God wanted you in the middle seat

I have a curse: I cannot be scheduled for a flight and then have that flight run on time (the lone exception is Southwest, those guys rule).  Ask anybody who has ever expected a flight of mine to arrive on time.

Last night my flight back from Lake Hypatia (which freaking rocked) was supposed to get back right before midnight.  At 1am I was boarding the plane to come home.  God must’ve had a sense of humor on this night because there was a huge church group (most of which was wearing shirts that read “pray for religious freedom”, which is kind of like praying for the freedom to breath; redundant and useless) occupying the entire back of the plane and my seat was somehow right amongst them.  No worries.  I’m cranky as hell and don’t want any piece of them.  I’m just going to take my seat and sleep.

I get to my seat to find it occupied by an elderly woman.  I look at her and my ticket inquisitively.  I opened my mouth to tell her that I thought she was in my spot, but she beat me to it.

“Is this your seat?” she asked.

“Yes ma’am.  I have 35A.” I responded with a smile, assuming she had just made a mistake.

She rolled her eyes and asked, “Does it really matter?”  I thought to myself that it must matter otherwise her ass wouldn’t be there and she certainly wouldn’t be rolling her eyes at the idea that she’d have to vacate it.  Ordinarily I’d be happy to give up my seat if someone asked nicely.  However, she did not ask nicely.

“Yeah, it does matter.  I prefer the window.  Sorry.”  The last part was a lie.  I wasn’t sorry, but I was in no mood to fight (take a picture).

The woman beside her sighed audibly and said, “C’mon maw, git up.”  And both of them proceeded to mope slowly into the aisle as though the world were ending.  I try not to lambast people when I’m tired.  I know it can make me unjustifiably cranky (and I prefer to only lay into people when my crankiness is justified).  So I waited patiently.

Finally I was in my seat and ready to nod off, but the woman (who was now planted firmly in 35B, much to her chagrin) wasn’t finished.  Some of her people were still boarding and she said, very loudly, “Hey Steve, A seats are by the window, I just learned.”

Alright, I thought to myself.  Let’s do this.

“God apparently wanted you in the middle seat.”  I quipped.

There was a moment where she couldn’t tell if I was a Christian who was joking or if I was mocking her.  Finally, the martyr complex took over.

“Are you making fun of me?” she asked.  It’s almost as if she suspected her purposefully antagonistic behavior might have annoyed me.

“No.  I’ve been mocking you in my head ever since you got pissy about having to leave my seat.  That last line was more of a taunt.”

Before 35B could utter another word, the middle-aged woman sitting in 35C tried to convince “maw” to let it go.  Maw was having none of it.

“I don’t see why it matters.  I was already in that seat…” she blustered before I cut her off.

“Yes, you were in that seat.  That seat was my seat.  Ironically, you had to move past your seat to sit in my seat.  And despite me being polite, you pitched a fit when asked to give back what wasn’t yours, as though you were entitled to it without asking.”  I continued, raising my voice slightly so the nearby members of her group could hear.  “And it’s really unfortunate, because I see the shirts of the people you were conversing with, which had me wondering what being a Christian was like.  Now I have my answer.  It apparently makes people think they’re entitled to what isn’t theirs and has me not even wanting to sit next to one, let alone become one.”

Silence.  She literally leaned away from me with eyes huge, before looking around to her group to check the looks on their faces.  I thought for a moment someone would volunteer to swap seats with her, but nobody did.

She gathered herself, looked straight to the front of the plane, not at me, and said, “Well, Jesus loves you.”

“Putting you in the seat beside me is a really weird way of showing it.  But hey, I’m open to the idea.  Do you have any evidence this god exists?”

She told me she had faith.  I knocked that softball into orbit and spent the next 20-30 minutes beating down a bunch of crap arguments for god.  Then it was a quiet ride home and a deliciously awkward deboarding when we got to Columbus.

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.

  • Gregory in Seattle

    I’m flying out tomorrow, and rather hope I get to have a similar conversation. (Insert evil laugh here.)

    • echidna

      I had a recent 14-hour flight next to a Jewish YEC. Very interesting conversations.

  • Randomfactor

    Random Chance obviously had a plan for you. It’s almost as if the heavens themselves were intoning “whatever…”

  • Kevin

    …and when they recall the conversation later, they will cluck and nod and tell themselves that they really put you in your place…

    Also, never forget — these people vote. For exactly and precisely the most-wrong candidate or position on an issue that it is possible for them to have.

  • Kevin

    I am curious as to what your specific reply is to people who argue they have “faith”.

    Myself, I usually rely on the position that what people demonstrate is not “faith”, but credulity. Swallowing as true myths told badly 2000+ years ago.

    My fallback is usually something to the effect that if there were evidence for the existence of god, then faith would be considered the greatest sin of all. A true moral evil.

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

      Can you distinguish faith from gullibility for me?

      That’s what I usually lead with. :)

      • http://peopleofpublictransport.wordpress.com Zinc Avenger (Sarcasm Tags 3.0 Compliant)

        Faith is gullibility protected by multiple layers of gullibility.

  • http://www.atheist-faq.com Jasper of Maine

    Why are atheists so angry? Because it’s awesome.

    • http://www.atheist-faq.com Jasper of Maine

      I have to say that one of the reasons why I admire JT is that he does only what I could imagine, while I myself am just a pushover.

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1698151270 John-Henry Beck

        I gotta agree with that.

    • Rory


  • http://faehnri.ch/ eric

    “Does it really matter?” – meaning it doesn’t matter to me if I take what belongs to someone else and I don’t care if it matters to them.

    • beyondbelief

      It is astonishing how many times an “aggressor” takes something and then tries to make the rightful owner into the bad guy for simply insisting that we all play by the rules we agreed to play by when we bought the ticket.

      “If it doesn’t really matter, then you’ll clearly have no problem moving to your own seat.” (The same is true for “line cutters”…you are seeking to STEAL advantage at someone else’s expense)

      This is how many people “get ahead” in life. Simply have the gall to take something that is not yours, fight to hold on to it if the original “owner” protests, and in the worst case scenario you have lost nothing when you give up the theft and return to your original position. All you need is for a few people to not protest, a few people to willingly let you have your way, and slowly but surely you will rise in the world.

  • John Eberhard

    They just fill their britches when you don’t buy into their assumption of Christian privilege, don’t they?

  • Mriana

    I think it does matter, given that where the plane has you sit is also a record of who is on board. Of course, if the plane does crash, then I guess it won’t matter then, because people get shuffled around an alike. IMHO, that elderly woman was not only using the Xian card for privilege, but also her age. I think she also expect you to let her have your seat, because she is an older woman who wants to sit with her daughter. That would have been my second thought and I would have given her the benefit of the doubt and then ask the attendant if there was another place I could sit.

    In other words, I probably (save for the t-shirts) been too lenient on the woman and have dragged out some of the stuff you discovered about her. On the other hand, I flew once (recently) and I’m not doing it again, esp if I don’t have to in order to save my life. I can’t stand flying. My first and last time (over 2 years ago) was horrible for me. One would have to sedate me like the cats and dogs or have me severely injured and unconscious in order to fly me. Round trip was that bad for me.

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

      Well, her daughter was in the aisle seat and she was angling for the window. Had I relented, they would’ve been separated as I would’ve been in the middle.

      • http://manojpontificates.wordpress.com Manoj Joseph

        The lady seems to have acted as if she took the window seat by mistake.

        “Hey Steve, A seats are by the window, I just learned.”

        But they apparently didn’t have trouble figuring that 35C was on the aisle. They must have thought the seats were numbered C, A, B! Nice try! :)

        • Mriana

          I don’t think it works that way. Planes may taxi down the runway, but their seats do not spell CAB in relation to that. lol Sorry, I just had to make a funny.

      • Mriana

        Oh ok, then it doesn’t make much sense if they wanted to sit together. Logically, her daughter would have taken her seat if that were the case.

  • Carol Eberhard


  • RhubarbTheBear

    I wish stuff like this ended up on YouTube!

  • http://iamologies.wordpress.com Ologies

    While I admire your willingness to speak up (I’m bad at confrontation and have definitely missed out on some opportunities to tell someone where to stick it), whereabouts in this did religion come up outside of you bringing it into the conversation? It’s not readily apparent that she took your seat because she was a Christian who knew you were an atheist, it seems more likely to me that she was stealing it because…I dunno, any number of other reasons; you mentioned one yourself, she wanted to sit next to the other person. Old people sometimes shit on everyone else because…again, I don’t know why, senility? Just general wearing out and being grumpy? Too many damn kids trampling their begonias?

    While you were certainly in the right to give her a verbal beatdown for being such a shitsandwich about a seat that was never hers to begin with, I guess I don’t see the good in bringing the religious element into it when it doesn’t seem to have obviously motivated the problem in the first place. I would say it’s reasonable to assume that most Christians exercise their privilege by assuming everyone else is religious like they are. Unless you made it obvious before the incident that you were a nonbeliever, the likelihood of her exercising Christian privilege/entitlement towards someone who she likely perceived to be another Christian also seems somewhat dubious.

    Besides, isn’t this the kind of thing we, as the irreligious, generally dislike when applied to us? People see a scarlet A t-shirt and start selectively applying it to our actions – “Oh, you must not have opened the door for that person because you’re GODLESS!!!!!11one!11pie You are pro-choice because YOU ARE MORALLY BANKRUPT WITHOUT GZUS!!!114515″

    • N. Nescio

      I guess I don’t see the good in bringing the religious element into it when it doesn’t seem to have obviously motivated the problem in the first place.

      If you’re going to publicly declare your affiliation with a set of beliefs that espouse humility and love and include an assumed moral superiority because of it, expect to get called out when your actions are inconsistent with those beliefs. Simple as that.

      • http://iamologies.wordpress.com Ologies

        I disagree that it’s so black and white. We’re human beings. The religious and irreligious alike have faults in their behavior. You’re holding everyone to an impossible standard by expecting that they will fall in line with a set of rules completely, 100% of the time. That’s not reasonable – even Christianity has a built-in system for dealing with lapses in behavior.

        Besides, they don’t have a monopoly on this kind of thing. If someone openly berated me about being a nonbeliever because of some annoying thing I did that had nothing to do with my lack of belief, I can’t imagine myself responding well to that, either. As I mentioned in my response, I think he was fully justified in being irritated with her behavior, I just think the inclusion and subsequent eviscerating of religion was a bit of a non-sequitur in this case.

        • Jacob

          Well said, sir.

    • rowanvt

      . Unless you made it obvious before the incident that you were a nonbeliever, the likelihood of her exercising Christian privilege/entitlement towards someone who she likely perceived to be another Christian also seems somewhat dubious.

      You’re a little naive if you don’t think that christians feel superior to other christians. If that wasn’t so, you wouldn’t have all these sects saying “We’re right and the other ones are wrong!” The fact that *she* was wearing a religious t-shirt and JT was not automatically told her that she was morally superior because she was showing her faith in a tangible way.

      • http://iamologies.wordpress.com Ologies

        Of course I think some Christians hold themselves superior to other Christians – but this argument has become purely causation/correlation and is a poor show of logic. Wearing a shirt about Christianity and doing something annoying in no way convincingly conflates the two any more than wearing a t-shirt with kittens on it and being annoying means that my behavior was driven by my endorsement of kittens.

    • skepticallydenpa

      Did JT mention he was already feeling irritable?

      What JT did was make a correlation between christian privilege and her behavior. She pissed him off and he responded in a way that would bait her into an argument that, under normal circumstance, would have been a heated discussion, (as is part of his modus operandi).

      I understand where you are coming from. This could have easily been reversed with a christian accusing the atheist’s behavior as being the product of having no sense of morals… But given the opportunity, I would have been able to present a solid argument as to there being no positive correlation between religion and morality. So, I would actually enjoy being put in that position.

      In short, her behavior opened up an argument that JT was planning to avoid this time, (even if it was an unfair jab).

  • SuperMental

    “Well, Jesus loves you.”

    What is that supposed to mean anyway?

    “Jesus loves you buy you annoy me.”???
    “You are a terrible person.”???

    What is wrong with people? You are in the man’s seat. Say sorry and move. End of story.
    And by the way, there are no gods.

    • Parse

      You know the second half to that, right? “… but everybody else thinks you’re an asshole.”

  • danielq

    The first response to “Does it really matter?” when it came to the old lady’s concern for the seating arrangement should of been. “Oh, well yeah it does matter. Because if the something goes wrong and the plane goes down. And we all crash, burn and die, well I don’t want to misidentified as a crotchety old bitch!” That probably would of shut her up for the rest of the flight.

    • SuperMental

      Terrible, yet hilarious.

    • John Horstman

      “I know it matters to the Transportation Security Administration.”

    • Mriana

      I agree with SuperMental. Terrible, but very funny.

  • Mark

    That’s a conversation I would like to have heard.

    Not for the schadenfreude, mind you – telling little old ladies that they’re not going to heaven is exactly the strawman of atheists that people love to hate. (When the discussion is provoked, of course, it’s just fine not to lie to them.)

    But I’m sure I could learn a lot from JT’s arguments. His prepared speech skills are nothing short of awesome, as I’ve witnessed, but one-on-one discussions are a whole different game, and one I’m more likely to play.

    • IslandBrewer

      JT’s had a lot of practice (well, more than most). It’s the kind of practice you can only get from experience, facing someone who is trying to stare you into submission, furious that people who don’t subscribe to their world view have the temerity to exist, let alone confront them.

      I wish I had that sort of practice.

  • IslandBrewer

    Thank you, JT. That just made my morning!

  • John Horstman

    Hmm, I usually talk about airplane safety statistics, which really ought to make people more comfortable, but in fact frequently make them less comfortable, perhaps because they’d like to maintain the delusion that planes NEVER crash or something, instead of just rarely crashing.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1698151270 John-Henry Beck

      Perhaps it’s simply the reminder of the risk itself? Especially with it being outside their control at that point there’s little point to the reminder of the risk – just gets someone worrying.

  • jaranath

    I doubt I’d have had the guts to do that. You’re a brave man, JT.

    What does it say about a person that they would deliberately exploit that bit of ritual human courtesy–”Oh, is this your seat?” “Yeah, sorry, it is/No, I don’t mind sitting here”–by claiming her desired outcome in advance and setting YOU up to be the Bad Guy. She knew exactly what she was doing. She’s probably been pulling stunts like that all her life and getting called on it far too infrequently. I may not have the guts to do what you did, but I’m glad you did.

    • anacoluthia

      Exactly. Forget even the religious aspect of it, I’m just glad you called somebody on the crap they’ve been doing for years.

  • http://healthyhumanist.com Healthy Humanist

    I know how good this feels. Good job not holding back JT.

  • Mark

    I’ve had this happen to me several times. I innocently thought the elderly lady didn’t want to get crawled over, or wanted to limit the number of times she had to get her delicate body out of the seat. Little did I know it is an evil theist plot to get a better view of the wing. Way to stand up for yourself; I’ve never been so brave.

    • http://www.facebook.com/CynicalOtaku nathanielfrein

      Then she could have phrased it that way. She could have said “I’m sorry, but the middle seat is just so uncomfortable for me, would you be kind enough to trade”.

      Flying sucks. Getting everyone on board, with luggage stowed properly, is a chore. Instead of trying to make the process smoother for everyone she deliberately set herself up as an obstacle to that process, and when she got called on it she acted mildly belligerently. Rolling your eyes and making a dismissive comment is not the adult thing to do.

      This is further compounded if JT was flying on an airline where you choose your seat in advance. If JT had specifically chosen that window seat then she is literally taking from him something he had specifically purchased. That warrants more than an eye roll and a “does it really matter?”

      And I’m tired of “little old ladies” being these intellectual porcelain dolls. Little old ladies can be tight balls of hate, vitriol and bigotry and they don’t deserve any respect just for making it to their twilight years with their ignorance intact.

  • ednaz

    I can only applaud. Thank You, JT.

  • Jacob

    I don’t know…I hate it when people are assholes just as much as the next person.

    But if we’re going to talk about how arrogant and selfish and hateful these supposedly loving Christians are, why don’t we demonstrate humility and selflessness and love and show that we don’t need a faith to treat other people like human beings?

    As much as I know it feels good to beat other people down, it just turns me into just as big of a dick as they are. I think there’s a better way than knee-jerk reaction and retaliation, no matter how irritated or frustrated I am. We’re not in grade school anymore. Let’s grow up.

    • anteprepro

      But if we’re going to talk about how arrogant and selfish and hateful these supposedly loving Christians are, why don’t we demonstrate humility and selflessness and love and show that we don’t need a faith to treat other people like human beings?

      You can go ahead and show as much humility and love as you like. We are under no obligation to do the same, especially since there is no indication that it is an objectively better strategy.

      Also, seriously: Arguing with someone isn’t “treat[ing] other people like human beings”? Really?

      We’re not in grade school anymore. Let’s grow up.

      It’s all about niceness and understanding when we are approaching True Believers behaving badly. But when talking to “fellow” atheists, somehow, the Might Advocates of Niceness seem to be more liberal in their application of insults then they would permit those “fellow” atheists to be towards True Believers. One might almost dare to call it hypocrisy! But that wouldn’t be very humble and loving of me, would it?

      • fastlane

        Yeah, this sounds a lot like another accomodationist argument.