A few days ago at Starbucks I had a friendly discussion about atheism and skepticism with a barista. She noticed that I was reading Dan Barker’s Godless, which tells the story about how Barker, a former fundamentalist/evangelical Christian preacher, gradually lost his faith and became an atheist (and is now co-president of the Freedom from Religion Foundation). The book’s subject prompted her to ask if I was an atheist, and when I told her that I was, her reaction was reassuringly nonchalant.
She seemed genuinely interested; I’m not sure if she had ever met someone who ‘admitted’ their atheism before. She asked whether I’d been raised in a religious home, what lead to me becoming an atheist, and so on. She told me that she had been raised Catholic herself, but had grown into a generic kind of theism where she was happy to let people believe what they wanted to so long as it made them happy and didn’t hurt anyone else. I gave her a quick two-minute summary of my story, and interestingly, she had literally never heard of fundamentalism or evangelicalism before. She thought they were some sort of Eastern religion… that’s a new one!
At one point, she asked me if I thought that billions of people could really be wrong. I said yes, and went on to mention one of my favorite facts about religion – that they can’t all be right, but they could all be wrong. If there really were only one religion that was actually true, then yes, billions of people could be wrong. I just no longer see any particularly good reasons for believing in any one over the alternatives and I even see really good reasons to disbelieve some.
She asked me what I thought about people having spiritual experiences, or just generic personal experiences that they couldn’t explain. I told her that I don’t doubt that they have unexplained experiences; it’s part of being human and not knowing everything about everything, after all. I stressed that the fact that something can’t be explained right now or hasn’t been explained to us doesn’t mean that something supernatural has happened. I briefly touched on how our perceptions can be flawed, and how our memories of an event can get blown out of proportion over time if the event stuck out in our minds shortly after it happened.
From here, she mentioned some experiences she’d had as a kid that she was sure were the result of some kind of ghost activity. We got into a discussion about how our concepts of what ghosts are and how they would manifest come largely from our understanding of science and the cultures we grow up in; I mentioned that in some Asian cultures, ghosts manifest as physical beings that look similar to how Westerners might imagine demons to appear. She mentioned that she was once in a “haunted” cemetery, and that she took photographs that she was sure were ghosts – clouds of what appeared to be specks of light. When she told me that they had appeared in one photograph but not in another taken a few seconds later, I felt a kind of surge of skeptical excitement; I pointed out that, if she was using a flash, specks of dust hanging in the air could show up in the first photo because of the flash, but if the second photo were taken quickly enough after, the flash wouldn’t have charged yet, which would result in the dust being mostly invisible. She seemed skeptical of my skepticism From there we talked about ghost hunter TV shows, and about how goofy they were walking around with their electronic gadgets that they were SO SURE were capable of magically detecting ghosts. She dared me to spend the night in a local cemetery that she was sure was haunted, but unfortunately they don’t allow you to be in there at night… Oh well. I would’ve enjoyed that.
By this time the other barista had joined us; it was kind of a slow night for Starbucks, and they didn’t have anything better to do. We shifted gears into the subject of aliens and UFOs. Barista #1 asked me if I thought that aliens exist. I said that it’d be pretty disappointing if there weren’t life anywhere else in the universe, but so far as the evidence is concerned, it hasn’t made any contact with us yet. Barista #2 (who seems to be a skeptic herself, from other discussions we’ve had) pointed out that it was a bit silly to think that a species capable of achieving interstellar travel, surviving decades in transit, and overcoming the problems of deadly levels of ambient radiation could make it all the way to Earth – only to crash disastrously into the planet.
All in all, I really enjoyed discussing these things – finally – with someone who didn’t completely agree with me. I’d like to think that I planted some seeds for critical and skeptical thinking. I was surprised to learn that there are Christians who are unaware of fundamentalism or the evangelical movement. I suppose this reflects the worldview I’ve developed through my experiences. Because those two flavors of Christianity featured so largely in my history, I just assume that Christians are familiar with them. Her unfamiliarity with them also makes me wonder if most mainstream Christians don’t see what the fringes are doing, simply because they don’t know the fringes even exist. This could help to explain why Christians respond so negatively to so-called “militant” atheism: If all they see is moderation and a quiet, peaceful religious tradition, they’re oblivious to what the more outspoken, pernicious members of their community are up to. From this I think we can draw two important points to consider: First, that we should tailor our message in such a way that we’re not painting the target of our complaints with a broad brush, and second, that we should make sure that people are aware of just what is going on that they might not even be aware of.
Most Christians I’ve met are good, decent, hard-working people who just want to provide their families with comfort, safety, and a secure future. The dialogue I had with the barista gives me hope that the more moderate/liberal believers out there are willing to engage us politely and to allow their misconceptions to be corrected.