An unhappy atheist’s tale

Some time ago, I had an appointment with an optometrist at the city centre. I got there a little too early, so I decided to just wait in the street for a few minutes. While I was doing that (ie. nothing), two women I didn’t know approached me. It was a bit too long ago for me to remember the ensuing conversation in detail, but I can give the general idea.

One of the things they asked me was whether I had heard about Jesus Christ. This was in Finland, but it was about the same as asking that from someone in America. Maybe even more absurd, I don’t know. How would you not know about Christianity? Around 80% of people in Finland belong to the same Protestant church. It’s a secular society, to be sure, not at all like the US. People belong to the religion but are not actively religious, and religion has very little place in politics. Nevertheless, how could you not have heard about the basics? We even teach it in schools (just not in biology class like people in the US want to do), though admittedly based on what church people belong to (or don’t). Yet this isn’t even the first time I’ve heard religion peddlers ask that question. I don’t know what’s behind it. Maybe it’s just a conversation starter.

Whatever the case, the two women were clearly bent on selling some brand of Christianity to me. I was uncomfortable. I didn’t want to be rude or argumentative. I didn’t think I had any common ground with them to have a conversation — not because they were religious but because they sounded like they’d grown up in a box. I didn’t want to say “I know about that stuff but I don’t believe in it.” I didn’t want to say what, in a different sense, I kind of really wanted to say: Look, why should I or anyone else believe any of that? Aren’t you aware of how many religions there are, all with the same kind of unproven claims? Have you any idea how the study of religion has revealed basically all the ideas of different religions are way newer and more earthly in origin than you assume? Aren’t you aware of the philosophical problems in your views? Do you really think that I haven’t heard the stuff you want to say already, like this is some Chick tract? (“What? Why didn’t anyone tell me if I believe in this I get eternal life and otherwise I go to hell? Sign me up!”)

So I must have looked uncomfortable. I was terse and unwilling to talk. I did not exactly appear cheerful.

They asked me if it wouldn’t be nice to have eternal life. Look, I’m spiritually all right with the idea of a finite life. It’s just one of the realities of life, like not having the power to do whatever I like or not getting everyone to like me. It could even be said it makes life all the more precious.

But, sure. If you ask me whether I’d like the idea of eternal life, I can see that it would perhaps be nice.

So I said that. But I wasn’t buying what they were selling, so I said that my wanting it to be so wouldn’t make it happen. Of course, I was still uncomfortable saying this, waiting for the conflict. I think I came across as evasive and cynical, maybe resigned. Like I was really bummed out that I couldn’t live forever.

The bright-eyed keen one of the two started telling me, but that’s just what’s so great about this! If you believe in Christ, you will have eternal life! (Because obviously I had never heard of this!) But the other one, whom I mentally marked as the senior partner, was already giving me a look: Oh, he’s one of those.

I don’t remember how the conversation ended, other than my saying I had to rush for my appointment already (which was sort of true but not really). But I remember what I imagined probably happened afterwards: the senior partner explaining to the other one how some people chose not to believe in God and Christ because they were so, I don’t know, materialistic or cynical or whatever. He must have been one of those. See how unhappy he was when he deliberately chose to pursue only material things instead of God’s love and eternal life. Clearly, there can be no fulfillment without Christ.

I have seen the unhappy atheist stereotype elsewhere. Of course, a lot of atheists are annoying and argumentative and think they’re smarter than everyone who believes in a god. But perhaps they’re also giving a dour impression because religious are making them uncomfortable like this.

I don’t much fancy being labelled an atheist, by the way. Sure, I don’t believe in any supernatural definition of god, so while there are so many definitions of god I could perhaps get behind some of them (eg. god is the universe — which might of course just be an uninteresting definition), by most standards I am an atheist. I am also a-Communist, a-Rastafarian, a-Freemason, not a dog, not a lawyer, not a chair… I don’t find any of these classifications very interesting. And I hate being stereotyped by any classification.

(Still, ironically enough, I had a book by Richard Dawkins in my backpack at the very moment. One of the scientific ones, mind you — what he really is is a biologist, remember. I haven’t even read The God Delusion because it sounds like it’s just belabouring the obvious.)

I’ve been trying to think what I should say next time if I’m in such a situation again. Maybe I could approach it with interest from the point of view in my studies in comparative religion and ask them more about what group they belong to. (I imagine that perhaps the eager one’s answer would have been “Christianity!” and I would have needed to explain that was obvious but there are different Christian groups.) I know I don’t want to appear as a dour atheist again.

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