Some days are better than others at the weekly Ask-An-Atheist booth, but this Saturday was huge — there was singing and dancing, there was yelling, there were happy recently converted atheists, there were Christian apologetics, there were bibles slammed down onto the table, there were hands thrown into the air in frustration, there were people physically dragged away from the booth… and more! So much happened today that I hope I can remember it all!
First of all, MAAF arraigned to have a Red Cross Bloodmobile bus brought in for donations, which was a great idea and it looked like some people were donating.
We also had the Twelve Tribes cult set up across the street from us again. They bring in a huge groups of people – probably about 40 adults and about 20 small children, and they make the small children pester every person who walks by to take their cult newsletter. The kids to small to walk are still literally held up as “bait” to get people to be more accept and take their flyer. They have a full sized band and do a bunch dances that block most of the street, which tends to annoy people even more when it’s already crowded — and when people are squeezed and hassled with toddlers pushing cult propaganda, they tend to try to not look at any of the booths and just get out of there as quickly as possible. Jackpot says every song sounds like a variation of the Gilligan’s Island theme song. They are all very polite and friendly however, but I know from talking with them on
the past that they don’t like for women or children to have any contact with “outsiders”. Jackpot and a few others from our group went over to talk to them, and found that most of them have no idea what the groups beliefs are, they are just satisfied to be in a group… or ‘tribe’ as the case
may be. When I spoke to them a few months ago, I was told that they were considering a group suicide, presumably including the children, if that’s what the 5 leaders decided was the right thing to do. They are not allowed to own anything, so cars, phones, or other communication for escape is not an option.
A quick Google search today turned up a lot of vocal former Twelve Tribes members, who have created a Facebook Group called Yellow Deli Truth and a website that is currently offline, but can still be viewed in this archive. They seem to confirm when we had
learned about the group before, you are not allowed to leave the cult or question the ‘leaders’, and those thinking of leaving are told they will be turned into homosexuals or struck by lightening. I also found this article describing one woman’s escape from the cult.
Since the last couple of weeks have been filled with silly debates about excluding trans gender people from bathrooms, I put on our whiteboard today “Should the CLERGY be allowed in public restrooms?” with a section for passers-by to vote. This drew a lot of laughs from park goers, along with some sour looks on the faces of a few. If the issue is REALLY about the safety of children, why not question allowing the largest group of pedophiles in the world into the bathrooms with kids? It’s a logical question — unless the real question is more about hatred of those who are ‘different’.
In any case, the whiteboard soon brought to the table a man who said, “Guess what – I’m CLERGY”. Uh Oh. I smiled and asked how he was doing, and welcomed him to the ask-an-atheist desk.
He was there with his wife, and actually was fairly friendly at first. I told him we try to keep the whiteboard questions tied to current events, and that I would be happy to answer any questions he had about atheists. I told him that I have talked to quite a few missionaries any ministers in my year working this booth, and many of them seem to be changing to atheism. I jokingly told him that this might be his lucky day, and his wife started to seem a bit agitated with that. He was not saying much, but also not leaving, so I showed him my copy of the 2014 Pew Survey showing atheism doubling over the last 7 years. Now he seemed to be a bit more agitated. Somehow we go onto the subject of God ordering that people be killed, and he said “God does not order people to be killed”. I said, “Does that mean you don’t think the Great Flood
actually happened?” He said, “It happened!”, now more agitated and taking a big step backwards, but still facing me. I continued, “So the Bible is wrong when it says all of the people on Earth drowned?? I don’t understand what you are saying.” “BYE!” he yelled and they both took off at a fast pace. I’m guessing he doesn’t allow questions in his church, he just tells nonsensical stories and then everyone leaves.
Next up was a 20-something female who approached the booth alone wearing a headscarf. She had somewhat dark skin and middle eastern features, so I thought she was Muslim, but it turns out she is an ex-Mormon atheist. She told me a close friend of hers was Mormon so she joined the church at age 14, but by age 17 she realized that the teachings seemed more like fictional nonsense, and left the church. The headscarf was actually covering medical bandages, and she said she just had a medical procedure done. This is why it’s fun to man the booth, you never know the back story of people who come up to talk, and your guesses are often very wrong!
As she departed, I noticed Rob talking to a guest who had a smile so big he looked like he had just won the lottery. He had all of our flyers in his hands, and Rob was explaining to him where to find atheism-rated websites and Youtube videos. His smile never left his face as he hustled off down the street. Rob hasn’t had the best of luck lately with early morning talks, a couple of times recently his day started with a Christian just walking up and yelling at him that he was going to hell.
Next up, a group of high school aged guys were keeping their distance while trying to read our materials and that of the Twelve Tribes across the street, so I walked over to talk to them. All were very devout Mormons, and three of them departed immediately — I think they feared religious discussion. One of the guys in particular was very interested in talking and he was very amused that we had ‘The Book of Mormon’ on our atheist desk, so I asked him how he felt about the FLDS. He said that he very much dislikes what they are doing, but cares about them as people because they are humans in a bad situation. I asked him how he felt about polygamy, and he said he was against it. I asked if it bothered him that the founder of his church was a polygamist, and he gave me a long tortured answer about how polygamy was an easier way to abide by the law because women were not allowed to travel without men at that time. This doesn’t make much sense, since polygamy was not legal and I don’t think there were ever really laws about women and travel, but I didn’t push it. We talked a bit about South Park and the Book of Mormon play, and Big Love. He told us that he very much enjoyed our discussion, shook our hands and headed on his way.
A 20-something Indian guest came to the desk, looked over the materials on the table, and pointed to our copy of Bhagavad Gita, saying, “That is a terrible book! It is full of terrible and mindless things! That book is the reason I am an atheist today!” Wow, wasn’t expecting that… most of the people I’ve talked to previously about that book has been very calm. He was not. He explained that he is on vacation from San Francisco, and has been reading about atheism for quite some time. He told thanked me for volunteering for this booth, took a copy of our materials, and went about his way.
2 30-ish Females watched this interaction from a few feet away. When he left, one stayed where she was and the other walked up with a “clenched” look on her face. I know from experience that this is usually a bad sign. On the up side, both of the women were very beautiful and had meticulously applied makeup. The blonde looked a little familiar, possibly an actress. She looked a lot like Scarlett Johansson. I asked her if she had any questions for us, and she was quiet for a moment before saying, “… so…. like… you just don’t believe in anything?” I told her that we believe in all of the same things she does, just not the God part… or any other supernatural beliefs. This seemed like a conversation where answers need to be as concise as possible. She kept her arms folded and rocked back and forth, looking a bit displeased, then asked “Have you talked to people who have experienced other worlds?” I started to answer, but her friend had had enough, and literally dragged her away.
A short time later I thought it was deja-vue when 3 extremely attractive females stopped at the desk in full makeup, and one in a bright orange dress steps forward hesitantly while the other two stayed back. She opened with a question about what atheists think happen after death, and unlike the last conversation, seemed pleasantly surprised at the answer. All three stayed quite a while – about 1/2 hour and the questions got better and better, and it was obvious she was getting more interested. She asked why I didn’t think the bible was from God, and I told her there were many reasons, but the told of the list would be that it made no sense for God to send Jesus with his big message for humans to the Middle East when there were far more people in China, and they were far more literate. She told me she is from the Middle East, and that she’s Orthodox Christian. She seemed to be taken off guard that we had a rational answer to some of the questions that religion struggles with, and rational reasons for not following religion. She took our materials, thanked me, shook my hand and left.
Right away a 40-ish couple steps up to the desk, and is rather quiet at first as they scan our literature and books on the desk. The man explains that he’s an atheist author from San Francisco and is working on a book about atheism that he hopes to publish in about 3 years. He asked about the kinds of conversations we have at the booth, and we talked about how it takes more than a discussion of facts to understand why people are bound to religion. When people consider leaving religion, it’s more than a factual decision, it’s a breaking of a bind of emotion and of emotional investment.
Next up is another clergy member, and he’s not happy… I assume he saw our ‘Clergy in the Bathroom’ poll. He won’t even get close to the desk, so I have to stand to talk to him. He starts by say something about the Big Bang not being the real beginning, so I asked him who created God. That’s when he suddenly had to leave. Oh well, bye.
A Hispanic couple approached the desk with an in-depth question about biblical history, which is not my thing, so several others joined in the talk. His wife stayed to the side, and quietly told me they were Jehovas Witnesses for a few years, then moved on to other churches, and now they are religious but without a church. With Wesley and Rob on the discussion, the passions flared but remained polite but dramatic. The man kept wanting to talk about unicorns, but I never figured out what his point was on that. The visitor knew parts of the bible well, and is one of the few Christians who could correctly answer the question ‘Which sin is unforgivable’, but fell hard when he tried to tell is that slavery then is not the same thing, it was more like contracting. The bible was pulled out and the discussion raged passionately for quite a while, which drew a crowd at times. This got hilarious when other park visitors stepped up and joined in, including what appeared to be a homeless man who shocked us all when he piped up with a well though out, fantastic speech about how the authors of the bible were simply men who wanted to seem important to their people. We all applauded his speech. The man left us on good terms, and even came back for a few minutes before he left the park.
I spent some time talking to a man visiting from Poland. He was a challenge to understand because of his think accent, although his English vocabulary was very deep. He told me he’s Catholic with a deep interest in science, particularly physics and genetics.
The last group of the day was 2 older women and an extremely attractive Latina woman. The older women stayed back while the younger woman approached me and asked with a shy voice, “My mother would like to know what you think happens after death, because your sign says there is not heaven or hell.” None had the angry look, so that was good. I gave her my speech about how we all agree that our body dissolves into the Earth and becomes part of it, and part of the trees, rain, plants, and one day perhaps and new star or part of a new galaxy. “But your mother is probably asking more about the soul – but I think the evidence suggest there is no permanent soul. Your attitudes and personality can be easily changed by drugs, by certain foods, or by a head injury. To me, that means they are organic and tied to our body, so it doesn’t make sense to me that they would continue when our body does not. I know that’s not as comforting as the heaven story, but the question is not what story is comfortable, but what story is true.”