The Garrison-Martineau Project
This article was written by Chris Lindstrom, the director of the Garrison-Martineau Project
I listened to the Alito Senate hearings with mixed feelings. On the one hand, I was happy to hear that he generally ruled in favor of the rights of minority religions - like the Muslim police officer who, thanks to Alito, was able to keep his beard. On the other hand, I was dismayed to hear that he felt public high school graduation prayers should be put to a majority vote - of the students. A colleague asked me if I felt it was better to have a smart right wing reactionary or a stupid right wing reactionary in office and I realized that this was the wrong question. What's important isn't intelligence, it's empathy and the ability to imagine oneself in another's shoes.
I've noticed that many religious people don't seem to think atheists are real people, much like many of us freethinkers don't think Pat Robertson is a real person. Wasn't he replaced by a robot in the 1980's? Pull the string and he says, "This is God's punishment for our bad behavior!" Sorry, don't want to go there. But seriously, while most believers will say they know non-believers exist and they've perhaps heard about a protest or two and Newdow's Pledge of Allegiance court case, we're more like characters in a book, rather than people they might be acquainted with. Like the Amalekites in the Biblical story of genocide, we're just obstacles to God's plan, rather than ordinary folks who deserve consideration. Of course, this doesn't help us in the court house, the state house or the school house.
How do we change things? How can we get Christians (and Muslims, Jews, Hindus and the rest) to see us as we are --- the mother, the sister, the colleague, the friend, the engineer, the postal worker, the sales person, the candidate for school board, someone who eats at McDonalds, bakes apple pies, pays a mortgage and taxes, has children, goes to bake sales and farmer's markets, puts their pants on one leg at a time…
The Garrison-Martineau Project was expressly designed for this very purpose. We put people together - believers and nonbelievers - into small groups with a trained facilitator and encourage them to talk about their experiences. It's not about arguing - most people feel stupid arguing, "No, you didn't really have that experience!" And it's not about abstract philosophical arguments, not that these don't have their place at other events. It's about a glimpse into another human being. It's about helping people widen their imagination just a bit to make it possible to envision what it would be like if they were you.
Since 2002, over 200 people have participated in one of our dialogues, mostly in the San Francisco Bay area but also in North Carolina,Portland, Seattle, and the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis. The format can be adapted for dialogue exhibition or small house parties. The Garrison-Martineau Project has information which can help your group get a grant from your college for such a dialogue program and stands ready to help with facilitator training, materials and more. If your group is interested and would like to learn more, please contact either myself at [email protected] or our top-notch director of college outreach [email protected].
I'll leave you with a short quote from one of our board members to give you some hope that it really IS possible.
"I sell the idea of building real relationships with other human beings, not excluding atheists because of their beliefs, but including them because of their humanness. I talk about the opportunities that Jesus took on earth to be with those who were not like him. As I share my own experience with Garrison-Martineau and the great opportunities it presents to us as human beings, I see the walls break down and Christians shedding their fear of atheists." - Pastor Laurie Dickerson, Broken and Mending Ministries, Newark, CA.
This article originally appeared as part of SSA eNews No. 10 - My Struggle with Disbelief, Part 2.