The interaction started off a bit hostile and confusing.
While sitting at the “Ask An Atheist” table, 2 men approached at the same time, so I assumed they were together. The man in the red shirt was calm and smiling, and said he is a Christian and had some questions.
The other man, in a blue tank top seemed immediately agitated, and started in to a rant that included the statements we’ve all heard so many times before, and went something like this: “You atheists are so arrogant, you are the most arrogant people because you think you know more than God. God is perfect. God created perfect humans, and your body is perfect. God creates perfect things.”
He said this with enough agitation and uncomfortable body language that it attracted the attention of nearly everyone at our booth, and they crowded around. I answered that I and many others have needed life-saving surgery and have taken drugs (such as antibiotics) to kill infections that could eventually have become lethal — so it’s provably incorrect to say that a god has created perfect humans.
Unfortunately this is when chaos began – a booth volunteer with a history of “being a problem” stepped in with loud theatrics and vulgar language. This person is intelligent and makes good points, but seems to want to deliver long, vulgar sermons rather than have a discussion, and this is an embarrassment because he appears to be a part of our group. When the long sermon again, I told to two men, “I apologize for what he is doing, he does not represent me”.
The man in the blue tank took a few steps away, and another booth member caught up with him and talked with him for quite a while. He clearly was doing a good job getting things back to rational conversation, as I could see the body language change to a calm demeanor, and he was smiling and laughing at times.
Meanwhile, the Christian in the red shirt came back to the table, now joined by 2 kids. At one point he told our booth leader, Rob, that he would be visited by a spirit in the night, and would appreciate a callback to tell him about the experience. Rob agreed, and the man left his phone number. Spoiler Alert: Rob had no such visit. Rob has called him back, and he said he will return to the booth next Saturday to talk about it. My prediction: He’ll claim the spirit stayed away because of some nonsense, ‘you didn’t open your heart’.
After this, the blue shirt man returned to the table in a calm, quiet manner. I gave him one of my stickers which says, “If you are unwilling to question your beliefs, then you will never know if you are following the truth or lies.”, and much to my surprise, he nodded and put it on his skateboard. I asked if I could get a photo, since I just created the stickers and he’s one of the first people to get one, and he agreed.
He asked if he could sit in the chair next to us, and took a seat. He told me he is Muslim, having grown up in Egypt and now living in San Diego. I asked if he’s comfortable with his religion, and he said that he was, and that the media has distorted the public view of his religion. I resisted the urge to point out that the media may have bias but they are showing us actual events — but this guy wanted to talk, and I wanted to hear what he had to say. This was not the time for challenges.
I told him that one of the negative perceptions of Islam held by Americans is that they are all about the child brides. He told me that it’s not true, and that his sisters were both married while in their 20s. I asked about the prophet’s marriage to a 9 year old, and he responded that women were mature at a younger age back then, due to the better food.
This conversation was very striking to me, because this is a guy who was angry and challenging me just 20 minutes before, and is now sitting next to me, speaking in a calm, soft voice, and mostly looking down as if in deep thought.
I asked whether he felt that people who leave Islam should be killed. There was some stammering and broken sentences here, perhaps because he wasn’t entirely comfortable speaking in English, but he seemed to say that those who are born into Islam should be killed, but those who choose Islam should be allowed to leave. I told him that doesn’t seem to make sense, why kill someone over something they never consented to? He dodged this a bit by saying that people can leave Islam without being killed and he knows people who have done it, they “simply” must leave the country and leave their family and all possessions behind. Then he said, “Yes, they should all be killed”. I asked who should do the killing, and he said it should be a government appointed Imam.
Since he seemed to like the comment on the sticker, I took the conversation in that direction. I told him that the concept of severe punishment for blasphemy doesn’t make sense if a God is real. As we define God, he would have to be extremely weak to be damaged by simple insults. He nodded at that. He asked something about creation, so I explained to him that many of us don’t think that a God, as we all think of it, has to be the same “thing” as the force that began the universe. We only make that assumption because that’s what religions teach, but when you think of that concept objectively, it doesn’t really make sense. I would not say that you do not own your home or be able to make the rules in your house simply because you did not personally build it. Likewise, there is no natural connection to a being that hides in the clouds and cares who we marry and who we worship, and a force that created everything. A “god” could be a universe creator, and a “god” could be a force that has an interest in humans. Either could exist without the other. But it’s a fallacy to say that a story about a god who cares about humans MUST be true because a force created the universe.
Honestly, he seemed a bit stunned by this, and seemed to be very deep in thought. I’m guessing this is the first time he had an honest discussion about the concept of god without emotional blackmail or threats being involved.
Finally, he got up, shook our hands, thanked us, and skateboarded away.
I asked the person (a former Mormon) who had calmed him down what they had talked about. He said they talked about how nearly all religions specifically require dislike and shunning of the other. He said the guy seemed surprised to hear this.