Am I Bad?

I had dinner with an acquaintance last night. This girl doesn’t know too much about my personal beliefs and my involvement with non-religious groups, but she does know I’m an atheist. She’s a Christian, though she defines that loosely and doesn’t believe in organized religion.

Our conversation eventually came to what our respective beliefs are.

This girl was telling me how she had met a guy who changed her life a few years earlier. They met by chance at a shopping mall when she was with her friend. I say “by chance” because that’s what I would consider it. Had she not gone shopping, or had she not been in that store, she wouldn’t have run into this guy. However, she would say this meeting was due to God’s guiding hand.

I’ve had similar things happen, too, where something seemingly random happens and it changes the course of my life. I’ve held a part-time job that I love for almost five years now… I got the job because a friend mentioned in passing that she was thinking about applying there.

The entire eBay thing happened due to a number of small things that had to happen for everything to pan out as it did… Jim Henderson won the auction at the last second… a reporter from The Wall Street Journal took a chance that I was serious about what I was doing, which opened the media floodgates… the list goes on.

As an atheist, I’m content to say this is all a coincidence and there are any number of things that could’ve happened and I just happened to go down one specific path.

So I tried to tell this girl that I thought her run-in with the guy in a mall was a coincidence. She didn’t buy it. Besides that instance, she said, there were a lot of things going wrong in her life, and after meeting him, a lot of that turned around. It had to happen for a reason, she said.

At this point, I could think of a lot of reasons to explain why it was a coincidence and if she had really wanted to turn her life around, she would’ve done anything to change it. If she didn’t meet this guy, she would have found another way.

But to say all that, I felt like I would come off as a pompous ass.

So I let it slide.

We kept talking, and when she told me how she felt organized religion was wrong, I asked her why she still labeled herself as a Christian. She said she believed in the Biblical story.

Again, I thought of lots to say, but I kept my mouth shut at this point.

She asked me how I could honestly not believe in God. I responded by asking her how she could deny that the Gods of Hinduism (for example) were true. Essentially, the response she gave me was that those Gods were just silly.

I wanted to say that that was what I felt about all Gods.

Instead, I said the standard line about how it’s easy to dismiss “other” Gods and atheists just take it one step further.

I don’t think she understood me. We changed the subject.


So to recap, I knew what I would say if I wanted to “evangelize” my atheist views. It wouldn’t even be that extreme. I knew what I would say if I simply wanted to be a “good” atheist. I even think my responses would have been decently thought out and logical. But I didn’t do that. I had no reason to make her think she was wrong, and maybe I was flattering myself in thinking that anything I said would change her mind. I almost felt bad challenging her when it was clear that she felt God changed her life for the better.

I don’t know how other people (atheists?) would’ve responded.

Should I have been more representative of the atheistic outlook? Or was it ok that I didn’t say all that was in my head at the time…?

[tags]Christian, atheist, God, Jim Henderson, The Wall Street Journal, Hinduism, religion, atheism[/tags]

  • BlackSun

    Atheists have to speak uncomfortable truths, or theists will just continue along their path of least resistance, the trail blazed by their parents, tradition, and an almost willfully ignorant society.

    I don’t think you should have kept your mouth shut. Why do we have to respectfully listen to theists when they blather on about their beliefs, count the hits and ignore the misses, and support their unsupportable statements with more unsupportable statements? Why are we the pompous asses for demanding the slightest smidgen of intellectual rigor?

    The social taboo against challenging belief was created by people who didn’t want to have their beliefs challenged. What else would one expect them to say?

    Ideas are more important than people. It is only through their ideas that anyone ever can ever change the world, or achieve immortality. No one ever got anywhere by being a wallflower or a doormat. The meek shall NOT inherit the earth. Theists have had a monopoly on discourse for far too long. They have been undeservedly privileged and coddled. Enough.

    The more outspoken you become, the more you will find yourself in the company of people who share your passion for inquiry and reality. Sure you will chase away some theists who can’t deal with it. But is that really so bad?

    Speak the truth and let the chips fall where they may.

  • HumanistPR


    This would be a great question to send Molleen Matsumura for her “Sweet Reason” advice column for the nonreligious that appears in the Humanist Network News ezine. To ask Sweet Reason a question, click here.

    We’re working on an audio version of Sweet Reason, too. You can call the HNN listener comment line to ask her a question at (206) 339-4168 or you can use our evoca microphone system to ask her a question on our website, click here.

    Of course every else should please feel encouraged to ask Sweet Reason a question, too. (I think you’ll find that she’s almost as friendly as Hemant.)

  • Garrett

    I had a Hindu friend explain to me that they only had one god who took multiple forms based on what it was doing at the time. Sort of how like Mike Myers is Austin Powers/Dr. Evil/Fat Bastard.

  • King Aardvark

    It’s a tough problem, especially when the person you’re talking to is extremely positive about their faith. If they’re negative about it, expressing doubt, then it’s easy to “evangelize,” so to speak. I can’t count the number of times I’ve let something slide with my wife’s family, though I do try to talk sense into them here and there.

    It’s hard to say what to do. One thing a lot of atheists pride ourselves on is not being evangelical like many Christians. We hate it when Christians spout off at us when we’re obviously not interested in hearing whatever it is they’re saying, and we give others the same respect. On the other hand, when your friend there is obviously oblivious to more sensible alternatives, I feel you should take the opportunity to educate her. I guess the keys would be balance and patience (I have neither, I’m afraid).

    Christianity’s greatest strength is that they never feel that they are coming across as a pompous ass. That’s why they’re so good at converting people.

    Getting back to your original story, it’s amazing how many people have a hard time grasping that something has to happen. Somebody has to win the lottery. Likewise, if you go out, eventually you will meet someone who will have some influence on you.

  • Siamang

    It would all depend on the conversation, and my relationship with that person.

    I shut up as required socially when people are speaking positively about religion. If I was being engaged by them, I feel it’s appropriate to the discussion to answer their questions.

    I’d probably take a tack like, “well, in my view I have a more mundane explaination for X phenomenon. ” I’d engage the other person and rather than explain my position, I’d ask them if they could tell me what they imagine my explaination would be for whatever phenomenon they are talking about. So, I’d lead them down the path themselves to say, “oh, you’d probably say it was just a coincidence.”

    If they said, “but it changed my life! My life is so much better now!” I’d say, “and what do you imagine my explaination would be for your life being better now than it was then?”

    If they’d say “well, it was because I got this great job.” I’d ask it again, “what do you think my explaination is for why you got that job?”

  • King Aardvark

    Siamang, I’ll have to try that. Does it work? I mean, do they experience an epiphany of understanding?

  • ManicParroT

    this is a tricky issue. I don’t challenge theists every time they mention their beliefs, but I don’t let it slide all the time either. I take things on a case by case basis, and see how it unfolds. If someone just said “yeah, I’m in LDS” I wouldn’t jump on them. On the other hand, if they started explaining their mormonism to me, I’d be perfectly willing to challenge their beliefs.

    Frankly, if a situation is such that someone is explaining their beliefs to me, then I feel perfectly entitled to explain my beliefs to them. And if my belief is that their belief is silly, well….

  • Rational_Human

    It is OK to leave them believers with their beliefs.
    We the rational people live by a higher code of principles than the theists.
    We respect the freedom of choice.
    We are ready to accept the people as they are even if they do not agree with us.
    We do not display the “intolerance” as our theist counter parts to the counter view.
    You raised a question here in the context of a casual acquaintance with whom you probably spent a few hours.
    I want to give an example of myself. My wife is a strong believer in the Hindu Tradition. (of course it has one advantage, the husband in that tradition gets an automatic respect). I never tried to “change” her beliefs. I never tried to convert her to atheism. She in turn never tried to influence me either. We courted for five years and have been married for twenty one years after that and we never had any argument on this subject.

    Yes it is OK to let your partner (frend or acquaintence as the case may be) have their beliefs if it is more comfortable for them. But we make it clear to them we love them and respect them and not their beliefs. We do not care much for their beliefs, but we do not deny their right to believe. (Here the reference to the beliefs is made under the assumption that they are the harmless innocent beliefs.)

  • Ebonmuse

    Certainly you could have represented your view more strongly. For example, as far as coincidences go, I’d have said that there are a huge number of different things that can happen to make your life turn out well, and while the odds of any particular one of those things happening may be low, the odds of at least one of them happening are quite good, especially for a person who’s actively on the lookout for new opportunities and ready to take advantage of them. And the only reason the Hindu gods seem “silly” to your friend while the Christian ones don’t, and not vice versa, is because that’s the culture she was brought up in.

    On the other hand, while I’m all in favor of atheist evangelism in general, I don’t think we have to aggressively confront every religious person we meet. Rather, I think we should recognize who’s the enemy and who isn’t, and focus our efforts accordingly. The obnoxious fundamentalists who really are a threat deserve to be fought and resisted as strongly as possible. On the other hand, I don’t think it does much practical good to attack the beliefs of people who agree with us on most points of social policy anyway. From your description of the situation, it sounds like your friend falls into the second category, so I don’t think you have anything to chastise yourself for.

    In any case, I think identifying yourself as an atheist and showing that we can be ordinary, decent people like anyone else is by far the most important thing we can do to win support for our cause, and you certainly seem to have done that. This site is called “Friendly Atheist” for a reason, right? :)

  • jim henderson

    Christianity’s greatest strength is that they never feel that they are coming across as a pompous ass. That’s why they’re so good at converting people.

    I interview Christians all the time who pompous asses and I help them realize it.

    It is fascinating to listent to atheists try and work out their motives and actions in much the same way Christians do (in our more honest moments) and it is equally interesting to see the range of opinions from Siamang (depends on my relationship with them – my personal favorite) to the earlier one “ideas are more important than people” – All you would have to do is replace “ideas” with ” the truth” and James Dobson couldn’t have said it better

  • jim henderson

    BTW Hemant – A very well wrtitten piece

  • Martin Foreman

    Obviously there are a whole range of factors that determine whether and how far to move any discussion towards atheism, but where friends are involved the key factor is whether or not they are ready for the discussion. If they are not ready – and some may never be ready – the only appropriate response is similar to Hernant’s here. He was right not to pursue the discussion. All he can do is put her right when she makes false assumptions about atheism.

    Strangers are a different matter. I find that the topic only comes up when they want to tell me how Christian they are. And then I ask several pertinent questions that depend on their approach. ie, if they insist that religion provides the only basis for morality, I’ll draw their attention to the death and destruction that God causes in the Old Testament and I’ll compare a rational based morality (which respects all human life) compared to a religious based one (which privileges wealthy married men). If they come up with the-universe-must-have-a-cause argument, I’ll ask who / what caused God. If they come up with creationism, I’ll ask about the number of animals in the ark (two or seven per species?), what carnivores ate on board, how fresh water fish survived and how the koala got to Australia from Ararat. And so on.

    That is not an approach for friends. Some of my closest friends – second family, actually – are fervent believers. But they are also extremely tolerant and loving people and I would never dream of creating an argument that would destroy our friendship. If this friendship is valuable to Hernant, he should keep his mouth shut. One day, she may stop assuming and start questioning, and that’s when she may start to see reason.

  • Logos

    Hemant, if this was a date I think you should find someone more suitable for you…I am single btw (I kid, I kid)

  • txatheist

    I think Siamang is correct, each situation is different. I was on a date with a girl many years ago who was a minister and later I found out she was also divorced. I was just coming to terms with atheism and we had a very philosophical discussion about it. The date went superb but she lived 8 hours away and we were set up my a mutual friend so I didn’t expect it to be serious. We had a barbecue with all our friends the next day and there was no resentment or uneasiness from either of us. I think it boils down to the type of person. Some people want to listen and really care like most on OTM and others are convinced they have evidence that makes their belief correct.

  • Shana

    Hello – I’m a new reader & a fellow ‘friendly’ atheist!
    I’ve found myself in that situation more often now that I’m living down south (originally from NY). in particular, my last job (retail) included many co-workers who were vehement christians, and who didn’t mind preaching at me on a daily basis. i found that by standing up for what i believed, or didn’t believe, i gained their respect and curiosity. they gradually went from trying to convince me to follow their religion to trying to understand where i was coming from. by the time i left that job, i felt that i had gained some friends who looked at me in a whole new light: ‘wow, she doesn’t believe in God and she’s still a good person….’. similarly, i found devout christians who i could get along with!
    i too feel that i may come off as pompous once and a while, but i find myself outnumbered more often than not, and really having a strong desire to stand up for my own thoughts and opinions. i also think it’s important for many people to see the other side of things….it opens their eyes to a broader culture.

  • txatheist

    What general area did you move to in the South? Just curious as I wasn’t nearly as outspoken until I moved to TX 10 years ago.

  • Jennifer F.

    Whenever someone presents an idea as a fact that is based almost entirely on emotions or gut feelings (the “it was God’s will!” kind of statements) it’s really tempting to dig down on that and ask them to support their claims. Rarely can they do it. But, hey, why shoot fish in a barrel? If she were actively trying to convert the world to her views you may have wanted to question her, but as it is it sounds like she wasn’t bothering anyone and she’s found something that makes her feel good.

  • Mike C

    Hemant, what would be your motivations to “evangelize”? Why might it be important to you (or to other atheists) to convince others to become atheists? Is it just about “truth” – i.e. getting others to agree to what you believe is metaphysically true? If so, then why is that important to you? If not, then is there some other reason? Would you take a Dawkins/Harris approach that says religion is evil and the fewer religious people the better; and use that as your motivation to “evangelize”?

    Just asking…. :)


  • Hemant

    Mike– It’s not that I want to convert this person to atheism. But I don’t believe in fate/destiny, for example. I do think things simply happen. There are coincidences all around us. But to say that would’ve deflated this romantic image she had in her head. And that’s what I felt bad about doing.

    I don’t know if that constitutes me evangelizing about atheism, but it was more that notion that there are other explanations to the things she mentioned that I wanted to get across.

    – Hemant

  • Mikael Johansson

    I figured that I would want more people to read my answer, and at the same time, wanted to expound a little bit more than I would have done in a comment here. So at my Livejournal, my response to this post comes.

    Adding to it, I have had quite a bit of fun meeting evangelizing mormons out on town. You can throw an american mormon who’s hobbling along on learned german quite off balance by swapping language to english as well as calling him on the more questionable theology spouted.

    One of my favourites, occuring in this as well as in some ID-circles (saw it repeated on Penn&Teller’s Bullshit! episode about creationism!) is the idea that morality only comes from knowing that God Exists And Cares. Apparently, the proponents of this argument believe that unless there is some entity actively checking whether you Behave, everyone will degenerate into .. well .. mass orgies, I guess. I never could understand this particular argument.

  • dorkafork

    Feynman had a great story about coincidences (mentioned in Six Easy Pieces):

    “You know, the most amazing thing happened to me tonight. I was coming
    here, on the way to the lecture, and I came in through the parking lot.
    And you won’t believe what happened. I saw a car with the license plate
    ARW 357. Can you imagine? Of all the millions of license plates in the
    state, what was the chance that I would see that particular one tonight?