Other conversations while traveling

Last weekend I was flying into Kansas City and I sat next to two very engaging people.  It was one of those flights where the conversation was great the entire time.

At one point they asked what I did and I told them I was an atheist for a living.  The man proceeded to tell me how he believed in god but didn’t care for the people who crammed it down others throats.  He told me that being an atheist was cool and that he understood.

I think I surprised both him and the lady next to me when I took the opposite approach.  I told him that I actually understand the fundamentalist to an extent.  If I saw someone dangling over the edge of a cliff, I explained, then pulling that person to safety would become my top priority.  Period.  I would drop everything and try to save them.  Well, to the fundamentalist, I’m dangling over the precipice of hell and they are doing the right and proper thing: they’re dropping everything and trying to save me.  I’m grateful they care.  I’m disappointed they have such ludicrously silly beliefs, but at least they’re trying to help.

What gets me are the people who believe in heaven/hell, who think I’m going to hell, but who shrug it off.  Those people either don’t really believe this stuff or lack compassion to a serious degree.  Both of my neighbors on that flight nodded in agreement.  Hooray changing people’s perspectives through conversation.

Consider the conversation I had on the flight to St. Louis yesterday.  Here was a woman who clearly believed in heaven and hell.  The second she knew I was an atheist she must have known I was destined for hell.  I even opened the door wide for her to take a stab at saving me.

And she didn’t even try.

She was not a woman who lacked compassion.  She taught middle school, a career nobody goes into for the money.  She also had an adopted son.  The woman cared.

So why didn’t she try to pull me up from the lips of hell?  I can only think of two possible reasons.  First, believers like her, though they profess perfect faith, suspect it’s a line of bullshit.  This is what Dave Silverman of American Atheists has been telling us for a while now.

The other possibility is that she was worried that by trying to convince me of her religion’s truth I’d back her neatly into a corner and make her reconsider her own faith.  This really reverts back to the first reason.

In either case, this is a sign of progress for us.  We are powerful as individual atheists.  We need only not listen when they tell us to be ashamed/afraid of who we are.

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.

  • http://legendsoftheheathentable.wordpress.com/ Gordon

    I met a street preacher once in downtown Tuscaloosa. He was handing out fire and brimstone fliers and all that jazz. As I passed him, he offered me one (“offered” as in “shoved one into my chest”). I politely declined, citing my heathenitude. The look he gave me coupled with his toothy grin was frightening. In his mind, he knew I was going to be suffering eternally; and he was loving the idea. There was no pleading for me to come to Jesus, just a condescending smugness that filled the air like smog. Haven’t forgotten that face as of yet. It was a rather haunting experience that still stands out for me among many encounters.

  • DBC


    Been reading for a while. Enjoy the posts, largely, but never have anything useful to contribute. I lurk many atheist blogs, have for more than a decade now. I agree, or not, with what’s posted. I just don’t feel the need to talk about it. I’ve been an “out” atheist for many years, in the physical world- I just don’t bring it up with people unless the subject is explicitly broached.

    I have opinions on many “online” things, of course; I just don’t generally post my opinions, anywhere. They’re mine, they’re considered, and I’ll change them when I see good reasons to do so. I basically never see any reason to simply *announce* that I have an opinion to people that I don’t personally know.

    But this is an exception. That last three lines? Oh, my. That’s good stuff. I am moved to *announce* an opinion, today. I am not “out” enough. I’ve been too quiet. I need some time to digest this… but the young man who writes this blog should know that he’s inspiring people to reconsider how they present themselves as atheists. I need to engage more.

    Thanks, JT. Please keep writing.


  • http://potatoesarenotvegetables.blogspot.com Ashton

    I can think of one more reason that could explain it. She knew that she wouldn’t convince you and that it would just make for an unpleasant flight.

  • TMJ

    I can think of another reason she didn’t try to convert you. Perhaps she believes in live and let live and that you are free to make you own choices about religion.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/wwjtd JT Eberhard

      If someone believes in hell, how does that make any sense? If you had a friend who thought shooting himself in the head is a good way to make their toe stop hurting, could you possibly take a live and let live approach?

      If not, how does it make sense to take that approach with someone who thinks going to hell is a good way to be happy? It’s tantamount to shrugging it off if someone’s dangling precariously over a cliff.

      The way you describe it, live and let live is synonymous with callousness.

      • kosk11348

        Sure, but many Christians believe in things like grace and predestination. You might be dangling over a cliff, but the only person who can save you is god. He needs to be the one to work the change in your heart. If things are a certain way, it’s because god has ordained it so. Faith can demotivate people to change anything.

        Of course, since faith is utterly irrational, it can also have the opposite affect. Trying to understand a religious person’s rationale is an exercise in futility. They can find a way to justify anything to themselves. If Christians can find a way to justify Old Testament genocide, I’m pretty sure the fate of one more godless atheists isn’t keeping them awake at night.

        But you’re right. It’s not that these people that lack compassion generally. It’s the nature of religion to skew one’s morals.

  • http://peternothnagle.com Peter N

    This is something I’ve always wondered about, too. You would think that if the “faithful” really believed that stuff, they wouldn’t live such ordinary lives. In contrast, the Harold Camping crowd, who sold their houses and cashed in their retirement savings to stand on street corners and preach, laughable/pitiful as they were, at least seemed to be living what they professed.

    Even the Mormon missionaries at my door don’t seem very invested in what they claim to believe. If I tell them, no, not interested, have a nice day — they just turn and go on to the next house with smiles on their faces.

    You might think that constantly chanting e.g. “Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name” should make people — I dunno — pious in their demeanor. But it’s more like the sermons and hymns and Bible lessons and prayer circles are just background noise to their lives.

    • Joshua Fisher

      I grew up Mormon and I kind of see Mormon proselytizing in a more sinister light. Those missionaries have come to your door and “delivered the message”. Now, when you stand before God at judgement, you will not be able to claim innocence through ignorance. You heard the good word, and rejected it. You rejected your God and you will justly burn in hell… or something like that.

  • http://www.facebook.com/karla.kearney sc_275fda6d19be38ce015eadd27ed4c205

    Funny you should post this today because I was saying these exact same things to a family member only yesterday. I told her how funny it is to me that most of our family considers themselves to be Christians and yet no one proselytizes. Not to me or to anyone else as far as I know. “The Great Commission”m as it is known, is one of Jesus’ biggest commandments to his disciples yet I cannot think of anyone in this day and age who tries to save others’ souls, let alone considers selling all their worldly possessions to travel the world and preach their “faith”. I told her my suspicion is that no one really believes what they profess to believe, it is simply an act. I think the reward many Christians seek is simply having others think they are “good Christians” for social purposes. They know deep down it is most likely bullshit but are too afraid to admit it.

  • Mark

    If someone claims they have “perfect faith” run the other way. They are probably a cult leader. Not even Abraham had perfect faith.

    Generally, Christians believe it is not them that save a person, but the Holy Spirit. Jesus was clear when he sent out his disciples, if people weren’t receptive to the message, move on to people who are.

    If you value your sleep on Sunday morning over your eternal destiny, you aren’t coming across as receptive.

  • J*

    She may have realized it was futile and a waste of her time. Or she may really hate debating (which in this case would be a character flaw, but people have those.) Or she may believe in hell, but think you have to actively be a bad person to go there. I met a guy like that recently. Even though the tenets of his faith (Catholicism) say I’m damned because I don’t accept Jesus, he asked me a series of questions about my moral character and based on my answers declared I was heaven bound. Does that make sense? No. Do any of his beliefs? No.

    My BFF in high school (you may remember her) was on of those silent people. She was religious, I’m not, but she never once tried to convert me. She too is a person who cares. At that point in my life I sorta, kinda, maybe, apathetically believed there could be a god, so I wasn’t going to back her into a corner. But I know she truly believed it and was worried about it.

    We had Mr. Thomas’s English class together. He made us write a journal every week. It had to be 300 words, anything at all we wanted. I typically wrote song lyrics and what I was doing over the weekend. Nothing important, I mean my teacher was going to read it, right? One day my friend was absent, so when he returned our journals I grabbed hers. I was curious what she’d written, and I never once thought that something she would let Mr. Thomas read was something she’d mind if I read. So I cracked it open not thinking for a second that I was invading her privacy. Well she didn’t write nonsense like I did. She had written about how she loved me but was worried about my soul. I immediately slammed it shut realizing that this was an invasion so I don’t know what she went on to say, but we’re friends to this day and she’s never once tried to push her beliefs on me. I don’t know her reasoning, maybe if I’d read on I would’ve found out, but I am very thankful she’s never tried.

  • Kevin

    I agree with the third option that the Christian may simply not see a need to preach Jesus because you already knew. That’s an attitude I wish more Christians would adopt.

    Unless you are in a remote area untouched by most of civilization, you’ve already heard of Jesus Christ. If, after having seeing the religion on TV and having Christian friends, you have not given into “common sense” and converted, then what will that one humble servant accomplish?

    And when someone tries to convert me, that’s what I tell him. Why did that person think that I was ignorant about Jesus? He sure as hell can’t convince me after decades of “rejecting Christ.” That doesn’t stop all of them, but there comes a point where you are unable to pull the person away from the cliff.

  • Jim Baerg

    Then there is the issue that if God cares about what we believe, why does he not write the ‘Truth’ in glowing letters in the night sky, or something else that would similarly make the message available to everyone & clearly from an entity with superhuman power.

    Instead the various religions each claim that God gave the ‘Truth’ to 1 or a few humans & told them to spread the message. A far less effective method.

    So if someone claims to have a message for humanity from God, is it that
    A) the person is deluded?
    B) the person is lying?
    C) God is dumber than a bunch of rocks?

    Does anyone have other options?

    • Kevin

      This is another argument I use to get people to leave me alone. Clearly, God does not want me to worship him. If he did, then he would try harder. What kind of perfect being would use such an imperfect delivery method for his message? Mortals are fully aware of the game, “Post Office,” and the “grapevine” is generally recognized as an unreliable source of information. If God is willing to impart his wisdom to Popes and prophets and Bible authors, then why couldn’t he, in his infinite power, expend just a little effort to let me know that he exists? Why would he rely on sending a crazy person?

      As an atheist, I don’t believe in God, of course. When talking with believers, I speak from their point of view–as if God is indeed real. I point out that God doesn’t want me to worship him, and who am I to defy his will? Doesn’t always work, but maybe I added a seed of doubt in his mind.

      • Ubi Dubium

        I have a similar approach. I tell them that there are so many evangelists out there, from so many different religions, how am I to know that the one talking to me is actually a real messenger from god? I’ve made it easy. I have a pass-phrase. It’s not a sentence that would ever come up in normal conversation, but I’ve thought it in my head many times, really loudly. An all-knowing god would know what my pass-phrase is. An all-powerful god would be able to tell one of his true believers to come say it to me. So if an evangelist ever comes up to me and says “This doesn’t make any sense to me, but God told me to come and say this to you…” and says the phrase, word-for-word, then I’ll listen. Until that time, I’ll have to conclude that god either isn’t powerful enough to do this, or does not want me to believe for some reason, or (the most probable answer) is non-existent.

  • Aquaria

    You actually talk to people on a plane?

    I do everything I can to avoid them. Maybe because I always get the people who see “Dear Abby” on my forehead, and tell me the most shocking things about themselves, their family, their friends, their co-workers, their bosses–

    Sorry. I always tell the seat assigner–put me away from people. Please. For my own peace of mind.