Atheists (Mostly) Welcomed in Bible Belt
The Beautiful: People whose lives were changed by our presence, such as LGBT youth who found out they can turn to the Rainbow Resource Centre if/when they’re found out and get rejected by their families; atheists who felt alone and isolated but now know how to find us; and people who were genuinely afraid that we were there for destructive reasons but took the time anyway to truly listen, and who then embraced us and our message wholeheartedly.
Heading out to our second annual outreach booth in Morden this year, I was pretty jazzed up with anticipation at what the weekend would hold. Having participated last year, I was certainly not quite as anxious as I had been the previous summer. We had such a great experience the first time, and even though we had our share of people who weren’t too thrilled to see us, they were pretty evenly balanced with those who were happy to come over to the booth and give us a friendly greeting and grab our info.
The challenge that I set for myself this year was to try to make each encounter, even with the hard core religious, into something positive. I was also hoping to stay away from getting into any type of long fruitless conversations about evolution, or engage with people for any length of time who showed a propensity for spouting bible verses instead of arguments. Lofty goals considering where we were headed.
I knew that we were unlikely to deconvert anybody, and with our focus on promoting our group, and giving hope to people who may have already left religion behind, I was determined to demonstrate that we are a community with positive values, so my first step was trying to find a way to make that connection with people that might make them want to find out more.
I thought about what humanism means to me and what common values my humanist worldview entails that might help to make those connections. It’s difficult to distill the values of humanism into one sentence, but in brief it encompasses a worldview that employs evidence-based rational thought informed by critical thinking and our human capacities for empathy and compassion. For me, not having a particularly strong background in science (although after the last few years devouring it, I understand a lot more than I ever thought I could), I knew that I wouldn’t have much success arguing the finer points of evolution or the cosmological argument.
My goal instead was to connect with people based on appealing to their compassion and empathy. Sometimes this involved making them uncomfortable, for example, most of the believers that I spoke with believed in some kind of hell and when their views were explored, they had to admit that as an unbeliever, this was my ultimate destination. I could see that this thinking created a dilemma for them, even after only having spoken to me for a few minutes. Choice or not, they had to admit that the God they worshipped set up this scenario in the first place, and even if He never intended it for me, I would be partaking of its exquisite torments anyway. All because I didn’t believe? While I can’t say that I had any immediate success or on the spot deconversions, I’m pretty sure that more than a few at least were forced to confront the reality that God had set it up so that their own compassion and empathy were at odds with His plan.
I also tried to do what I could to introduce them to the idea of critical thinking, exploring how we know what we know, how we decide what is reliable evidence and to the idea that there is a whole world out there. One creationist who was promoting a very inaccurate video agreed to spend an equal amount of time reading at Talk Origins if I watched this video. With some others, I tried the approach of speaking about what gives our lives meaning and explored the idea that just because I’m pretty sure that my life is over when my brain ceases to function, it doesn’t have to follow that my life is meaningless. Sometimes an ice cream cone is enjoyable, even if it’s not a never-ending ice cream cone.
In all, I feel that the weekend was well spent. We connected with a lot of people, gave hope to many who were feeling isolated and alone, and maybe helped some others to take another look at what they believed.
The Morden Corn and Apple Festival was a real eye-opener for me. Here’s why:
I grew up in suburban Winnipeg in the ’60s where I attended a liberal Protestant church. In public school we studied evolution in science class. I knew nothing of fundamentalist Christians until I was well into adulthood. I never considered what it would be like to inhabit their worldview, nor had I ever imagined living in a religious community and not feeling part of it.
Spending 12 hours in our HAAM outreach booth watching, chatting, and debating, I had plenty of time to contemplate these situations. We received some looks of disapproval, but everyone was calm and respectful. I thought about how lucky we are in Canada where public displays of disagreement do not generally incite riots.
This was the first time I have ever met fundamentalist Christians in real life. Some were anxious to defend their faith and condemn us, while others seemed genuinely curious about our beliefs. (No doubt it was a new experience for them, too.) Some stayed only a few minutes, others for an hour or more. A few just picked up a pamphlet and hurried away. The ones who stayed seemed like intelligent and thoughtful people. They sincerely believed what they were telling us, and provided complex and detailed information to support their arguments. Then they were genuinely puzzled when we countered their claims with contradictory evidence. From these encounters it became apparent to me that belief systems have little relation to IQ and much more relation to education and experience. These people have lived in sheltered communities where their beliefs have not, until now, been challenged. Clearly, if we want to encourage critical thinking and rational decision-making, a supportive educational approach will be more effective than insults.
Then there are those who live in Bible belt communities and are questioning their faith or have already left it. Some of their stories were heart wrenching. They spoke of the fear of job loss, of not being invited to friends’ homes, of divided family loyalties, even being excluded from activities in a senior’s residence, because they do not attend church or the ‘right’ church. But most vulnerable are the young people. More than one scribbled down our name but dared not take any pamphlets for fear of being caught. We were able to direct them toward online support and resources and reassure them that indeed, they are ‘not alone’.
Lastly, I surprised myself on two counts. First, I was worried about keeping my cool when listening to ridiculous arguments, but I found that speaking face to face promotes more empathy and respect than commenting on the internet. Second, I was worried that I would become tongue-tied, but it wasn’t really that difficult, and no one expects to have all the answers.
I’m glad I went; it was fun. And if I sent at least one person to Google to fact-check, or helped one person feel less alone, it was totally worth it.
“Business” was brisk at our booth at the Morden Corn & Apple Festival August 22nd to 25th. I have never been a good debater, but I thoroughly enjoyed watching and listening to fellow HAAM members do an excellent job.
I think all of us agree that we were there for the non-believers who are still in the closet. However, we are probably approached at the booth by more believers than non-believers, and so these are the people we end up talking to, and debating.
The non-believers ran the gamut of angry to kind. Last year there was one man so angry he was almost red in the face, looking like he wanted to punch us. I personally didn’t see anybody that angry this year, but apparently there was at least one woman who wanted to see if we could be prevented from entering the town.
One couple studied our sign, said something to each other, then studied the sign again, then walked away with the woman shaking her head and crossing herself. One man came to talk to us briefly. He said he’d read about us in the Winnipeg Free Press, then said, “For those who DO believe, I hope they treat you with respect.”
Most believers who approach us don’t necessarily want to debate. Most seem to think that we’ll understand the error of our thinking by simply telling us how wrong we are. One senior couple warned us fervently that we simply must make amends with God/Jesus because once we die, IT’S TOO LATE! IT’S TOO LATE! While reprimanding us the man backed off as though he didn’t want to hear any response from us all the while shaking his head with disapproval saying more than once that he would pray for us. The woman stayed at the booth for a few seconds longer to try to drive her message home.
I grew up in a Mennonite family, school, community, and church and so am very familiar with the religious. But some of the people we talked with were so fanatical in their beliefs that it confounded even me. I remember always believing in evolution. I can’t remember which teacher taught evolution in the school I attended, because all my teachers were Mennonites and zealous believers. But one of them did, and I never gave it a second thought. And so when I come across believers who simply don’t accept evolution, as one young man did who debated with Pat at length, I’m puzzled. This man, flanked by his three little children, one of whom called Pat stupid at one point, to which the father chuckled slightly, insisted that it has to take a lot of faith on our part to believe in evolution. A lot more faith than it takes to believe in God, he said. But when he broached the subject of Noah and the flood, and why that was a perfectly plausible cause of such wonders as the Grand Canyon and an explanation as to how the earth can be changed in a very short time (like 6,000 years), I asked him if he believed the story of the flood and he said yes. I said, “Really!” and asked him how he thinks all these animals were gathered from around the world. He said, “Faith in God”.
I told this young man that I once heard two people on the radio try to draw a moral from the story of Job. God and the devil having a tete-atete at the top of a mountain with God telling the devil about his good and faithful servant, Job. The devil says it’s no wonder Job is faithful because God has given him everything he wants and/or needs. God tells the devil he can go take things away from Job and do what he wants to him, just don’t kill him, and he’ll see. Job will still be faithful. The devil kills Job’s entire family and his servants, takes away his wealth, and covers his body with painful sores. And don’t you know it, Job is still faithful. So God won the bet. I had never heard the story told in this way and couldn’t believe that this is the way it went, so I read it for myself, and found out that that’s exactly the way it goes! I asked him how anybody can draw any kind of moral from a horrific story like that. This man wasn’t shocked. His comment was something like, “But do you remember what Job said in the end?” Job apparently had positive things to say because God gave him a new family and even more wealth than he had before. Pat tried to point out that God had killed Job’s children and you can’t replace your children with different children. (I’m paraphrasing, Pat.) The only thing this man said was, yes, he didn’t know what God had in mind when he did that, but this was said from the point of view that God must have had a plan, and so it’s okay.
Another fear I found that is very real in Christians is that this life may be the only one we have. This same man asked what we expect happens to us when we die. He wanted to know, do we really believe that that’s it. When we said yes, he expressed his astonishment and said he thought that was so sad. The fear that this is the only life we have is one I don’t remember having had at any point of my religiously affected life, and so this too surprised me. I always thought that Christians spew a lot of rhetoric, but they don’t really believe what they say. I guess I was wrong. I was always afraid I’d go to hell because I never really thought I was devout enough, and He says clearly that the lukewarm He will spit out. I was never sure that I’d go to heaven like these people are. One woman said she KNOWS she’s going to heaven after she dies. I said she can’t be sure about that because what if Islam is the right religion. She didn’t seem to hear that at all, but simply repeated that she KNOWS she’s going to heaven.
Finally, there was the 17 year old girl who talked with us for quite some time about being a nonbeliever in a religious home, although her parents were obviously not fundamentalists, which was good to hear. It was such a pleasure to listen to her talk and hear the intelligence coming from such a young person. And it brought home to me again that that’s why we were there. To let people like her know, she’s not alone.
On Sunday after the disapproving church crowd walked past our booth, an older man in his mid ’70s came strolling up, put his hand on a chair, and asked if he could sit down. He said he was hoping to sit and talk for a while. I mentally prepared for the usual “Do you know Jesus?” or “if you just read such and such passage of the gospel it will all make sense.” It wasn’t going to be that kind of visit.
He said his name was Josh (changed to protect privacy). Josh started asking questions about the definitions of atheism, agnosticism, and humanism. I spoke of how humanism is really just the philosophy of being good without God, how humanists greatly value science, democracy, human empathy, compassion, and how humanists believe human problems have human answers, no gods required. He then asked me if I had ever believed. I told him I tried once in my teens, but it just didn’t take.
It was then he leaned over and said, “I don’t believe in God either, especially the religious stuff; but I really want to believe in God.” He would go on to mention this need to believe several times in our conversation.
Josh went on to tell me a little about his life. He was brought up in a very strict Mennonite household. Around the age of 20 he decided he wanted to see what was out there, and so he did, much to his father’s dismay. He moved away, studied myriad subjects, and by the time school was finished he had lost his faith. “I guess I learned too much,” he said.
“Do you ever wonder about what comes after?” he asked; “like an afterlife?” “No, not really” I replied.
I told him about when my mother died a few years ago and how it would’ve been really nice to think of her in a better place, but my reasoning wouldn’t allow that. And that made things difficult for a time. I thought if I could remember the words of Marcus Aurelius and the verse that gave me so much peace at that time, it might help him out too.
Were the beliefs of Josh’s youth coming back? Was he fearing the afterlife? Hell? After talking to a friend I think what Josh dislikes is what we all think about from time to time: the permanence of death.
Now in his ’70s he’s thinking of his own mortality. The 50+ years of reason are running headlong into the 20 years of religious indoctrination of his youth. The result is beginning to give him some real discomfort and pain. Maybe he is hoping for that comfort of knowing the answers that supernatural belief so often gives its practitioners. A comfort I have never experienced.
As I drove home I was kicking myself for not seeing it when I was talking to him. I thought to myself, we have members who could handle something like this a lot better than I could. Maybe we could have set him up with a counsellor or someone to talk to. I really thought I was just engaging a nice man who wanted to have a chat about life and the big questions. Not a man looking for answers to ease his pain.
Josh, if you take our card out of your pocket and happen along this little article, these are the words that gave me, and give me so much comfort when I’ve had questions like yours. I hope you find peace, wherever that may be. I’m sorry I couldn’t have been more help.
“Live a good life. If there are gods and they are just, then they will not care how devout you have been, but will welcome you based on the virtues you have lived by. If there are gods, but unjust, then you should not want to worship them. If there are no gods, then you will be gone, but will have lived a noble life that will live on in the memories of your loved ones.” -Marcus Aurelius