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.

About JT Eberhard

When not defending the planet from inevitable apocalypse at the rotting hands of the undead, JT is a writer and public speaker about atheism, gay rights, and more. He spent two and a half years with the Secular Student Alliance as their first high school organizer. During that time he built the SSA’s high school program and oversaw the development of groups nationwide. JT is also the co-founder of the popular Skepticon conference and served as the events lead organizer during its first three years.


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