The Doubter’s Church

It’s a balmy September night in Denver, Colorado, and I have just done something unusual: I went to church.

I say unusual for two reasons. First, because Colorado ranks among the bottom 10 states in church attendance, according to a 2015 Gallup poll. But the second reason is much more peculiar. It’s because I’m an atheist.

I’m not the type of person who grew up devoid of any spiritual instruction, either; in fact, for a time in my life I aspired to be a Christian apologist. Throughout high school, I spent my free time consumed with studying Biblical history and religious philosophy. I was an accomplished extemporaneous speaker, an Arkansas State Policy Debate champion, was elected Arkansas’ Student Congress Speaker of the House, was a finalist in a national political essay contest, and won a local Rotary club oratory scholarship. By the time I enrolled in college, I was certain of my calling and adamant in my beliefs.

But I had never questioned them.

Excusable, perhaps, for a high school kid. Understandable for someone who went to school in the Bible Belt, where it is not uncommon for students (and unfortunately, at times, teachers) to mock and openly question evolution in biology class. But not, I opined, for someone who wishes to deal in truth. Spurred on by a seminar in critical thinking and by Socrates’ declaration to follow wherever the argument leads, I added the sciences to my academic study. The rest, as they say, is history. My eventual attempts to reconcile what I felt in my heart with with what I learned in the lab failed, and my apostasy was just as fervent as my confidence in my debunked beliefs (At this point I should note that I am not categorically dismissing the possibility that I could be wrong).

I didn’t cope well with my spiritual changes — excavating the foundation of one’s worldview is no small undertaking. Last month I attended the wedding of two of my best friends from college, two relationships I almost spurned out of my utter failure to rein in my distress. I’m embarrassed to say that it took me years to be able to discuss anything religiously-themed without feeling an amalgamation of pain, anger and shame.

But eventually I could. A few years after that internal reconciliation, I moved to Denver with the hopes of enrolling in graduate school. And it is here where I met Preston.

Preston is the pastor of The Doubter’s Church. He and his family moved to Denver’s Berkeley neighborhood around the same time as I did, we’re about the same age, come from similar church backgrounds, and we both live in Berkeley (at one time on the same street, no less). We’re both interested in philosophy, coffee, comic books, politics and good movies. We also share something else in common: Preston used to be an atheist.

He moved here as part of the Urban Islands Project, an inter-denominational initiative to cultivate faith communities in America’s major cities. He’s earned two different Master’s degrees, one in World Religions and the other in Divinity. I first met him while working in a coffee shop in LoHi, a trendy neighborhood north of Denver metro undergoing rapid gentrification.

Berkeley is as well. “I hate, hate, gentrification, Andrew,” Preston confided in me a few months ago over coffee. We regularly meet at Downpours on Tennyson Street, a locally-owned specialty coffee shop, to talk about our personal projects, current events like the Presidential election, and neighborhood issues. “Did you know that, in Berkeley,” he gestures with his hands, encapsulating our little corner of Denver on an imaginary map, “there’s about 8,000 people here, and over 1,000 of them are single moms. Imagine what it would do for their quality of life if we could provide free daycare for them?”

Preston isn’t an armchair dreamer, either; he’s a man of action. There’s an old Greek Orthodox church a few blocks away that’s up for sale. He’s working to acquire it, and hopes that the church can supply, among other things, the daycare service to local families. “I’ll get out and mow lawns if I have to, if that’s what it takes to raise the money,” he says. Between raising a family of his own, at times bi-weekly speaking engagements around the country, twice-a-month Doubter’s Clubs, serving free coffee and doughnuts to the teachers at Skinner Middle School on cold Thursday mornings, and other community engagement projects, he rarely has free time in his schedule. While we talk, his phone buzzes once every few minutes with a message from supporting church pastors, launch team members or people in the community he’s helping. But despite this seemingly endless list of important tasks, he always makes time for whoever or whatever is right in front of him. “This,” he says, referring to our conversation, “is more important right now.” The immediacy and attention he devotes to the present moment is one of the many things about him that makes people like me see the Church writ large in an approachable and welcoming light.

The most visible Doubter’s project so far has been the doughnut trailer. Like other neighborhoods in Denver, Berkeley hosts a community fair — rain or shine — the first Friday of every month, aptly named “First Friday.” Around this time last year, a cowboy church in Kansas donated a horse trailer to the Doubter’s Church. They remodeled it into a mobile service trailer that you’ll find parked close to Cesar Chavez Park on Tennyson every First Friday. The church’s launch team members get together to create 3 different doughnut glazes. I’ve seen people wait in line as long as 20 minutes, and for good reason: they’re absolutely delicious. One, the Everything Nice, is a cinnamon and sugar-dusted homage to this iconic Sunday morning treat, and it is the most commonly requested order (My personal favorite so far has been The Zinger, a lemon glaze with Frosted Flakes on top.).

An inevitable question arises: what’s the catch? There isn’t one, says Benji Skjoldal. Benji is one of the launch team members who is in charge of Doubter’s Donuts. He’s a lanky 6'2, an avid basketball player, and counterbalances his intense amicability with introspective mien. The trailer team doesn’t ask for donations. In fact, they don’t even have a tip jar. “One time,” Benji recounts with an infectious grin, “this lady took her donuts, threw a slightly crumpled $20 at me and started running down Tennyson. I had to chase her down to give it back.” The team is sincere about their community-oriented approach. “A lot of us are new here to Berkeley and to Denver,” says Benji, referring to Colorado’s massive population growth. “We’re really just trying to build a sense of community and togetherness.” The donut trailer’s main goal is to give back in a small but meaningful way. But it also serves as an advertising arm for another project for the Church, a project that is a more direct reflection of the Church’s namesake. That project is the Doubter’s Club.

Last November, I arrived at work one Sunday afternoon where a small gathering of people are combating their mid-afternoon slump; I could smell the sweet, chocolaty signature of freshly ground coffee, I could hear the whir of steaming milk and the metallic screech of our espresso grinder — all par for the course. Except on this day there was a poster on our windows for what’s called The Doubter’s Club. “Atheists and Christians and many other worldviews becoming friends over coffee,” it read. My boss, Trax, told me that we would be hosting a discussion group later that evening and that I’m welcome to join.

Like me, Trax is an atheist. He was raised Catholic and attended a private Catholic high school. In addition to owning and running his coffee shop, he sings in two bands: Hemingway Hero, a melodic hardcore project, and I Am The Shotgun, a deathcore collaborative. Trax is jovial, boasts a booming laugh and full sleeve tattoos. He and Preston co-host the event, which features a different discussion topic every meeting. On this particular night the discussion will focus on the question “Is God A Moral Monster?” A figure equipped with a bloodied spade commands the centerpiece of the posters on the windows. It’s a question many from apostate to religious leader have wrestled with, to varying outcomes. So an atheist such as myself would fully expect, given past experience, that the evening would devolve into a verbal brawl or intellectual jousting match, both with leanings toward bitter aggression and the casting of wary eyes toward future engagements. I go into the evening cloaked in cynicism, with the full expectation that this enterprise will not last.

And I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Over the last year, we’ve had people of all ages and many worldviews discuss ideas like the implications of our worldviews, the reliability of individual experience toward discovering truth, whether churches brainwash children, whether science leads us toward or away from God, sexuality, and how we can come to know the truth if it exists. And yes, we’ve also discussed evolution and the historicity of the Bible. At the end of every meeting, we vote on the topic for the following session, which is typically a related subject that received the most attention during the discussion.

Atheists and Christians and many other worldviews becoming friends over coffee.

Normally when people think of atheists and Christians talking about their beliefs, they imagine something akin to a shouting match or a Donald Trump rally. But I said we discuss the issues, and I mean discuss. That’s one of the beautiful attributes of the Doubter’s Club.

It’s also one of the important things about what The Doubter’s Church is doing. How many times have Christians in church, or Muslims in mosque, been able to openly question one of the tenets of their faith, or the genre of the book from which the speaker is quoting? How many times has an atheist been able to seriously entertain among atheist message boards whether the nature of reality necessitates a Creator? Over 40% of Americans believe in a young-Earth Creationist worldview because of a literal interpretation of Genesis, a culture of fundamentalism, a distrust in academia, or some combination therein. And many atheists categorically dismiss all religious thought as foolish or dangerous, despite its many established social and psychological benefits. When was the last time you were able to comfortably discuss politics and religion with anyone, especially in the last 18 months?

At The Doubter’s Club and Church, those barriers are removed from the beginning. “Question Faith. Question Certainty” is the motto of the Club. It’s like stepping into a philosophy class with Socrates and rewinding the tape on what you think you know to discover that, oftentimes, the starting points for your beliefs happen to coincide with the opening scene of your upbringing. This goes for people on both sides of the fence. And it is through this dialectic process, this mutual yearning for whatever Truth is or means, that we transcend our demographic bubbles and are able to genuinely engage one another in meaningful, honest, open and vulnerable discourse. Some of my most memorable nights since transplanting to Denver have been spent coming to understand, both intellectually and emotionally, the spiritual journeys of my neighbors, whether they be young-Earth Creationists, agnostics, pantheists, Buddhists or Scientologists. And while my worldview may be fundamentally different from many in the Club and in the Church, we are all still able to come together, challenge our assumptions and ask, “what if I’m wrong?”

So what is the purpose of doubt? As an atheist, I think doubt is healthy. To be clear, I continually choose to doubt my own beliefs. Not out of a lack of confidence in my position (Before every Doubter’s Club, we joke that “everyone here thinks he’s right.”), but out of knowing that I cannot, in principle, know everything. This is the great undertaking of science. Science uses available data to construct the best possible explanation for what we see happening in the world. It’s how we know that the Earth revolves around the Sun, how plants photosynthesize, how climate change happens, and how humans share a common ancestor with primates. None of these are bad or dangerous conclusions against religion; rather, they help us to better understand the world around us. A quote attributed to Galileo says, “The Bible tells us how to go to Heaven, not how the heavens go.” We arrive at superior understandings of the world by challenging our assumptions. Immanuel Kant described it as awakening from our dogmatic slumbers. Isaac Newton believed that he was better able to appreciate God’s creation by discovering the natural laws which govern the universe.

I asked Preston about doubt’s role in faith. “Many Christians are after a ‘certainty-seeking faith,’” he says. “It’s the assumption that a person’s faith is as strong as they are free of doubt and that striving to have a “strong” (viz. doubt-free) faith somehow pleases God. This model of faith can lead people to develop learning phobias, for if you dare to read broadly and learn to see things from other people’s point of view, you might uncover facts that could shake your certainty and thus displease God. A more balanced, practical, and healthy way of understanding faith (according to its tradition as documented throughout the ages) is as the ability to stay faithful to a course of action, in the face of uncertainty. Doubting creates growth in one of two ways. The “doubter” will either: study and find themselves more convinced of what they believed; or, they will study and find themselves submitting to the truth that hasn’t been revealed to them yet. Either way, doubt helps us in our pursuit of truth.”

So too with religion. Pope Francis recently commemorated the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s 95 theses of objection to the Catholic Church. Those objections were considered heretical, and the resulting schism served as the cause of centuries of religious wars. And many people during Jesus’ time expected a Messiah of the sword, certainly not one who would be so consummately humiliated in his gruesome and prolonged death, towards which he knowingly walked. But “we serve a Jesus-looking God,” Preston shares on the opening night of the Doubter’s Church, a man who came not to be served, but to serve, who came so humbly and lovingly as to wash the feet of his disciples on the eve of his death. For an atheist whose defining experiences with religion have been colored by condemnation, hate and violence, this Jesus-looking God of total love is one I would wish to know.

If we want to be honest with ourselves about these questions, it is that they are difficult to answer and are complex in their nature. One simple argument or datum won’t undermine evolution or preclude God’s existence. As critical thinkers striving for intellectual and interpersonal understanding, it’s dangerous and disingenuous to suggest that it could. Yet so much of the cultural discourse surrounding these questions of God and sin and human nature and salvation are nothing shy of straw man arguments or other fallacious modalities of thought. The thing is, nonbelievers like me aren’t denying “the truth” or choosing to live in sin. Nor do I believe that Christians are all Bible-thumping, gay-hating conservatives who think science is a conspiracy against God. We’re all striving to come to a better understanding of how the heavens go. It’s okay if we’re not all in agreement if we continuously and earnestly seek the truth, for how can we come to discover the truth if we do not ask where it is?

The takeaway for me is the genuine sense of community that is built in these moments. We choose to reject the immediate gratification derived from intellectual stereotyping. Christians and atheists and Muslims and Buddhists aren’t straw men; they’re people of flesh and blood, feeling and intellect, who care about the well-being of one another, who are invested in what happens here on earth and in the hereafter, whatever that may be.

Developers bought the Greek Orthodox building before Preston was able to acquire it, so we’ve rented out the auditorium of Skinner Middle School on Sunday evenings. Skinner is an art deco building that adds an element of ancient mystery to my growing understanding of Denver and to the Berkeley neighborhood. Ascending the steps to reach the auditorium carries a tangible sense of importance. Perhaps it is knowing how many pupils and instructors have taken this same journey. Perhaps it is because this is the first time I have set foot in anything resembling a church service in over six years. Or perhaps it is because I am serving coffee to other wayfarers on a similar journey of inquiry, the paths for which are only as broad and varied as our openness to look ahead and ask what lies beyond the veil of the unknown.

“As a young adult in college, I started questioning my faith,” Preston recounts to me. “Big time! Which is strange because you would think that being in a Christian college would only make me more confident in what I believed. Yet, for me, I had never known why I believed what I believed. For a while, I considered myself an atheist. Not believing in anything, but being open to what is true. That has always been my desire, to find truth and live according to it. After having someone mentor me for 8 months, I found Christianity to make sense of the world. My mentor at the time wasn’t like most. He told me, ‘I don’t care where you land, as long as you are honest.’ It gave me the liberty to discover, without the pressure to believe like he did.

“Once I discovered a strong, grounded belief in Christ, I wanted to pursue more education that would allow me to further think through issues. I pursued a Masters of Arts in Religion, and a Masters of Divinity. Don’t be impressed. I only did this to further understand how to line my life up with the most compelling story I have ever heard.”

There’s one last thing: when we conclude a Club meeting, Preston and Trax encourage everyone to grab coffee with someone with whom they disagree, or to learn more about a subject. “Go make friends!” they say eagerly. It is that group of friends who show up to the opening night. Members of our community of all ages and races and worldviews pack themselves into a handful of rows in this auditorium. And when the worship team plays, it is clear to everyone that their songs are of love. Even though I’m not religious, there’s a beauty in the reverence and ritual of coming together as one. It’s easy to be negative about a lot of the problems in the country right now, but here they give thanks for the good they share. At the end of the inaugural service, Preston’s laid out some coffee mugs at the beverage cart. Some are large and gaudy, others meek and plain. It’s as much a symbol of this message of community as an invitation to go see a movie together. I take a small porcelain cup with me, some coffee grounds left over from the drink I sipped during the service. I use that cup for my own morning ritual. It connects me. It keeps me asking. It keeps me wondering. I went to church, and I loved it. I plan to go again.