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Apr 30

Best Day EVER at the Ask An Atheist Booth!

Clergy Bathroom Poll

Our whiteboard poll on whether Clergy should be allowed in public restrooms drew many laughs and a few frowns. It ended with 12 Yes and about 50 Nos.

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.

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Twelve Tribes set up across the street from us and put the toddlers to work handing out the cult newsletter.

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

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Using the main pathway for dancing, annoying park visitors trying to get through

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

Using children to block every person entering the park at least 3 times to hand out cult newsletter.

Using children to block every person entering the park at least 3 times to hand out cult newsletter.

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 so201604_AAABooth_13_TwelveTribeson 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

Wesley once again must point out scripture to a 'devout Christian'.

Wesley once again must point out scripture to a ‘devout Christian’.

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 t201604_AAABooth_20_Ask_An_Atheist_Bible_Discussion_Street_Preachingalk, 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 women201604_AAABooth_22_Ask_An_Atheist_Bible_Discussion_Street_Preaching 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 kept201604_AAABooth_25_Ask_An_Atheist_Bible_Discussion_Street_Preaching 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.201604_AAABooth_23_Ask_An_Atheist_Bible_Discussion_Street_Preaching

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 sp201604_AAABooth_21_Ask_An_Atheist_Bible_Discussion_Street_Preachingent 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.”

Apr 18

EarthFair Atheist Booth at Balboa Park

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Atheist Booth at EarthFair 2016

The SDCOR group purchased a spot for the atheist booth at today’s EarthFair in our usual location, Balboa Park. This annual event draws 50,000 – 70,000 people, and it’s a very different demographic: It’s attended almost entirely by San Diego residents.

As you see from the photos, there are hundreds of vendors so space is very tight.  That means we didn’t have room to set up the ‘Ask an Atheist’ table, so this booth is more about handing out literature than taking part in more in-depth discussions.

2016_AtheistBooth_Earthday1

Atheist Booth at EarthFair 2016

The large crowds also made long conversations more difficult, with new people stepping up to the booth every couple of minutes, and because of the general noise level that results when you have a lot of people in a fairly small space, and thousands on the street in front.

Our first visitor was a ‘minister’ of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.  He said they didn’t have a booth at the fair this year, but they would next year.  He was happy to see that we were there.

 

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Members of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence (http://www.sdsisters.org/) visiting the Atheist Booth during SDFair

As the crowds picked up, we were visited by a couple of very cheerful members of  Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, who posed for a photo and left us some “Get out of hell Free” and “Get out of heaven Free” cards.  I’ve seen these guys around for many years, and they generally are in any TV News story on Gay Pride festivities with their incredibly detailed makeup… and burly arms.  They are hard to miss, even in a crowd. Their group “does everything that real nuns do, except without the religion”.  Oh, and they’re all men. I think.

We had an almost constant stream of visitors all day, roughly a new person every 3 or 4 minutes,  and handed out a lot of literature.  As always, many were unaware that we existed and were happy to see us.

San Diego heat records were broken today, and by early afternoon is was rather brutal in direct sun, with little breeze and large crowds.  An older man with a shirt wet from sweat stepped into the shade of the booth.  Instead of my usual pitch I asked of he was OK or needed anything.  He said that if he passed out, I was to just let him relax there for a while and not call anyone.  I offered to get him a chair, but he declined.  He seemed to feel better after standing in the shade for a few minutes, and started looking around at our signs and the material on our table… then asks, “What is this?”  I told him we are an atheist group — his only response was to raise his eyebrows and keep looking around.  Then he thanked me, turned, and left.  I think he was a bit freaked out to be offered help by a ‘heathen’.

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SDCor.org Booth at EarthFair 2016

On two occasions small groups of people stepped up and looked around at our signs and materials with a confused look.  In both cases, they were visitors to San Diego and not well versed in English.  After a few minutes they figured out we were atheists and slowly backed away with a smile…. literally walking backwards into the street.  The second group were all wearing t-shirts from a church in Mexico, and their only English speaking member was as amused by the situation as I was.  I wish I had video of that!

A middle aged guy with an Indiana Jones type hat stepped up and dropped a $50 bill in the donation jar… NICE!  He gave a short statement about how he hopes the group stays together, “because often individual personalities get involved and split groups like this”.  I’m not sure if he know the issues within our group or not.

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The proof-of-god.org picketer pays a visit to the atheist booth

Things livened up a bit when we got a visit from one of the men you often see on TV News with the gigantic religious signs and big events like Comic-con, concerts, fairs, and random street corners.  We know him at the Ask-An-Atheist booth because he picketed our booth for a full day, standing across the street from our table for 10 hours.  As far as I could tell, not a single person stopped to talk to him or take his ‘proof of God’ literature except those from our booth who went over to see what he had to say.  I had a friendly chat with him at the table today, and told him I missed his presence because I felt that having a picketer was a big of a badge of honor — and a great photo op.

 

He smiled at that, and moved down the line to some of our other volunteers who challenged the assertion of his leaflet titled, “Proof of God”.  His material contains references, and his second reference includes the word “crazy” which is not a word typically found in an allegedly unbiased reference.  This started a somewhat heated exchange about the definition of reference, credibility of sources, and why he can’t seem to answer the question about his ‘proof of God’.  His material references his website proof-of-god.org if you’re interested.

 

In the late afternoon, a 60-ish lady with a timid voice stepped up to the booth and explained to me that she is happy to see us because she feels lonely because she’s an atheist who “has to stay in the closet because of my family”.  A younger guy immediately followed her, telling us he picked up our “Good without God” sticker, but it was scraped off his car at a grocery store.  The hate is still out there, even in fairly liberal San Diego.  Next up, a 35-ish man who seemed very nervous stepped into the booth, and told me that he only recently stopped going to Sunday church services because he simply doesn’t believe it anymore, and his wife continues to go without him.  He clearly was troubled by that, and the obvious implications that religion could eventually break his marriage.

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The “hat preacher”

And finally, we got a visit from a man I’ll call “the hat preacher”.  As you see in my photo, he has a hat with something about corrupt juries written around it and under the bill of the hat.  He says he will be meeting with the president soon, at his invitation, and he already has secret service agents following him.  Two of them.  He asked that I look at his page at facebook.com/john.braehler… so there ya go.

In all, I would guess that I personally spoke to about 250 people in the 7 hours or so I was at the booth, and I think it continued for a few hours after I left.  As I was leaving, I received a text message that the street preachers were getting aggressive with the crowd and that a fight had broken out, but I didn’t see the message until I got home.  I haven’t seen any news coverage of it so far, and I’ll update this post if any more info surfaces.  I don’t know our “proof of God” pal was involved or not.

Apr 16

Ask-an-Atheist Booth Log: April 16 2016

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.20160416_130218

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!”

Christians Decline as Share of U.S. Population; Other Faiths and the Unaffiliated Are Growing  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?

Apr 02

Street Epistemology Video

Mar 25

10 Commandments of Rational Debate

A great article:

THE 10 COMMANDMENTS OF RATIONAL DEBATE LOGICAL FALLACIES EXPLAINED]