I find myself in a moral dilemma. I’ve forgotten why I’m supposed to be nice to the religious, any more than I ought be polite to a pickpocket.
I suppose there is a basic standard of courtesy I ought to offer all my fellow humans: don’t set fire to their houses, refrain from unprovoked violence, help them out if they ask for support so long as it doesn’t offend my sensibilities, don’t predate their offspring for food or slavery. Those things are basics, even givens, and I have no problem with agreeing to them.
I might even humour the deluded, if it seemed to me to do them or others no harm. The man on O’Connell Street who claims to know the guy who shot JFK was LBJ’s brother is a pretty harmless timewaster, and it seemed without consequence to indulge him with a cup of tea as I waited for a friend last week.
That conversation seemed considerably more sane than, though equally wrong as, the latest lengthy waste of time I had with Simon, a young Methodist youth leader, just a day later.
Dave, the conspiracy theorist, was not claiming any special status for his discovery, other than its unknown and deeply sinister undertones. The thousands of people who pass him every day uninterested in his bizarre story are just missing out on a false argument, and Dave wishes them all the best of luck. He enjoys the one or two cups of coffee he gets bought a day, and the chance he has each time to tell his ‘truth’. He thinks it’s weird I can’t follow his argument. That’s as far as it goes.
Simon, on the other hand, gets quite unctuous and nasty when I explain to him, nicely and calmly, from over the brim of an excellent cup of coffee that I can’t believe in his concept of god. After his enthusiastic exposition of his beliefs, and our inevitable disagreement, Simon explains, pointedly, that I am apostate, because, according to him, I appear to have the capacity to conceive of his god, but, despite having been told his truth, I wilfully deny his creator. He tells me that I’m the worst kind of agnostic, someone who ‘knows the word but denies his maker’. I correct him, telling him it’s worse than that; I’m a full atheist, I explain, I don’t even say I’m not sure anymore. His eyes bulge in his head a little, while I concede that it’s not possible to be completely sure, but that, on balance I don’t think there’s any part of my understanding of the world and universe around me which can’t be explained without reference to his god.
He calls me a moral relativist, and I explain that I’m exactly the opposite. He thinks ‘no, you’re right, you’re an immoral relativist’ passes for rhetorical flourish, and I notice two things.
One: he can’t see that right now, right here, it doesn’t worry me that he’s involved and absorbed in religion, and that it doesn’t make him a bad person.
Two: his need to either prove me wrong easily or condemn me to the sinners pile in one conversation is mildly but not entirely disquieting. I am a little embarrassed he can’t argue his point better, but that’s okay. He’s been taught that faith is his foundation, that god is with him always and that jesus has already died for all his future sins.
So why have I the dilemma?
First, the needless continuation of his specious reasoning through various communications channels. He bombards me with quote from scripture, moral questioning and dictionary definitions of words he thinks I misappropriated. At first this was cute; a missionary trying to save my immortal soul. But now it seems menacing. There’s less concentration on the glory of god’s apparently limitless mercy, more on the consequences of denial of Simon’s teachings.
I become trapped in a vicious circle of increasingly fake politesse and wishing to end the torrent of drivel coming through my various inboxes. As quickly as I can delete the harrassing and forbidding text, he can find yet another reference to something improbable with which he seeks to set my spirit alight.
I can take it, because I know how to handle a loony. But it’s not going to be polite, and other religious types will suffer. Simon’s emails will now begin to have consequences, for him and others, just as he warns me daily my apostasy will.
First, I have subscribed Simon to the Bettaware products mailing list. This will save him money on professional grade catering and bathroom hygiene products, and help him prepare for a safe and happy succession of meaningless and otherwise expensive religious feasts.
Second, I will begin to contact people I do not know and inform them regularly of inconsequential details I find even mildly interesting in various important books. For instance, my religious friends will soon learn of the importance of fitting snow tires in icy conditions (1 BMW 3:12-32), the precise nature of the injunction to boys studying at the Royal Belfast Academical Institution not to be unruly ( ‘Boys are required at all times to maintain such a standard of personal apearance and conduct as to uphold the good name of the school’ (1 Rules 1) and, most spiritually moving of all, excerpts from the script to Debbie Does Dallas ‘we’ll work real hard and all of us will go to Dallas’ (4 Debbie 7-13).
My regular updates will certainly offend some religious people I know; to put an end to my disagreeable and renegade action, however, all they must do is agree not to send me any more unsolicited religious text.
This will not, of course, affect the goodies in the religious department; good people like Tim and Kate will be immune from my strategy. They know I get it, I see the argument and am not convinced. They also know that bombarding me won’t work; they would never try. Simon and his ilk could learn a lot from These guys, and Dave, about respect and free will.