Sitting Next to a Missionary

On the plane from Columbus to my connection in Phoenix, I was sitting next to a very nice woman who, during the course of our flight, hauled out her bible.  At one point she asked what I did for a living and, as usual, I was candid: I’m an atheist for a living.

You can imagine the conversation that immediately sprung up.  It is a very sad fact of the universe that being nice has an effect of absolutely zero on how correct a person is.  Otherwise Christianity would have a dog in the hunt for truth.  This was consistently what I thought when conversing with “N”, the missionary.

She opened with Pascal’s Wager, and I calmly explained to her why the Wager is not compelling not only to me, but also to her for any other religion.  I also noted how it is not an argument for truth, but only a response to a threat, and as such it could be used in defense of any assertion, no matter how preposterous, so long as it included a threat.  This is a way to empower our fears, but not a good way to arrive at the truth.

She then pulled out a stack of business cards and had me select one at random.  I got Matthew 7:7 (the chapter and verse of which I correctly identified, go me knowing my bible!).

Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.

I informed her that this was simply false.  I had asked for a good reason to believe, not only of other believers consistently over the last several years, but also of god even as my faith slipped from my still-grasping fingertips.  I had also sought, as was evidenced by my ability to note scripture and verse from memory.  I have read the bible as well as an impressive catalogue of other religious texts.  I’m good on the whole seeking thing.  Compare this to the Christian population only 10% of which, statistics show (see Bill Killer Ministries), have read the bible in full.  If I am not knocking on god’s door, then neither are most believers.  The bible, in Matthew 7:7, is wrong.

Then it was the moral argument.  Again I calmly explained to her why that didn’t work.  This happened repeatedly with different approaches.

Now, when I’m talking with a religious person, aside from listening and trying to communicate, I’m looking for something specific.  I’m looking for that pause after I rebut something they’ve said when I can see them realize that there is an inconsistency they can’t account for.  They may stutter and throw out something, anything, to try and justify the inconsistency, but as long as the cogs start turning, I’m pleased.  Those are the times when you get the email four months later telling you that they have changed their mind about something.  This was not happening with “N”.

So I asked “N” that if there was no god if she’d want to know.  Immediately her response was that she wouldn’t.  From there I could point out that it is impossible to be in search for the truth if you’d rather be wrong than know it.  A person in those shoes has no ability to learn honestly, to improve the reliability of their beliefs, or to converse honestly, since anything the other half of the conversation says can have no effect, no matter how reasonable.  Faith of this kind, I said, disconnects us from other people.

“N” asked what she could read to become more familiar with atheism.  I told her not to waste her time.  Until she placed a higher premium on the truth rather than the preservation of her own beliefs, it would be useless. By the end, and very much to her credit, she changed her mind.  If there was no god, she said, she would want to know.

We need not change a person’s mind entirely in one sitting, that’s not feasible for the most part.  But we can nudge them into appreciating the value of reason.  If everybody were more willing to do so, we’d see this world change for the better much more rapidly.  Yeah, it’s a headache having to hold somebody’s hand and guide them through simple deductions, but what else can we do?  If we want to change the world, it starts with all of us being willing to change the little things.  That means connecting with others, and that means that sometimes we need to be patient while still being honest.

  • http://purl.org/NET/JesseW/SundryStuff/ JesseW

    Excellent, excellent description of the day to day work of spreading critical thought (and atheism). Yes, this is what the work consists of.

  • Beaux

    As always, I’m better for reading your blog.

  • John Eberhard

    The longest journey starts with but a single step.
    Baby steps to victory.

  • jtkendall

    Hey, wow, that was a really neat way to approach her angle, and yet get her to make an admonition of the possibility that her God as she undoubtedly knows Him may not:

    A) Be the Supreme Ruler of the Universe and Everything
    B) Be as fair and moral and just as He expects of His subjects
    C) Exist at all.

    Well done, grasshopper. *Nods wisely*

  • http://raisinghellions.wordpress.com/ Lou Doench

    Sorry, but my immediate thought was of this quote…

    Bartleby: You know, here’s what I don’t get about you. You know for a fact that there is a God. You’ve been in His presence. He’s spoken to you personally. Yet I just heard you claim to be an atheist.
    Loki: I just like to fuck with the clergy, man. I just love it, I love to keep those guys on their toes.

  • Michaelyn

    I think I learn something from you every day.

  • http://aratina.blogspot.com Aratina Cage

    Good job on getting through to her. You are an excellent “atheist evangelist”. :D

    it is impossible to be in search for the truth if you’d rather be wrong than know it. A person in those shoes has no ability to learn honestly, to improve the reliability of their beliefs, or to converse honestly, since anything the other half of the conversation says can have no effect, no matter how reasonable.

    Strong stuff to have to hear. I wonder if fear was behind her disinterest in knowing if God doesn’t exist: fear of knowing you’ve been suckered for so long, fear of having what you consider your identity (Christian) questioned, fear that if you question God’s existence and find out he is real that you will be punished?

  • B-Lar

    Most awesome story. In particular I loved the image which I was gifted with of:

    “What do I do? Well Madam, I am an Athiest by trade and business is good!”

    The last gambit though, is something very special. There is no point paying lip service to the truth. if you arent prepared to accept it, then dont pretend that you are looking for it. I never thought about this before, and it is very significant, so thanks for that.

  • michael

    I wonder what percentage of Christians search for truth and eventually lose their faith?

  • Tom Clark

    Wow! You made a religious person change her mind, about something like that. I am in awe of your skill, sensei.

  • http://www.loujost.com Lou Jost

    Yes, that was an excellent, honest, and original approach. I look forward to your future posts.

  • Art Vandelay

    How do these things always happen to you? I’d be in my glory if I was ever on a plane and was lucky enough to sit next to a missionary with a bible. I’m the guy that waits outside and waves the JW’s over to his house and makes them lemonade.

  • Mark

    Three things;

    1. “Then it was the moral argument. Again I calmly explained to her why that didn’t work. This happened repeatedly with different approaches.” – Can you elaborate on this a bit more please? What specific moral argument did she use and what did you use as a rebuttal?

    2. After indicating that she would want to know if there was no God did you then suggest some reading material like she asked?

  • Mark

    Three things;

    1. “Then it was the moral argument. Again I calmly explained to her why that didn’t work. This happened repeatedly with different approaches.” – Can you elaborate on this a bit more please? What specific moral argument did she use and what did you use as a rebuttal?

    2. After indicating that she would want to know if there was no God did you then suggest some reading material like she asked?

    3. Excellent post as usual.

  • http://www.facebook.com/#!/profile.php?id=100000846514764 Robert Madewell

    “So I asked “N” that if there was no god if she’d want to know.”

    I think that is a very good approach. It might even be better to begin with that question rather than to wait untill nothing else is working.

  • fastlane

    I’m cynical, but I suspect that ‘N’ may have lied. Now maybe, there’s now enough doubt that there’s a chink, but I suspect, after a few months of doing missionary work, surrounded by jeebus zombies, all of that doubt and honest seeking will be gone.

    Frankly, I’m surprised you got such an honest answer in the first place. Most religious discussions I’ve followed on forums and blogs the religiobots claim to be searching for the truth, but when confronted with basic facts, ignore, rationalize, or are otherwise completely immune to reason. Creationists are the worst. Liars for jeebus….

  • chigau ()

    If there was no god, she said, she would want to know.

    Why?
    How would she change her behavior?
    Would she stop being “good” without the threat of hell?

  • Brad

    So I asked “N” that if there was no god if she’d want to know.

    Great question!

    Not sure if this was deliberate or not, but this is nearly an exact re-phrasing of an evangelism technique from the book “Share Jesus Without Fear” by William Fay:

    “If what you believe is not true, would you want to know?”

    I doubt the question originated there, but that’s what came to mind.

    In either case, its a powerful and effective question.

  • http://eternalbookshelf.wordpress.com Ani Sharmin

    We need not change a person’s mind entirely in one sitting, that’s not feasible for the most part. But we can nudge them into appreciating the value of reason. If everybody were more willing to do so, we’d see this world change for the better much more rapidly.

    This is a good point. Whenever I have changed my mind about something, especially a strongly-held belief, it was rarely a sudden revelation, but rather a result of lots of little things being added together, including things that I’d heard people say or things I’d read that other people had written.

  • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Camels With Hammers

    Great post, I have done the exact same thing in demanding that someone commit to the possibility of changing their mind before answering their request to go study my positions on their own. Just like you I said don’t bother if you’re not going to actually think. (I even blogged about this but will not go linking here and give the impression it’s the only reason I commented! :) )

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