Last weekend I went to a dinner party where there were people from Sri Lanka whom I had not met before. When Sri Lankans meet for the first time, there is a fairly standard ritual that occurs. People try to find connections between you and them, starting with others who share your name (e.g., “Are you related to the Singham who used to work at X/who married Y/who lives in Z?”) and then on to questions about where in Sri Lanka your family is from and what K-12 school you went to. The last question is important because Sri Lankans are quite attached to their schools and many cities with a large expatriate populations even form associations based on these old school ties and hold dances, sporting events, and other elaborate get-togethers.
During a casual conversation at the dinner with three of my fellow guests (all sisters), they asked me the usual questions and then one of them went off-script and asked me which church I went to. I replied that I did not attend any church since I was an atheist.
The sharp intake of breath and astonished looks in response alerted me that this had gone over big. It was as if I had walked into a vegan conference eating a hamburger. It turned out that not only were the three of them Christians, but they were of the extremely religious “born again” variety. The stunned look on their faces at my revelation got even worse when they realized that I had once been a Christian. They simply could not understand how anyone who had once been a Christian could not believe any more, and for the next hour they proceeded to try and convince me that I had made a grave mistake. Of course, their arguments consisted entirely of quotations from the Bible, all of which I have heard many times before. It simply did not seem to register with them that there was no point in using the Bible as evidence to someone who did not believe that it was god’s revealed word.
Another interesting point was that they felt that my atheism had to be because I had not “accepted Jesus as my personal lord and savior”, which is the standard by which evangelical Christians judge whether you are a “true” Christian or not. In fact, they kept insisting that I had never been a “true” Christian because of my failure to pledge such allegiance. In my religious days in high school and college, I had attended many religious services where the preacher, at the end of a stirring sermon asserting that we were all sinners and in the grip of Satan, would ask people to come up front and pledge their lives to Christ so that they could be cleansed of their sin. I never obeyed this “altar call”, although many of the people I knew had done so in the past and they often asked me to join them. During one of those services, I was startled when the friend who had invited me suddenly clutched my sleeve and with tears in his eyes told me that Jesus was calling me and implored me to obey the call, helpfully adding that someone else who had rejected the call just a few weeks earlier had subsequently been run over by a bus right after the service. It was an awkward moment but I said no. I always rejected such altar calls, since I felt even then that a god who depended on a formulaic repetition of a slogan as a sign of faithfulness (and apparently was willing to kill someone who would not comply) was hardly worth following.
After some time, my companions at the dinner asked if we could pray together so that Jesus could enter my soul. Although I am an obliging sort and the discussion had been friendly, I had to draw the line and say no. It seemed like another altar call and, to my mind, highly presumptuous. While they were free to pray for whomever and whatever they wanted to on their own time (and they said they would pray for me later anyway), I wanted no part of it. It struck me then that if I told them about my dream from last week they would probably have thought that that really was a sign from god trying to save me from my path to doom.
I think that what puzzled my dinner companions the most was the fact that I was perfectly happy being an atheist and was not looking for anything more in the spiritual realm. They kept repeatedly asking me whether I felt a “yearning for something more”, whether I was “missing something in my life” and whether I had a “gap in my soul”. (My responses? No. No. No. To the last one I added that I did not have a soul and that did nothing to improve my image in their eyes.) They seemed to assume that since belief in the Christian god was such an essential part of their lives, that it must be the same for other people. They simply could not conceive that it was possible for someone to have a fulfilling life without god. And not just any old god, but their own particular Christian Jesus-god package.
One would have to say that my dinner companions exhibited all the signs of religious fanaticism. Not that they would in any way do harm to others such as fly planes into buildings. On the contrary, I am quite certain that they are very good people who would not dream of harming anyone. But they are religious fanatics in that they are absolutely sure that their particular version of religion is the right one, their own religious text is infallible, they have a personal relationship with god, that followers of all other religions are wrong, that those who do not believe what they do are lost souls who will suffer eternal damnation, and that it is their duty to try and convert others to their belief.
But while these particular people may be harmless, it is a very thin line that separates “good” fanatics from the bad. The problem is that if you accept that that kind of unquestioning faith and allegiance as a good thing, it becomes hard to condemn the actions of those who, again on the basis of that kind of faith and following what they believe are the dictates of their god, commit the most atrocious crimes. Voltaire’s remark keeps coming to my mind: “As long as people believe in absurdities, they will continue to commit atrocities.”
It was an interesting evening.
POST SCRIPT: Religious con games
It is amazing how preachers who claim to have some direct link to god are able to so easily con people into giving them huge sums of money to build their private empires and support their lavish lifestyles.
The Australian TV comedy show The Chasers takes a look at TV evangelists.