This year, instead of the usual report from our intrepid President and Outreach coordinator, Pat Morrow, we have a personal story from a volunteer who sat in the booth for the first time. This volunteer is a relatively new HAAM member who originally came from Europe and needs to remain anonymous for professional reasons (i.e. they do not want to be ‘outed’ in the workplace as a non-believer or HAAM member). You’ll see from the following account that this outreach was an experience to remember, for a number of reasons. Enjoy!
This day at the Morden Corn and Apple Festival was a beautiful one for many reasons. Firstly, the trip itself was a real expedition because it was so windy, and going to the festival on my motorbike was very sportive, fighting against the air in front of me. This same wind made the day quite special because once at the festival, it was so strong that many times we had to hold onto the booth and the displays to avoid everything flying away. Thankfully, the day was also very sunny and that was promising for the fierce discussions we had to deal with!!
Of course, the main subject of the day was not the weather but the reason we gathered there, i.e. representing HAAM. Being at a booth like that for an association activity was a first time for me, and in the days before going, many questions passed through my mind. Frankly, I was wondering whether we would have some unpleasant events, or maybe some people showing aggressive behavior when seeing a booth like ours and knowing that the region may be quite religious. This religious population was well represented at the festival, with a booth very close to ours that unfortunately was very popular with the gifts they were giving to the passersby. There was also a creationist booth (I could have stopped at this one because as a scientist it would have been fun to discuss, but the conversation would have lasted hours or days or years…).
In fact no unpleasant event happened at our booth, and my feeling that we needed to protect a fortified castle, at least with halberds, vanished with time (in fact, even for such topics, when people don’t like something they are just indifferent and walk away). But we still have to be alert.
There were a few moments that stayed in my memory:
– A strange moment when a woman stood in front of our booth and meticulously took a picture of our booth without any smile. I was wondering, is she a spy, does she try to do some tracking of all the atheist places in the province of Manitoba? It was curious but she finally left as she came.
– I saw also many times some people from the very religious Hutterite community. They were passing quickly in front of our booth, dubious. I couldn’t stop wondering – what did they think?
– An old couple to whom we explained there was nothing after death, and for them it was apparently very difficult to imagine. But they kept a smile! I was thinking that perhaps when we explain death from an atheist point of view we should inject more poetry, because to someone who believes in heaven, saying it’s not like that and you’ll be eaten by maggots and that’s it, may be harsh to swallow. I like to think we are part of the cosmos forever, so we could imagine we will be in the center of a star in a few centuries. Dorothy was telling me we can have a physicist at our funeral. I will think about it…
– A young woman (later joined by her husband) who was curious about our booth and took some information. But I finally noticed a Christian cross on her neck (I don’t know why this one was worn horizontally) and when I asked her what it was, she answered that she was for sure a Christian. Why was she interested in our booth; we didn’t have the opportunity to discuss it, so mystery…
– There was also a guy tattooed with « Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité ». He stopped at our booth and was interested in seeing our documentation. I was happy, thinking here is someone associated with the French values of republic and secularity! I asked him if he was French and he told me yes but he left quite quickly. No problem 🙂
– Finally, and this one was probably the most interesting meeting for me: a man came at the end of the day. He was telling us he was a Christian, then he became an atheist, and finally now he was back to Christian. He came with a book he wanted us to read (he actually gave it to us). (Editor’s note: see the Book of the Month in the October newsletter.) The book was written by an astrophysicist justifying that science and religion can walk together and even, I think, that someone can completely be a believer even if they are also a scientist… This situation where a scientist is a religious believer is still for me, as a scientist myself, the biggest mystery in the world (even if I can think of a few explanations). I was listening to the discussions between him and my friends at the booth and I found it fantastic how my friends were arguing with this man explaining all the tricky contradictions there were in Christianity, and how all these things were totally incompatible with science. Tracy, who I didn’t know before because she was representing the secular community in Morden, was especially quite upset and it was nice to see her discussing all these topics; unfortunately she had to leave but was saying she would have wanted to continue the discussion much more.
I didn’t really know what to say and I was listening to the very nice arguments my friends were giving. At a certain moment I wanted to be closer to the guy because with this wind it wasn’t always easy to catch everything that was said, so then I sat closer to him. He noticed I didn’t say a lot and perhaps was thinking I could come around to his point, so he put on his hand my leg, like “we are good friends”. It was too much for me, and finally, rather than trying to tell him all the contradictions there are in religion, I wanted to tell him something very important to me, since paradoxically, he seemed to like science very much. I told him how much religion has hurt science, and if we look at history there are billions of examples to illustrate that. I cited him the example of Galileo, who survived the Inquisition but had to renounce to his astronomical theory. (I always say that the Life of Galileo Galilei by Bertolt Brecht is a beautiful play about that, explaining the terrible weight of religion over science). Unfortunately, another Italian astronomer, Giordano Bruno, was less lucky and finished on a stake. I guess, to excuse all the scientists who believe, they are not, curiously, aware of these very established science history facts. So, as I was saying to him, religion should have at least stayed at a distance from science and never been involved in it (but religion was more politically powerful during this period…).
So the message I wanted to deliver to this man, even if it was short, was that in fact even the models of our world or our universe (or beyond: the metaphysics) are not so important for me (I know that might seem odd from a scientist). What is dramatic is that religion tried many times to literally kill scientists; now it’s more difficult because we have seen many achievements of science that can convince many people, and in general religion by its madness is associated with so much drama in history that, for this ethical reason alone, we have a duty to remember. I was telling him it’s because of that that I’m an atheist, even more than for scientific, philosophical, or metaphysical reasons.
I hope the doubts this guy has, for any personal reasons, will vanish soon and that he will come back soon to atheism…
In conclusion, this day was great and I really thank HAAM for organizing such an event. I think it allows us perhaps more easily to discuss topics we like, i.e. humanism, atheism and agnosticism, because we encounter people who think differently than us, and it offers us the opportunity to explain our point of view and feel some solidarity between us for our values. Also having a booth like that and waiting with a nice smile for people to stop by, is probably one of the best ways to interest people and attract them to our cause. For sure the event was a family festival, and in these circumstances, it has to stay light. Perhaps some additional activities could be added (I was thinking myself of doing some scientific popularization and perhaps someone else could speak about philosophy…) to trigger more curiosity/interactivity…