Answering emails about dark alleys.

I got this email the other day (name changed for the anonymity of the author).


I’m a student at Rose-Hulman, and I’d like to say first that I loved your talk this past Saturday. It was super-comprehensive and it has spurred a lot of discussion here on campus.

During the Q&A, I was to timid to ask about the following argument my step-dad often makes:
“Imagine you are walking home one night. You encounter a group of ten men in a dark alley. Wouldn’t you be relieved to know they are just coming from a Bible study?”

How can I respond to this?


Thanks for the email, Frodo.

I guess part of it would be situational.  You might fire back “Am I an openly gay person in a rural community?”  In that circumstance, you’d likely feel much less comfortable than if they were coming from a chess club.

I suspect you’d feel better to know they came from a bible study because that would mean they left the house to do something else that wasn’t mugging you.  You’d likely feel the same relief knowing they came from a strip club or an atheist meetup.  Knowing the strangers in the alley are on their way home from almost anything reduces the probably that stealing your things is their reason for being in the alley.

I’d also point out that my worry that they were about to hassle me would go up exponentially if I knew they were coming from a bible study.  People coming from an astronomy meet up, for instance, are not likely to stop some random stranger in an alley to convince them of the wonders of the universe.  However, people who have been huffing Jesus at a bible study for the last hour are far more likely to stop you and ask you if you’re a sinner and to scrutinize the things you do for fun when all you wanted was to get home so you could watch porn.

What’s more, even if I granted that Christianity somehow made people more likely to be honest or non-violent (it doesn’t), so what?  I could invent a religion right now that says if you steal things from people, or otherwise harm someone with your own personal gain in mind, that the mighty Spahorfin will flog you and make you sing praises to him non-stop for all eternity in hell.  If believed, this might keep someone from stealing, but that would say nothing about whether or not the Spahorfin actually exists.

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.

  • Kaoru Negisa

    The context question you asked above is spot on. I’m an openly bisexual, openly atheist, long-haired liberal who wears t-shirts with pink unicorns sporting rainbow manes. If I see 10 guys coming from a Bible study, my first impulse is to check them for lighter fluid. I’ve been in similar situations before, and know that people filled with self-righteousness and dumb ideas are much more dangerous than, for example, a biker gang who is less likely to bother to harass me.

  • eric

    Well that’s a new one. I recently considered that I should stop looking for and taking notes on different theistic arguments because I thought I had a good handle on them. Then said, nah, they tend to throw new and weird ones at you. Case in point.

    I’m gonna start using the Dark Alley Gambit in all my arguments. “Eric, Zelda: Link to the Past is better than Link’s Awakening.” “Yeah, well, you’d be relieved if a bunch of guys in a alley were just coming back from playing Link’s Awakening.”

    Man, works so good.

    • John Horstman

      This is just one version of the ‘religion is useful therefore it’s true’ fallacy (or the more-insidious social-engineering perspective ‘it doesn’t matter if religion is true because having a lot of people believe it allows a culture – or even specific individuals – to control the behavior of its population’) that gets thrown about all the time. I certainly wouldn’t feel safer, either, because I’m someone a lot of Christians claim to actively hate (or disingenuously claim to love while demonstrating hate with their actions and words concerning people like me). It’s a case of uncritical Christian privilege – Christians would likely feel safer, but no one else has any particular reason to feel safer, and some have reason to feel much more threatened.

  • The Nerd

    I might feel a bit more safe if they all happened to be Quakers (which, of course, requires that I know them well enough to know that they’re actually Quakers and not just people dressed up pretending).

  • invivoMark

    The problem with the Bible study group is that they may be convinced that they have the moral high ground, no matter what they do. They may be certain that anything they do is right. Including, if some of their Facebook posts are to be believed, shooting an atheist in the head with a 12-gauge.

    The entire point of Christianity (specifically, of Jesus’ “sacrifice”) is to scapegoat the sins of humanity. All the sins of a Christian can be forgiven, so there is no moral culpability for the actions of a believer.

  • Dan

    Hitchens talks about this one in his book God Is Not Great. It’s such an absurd argument. How are you supposed to have any idea where the group of people had previously been, anyway?

  • Libby Anne

    Dawkins actually directly addresses this argument in The God Delusion. I’m really busy at the moment or I would look it up!

    • Libby Anne
    • Libby Anne

      Also, I might add, personally, if it was a group of men coming from a Bible study I might not worry that they were going to harm me, but I’d definitely feel apprehensive about their view of me as a female, and especially as a female with dyed hair and, sometimes, rather short skirts. I’d also probably assume that they don’t think I have reproductive rights or that I have the right to a career. And if it was in a dark alley, I would probably be aware that they would think that I, being female, was someplace I shouldn’t be, and expect the possibility of some hassling. And then of course there are also those men who while outwardly Christians are actually extremely hypocritical and actually DO get outed for [name that sexual sin]. All this is to say that I would definitely feel uncomfortable.

  • Benjamin

    Just to clarify what Hitchens actually said in GiNG, here’s a quote:

    “Just to stay within the letter ‘B’, I have actually had that experience in Belfast, Beirut, Bombay, Belgrade, Bethlehem and Baghdad. In each case … I would feel immediately threatened if I thought that the group of men approaching me in the dusk were coming from a religious observance.”
    He gave detailed descriptions of the tense social and political situations within these cities, which he attributes to religion. He has thus “not found it a prudent rule to seek help as the prayer meeting breaks up.”

    • invivoMark

      He’s cheating on the ‘B’s. Bombay is most certainly spelled with an ‘M’.

      • Nentuaby

        The renaming was only in ’95, though.

        • invivoMark

          The book was in ’07, wasn’t it?

        • invivoMark

          He may have visited a Bombay, but the story takes place in a city that is called Mumbai. After all, it’s Istanbul, not Constantinople. :-)

          • Soren

            Hitchens opposed the name change which, in his view, was railroaded through on religious grounds and he continued to refer to the city as Bombay.

            On some level I agree. I liven in København, but have no problem with people calling it Copenhagen. I once went on vacation to Firenze, a city called Florence by English speakers. At the height of the cold war one would hear of the Red Square in Moscow, wich I guess referred to Москва which alliterates to Moskva in latin letters.

            But Bombay must be called Mumbai, because a specific religion wants to claim it for themselves? They even claim that Bombay is a bastardization of Mumbay? Well Florence is a bastardization of Firenze, why is that any different?

          • invivoMark

            Sure, and I’ve visited Londinium (London), Moguntia (Mainz), Colonia (Köln), Lutetia (Paris), and probably lots of other places that have been renamed.

            I don’t know the story behind the changing of names of Indian cities (I had assumed it was from an anti-colonial sentiment), but I know a few people from India, including one from Mumbai, who use the current names. Not all of them are religious.

  • Miriam

    I would feel safer knowing they were coming from bible study than from, say, a night out at a bar.

    But I would feel even safer than that knowing they were coming from, say, an atheist meeting or an amateur astronomers’ hangout.

    And all of that, by the way, is only because I have the privilege of “passing” as a straight person.

  • guest

    I’m a woman. no I don’t feel safer if I knew they came from a bible study group. as far as I know, religiousness does not stop people from sexually assaulting me.

  • blotzphoto

    I love how intentionally suspicious sounding the unspoken alternative to “bible study” is. They could be good God fearing boys on the way home from Bible study. OR… they could be on their way home from MUGGING CLASS! Or MURDER SCHOOL!
    Also, Ten dudes? That is one seriously crowded dark alley!

  • Lyfa

    To answer this question, you first need the answer to two other questions.

    1) where is this alleged dark alley located. As the arguement by Hitchens demonstrates, in some countries it is very much a bad thing if they we’re coming from a religious gathering.

    2) As opposed to what? I would feel safer in most cases if the alternative was that they were coming from a bar. On the other hand I’d feel less safe compared to, say if they were coming from an atheist meeting or a math club meeting or something.

  • tubi

    One of my Christian fb friends is always cautioning me not to paint with a broad brush. Not all Christians are alike (although she tends to lump all Muslims toegether, so there you are). So I guess we shouldn’t assume they are necessarily more likely to attack or be jerks, just that their coming from Bible study doesn’t necessarily make them less likely to.

    If ALL WE KNOW is that they are coming from Bible study, we can infer some things about them that are more likely-that they may have a problem with gays, or women being out of the kitchen, or darkies-but until we know, I guess I would give them the benefit of the doubt. If we know the study group was leaving Fred Phelps’s house, then that’s different.

    But at the risk of sounding flip, I’m just a straight white guy, so what do I know? Seriously. I’ve been places where I’m the minority-Harlem, Anacostia, that one bar in Seattle-but my daily experience is generally as part of a majority. It doesn’t compare generally with others’.

    • Parse

      You can’t necessarily assume that they’re more likely to attack or be jerks, but the major issue with what Frodo’s step-dad is saying is that you can’t assume that they’re any less likely to attack or be jerks, either.

      • tubi


  • Ibis3

    The answer is: no. Ten men in an alley having just come from an event that psychologically enhanced a sense of being a tribe or in-group? That would have me on alert for sure. Plus, the fact that they’re all men would make me, as a sole woman, nervous. To be fair, I’d probably be just as alert and uncomfortable if I knew they were coming from an atheist convention, for the same reasons. A slightly smaller group would make me even more afraid, because I would feel they’re more likely to support each other in any impromptu harassment or violence so it’s more likely to occur. There’s likely to be a dissenter or two for that sort of thing in a group of ten. Ten musicians carrying their instruments or athletes carrying their equipment or ten men dressed up as if they’re going to or coming from a gala or theatre event? Then, I probably would feel relatively safe.

  • Baal

    Groups of people make me feel alert regardless. I was wondering if the letter sender was seeing if JT had heard Hitch’s talk where he mentioned the scenario (think i saw it on youtube) or Hitch’s book.

  • Brad

    Hitchens did include this in his book, but the question actually originated from conservative commentator Dennis Prager. Here is one of Prager’s articles on the question, including some clarifications because he thinks that Hitchens distorted the question in his answer:

    “Every response I have seen to this question is an attempt to evade the only honest response. We would all be relieved because when push comes to shove — when we have to make real-life decisions and not theoretical ones — we know that at least in America, the dominant Judeo-Christian values and the religions that adhere to them have generally made better people. This does not mean that all religious Jews and Christians in America have been, or are today, good people, and it certainly does not mean that all irreligious people are bad. It means simply that if our lives were hanging in the balance, we would be inexpressively happy to know that 10 men we did not know, walking toward us in a bad neighborhood, had just come out of a Bible class.

    But that is no small thing. And nothing has ever replaced that book and the American religious expressions based on it to make good people in the same numbers that it has.”

    • Kaoru Negisa

      “We would all be relieved because when push comes to shove…”

      And this is why Prager was never asking the question sincerely, but rather attempting to beg the question. I would absolutely not be relieved because I know that at least in America, the dominant Judeo-Christian values and the religions that adhere to them have generally been hostile toward queer people and atheists and I’m both. While in all likelihood nothing will happen, the odds of my being harassed or physically harmed increase when the people just came out of a Bible study, not decrease.

    • ACN

      All I got from that was:

      “whine whine whine I don’t like that you answered while making my rhetorical device and me by association look stupid can I get an amen from all the believers whine whine whine”

  • Ken

    I’d want to know which Bible versus they had been studying. If they had been checking out Deuteronomy 13:6-9, I’d be pretty apprehensive; especially if I was wearing a shirt with the FSM on it…

  • Randomfactor

    Lemme see…a dark alley and ten men from the religious group most likely to be imprisoned in America? I’m supposed to feel relieved?

  • Ubi Dubium

    I’d just like to thank you for the phrase “huffing Jesus”. Best laugh I’ve had all day – I’m going to have to remember that one.

  • CoboWowbo

    To answer the alley question:

    Not really safer. The fact that they are religious doesn’t mean they’re non-violent. There are many militant types in religion.

  • Amyc

    This was a really good take down. I met a woman yesterday (at the dallas pride parade woo!) who described herself as a “fundamentalist” Christian, but then went on the define “fundamentalist” as a Christian who loves and is accepting of everyone. All in all, a wonderful young woman, who I had a great conversation with, but she did say one thing that made me sad. She kept telling me that she thought it was great that I and the other atheists there were able to be good and nice people without the use of religion, and she kept lamenting the fact that so many people need religion in order to be good. I asked her,”Why needs religion to be good? If I was able to drop religion and still be good, then anybody should be able to do it.” Then she said she didn’t believe that she would be a good person if it wasn’t for religion. At that point I gave her a hug and said,”No, you are a good person. The fact that you describe “fundmentalist” Christianity as loving and accepting everyone, when most other “fundamentalist” Christians use their religion to bash minority groups, shows that she’s already better than most of her religious peers.” Of course, I didn’t say it as eloquently because we had both been drinking ;-)…at a gay bar. It made me really sad that she was such a wonderful person, but she was convinced she was a terrible person who was only good because of her religion.

    • Amyc

      As a defense to all of my typos/grammatical mistakes, I must let it be known that when I posted that I hadn’t eaten all day and my normal typo-preventing faculties were not fully functional.

  • Karen

    I have to admit, if I were on the street at night and encountered a bunch of men, each carrying a largish book, I wouldn’t be too worried. Having just prayed for guidance, for forgiveness of their transgressions, or whatnot (I attended enough bible studies in my Bad Old Days to know the routine) they’re all on their best behavior because they’re in front of one another. Just imagine the gossip: “we were coming out of bible study and walking past this cute chick, and Joe goes up and starts asking her about Jesus… I think he was more interested in her boobs than her beliefs.” Now, amplify that through several mouths. There’s more than the commandments of a god that keeps Good Christians (TM) in line.

  • Rando

    If you asked me that I would say “absolutely not.” Maybe that’s because the man who put five bullets into my body had just come from church. I was a witness in a drug deal gone bad, and in order to avoid going to jail, the dealer hired a hitman to kill me. The hit didn’t go very smoothly though because instead of killing me, he only seriously injured me. That didn’t mean much for my wife Jamie though, she was killed in the attack. I only know that the hitman was at church before he killed my wife because that was how he tried to get some time cut off his sentence. You would not believe how angry it made me to hear him say that he was at church right before he brutally attacked me and killed my wife. So ,no, coming home from bible study doesn’t mean you’re going to behave, and I should know I have the bullet wound scars to prove it.

  • iknklast

    Here’s how I answered this the last time – with another question.

    If you’re the father of a teenager, and they just got two offers for a summer internship, one with the Catholic Church and the other with the National Academy of Sciences, which one would you prefer they take?

    The fact that most of us would choose our kid hanging with scientists than priests doesn’t say that science is true or false, or that it makes us good or bad. It’s kind of a way of getting them to think about the ridiculousness of the question.

  • onamission5

    Considering that I have experienced just as much entitled behavior, sexual harassment, verbal violence and groping from church going men as I have from the not church going ones, no, the bible study scenario wouldn’t make me feel any more comfortable. People have potential to engage in mob mentality regardless of their professed belief systems. I would view that group as Schroedinger’s Mob until such time as they harassed and assaulted me, or until I safely passed and they didn’t.