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Dialogue: A conversation with John Clayton

A FORMER ATHEIST, Clayton travels the country, telling people how science points us to God.

Does God exist? John Clayton used to think he didn’t.

Clayton, who grew up in an atheistic home, was well-educated in scientific theory. He earned degrees in education, with emphasis on physics, mathematics and chemistry, from Indiana University and holds an additional master’s in geology and earth science from the University of Notre Dame.

His interest in matters of faith started in
science class. He routinely asked his professors for their thoughts on the origin of matter and the beginning of the universe. Time and again they refused to answer, saying those were matters for theologians — not scientists.

At the same time, Clayton met a dedicated Christian named Phyllis, “the most bull-headed, stubborn, cast-iron willed individual I had ever met in all my life,” he said. After untold hours of arguing, she persuaded him to pick up a Bible. He read it through four times, determined to use science to tear its claims apart. He even planned to write a book about the experience, titled “All the Stupidity of the Bible.” But the more he studied, the more it made sense. He lost his argument with Phyllis — and eventually married her.

Baptized in his early 20s, Clayton insists that “science and the Bible do not conflict, only some scientists and some preachers in their respective interpretations.” He’s lectured countless times at colleges and universities across the nation on matters of science and faith. He also speaks about 20 times per year at churches

His “Does God Exist?” ministry has produced countless books, pamphlets and videos. For 35 years, the Donmoyer Avenue church in South Bend, Ind., served as the ministry’s base of operations.  In 2001 Clayton moved the ministry to the Dowagiac, Mich., church.

John and Phyllis Clayton have a son, two daughters and five grandchildren.

How did you become an atheist?
I tell people I was an atheist for perhaps the same reason they are what they are religiously — because I was brainwashed.  
My parents were atheists. I was never in a church building of any kind until my late teens, and I remember my mother saying, “Only stupid people believe in God. You don’t want to be stupid, do you?” By the time I was 8 years old, I was saying, “I’m an atheist, I don’t believe in God.” I had an inherited faith.
How did your ministry in Christian apologetics develop?  
When I was an atheist, I conducted debates and gave lectures to prove belief in God was foolish. I found it pretty easy to destroy people who claimed to be Christians, because they didn’t know why they believed what they believed. They were what they were because that was the way they were raised. Many kids today assume that the only reason adults are what they are religiously is because they were born into it.
Later, after becoming a Christian and a science teacher in a public high school, I found that many of my students and their parents believed that science and faith were antagonists and that one had to choose between the two. I began teaching a class showing that faith and science were friends and that they supported each other. That was the beginning of what later led me to this ministry.  
What are the greatest challenges to people’s faith today?  
Atheism. Atheism is more aggressive than it has ever been, and religious people are mired in apathy about faith issues.
Churches are arguing about worship format while their kids are being bombarded with atheism, naturalism and false religions. Many young people assume there are no reasonable answers because they are not being taught in a contemporary way that what God says is true and that faith is reasonable.
Explain what you mean by “taught in a contemporary way.”
I mean using language the kids understand, reputable science from credible sources and a full, honest, candid approach to even the hard questions.
What is a typical year like for you?
Since 1968, I have averaged 40 lectureships and 400 presentations a year while teaching full time. After 41 years in the public schools, I retired in 2000 to devote more time to the massive e-mail volume, the growing correspondence course program, and to the production of more video materials. In the past few years we have reduced our lectureship numbers by concentrating on evangelistic outreaches and doing fewer Vacation Bible School programs, retreats and camps. My wife’s health has also been an issue in reducing how much I am on the road.
You hear from a lot of teens across the country. What have you learned from them?  
I get probably 200 e-mails a week from kids that are in spiritual crisis. Our teens are begging for good answers. There is a lot of bad information out there with bad science and bad theology mixing to make a total mess. They have either left the church or are in the process of doing so.  
They know that some of what they have been told cannot be true, and when I show them what the Bible actually says and what the evidence actually is, the response is profoundly positive.
We need to dissociate ourselves from our denominational creationist friends and stick with what God says. God created the cosmos, and God gave us the Bible. They can’t conflict. If there is a conflict, there has either been bad science or bad theology — and we have had a lot of both.
The victims are our kids.
What kind of a reception do you get at your public lectures?  
Our public programs are always conducted on neutral ground, usually in a college auditorium or a motel meeting room.  We avoid a worship atmosphere and start with a standard science approach —
talking about cosmology, relativity, quantum mechanics and logical conclusions to draw from these disciplines.
We always have an open-ended question-and-answer session that can run as long as nine hours (that’s the record) but usually goes two or three hours. Our audiences on Friday and Saturday are mostly non-members of the church, and usually 25 to 50 percent of those come on to Sunday services. We have had some incidents, but people are generally polite, surprised, curious, interested and searching. I would say the reaction is very positive.

You have had a lifetime of involvement in key roles in the church. What do you see for the future of Churches of Christ?
I am very optimistic. We are going through some readjustment, as we have before.
I have worked with every kind of congregation you can imagine and a few I doubt you could imagine. What I see are good people who want to serve God, but who are torn between what worked in the past and the radical change happening in our society which is making new demands of all kinds on the church.
We will make it, but we are struggling like everyone else with the radical change that is characteristic of the time in which we live. Patience, love, forgiving, forbearance, emphasis on unity and putting others first are all things we must work at.

FOR MORE INFORMATION on the “Does God Exist?” ministry, including videos, books , correspondence courses and lectureships, write to: 1555 Echo Valley Drive, Niles, MI 49120 or go online to doesgodexist.org. All materials are free or can be borrowed.

Filed under: Dialogue

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