What is it about my face that tells some people, "By all means, share your wisdom with me; tell me why I need a god in my life."
The parking lot outside my favorite coffee shop has long served as a sanctuary, a place where I can enjoy the splendor of a freshly brewed cup of coffee, a little NPR news, and a few moments of precious solitude. There are usually a few others basking in the same setting, each in a world all his own—unencumbered and imperturbable. Or so we thought.
The first time it happened I respectfully interrupted the religious sales pitch the same way I do when those annoying businesses call during dinner to tell you they are not selling anything and just want a few moments of your time: "Thank you very much; I am not interested." [Pleasant stare!] The second time it happened—just a few weeks later—I felt violated. "No, no. That's quite all right. You keep your Jesus magazine to yourself, and do have a nice day." [Not so pleasant stare!] I was beginning to think these people either had a quota or got paid by the soul.
As time went on, my guard instinctively went up whenever someone got a little too close to my car. I promised myself after the last run-in with the God Squad that the next person who approached me with a smile on his face and a book in his hand was going to get an earful. And sure enough, they came for me again.
In the past I had always believed their was no reasoning with these people, that they had their own way of thinking and it was pretty much out there. This time, however, was different. The closer this young man got to me, the more determined I became to turn the tables on him. The conversation went substantially like the following:
—Hi. I noticed you sitting in your car by yourself, and I thought you might be interested in something.
—Really? What might that be?
—This magazine which explains how and why God needs and loves everyone.
—That's interesting, but do you mind if I ask you a question?
—Not at all.
—Do you believe in a god?
—Yes, I believe in God. Do you?
—No, I do not, but that's not important.
—Well, actually it is important.
—Sorry to burst your bubble, but trust me - it's not important. May I ask you another question?
—Do you claim to know that your god exists?
—Yes, of course. We know this to be true.
—Okay. Have I got your attention right now?
—May I explain something to you?
—By all means.
—What you have, my friend, is faith. You know nothing. You believe. There is a big difference.
—Let me ask you a question. What is faith?
—Faith is believing in something that the human powers of reason cannot sustain. You are, of course, free to do this, but understand - it defies reason, and by definition, things beyond our ability to reason cannot be known to be true. But beyond all that, do you know why I don't walk up to perfect strangers and tell them about all the wondrous virtues of life as an atheist?
—Because I respect other people. Do you respect me?
—Yes. I respect you.
—Do you respect the rights of others to think as they choose about these things?
—Yes, I do - very much.
—Allow me to disagree. By approaching me for no other reason than to gain my confidence for the purpose of converting me to your personal world view, you have shown me great disrespect. Do you understand this?
—I am very sorry. I did not mean to show any disrespect.
—(Determined to get in the last word) Well, you work on that. I have to get to work now. Remember - respect! Have a nice day.
While the foregoing may not qualify as reasoning with a religious person, it at least shows that having the last word is possible. It felt good telling an arrogant theist to get lost without using those exact words. In the past, whenever I thought better of engaging such an individual—and as much as I may have thought is was the sensible thing to do—it nonetheless felt as though I was squandering an opportunity, an opportunity to inject a little reason and common sense into the encounter.
Having tried the Plan B option for a change, I have to report, it felt like the right thing to do. That it likely fell on deaf ears is not important. Gently asserting one's self in situations like these is dignifying and empowering.
It seems the real difference between my deluded friend and me is that I do indeed respect his right to believe as he chooses; whereas, he apparently does not respect mine. Despite this, there is a mitigating factor diluting his culpability: only the insidious delusion of religious faith has the power to infect an otherwise agreeable and intelligent person to such an extent. The defective reasoning of religious zealots blinds them to their own malfeasance.
With a little luck, I will be spared any further assaults from those who want to save my soul. But if they come for me again, I will be ready.
2 years ago