With a perfect spring San Diego day and blue skies overhead I was expecting large crowds and a quiet day at the booth, but things turned out differently. I did something I rarely do — raised my voice in frustration, and all within a few minutes of opening.
We had barely finished setting up and settling into my chair when a 30-ish man angrily stomped over to the booth and says (as best I can remember): “I am an atheist, and I hate that you are doing this! There is no purpose to this! This is a country of Christians and you are just going to make them unhappy!”
I’ve encountered only 2 other “self hating atheists” before at the booth, but this was particularly odd because 1) His English was accented, and you don’t usually get the ‘this country is Christian’ argument from immigrants or visitors, and 2) He was angry before we even began speaking… he literally brought the anger to the table. To a table that supposedly represents his own philosophy. I could hear the other booth volunteers rustling to get into eavesdropping range.
Where to begin with such a reply, where to begin? He questioned our purpose, so I started there. “We’re here for a number of reasons. 1) We’re an outreach for fellow atheists in San Diego who may be interested in joining other atheists for social activities. 2) We’re giving believers a chance to hear our point of view, since religious leaders frequently lie about us 3) This is not a ‘country of Christians’, we are a secular society and those who are not Christian also deserve a voice in politics and society’.
I don’t think I got the last sentence out before he was angrily shouting again, something to the effect of “My mother is Christian, and it would just make her unhappy to hear about atheists. I’m an atheist and I don’t tell her. There is no reason for you to do this!”
And this is where I did something I don’t like to do, I raised my voice and replied, “I just gave you THREE reasons! I can give you a lot more!”
I pulled out my laminated copy of the 2014 Pew Survey which shows that 23% of Americans are not affiliated with ANY religion, and that number is climbing rapidly. He glanced at it and brushed it off — he was just angry.
At this point, others stepped in and tried to reason with him. He just kept talking over everyone who spoke to him until a volunteer I’ll call ‘Pogo’ chatted with him in his usual ultra-calm manner. This seemed to settle him down, he listened to an explanation of our efforts and reasons for doing them, and relaxed a bit. I’ve seen Pogo calm irate people before, he’s good at it.
The man didn’t stay long, but he left calmly and in a better mood than he arrived, so I suppose that’s a ‘win’.
Our group’s organization and affiliation is odd, to say the least, and has a bit of an odd history. There are atheists, both inside or organization and outside, who don’t think we should have a booth in public areas and invite discussion. What’s strange is that even some of the groups we have promoted at the booth (and sent potential members so) are against our efforts. I’ve discussed this with a few of them, and the majority of their concerns are about things that don’t actually happen. They seem to have the idea that we chase people down in the streets, or engage in big arguments with them. The facts are that we don’t chase anyone anywhere, we only talk to people who approach us, and arguments are very rare. I hope that our efforts will spawn many more Ask-an-Atheist booths in the future, in San Diego and in cities across the world.
Back to the booth — things were looking up when ‘M’ dropped by, showing off her new “Ich ben Atheist” shoes… totally hot! The usual crowd of volunteers shuffled in, but the park itself had a low traffic afternoon. We got word that the Scientologists had set up a booth down the street, which sent half of our group gleefully prancing up the promenade to ask them fun questions about Xenu, the “personality test” machines, or where we can find the body of Shelly Miscavige. They returned with the usual story – the people in the booth “didn’t know what they were talking about” because people in Scientology are literally not allowed to know anything about their own religion or its leaders, in fact they will be physically punished, possibly for years, for even thinking negative thoughts about the ‘church’. The punishment would likely be quite severe for them learning about or discussing their leader’s wife, Shelly Miscavige, when she disappeared 10 years ago after telling others that she wanted to leave the church.
As usual, quite a few people gave us a ‘drive by thumbs up’, and I respond by ringing a bell which always gets a smile. One such man was in a powered wheelchair, and he turned to around, motored up to my table, and we had a nice chat about atheism and the need to teach logic in schools.
Then things got interesting when an older woman and her middle aged daughter came to the table. The younger woman looked a bit steamed before she got to the table, and the older women was grinning. I wasn’t sure what was going to happen next, this is an unusual start.
The younger woman began firing off the usual questions that believers ask – Where do we get our morals, why are we insulting religion, etc. Other booth volunteers walked up to respond to her, and I stayed seated at the table. While the others conversed with the young woman, the older one learns forward with a nervous grin and says quietly, “I’m with you guys, but I don’t know what has happened to my daughter.” We both had a quiet laugh and I told her that we get this a lot. The daughter seemed to be getting a little tenser, and the mother started to reach over to pull her away. I stopped her from doing that, telling her “Really, it’s OK… we’re here to talk to anyone and we can handle any question she has.” She seemed to be pleased with that.
Next we had a short visit from a 30-ish couple with a toddler who were interested in our booth. They told us they were atheists, and had recently moved to the US from Israel.
Then I had a short conversation with a very thin, young guy who wouldn’t make eye contact with me beyond a brief glance. I went to the front of the table to see if that would help, but it seemed to make him more nervous. He said he was a believer, but was on the fence. I gave him a very high level 30 second overview of atheism, while he literally squirmed and looked very uncomfortable. He abruptly thanked me and walked away quickly.
As late afternoon approached, 2 college-aged girls came up to ask how to get permission to set up a booth in the park. After sending them to the nearby Visitor Center, Jackpot noted that they were both wearing t-shirts from a religious college. A few minutes later they returned, and began a roughly 2 hour conversation that was particularly pleasant because they had very good questions about atheism, and were open minded and patient enough to listen to the answers. While I like talking to deeply religious people, it can be frustrating when they have no interest in learning anything outside of their own dogma, and get angry when you engage in a 2 way conversation about religion instead of a 1-way sermon. These girls were different because they listened and applied logic to the discussion, even on items they didn’t necessarily agree with us on. They mentioned that they came back to talk to us because we seemed to be nice when giving them directions, and didn’t realize they had walked up to the atheist booth.
This makes me wonder… what horrible things did they expect from us?