Jerry Coyne, cheerful fire-breathing atheist that he is, gets invited to a church to talk about evolution. That’s not how it worked out, as people were more interested in talking about the relationship between science and religion. You can guess what happened — or maybe not. There was a productive two-hour conversation in which both sides learned something.
That’s pretty much the same thing that happened when I visited a Chicago church back in the day. There’s obviously a selection effect at work: the kinds of churches that invite atheists in for conversations are generally ones that enjoy some kind of open dialogue. Not that it’s all warm hugs and pleasant disagreement; I noticed that the older generation in my audience was a lot less open to even thinking about some of the points I raised, while Jerry had to fend off someone who thought that math and science had led to Nazi Germany.
Jerry concludes that the harmful aspects of religion are correlated with the certainty displayed by its adherents. This is a true but subtle point, as of course there are those who love to accuse scientists and/or atheists of unwarranted certitude. I think the difference is that we feel relatively sure about some things, while we’re quite ready to admit that we don’t know the answer to other questions, and we have a clear notion of where the distinction lies. But I would think that, wouldn’t I?
Conversations like these are enormously helpful. The trick is that it’s much easier — on both sides — to be polite and interactive in person, while the temptation to lecture people from on high is irresistible in other contexts, where it’s easier to think of the opposition as cartoons rather than real people.