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.