A Christian and an Atheist walk into a coffee shop...

Sounds like the opening line to a joke, doesn't it? Which was what I was thinking as this phrase came to mind when I, the atheist, walked in from the cold to greet the retired pastor already settled in with his coffee and laptop. I will admit, it was also a little surreal too.

I'll be frank about why. I have a lot of baggage related to my own religious upbringing, including my association with a reoccurring pattern that generally amounted to whoever in the room alleged to be the most devout person tending to also be the most toxic and hypocritical one. My experience wasn't limited to the Catholicism I was raised in: God's most fervent hypocrites played across a broad spectrum of teams in my experience. Stepping away from faith to science started early in my life and was fast-tracked by these experiences and the rigidity I experienced when entering into conversations of a theological nature with devout believers. I'm not pretending my current team is perfect, but I have lived happier here since, and see no reason to go back. I have no need for a deity, nor do I seek salvation. I am eternal because the same atoms that reside in me have always existed in other entities, and will continue to exist after I shrug off this mortal coil. My morality is grounded in a belief in compassion and empathy that transcends spirituality and theology.

So how did I end up here?

In my mental health work, I have had the privilege of meeting a number of wonderful people, especially others with lived experience and a passion for advocacy. One of them is Josué the co-founder of Empathy Café. Our visit to the coffee shop is a snapshot of what happens when people live their beliefs grounded in empathy and compassion, rather than dogma and ideology. I see it as a small example of how the world could be a much better place filled with a rich variety of beliefs that empower us to love, respect, and learn from each other.

As soon as I walked in I was greeted with a familiar hug and he bought me a cup of coffee. Then we hit the ground running with all the thoughts that we were bursting to explain to the other - a great deal of which had to do with our apparently very different world views. In the course of over two hours, our voices were raised several times - in enthusiastic agreement! What would probably surprise most people, including those around us, was that there were fewer differences than many would anticipate. There wasn't a single thing that either of us said that caused pause, discomfort, or disagreement from the other.

Were we dancing around subjects? Or placating each other? Or being what others would call "politically correct"?

Not at all!

We were knee-deep in theological topics and drawing from experiences that ranged from his theological training in France and his decades-long Adventist ministry to my academic career in anthropology and Indigenous studies, and practice of Buddhist meditation. We talked about the communities we had been a part of during our lives and the influence and roles that belief systems had played in both of our lives. The good, the bad, and the ugly. Neither of us saw the other person's belief system as flawed or incorrect. He didn't try to convert or "save" me, nor did I try to dismiss his beliefs as fantasy or anti-science. Neither of us was defensive in our beliefs nor were we seeking to poke holes in the other's perspective. Frankly, I appreciated his interpretation of scripture, especially those moments when we had the "finally someone else sees things the way I do!" moments. Does this mean I'm a soft atheist or his faith is weak? Nothing could be further from the truth! While we both hold our beliefs firmly, what we found that what we both held most firmly was our mutual humanity. We spoke of the bubbles that get created by communities around beliefs. In an effort to strengthen connections to pass on beliefs and values, humans have this tendency to form bubbles around themselves, and with those who share their beliefs.

I loved Josué's wonderful and performative explanation of what it is like to live in a Christian bubble and how the surface of the bubble is an impediment to fully connecting with those outside it: either by fogging up one's perception or distorting the view for both the person inside and outside the bubble. He also spoke of the need and the purpose of the bubble in the faith community and how bursting that bubble represents a loss of structure and can introduce fear of doubt or loss of a stable community. We talked about what those bubbles do to us and our relationships with others, how we become very adamant about protecting the integrity of the bubble - often turning it into an impenetrable shell. My years in anthropology confirm what structure and cohesiveness mean in maintaining and perpetuating community, so I understand the hows and whys.

This is where we began to explore at what cost do some bubbles come and how could we do things differently? How can we live in a way that offers us the stability of our community and related beliefs, without the related cost of isolation and fear of outside information or influence that might burst the bubble? I'm not going to pretend that he and I have found a definitive solution for world peace, the end of holy wars, or even getting through a family dinner during the holidays without incident. (I'd like to think a few more trips to the coffee shop and we just might!) What I will say, is that throughout the various and winding threads of the animated and enlivened conversation was the constant return to a couple of key ideas that we shared.

First, we recognized we had far more in common because neither of us was threatened by the beliefs of the other. We could share ideas opening and without spin, filter, or parsing. We didn't need a bubble to protect us from the beliefs of the other or to provide safety, security, or containment. The firmness of our respective convictions provided freedom and an openness to be receptive to what our values meant to the other. This included openness to discuss how the beliefs we held, and the systems they were tied to, often created the bubbles (and shells) that would come between many others, who like us were trying to have conversations across belief systems. Second, we recognized the fallibility of humans as communicators, interpreters, and well, frankly as humans beings in general. So many of the areas where we had both expressed frustrations either within our communities or among our experiences, were due to the combination of human fallibility combined with said fallible human either oblivious to, or in denial of, their own fallibility: enter rigid dogma and bubbles becoming shells. Neither of us claimed anything other than fallibility, nor did we claim to speak for anyone other than ourselves, nor did we feel any sense of obligation to blindly defend others who shared our beliefs. Most importantly, we saw, felt, and believed in empathy and compassion as guiding principles in our respective beliefs, and our way of navigating the world. To practice his faith without the compassion demonstrated by Jesus is something Josué has no desire, and I would argue no capacity to do. Josué is a true pastor, shepherd of a flock, leader of community because of his Christ-like empathy. I would have to say that is the trait of his that inspires me the most, and why I consider myself fortunate to know him and work with him. I don't have to share the same beliefs about Jesus as he does. But I do believe that if Jesus existed, whether in real life as a teacher, leader, and saviour, or only in a literary work as a model of behaviour and beliefs, that his compassion and empathy were his most consistent and palpable traits. His story is one of embracing and empowering the marginalized and the stigmatized and challenging the injustices of the status quo for the betterment of all. Fact or fiction, there is a lesson and a role model.

I don't have to believe in Jesus the God, to respect Jesus the social justice activist who loved those who others considered unlovable, and who lead with compassion and empathy. As an atheist, I look to examples across humanity, civilizations, and time for role models who lead with empathy and compassion. People who see shared aspects of identity as meeting points where we can then strive to understand and overcome those things we consider differences. I don't care what your belief system is, or isn't, so long as your beliefs, actions and treatment of others is grounded in, and exercised with compassion and empathy. What matters to me is that your actions match your words and that both come from a place of empathy and compassion. What matters is your recognition of your own fallible humanity and your compassionate recognition of mine. And that is what I found when I sat down for coffee with Josué.

So that's what can happen when a Christian and an atheist walk into a coffee shop: they can build a relationship, and start a conversation. One that bursts bubbles and gives each of them the freedom to live their beliefs to the fullest by grounding themselves in the empathy and compassion of shared humanity. I look forward to bursting more bubbles over coffee and hope that you may consider doing the same soon and see where the conversation takes you.

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