A chance encounter and words unsaid

Last night was my last night with my family for a while.  Today I fly to Denver to be a big, bad celebrity atheist poker player (and to vanquish fellow FtBer, Ed Brayton).  Last night we all went out to eat to celebrate a wonderful time home.

At the table next to us was a teacher I knew from high school.  This was not any teacher, this is one of the two that converted me to Christianity while in their official capacity as a teacher.  He’s one that led the football team in prayer.  All of this was illegal, though I didn’t know that at the time.  Not like my gay-hating, Jesus-loving teenage ass would’ve cared.

He came over the table and said it was good to see me.  He touched my shoulder and I saw red when he did it.  I wanted to tell him how wrong he was then and how wrong he remains.  I wanted to curse him for what he made me into: a young man so confused about the meaning of love that it circumvented my good will and made me into an agent of hate.

More than that, I wanted to tell him that I have become his antithesis.  I wanted to tell him that I earn my living undoing the damage he has done.  I make a living catching people like him and making sure they are punished, and I wanted to tell him that so badly.  More than anything, I wanted to tell him that this generation is rejecting religion unlike any before, and I’m right in the middle of it fighting him.

But I didn’t.  I kept uncharacteristically quiet.  I don’t know why.  Maybe I didn’t want to create a scene with my family there, when we had enjoyed such a good five days.  I think now that I should’ve said something, and I’m really regretting staying mum and letting him walk away without knowing there are people who loathe what he does and despise it without reservation.

Next time, Gadget.

You guys are wonderful.
PERSONAL: Mid day lab pics from the wife.
PERSONAL: Happy birthday, Hitch.
PERSONAL: Sorry to disappoint you, Julian.
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://www.facebook.com/using.reason usingreason

    Not disrupting the small amount of good family time one gets is not a reason to beat yourself up. It is probably the best reason to stay silent I can think of.

    • Silent Service

      Some things can only be said at the right time. Last night was not the right time.

  • Dennis Nuckols

    Great job refraining, though it may make you feel unsettled in your choice… your the bigger person here, and not because you kept your mouth shut when a severe tongue lashing was deserved.. but because battle grounds are to be chosen wisely as much as the battles themselves are. Chances are high that he will draw your attention to himself again in a setting where the battle can be seen as more than just you publicly attacking him at lunch.. though the not so ignorant would know otherwise.. we know which is dominant in the MH area. I have probably encountered this teacher(of what worthwhile knowledge i do not know) too, and wish i knew who it was, but understand you with-holding that from this post… thanks again for all you do, and even your restraint at times like these.. it truly has equally as much impact on righting the wrongs.

  • http://reasonableconversation.wordpress.com Kaoru Negisa

    It’s not easy to be the aggressor in situations like that. You run it over in your head, the things you wanted to say, the things you should have said, but it’s so hard to not think that it’s unprovoked, even when the person is spreading lies and hatred.

    I have the same problem with at least one person I know. Every time I see the guy, I want to tell him how much I abhor his fundamentalist bullshit, how much his gay-hatred is hatred and not just “a difference of opinion,” how much his support of ancient myths is actively hurting people and what an inhuman monster he is for not caring. Yet I don’t. The timing never seems right, there is no in the moment excuse, it’s difficult to reconcile the smiling, friendly face you see with the twisted, delusional core you know is there.

    I guess what I’m trying to say is not to be too hard on yourself. What you did was natural, and it’s not important that he knows you’re working to destroy the awful things he loves. Some day, probably after we’re both dead and gone, people like him will be practically non-existent. We won’t be around to appreciate it (well, you won’t; I plan to live forever), but the work will have been worth it, and children will wonder at how people like that teacher could have possibly existed.

  • https://profiles.google.com/UCIcaarus/about Icaarus

    You did the right thing. Why? Because even with your amazing, supportive, wonderful family some times you want to be that teenager again and not be the UberActivist.

    JT I wouldn’t have understood this a few months ago, but it happened to me. My online persona is unified, and traceable, but hidden enough so that my family is not bothered by it. I have discussed it with my parents in closed doors, but for the most part it is an ‘ignored’ topic.

    Last time I was home, that changed, the conservatism in my parent’s town in Alberta, is just that suffocatingly conservative. Mom, for some unknown reason brought up that I no longer believed at a dinner with golf buddies. She said nothing different then what one of my friends or Atheist group connections would say regarding the area I am living in now pushing me further into the Atheist circle as a backlash against the average population’s bigotry. Yet when she did it I saw red. She broke her own rules and brought my outside life in, making our guests uncomfortable and making me concerned about a potential backlash against my parents for having a heathen son. So uncharacteristic of me, I shut the conversation down. I withdrew, and to be honest, I turtled faster than any time in my life previous. So yes you did the right thing, for the right reasons, because Lasagna Damnit you earned your vacation.

    Don’t feel bad about keeping your family life, not your family because your Mum might be reading this comment some time today, but those interactions with those we love that we cherish and keep us grounded in reality, separate from your job.

    If you still question this, ask yourself what would you have done if he had said hi to you when you were doing something representing the SSA, or better yet, if you were completely on your own?

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1017276335 Strewth

    Some years ago I ran into my old grade school principal. Now, there was no religious indoctrination at my school that I was aware of. My beef with him was that when I (very small for my age at the time) would get the crap beat out of me on the playground, he’d hold me responsible because I was a few months older than the larger and more numerous kids doing the beating.

    He said something about how he remembered me and was glad to see I was doing well.

    He was… not doing well. The years had not been kind.

    I considered, briefly, letting him know what I thought of him. But I just thanked him and let him go. Telling him how I felt would not have helped either of us, I think.

  • invivoMark

    Given preparation, there’s probably some perfectly snarky, yet mild-mannered line you could have said that would have made him think, perhaps prompted him to look you up later so you could say whatever you wanted, without making a scene.

    But you know that isn’t what you would have said. You can’t say the perfect line every time, not on the spot like that, and it’s often better to say nothing.

    You’ve got nothing to prove. You already know that you’ve become a far better person than he is. You also know that you’re doing far more to undo damage than what he and his type ever cause. You know that’s true, because our side is winning.

  • http://www.atheist-faq.com Jasper of Maine (I feel safe and welcome at FTB)

    For some reason I kept expecting JT to then say “… but as it turns out he deconverted and is an atheist activist now!”

    Maybe I’m just too optimistic

    • Michaelyn

      He was wearing a Baptist church tshirt…

      • http://www.atheist-faq.com Jasper of Maine (I feel safe and welcome at FTB)

        Well apparently my reading comprehension needs improvement.

  • eric

    Too bad you don’t have a business card, with web page or facebook address on it. That would’ve been nonconfrontational but still illuminatinng: Mr. X, go visit my site! Read my blog!

  • PatrickG

    Eric’s idea could be really fun! You could even have a set that doesn’t say anything provocative, just say ‘Good to see you! I’m blogging now, you should check me out if you want to see how I turned out.”

  • fastlane

    If you have the logo of your blog printed on biz cars with the address, they might miss the ‘freethought’ part of the URL, and the WWJTD might make them think it’s a religious blog. Might be a good way to actually get them to at least check and not ignore it.

    Double plus good. :D

  • IslandBrewer

    That’s fine. There are better times and better places.

    Send him a letter. Let him know that he made you into everything he stands against. Let him know that you’re happy now, and that he and his religiosity made you (and lots of others) miserable. Let him know that your are helping countless others get over people like him. Cite him statistics. Let him know that he’s a dying breed, like slave owners and religious inquisitors. If he has kids, let him know that his grandchildren or great grandchildren will more likely be atheists, thanks to you and others like you. And one day, like slavery and other forms of abuse and persecution, he will be an embarrassing footnote in America’s social history.

    Or toilet paper his house – whichever will cheese him off more.

  • Randomfactor

    JT, I’m assuming your old high school has an SSA chapter already? If not, what a wonderful way for you to “come out” to your old teacher…

  • http://deep-friedfreethinkers.blogspot.com/ Nathan Piccolo

    Good for you in refraining to react while at a family dinner.

    How much damage could it have caused for you and your family; ruined a nice dinner, caused rifts amongst them, over shadowed the 5 days previous with a dark, gloomy feeling?

    By not letting him spark you in to (what would have been worth buying tickets to see and listen to) such a conversation you have not tainted the memories of your time with family. There is a time and place for everything, you were the better man by far.

    However after the poker tourne, “all bets are off” so to speak.

    Good luck and play well.

  • kagekiri

    I….yeah. Wow. I’ve definitely felt the same quite recently.

    I’m still closeted, so when I went to my sister’s graduation celebration at my old church (I currently pretend to attend a different one), the church I grew up in, the one that indoctrinated me thoroughly since I was 5, oh man, it hurt like crazy to pretend.

    Listening to sermons and testimonies (including my sister’s) giving God credit for so much bullshit, singing worship songs that now horrify me with their self-esteem-destroying, individual-effacing lyrics….I wanted to scream, tell them to revoke my membership, and tell them I’m happier and a better person by being free from their insane, self-hating horror of a religion.

    Instead, I grit my teeth and hated myself for being a coward and not just outing myself already, lip-syncing the songs to not tip off my parents standing next to me, as my apatheist brother subtly hounded me for not just giving up the act already.

    Of course, that’s me basically constantly lying to people actively to maintain false appearances, rather than just keeping quiet once for a good reason like you did, so maybe it’s not so similar. GAH, I need to change this.

    • http://reasonableconversation.wordpress.com Kaoru Negisa

      That’s not an easy thing at all. Being closeted can be so difficult, so painful. I came out as bi to my parents a year ago in September, but I’m still in the closet about being an atheist. My dad has never been religious, but my mom has been a devout Catholic all her life (she’s changing to Episcopalian because she won’t be part of a group that hates her son, thankfully), and when I go down to visit I’ll inevitably say something that makes her ask if I still believe in god (last time was when I asserted that people don’t rise from the dead). I waffle and pretend to be agnostic or give the “organized religion is bad” thing, but I want to tell her that it’s all wrong. She recently suggested I start a blog and try to get a revenue stream out of it, which was incredibly hard to talk around since I started that months ago and can’t tell her about it lest she read me writing about how god doesn’t exist.

      It’s even worse for you, though, since it seems like you come from a much more religious family, and I can only imagine what it’s like sitting through those sermons calling up to nothing and watching everyone around you believe that it’s having an effect. I’m sorry you have to go through that. Just remember that there’s a community for you the day you do choose to come out.

  • lorimakesquilts

    There’s a time and a place and your last dinner with your family in awhile is not the place. Don’t beat yourself up, your priorities in life are in the right place, there’s time for that kind of confrontation later.

  • machintelligence

    There is nothing wrong with being civil. IMHO you did the right thing.

  • RhubarbTheBear

    I wonder if you would have felt differently if he had since deconverted.

  • http://mamamara.wordpress.com Mara

    You most likely did the right thing. Confronting him would have made everyone unhappy and ruined family time. Yeah, it would have felt good at that moment, but in the long run it probably wouldn’t have done anything.

    Although I’m an atheist, there are things I like in Judaism. One concept I’ve adapted for my family is “shalom bayit” or “peace in the home.” In our house, it doesn’t mean making your entire life miserable or pretending to be something you aren’t, it means that there’s a time and a place for everything and sometimes you’re being the better person if you just STFU :D

    I agree with the folks who suggest sending him a letter. *That* would be totally worth it and would get you the same satisfaction of “Screw you, bastard” without the family stress.

  • Rebecca Hensler

    I guess as a counselor, my interpretation is a little different. From what you wrote, it sounds to me like your experience regarding your conversion in High School, how it changed you as a person, and how you feel in retrospect about what you said and did then, was profoundly traumatic. I think seeing the guy triggered you, the way that I, as an adult, was triggered when I saw a guy who tried to sexually assault me when I was a teenager. Fight or flight: you froze up. That’s a very natural human reaction. Cut yourself some slack and write him a letter, now that you have some distance. It will probably make you feel better.

  • Whelve

    I applaud your good sense. I didn’t hold my tongue in a similar situation; in my case the gym teacher who was at all 3 schools- from elementary to middle to high school, who always put me down and made me feel that anything I did, even if it was a mile stone for me, was useless and I shouldn’t even try. I still kinda want to curl up in a little ball and whimper for a bit when I think about it.
    Nearly cost me my job for verbally assaulting a customer. While it was joy at first in the end I didn’t feel any better about it either.
    I like Rebecca’s idea at #19, write him a letter. While you won’t be there to see his face when (if?) he reads it you’ll be doing yourself and him a service. In retrospect it is what I should have done.

  • The Lorax

    I wish I could comment on your situation, your feelings, or your description of them.

    Unfortunately, Inspector Gadget was a defining moment in my life.

    I’m sorry, but with three simple words you’ve just scored far too many Awesome Points for me to have any emotion other than “SQUEEEEEEE!!!”

  • David Hart

    “Next time, Gadget.”

    Wait, you’re casting yourself as Dr. Claw here? You do realise that that means I’m now visualising a Baptist schoolteacher calling up implausible cybernetic devices hidden inside his body in order to help him spread the word of God … and that ain’t pretty:-)