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Friday, May 7, 2010

When Believers and Unbelievers Collide

A few weeks ago, I took my car to the mechanic because of a noise in its front end. It turned out there was nothing seriously wrong with it. But car problems are not what I want to talk about. Rather, it's about one of many false impressions that people have about agnostics or atheists in general.

My Christian mechanic is a kind, gentle, honest person and married to one of my late husband's high school classmates. Before he became ill and died, Fred had told this man--I'll call him Karl, but that's not his real name--that I was no longer a believer. Until over a year after Fred's death, nothing was mentioned to me personally by Karl or his wife about my unbelieving status.

(And, by the way, I didn't hold it against my Fred for talking to his Christian friends about my de-conversion. He needed to confide in believers just as I need to confide in my unbelieving friends for support. I'm quite sure Fred asked many to pray for me. When I left relgion, this was one of the few times in our long married life that Fred and I weren't able to express our deepest feelings to each other. Our love was just as strong, but a "knot" formed in our otherwise smooth relationship.)

Anyway, during the course of a conversation around the first of this year, Karl told me that Fred had informed him of my leaving religion and church behind. We then had a short discussion about my humanist atheism. My first book (Dare to Think for Yourself) was mentioned, and I asked Karl if he would like to read it.

"Well," he said, "I'll take a look at it if you will agree to watch a Lutheran TV program that I think you'll find interesting and may change your mind and bring you back to God."

"Okay," I replied, "I have no problem with that." In fact, I watched two of the telecasts and later told Karl that the man was a fine speaker, but he didn't convince me that I am wrong. I told him that he sounded like any other conservative televangelist and offered no proof for his beliefs.

Karl said nothing about my assessment of the messages from the Lutheran pastor whom he no doubt respects and admires other than, "You have too many questions, Betty."

Later, Karl returned my book through an employee of his without a note or a relayed "thank you" or any other comment. So at the recent encounter mentioned in the beginning of this short article, I asked if he read the book and what he thought of it.

I had never heard this gentle man gossip about another person, utter one curse word, or denigrate anyone (except maybe politicians). On that day, however, the expression on his face hardened; and he said, "Betty, I think you're a tool of the Devil."

I just smiled, shrugged and replied, "Well, Karl, I don't even believe there is a devil. In fact, I don't believe there is any so-called spiritual entity of any kind."

"Then I suppose you think that when you die, that's it. No afterlife, no looking forward to heaven or fearing hell?" he spat out.

"That's right, Karl. But I enjoy this life. I look forward to every day. I enjoy helping others and doing what I can to alleviate pain, loneliness, and suffering. I volunteer at a local food bank, contribute what little money I can afford to help those in disaster stricken areas as well as animal welfare agencies."

"Why do you do all that? What do you get out of it when you are an admitted atheist? What do you hope to gain?" he asked in bewilderment.

"I don't know that I personally get anything out of it except the satisfaction of helping others," I responded. "Unlike when I was a Christian I don't expect a reward for doing something good or to earn points with some sort of god or even with other people."

Karl just glared at me without comment, and I took that opportunity to excuse myself and let him get back to his work.

I don't think I'll ask him if he would like to read my recently published second book (The Homemade Atheist). I don't want to antagonize him further and maybe lose the services of a good mechanic--or, more importantly, friendship, if I already haven't, of a couple whom I've enjoyed knowing for about 19 years.

But such things happen. Believe me they happen.

I wonder how many others (both believers and unbelievers) have had similar experiences.