By HEATHER KEELS
9:56 PM EDT, April 11, 2012
A secular humanist, an agnostic and an atheist walk into a church.
That wasn’t the setup for a joke Wednesday night in Hagerstown, but for an evening of impassioned discussion hosted by the Interfaith Coalition of Washington County to encourage dialogue among people with different beliefs and ideas.
About 50 people attended the group’s “Dialogue with Non-Theists,” held at Hagerstown Church of the Brethren.
Ed Branthaver, a member of Hagerstown Freethinkers, moderated a panel discussion by secular humanist Eldon Winston, agnostic Zsun-nee Matema and atheist Brian Fields, about how their philosophies shape their beliefs about morality, the soul and what happens after death.
“My conclusion, and I feel this is widely shared, is that a secular humanist believes they are in this world, of this world, and for this world,” said Winston, who said the term summed up the intent and direction of his beliefs while “atheist didn’t feel quite right.”
Matema said she attended Catholic school, but later came to see Christianity as mythology as she noticed connections between her family’s beliefs and those of ancient Egyptians.
Also, as a descendent of slaves, she said: “I couldn’t help but question, if Christianity is all that they say it is, someone tell me how in the world were those slave owners able to sleep with both the mind of a Christian and the cruel heart of someone who sustained and supported slavery?”
She now identifies herself as agnostic, meaning she sees no proof in matters of God, heaven, hell, sin or redemption.
Fields said his path took him from Christianity to paganism to agnosticism and, finally, to atheism.
“I think the very nature of the universe precludes the existence of any kind of god,” he said.
Field said a common misconception is that nontheists choose to reject theism.
“I simply, honestly, evaluated the evidence before me and arrived at different conclusions than those faiths,” he said.
The Rev. Ed Poling, pastor at Hagerstown Church of the Brethren and coordinator of the Interfaith Coalition, said the group had recently rewritten its mission statement to be more inclusive of those outside traditional religions.
The mission statement now speaks of bringing together “people of different beliefs” “to promote peace, respect, and compassion in our local community” while honoring the diversity of various traditions.
“Somebody said to me, ‘You’re courageous for doing this,’ but, you know, that’s part of what we are as Interfaith,” Poling said. “It’s just another way of looking at things. It’s not organized religion, but it’s a group we need to have dialogue with.”
The program was part of the Interfaith Coalition’s “Second Wednesday” program held each month at 7 p.m. at the Hagerstown Church of the Brethren at the corner of East Washington and Mulberry streets.
“We don’t usually have crowds this big,” Poling said of the Wednesday night turnout. “This is the biggest we’ve had in several years.”
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