The recent debate between Bill Nye ‘The Science Guy’ and the Creation Museum’s Ken Ham has once again brought into public discourse the subjects of science and religion, and with those subjects again in the public discourse, atheism is inevitably brought up.
But this post isn’t about the debate. It’s about people.
Last year, I was walking toward the entrance to a grocery store one evening when I was stopped by a young woman. There was a table in front of the entrance with some anti-bullying literature.
The woman informed me that they were asking for donations to continue a private, anti-bullying campaign in schools, led by a local singer. I asked if there was some literature I could take and read over so I could learn more about them and what they’re doing. As another lady went inside the store to make more copies of their fliers, we continued talking.
During the conversation, a question came up that will be no surprise to my fellow Alabamians. It might as well be the first thing after “Hello” in this state, or maybe the second thing since the first could possibly be “Alabama or Auburn?”
She asked, “What church do you go to?”
It’s not the first time I have been asked that. I’m sure it won’t be the last. And I gave an honest answer: “I don’t go to church.”
She politely asked why, and I answered simply, “I’m an atheist.” Without any hesitation, her immediate response was “I’m sorry.”
I don’t remember ever getting that kind of response before. I grew up in church, and yes, at one time I was a believer, so I understand her position based on her faith. I don’t think she intended to come across as condescending. But it wasn’t a response I had gotten, even here in the South.
Soon after that exchange, we parted ways. I entered the store to do a bit of shopping and she continued her fundraising. I kept thinking about the “I’m sorry” response.
It made me think back to something I had read a couple of years ago. In late 2011, a study was published that made headlines. Psychologists at the universities of British Columbia and Oregon released a study that they say shows a “moral distrust” of us non-believers. The headline from USA Today: “Study: Atheists distrusted as much as rapists.”
Did she think that way? Was that the reason for the “I’m sorry” response? In her mind, was I, because I don’t believe in her god (or the many others that people worshiped before), on the same level as a rapist?
I finished the little shopping that I needed to do, and I happened to have a couple of dollars left over (it was between pay days… you know how it goes.) So on the way out, I stopped by the table, handed them to her and said, “I know it’s not much, but I hope it helps. I’m against bullying, too. I care about people, and I hope you’ll think differently the next time you run across someone who doesn’t share your beliefs.”
She said, “I definitely will.” I hope so.