First, I want to say that I’m really loving your advice column. I’ve always respected the thought you put into your posts and comments, and I think this format really works. I hope it’s a permanent feature.
My question deals with people who say their life was the subject of country songs before they found god. Every now and then I’ll have a religious conversation in which someone says that if they hadn’t found Jesus, they’d be on drugs, raising ten welfare babies, or dying in a gutter with no reason to carry on. I’d guess that most of them would learn other ways of dealing with their problems, but there probably are some lives held together only by religion. Not wanting to mess up their life, I generally make an awkward move to drop the subject at that point. The odd thing is, sometimes people will say this and then continue to evangelize and press the debate. How do you think these situations should be handled?
Arguing with their beliefs is one thing. Arguing with their decision to keep evangelizing you is another. Both are completely okay for you to do, although the former is probably pointless while the latter might relieve you of an annoying pest.
I don’t think you need to worry that arguing with these people about their beliefs will mess up their lives. The only thing that might do is mess up your evening. They’re not going to end up “on drugs, raising ten welfare babies and dying in the gutter with no reason to carry on” just because you disagreed with their beliefs. If they were that fragile, they’d already be dead. The world is a tough place, and many people are not very tactful or diplomatic.
They have come to you, you have not come to them. You won’t be the first person who as disagreed with them, and you definitely won’t be the one who persuades them to abandon their beliefs. My point is that it’s almost always a completely futile task, like bailing out a cesspool with a bottomless bucket. The only despair coming out of such a discussion will be from you, for having wasted an hour that you could have much better enjoyed by, say, watching your Aunt Mildred’s old grainy 8mm movies of the Ice Capades in 1961.
I’ve heard many of these “tales of woe” at the beginning of testimonials for the transformative powers of a religion. They take two forms:
- A claim that this is how they actually lived, and now they are so much better because of their conversion to their religion, or
- A claim about how awful they would be if not for their religion.
In either case, It is impossible for you to know how much of it is true at all, and how much of it is embellished. That becomes moot anyway, because the more often they repeat the story, the more set and vivid it becomes in their minds, so that eventually they believe it themselves, even if at first it was an exaggeration or a complete fabrication.
I think that often it is a ploy, a manipulation with two purposes: Firstly, it is dramatic and grabs your attention. If you assume it is a true story or a likely scenario, then it impressively portrays the power of their remedy. The second thing it does is to make it more likely that a listener will refrain from challenging them, as it did to you, for fear that you might undermine their support and they would fall into that squalid life.
Because it has stirred your compassion, you might also be reluctant to ask them to please stop evangelizing you, and you’ll let them go on and on out of a sense of kindness to them. Their illusion of vulnerability is actually an armor, and they are taking advantage of your sympathy.
So let’s assume that you’re in a patient mood, and you listen to one of these missives of misery, and you say “uh-huh” at all the right places, and then at an opportune moment you try to close it with your version of “Well. Thank you for sharing,” but they don’t take the hint and they keep on going, starting into the really unwelcome evangelizing.
Remember, the vulnerability is an illusion. If they were that fragile, they’d already be dead. You can’t destroy them by merely declining to listen any more. You don’t need to be rude or snide, but it is really okay to be firm.
Try saying, “Jack, (always get their first name, and don’t offer them yours) I’m glad that you have something that has helped you with your challenges. However, I don’t have those challenges, and we all have to find our own solutions to our own problems. Thank you for telling me this, but it’s not for me. Now let’s talk about something else, like…”
You will have already thought of some change of subject, because while listening to their story, you were observing something about them, or making note of some non-religious interest of theirs that they had mentioned.
This change of subject part is completely optional. You could just end it with “…but it’s not for me.” No guilt is necessary. You have the right to be left alone. They came to you, you didn’t come to them. You have not been aggressive, merely assertive. Good for you.
Or, you could just look them right in the eye and say with finality, “I’m an atheist.” More often than not, they’ll leave faster than if you told them that the building is on fire.