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Christians and atheists start a calmer dialogue

Atheist militancy followed Christian vehemence; now some on both sides see the need for cooler rhetoric.

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Wednesday night on ABC-TV, two televangelists took on nonbelievers from the Rational Response Squad in a bid to prove the existence of God (see "Nightline Face Off" on ABCNews.com).

The TV polemics come in the wake of a rash of bestselling books by atheists challenging religion. Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens, among others, go beyond questioning God to charge that religion is a plague that needs to be eliminated. Their vehemence, some suggest, is in response to Chris­tian attacks on evolution and stem-cell research.

"It's Christian militancy that has evoked a backlash of atheist militancy," says Michael Bleiweiss, a physicist and atheist from Methuen, Mass.

Amid the rising heat of this latest culture clash, though, a few people on both sides are finding calmer ways to engage, seeking to build bridges and even learn from one another. Some Christians, concerned that millions of Americans never cross the threshold of a church, want to understand why, as well as learn what it is in evangelistic efforts that turns people off. Some atheists, worried that polls show they are the least accepted social group in the country, want to break down stereotypes and change people's attitudes.

So both are willing to sit down together in different venues, discuss their divergent perspectives, and, in some cases, jointly visit church services across the United States. As a result, they are sparking a growing Christian-atheist dialogue on the Web.

At a conference in Salem, Mass., last Saturday, for example, Christians from several states listened to atheists and neopagans talk about who they are, the origin of their ethics and beliefs, and what challenges they encounter in a society that is predominantly Christian.

"I've never understood treating a people group as [the enemy] because their belief system is different," says Phil Wyman, pastor of The Gathering, a Salem church that sponsored the conference.

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