share their stories about growing up in conservative Christian homes; Henderson acts as moderator. The participants have a variety of backgrounds and identities — from hard-core believers to bitter atheists — and bring up such issues as right-wing politics, the psychology of religion, childhood trauma and how Jesus's message of love and humility has been used to justify greed and violence throughout history.

Henderson says he would prefer someone decide to be an agnostic and live a life of love than remain a believer and continue practicing a biblical doctrine of hate and division. This has become a founding principle of Henderson's ministry, and it's what led him to team up with the atheist comedian.

Telling the group that he has at least as much to learn from an atheist as an atheist does from him, Henderson explains that from a certain perspective, he himself could be considered an agnostic. "The literal definition of an agnostic is a 'not-knower,' and to me, a not-knower knows more than someone who thinks they know what they believe," Henderson says. "Being in that place of not knowing is the fertile ground for faith. It's where our sense of faith springs from."

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