Guessing a Number to Win a Cross

Dale McGowan tells a story in which his knowledge of the Bible works against him in a contest.

The setup: At his wife’s (super religious) family reunion, a Baptist minister was asking everyone in the audience to guess a number to win a prize. He gave away t-shirts and pins…

Then came the finale. With a bit of ceremony, he produced a small wooden box. He told a story of being approached by a man who was raising money for local church kids to go to camp, something like that. He’s a good storyteller and loves an audience, so when at length he opened the hinged box and revealed the contents, he got himself a nice Ooooooo from the congregation.

It was an unusual pendant, a chain of copper-colored beads, and hanging at the end, a large black cross with splayed ends, a kind of extended Coptic cross. It was made of black glass, maybe obsidian, with swirls of metallic blue and copper.

“Now,” he said. “I want you to write down another number between 1 and 100 to see who gets this cross.”

I could claim that I hesitated a moment, that I pondered what to do, whether to participate, but no. Instead, I did what the other 45 people in the room did — I wrote a number on the back of a piece of paper and folded it up. That was the normal thing to do, after all. But this is the moment that was shortly to embarrass my fine boy.

Dale got the number dead on. (If you think about it for a bit, you can probably guess it, too.) It’s even more amusing when you realize the religious folks knows he’s an atheist. But that’s part of the problem:

… here’s where “be out and normal” breaks down a bit. It’s hard to quickly figure out the “normal” way for an atheist among Baptists to accept a cross that he has won (by way of religious insight) from a minister who is also his wife’s uncle. But it’s not hard to figure out why the same moment embarrasses the atheist’s teenage son, sitting at a table of his Baptist cousins.

Read the story. What would you have done in Dale’s position?

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • Sven

    I would have written ’101′ on the piece of paper..

    • http://religiouscomics.net/ Jeff P

      666

  • Anonymous

    Auction it back to the group for charity.  Any unwanted winnings could be donated back this way.

  • Commenter9000

    Hah! I guessed the number. Cool.

  • AwesomeCloud’s mom

    I don’t get it.  Everyone in Western civilization knows the general story. Why would atheists not know the number 3 was significant?  The minister had already established that he was using meaningful numbers.  If Dale had guessed 98 instead, it would have been obvious that he was ignoring the meaningful numbers rule, and that might have been misconstrued as disrespectful.  The best I can conclude is that the Baptists in his family have already worked up a tension around Dale showing any sort of clue about Christianity, no matter how slight, and were just waiting for the next one.

    My family is just the opposite – if I feign ignorance, they remind me that whatever I claim to believe or disbelieve now, I grew up Catholic and I can’t lose that.  And you know what, I agree with them.  I can’t lose it.

    • Rieux

      I think the tension is, indeed, “already worked up” in the family—so the downside here was that the black sheep atheist of the family had won an explicitly Christian prize. And then (a detail I think you missed) there were more than forty presumably-Christian family members there, and none of them guessed 3. It had to sting that the lousy atheist beat them in a simple Christian numerology game.

      Also, there’s no indication in the story that McGowan was required to reveal his guess if it was wrong. So 98 wouldn’t have been disrespectful, because no one would have known (unless he insisted on telling them) that he’d guessed it.

  • Roger Pepitone

    I was thinking 16.  Had the numbers been between 1 and 1000, I would have guessed 316.

    • Reginald Selkirk

      I would have guessed 666.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=719095026 Zach Johnson

    I was at a family gathering once where a Catholic priest was talking about the single nut that holds a helicopter’s blade assembly together – he offered a prize for anyone who could guess by what name that nut is referred to.  He was offering a cash-prize, so I had no problem claiming that $10 with the answer jesus-nut.

    (saying that out loud was also completely hilarious to me as an atheist)

    I always love a gathering of fairly devout people where the atheist wins at religious trivia.  :)

  • Anonymous

    I guessed. And I think Dale’s solution was great. He shows that not only does he think of and understand the religion/religious mindset better than his believing family members, but immediately turned around and demonstrated his consideration and generosity. Perfect.

  • http://www.examiner.com/atheism-in-los-angeles/hugh-kramer Hugh Kramer

    I guessed it too. Perhaps we ought to poll how many other atheists would guess “3″ thinking the Trinity might be on the mind of the pastor conducting the contest? We know our religions better than most believers!

  • stephanie

    Heh, of course he’s going to choose three for the grand finale.

    I wouldn’t have played, simply because I do a lot of glasswork and could make that piece in two kiln firings if I wanted it. No sense taking the option from someone who couldn’t make it. ;)

  • Beadknitter

    Considering I would have known what the prize was in advance, I would not have written a number down. Let someone else who would actually want it win. Really, would anyone had known if I hadn’t participated?

  • Austin

    3 I guessed 69…oh well

  • Heidi

    But I don’t want to win a cross. Why would I write down a number in the first place?

  • http://gloomcookie613.tumblr.com GloomCookie613

    I would have done the same thing Dale did.  If you read the rest of the story, it didn’t end badly and everyone was fine.  Didn’t seem to be any hard feelings among anyone and it was small learning moment for all.  What he chose to do with the cross that he won was a very nice touch that helped smooth the waters once more. 

    The only thing I would do differently is tell my teenage son some valuable advice:  Awkward moments happen, it’s how we proceed from them that matters. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/AnonymousBoy Larry Meredith

    I don’t understand why his son found it so embarrassing. It doesn’t sound as awkward as his son makes it out to be. The way the story was built up I thought some big anti-religious dialogue was coming up. Then I find out he just gracefully accepted the prize, complimented the craftsmenship and gave it to his mother-in-law as a gift. Talk about anti-climactic.

  • Dan W

    I would have gotten the number right if I had been in that situation. Not surprising that the pastor was thinking of the doctrine of the Trinity, and thus the number 3. Just another example of atheists knowing more about religious dogma than the believers.

  • Nova

    Am I the only one who would have guessed 42?

    • Morphomel

      That’s what popped into my head first. :)

    • Morphomel

      That’s what popped into my head first. :)

  • http://www.facebook.com/nora.bailey Nora Hill

    Oh boo, I guessed 77…overthinking it!

    I think Dale handled the situation perfectly fine, and what dad doesn’t embarrass their teenage children at some point or another?


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