Yesterday I had a conversation with a Jehovah’s Witness named Bill. He had taken the trouble to trek all the way to the Palace just to save my nonexistent soul. Of course I did not allow him entry to the Palace: as it was a pleasant day, we conversed at the threshold of the Grand Entry Hall, with the door propped open. It was only a few short years ago that such visits would (and did) instantly result in a slammed door, along with simultaneous shouts of “No thanks, we’re not interested!” (and in one case “How about you get the fuck out of here right now or I’ll call the police!”). But no more. I’ve been considering what has changed between then and now — and it is certainly not the Jehovah’s Witnesses. But we’ll get to that in a moment.
BILL: I was just admiring these steps here. They look really nice.
IRIS: Thank you. We’ve been doing a lot of renovations. What can I do for you?
BILL: Oh! I’m sorry! I’m just reaching out to the neighbors here, and I know everybody has their own thoughts about religion and that’s fine, that’s great. But what we like to do is offer folks who may not be as familiar with the bible as they’d like to be, some resources and information.
IRIS: Well I’m pretty familiar with the bible.
BILL: That’s good! Are you a Christian?
IRIS: No, I’m an atheist. Because I actually read the bible.*
BILL: [pauses.] Wait. I’m not getting the connection you’re making. How is you’re being an atheist connected to…so, you say you read the bible?
IRIS: Yes, I’ve read the bible. And even if the crazy stories in it are true — which they aren’t — the god depicted in that book is a horrible monster. Since I’m a good person I cannot in good conscience respect, much less worship it.
BILL: So you’re saying…
IRIS: I’m saying the god of the bible is a petty, jealous, genocidal tyrant that condones and regularly engages in the wanton slaughter of innocent people. I’m saying the doctrine of vicarious atonement is evil, and that the belief in an afterlife is a dangerous delusion. I’m saying the bible is completely and utterly contemptuous of women, and because I’m a decent, moral person, I cannot recommend it as any kind of guide to morality.
BILL: Well, I think people misunderstand a lot of what the bible really says. You know, about women, for instance —
IRIS: I couldn’t agree more! People actually think the bible is not contemptuous of women — I was raised a Christian, and I used to think so myself. And then I read the bible, and saw what was actually in it.
BILL: Well I think the problem is that people misinterpret what the bible actually says, or they understand it but they don’t live according to what it says. They do bad things. In other words they’re hypocrites.
IRIS: Well I think that problem is easily explained: that humans create gods in their own image — petty, jealous, nasty, tyrannical — and not the other way around.
BILL: You think god didn’t create people, that people created gods?
IRIS: Yes, exactly. Lots of them. And the Christian god is no exception.
BILL: And you got that from reading the bible?
IRIS: Pretty much, yeah. A lot of people have become atheists after reading the bible. I’m really not that unusual.
BILL: Really. Huh.
IRIS: Oh, yes. That’s why I highly recommend reading it.
BILL: Well, it’s been good talking to you. I have to say I really enjoyed our conversation today.
IRIS: Me too! Hey, what’s your name?
BILL: It’s Bill.
IRIS: [holds out her hand, he shakes it.] I’m Iris. Very nice to meet you. Thanks for stopping by — enjoy your day!
And then I yanked him inside and I ate him.
Now, I know we atheists are infamous for feasting on roasted babies, but I’ll let you in on a little secret: nothing tastes better to a godless heathen than a skewered, well-cooked, fiery-hot godbot. This d00d was just way too bland. Where was all the fire and brimstone? The talk of Satan, the threats of hell and damnation? Where was the typical response to my feminist objections to Christian theology: that god simply adores women, and he has a Very Special role ordained for them in which they will find salvation, great joy, glory, freedom and happiness, and all they have to do is be completely, 100% submissive to men?
* * * * *
Okay, so I did not really eat him. But only because I knew that he was going to taste like a flavorless, dried-out chicken.
Bill walked off, presumably to save some more nonexistent souls at the next Palace on the block. As he walked away I wondered if he would be back at some point, perhaps with reinforcements. And with kindling, rope, a can of gasoline and a stake.
I think there are a few things that have changed about me between now and when I used to slam the door on such visitors.
I have realized the value in being visible. I think we do atheism and godless Americans a disservice whenever we miss an opportunity to show the religious that atheists (a) exist, and (b) are decent human beings, good friends and neighbors, without gods. Slamming a door with no discussion allows the religious person to think whatever they want to about you and your beliefs: for instance, that you belong to a different (and totally wrong!) sect of Christianity. Of course I am not advocating outing yourself as a godless heathen at every possible occasion. Unfortunately, there are plenty of very real risks to life and limb as well as careers and relationships for simply stating “I don’t believe in gods.” But there are nevertheless opportunities to speak up safely — such as when a person knocks on your door with the express purpose of offering those “who may not be as familiar with the bible as they’d like to be some resources and information.”
I learned that more often than not, it’s better to say something than say nothing. And by “better,” I mean better for me. I regret what I did not say when I had the opportunity far more often than I regret saying something, even if that something turns out to be wrong or naive. Those instances, as embarrassing as they may be, can be redressed when I learn something new, own up to my errors, and apologize if appropriate. They provide me with a chance to learn and grow, and in that sense they yield very positive dividends. And that is only the worst case; if I say something true, no matter how provocative, there is a very real possibility of starting some mental gears turning. (If not for Bill, perhaps for someone he speaks to about our conversation.) A missed opportunity to say something, on the other hand, is often difficult or impossible to rectify: it’s just gone.
I also learned more and better arguments to refute not just Christianity, but theism generally. In part this has been a result of reading many other authors on the subject, from PZ Myers (and his extraordinary commentariat) to Greta Christina to almost everything ever written by that @$$hole Richard Dawkins. But it has also been a result of the process of clarifying my own thoughts, and gaining a better understanding of the cognitive biases that we all share and need to be aware of, if we value the truth over comforting delusions. As a result, I became more confident in my ability to hold my ground when under attack by a barrage of nonsense. Before I had really thought these things through — i.e., sharpened the weapons in my arsenal — there was definitely some insecurity and timidity on my part, which kept me from engaging as much as I could have. I knew what I believed, but could not articulate a strong foundation for why I believed it. I had to satisfy myself before I could press my positions forcefully, in good faith.
I’ve learned that if someone is nice and polite it does not make their godawful (ha!) ideas worthy of respect, and that if someone is confrontational or even rude it does not mean their ideas are untrue or less worthy of consideration. The tone of an argument is not the same thing as its content.
Last, I’ve learned that if my new friend Bill does indeed show up at the Palace with reinforcements — and with kindling, rope, a can of gasoline and a stake — at least I will taste positively delicious.
*When reading the bible I skipped a lot of repetitive drivel like all those begats, because they are boring and irrelevant to anything, except perhaps to lists entitled “what not to name your son.” Curiously, no women’s begats are featured.