The Witnesses

It was very chilly and I was standing at the wrought iron gate that leads to my doorway in my bare feet and a thin T-shirt and still unshowered and there they were, the two of them, one young-ish and one quite the opposite, both staring up at me with Bibles clutched to their bosoms.
The older woman had rhumey eyes, at least that was the word that popped into my head when I looked at them. They seemed too large for her face, which was leathery and wrinkled and shiny. Her lips were large, when she spoke in her halting fashion I could not look at anything but them.

First her eyes, as you do when speaking to someone, then her lips.

She thanked me for answering the door, which I thought was odd and pitiful but probably not unreasonable, and handed me a small leaflet that I knew I should have just refused because I would be throwing it in the trash almost immediately, but which I accepted out of kindness (in my perception, anyway) and inevitability. I glanced at the back and there it was. “Watch Tower.” And I knew I was in for it.

As an atheist, my normal modus operandi is to avoid religious discussions altogether, because they are pointless and unwinable. I will never agree with you unless you already agree with me. I will never bring you around to my way of thinking, which is well-thought-out and logical and makes perfect sense to me, and you will never convince me that there is a man in space watching my every movement as he judges me, hoping only that I’ll eventually relent and pledge my life to him (as long as I also — commonly in this country, anyway — also agree that he sent another man to live here who was also Him and also not and maybe someone ghostly as well who died on a cross not for heresy or politics but for my sins, even though I had yet to perform any, let alone be born for several generations, but whatever).

But this morning, as I stood there and listened, I decided to fess up and admit to these literally God-fearing Christians that I not only don’t believe that Jesus Christ is anyone’s Savior, let alone my own, let alone that anyone actually needs saving, but that I also don’t believe there is a God.
The point of contention seemed to be that we are living in desperate and terrible times, and how can I go on another minute without having God to fall back on?

My answer was that there have always been desperate and terrible times, that these times are probably still better than living in a plague-infested London or the Sudan where serial rapists roam the streets, and that none of us are subject to the whims of any God, alive or dead, and that we would probably all get along better without Him.

I said this into the face of a very old woman and a very young woman, both dressed in their Sunday best, out to witness to people such as myself who need saving. And I, for once, refused to be saved.
Though it happens less frequently here in San Francisco than anywhere else I have lived (Baltimore was particularly Christ-y, and New Jersey had more than what I would consider its “fair share” of evangelicals seeking out the heathens), I still am visited, from time to time, by these people who don’t actually want anything from me, but are shocked — Shocked! — that anyone can somehow live a stand-up, non-murdering life without God.

As I stood there, shivering, with a small leaflet in one hand, I’m not even sure why I decided to tell them that I didn’t want or need saving and that I didn’t even believe in their God. I wonder now if this will work with other surprise visitors, like people asking for donations (I don’t believe in animal sanctuaries!) or busking on behalf of political figures (I don’t believe in Barak Obama!) but I doubt it would work. Engaging those sorts in conversation only brings the cultish behavior to the surface, and suddenly they have a clearer goal that must seem easier to reach. At least, it’s easier to define.

There was another pair across the street, but so far I was the only resident of my small alleyway to answer the door. I suddenly realized what a grand service I was performing for these two. I was the very reason they had come out in the first place! I mean, why would they need to talk to other Christians? They’ve already drank the Kool-Ade. I was one of those legendary lost souls in the flesh!

The older woman handed me her Bible and pointed to a passage, the one about the meek inheriting the Earth. I didn’t know if she meant for me to read it aloud and perform an oration there on my stoop, but I elected to read it to myself, remarking only “The meek…” with a slim smile. She nodded and smiled back, asking whether or not that promise brought me comfort and hope.

I was about to point out that the Earth, in its current state, probably wasn’t what the meek were expecting, and really, how would the meek take over the lease on it? They’re the meek. They don’t even come out of their apartments to talk to Jehovah’s Witnesses. What happens when God comes calling?

Instead, I wished them the best of luck with their inheritance and handed the Bible back, hoping that this was at an end.

But the younger woman, wearing a fetching ensemble of cream-colored dress suit and matching shoes, wanted to offer me her favorite passage, which I must confess I can’t even remember now because at that point I was so chilled that I think my faculties started to shut down.

I looked across the street and saw the other pair of women moving to the next doorway. They looked like an exact match for the pair speaking with me, an elderly woman and a younger woman clutching Bibles in their gloved hands. I wanted them to come on over so we could all agree what a loss I was and that when Jesus finally made his return trip, wouldn’t I have egg all over my face as it fried to a crisp in the fires of hell? Wouldn’t that be a hoot!

But I think they saw that I was not to be moved. I was sticking to my guns. All they had were very old texts that told the same stories as even older texts probably handled by the same types of believers for centuries. Were there always disbelievers like me, standing in their doorways, perfectly content to live in Godless hedonism? Surely they had their own Gods to believe in. Gods of the sea, Gods of the sky, Gods of trees and gophers.

Maybe that’s all I need. My own personal God. Not a major deity, more like a very minor one. God of cheese, maybe. Or of designer rugs. Something interesting and snazzy, something I enjoy. God of high definition TV. If I had one of those, I could tell my visitors, “Thanks, but no thanks! Your God gives you sermons and promises. My God gave me LOST at 720p! Beat that!”

April 11, 2008

5 responses to The Witnesses

  1. leslie said:

    next time, tell them you’re wiccan. atheists, they’re used to and are trained to deal with, but telling them you’re a witch often scares the crap out of them and they tend go away quickly.

  2. Anil said:

    Surely, in times like these, you must believe in Barak Obama! My name means “God of Wind”, and that’s kind of the right balance of minor-enough but still in charge of something important, for my tastes.

  3. Mark Johnson said:

    A quote from the master regarding why god shouldn’t be thought of as necessary.
    Speaking in a parable –A Jesus Christ was possible only in a Jewish landscape–I mean one over which the gloomy and sublime thunder cloud of the wrathful Yahweh was brooding continually. Only here was the rare and sudden piercing of the gruesome and perpetual general day-night by a single ray of the sun experienced as if it were a miracle of “love” and the ray of unmerited “grace.” Only here could Jesus dream of his rainbow and his ladder to heaven on which God descended to man. Everywhere else good weather and sunshine were considered the rule and everyday occurrences. -Nietzsche, Der Froeliche Wissenschaft

  4. I like to tell them that only the deeply religious fly planes into buildings, that in fact many very scientific studies have proven that the more you claim to be a devout anything the lower your IQ and more importantly, the less likely you are to actually behave like a christian, this ones my favorite, you my friend, as an atheist are 10 times more likely than my evangelical sister to help some poor kid who escaped from a drug infested party and just wants enough money or a ride to get back to their parents house in sonoma. no one is more likely to steal, to judge to everything the 10 commandments says you shouldnt than a devout evangelical christian and no one is more likely to be a good decent honest helpful human being than an atheist.
    as ever, your prose is brilliant
    -your grateful fan of, eek, 12 years now.

  5. To the previous commenter, it’s unfair to bring up allusions to suicide bombers and dubious IQ studies in regards to the religious, just as it’s unfair for Ben Stein and Evangelicals to equate evolution with eugenic cleansing and the Holocaust.
    In my experience, one’s religious convictions have no bearing on one’s personality or morality (much to the chagrin of the religious, I’m sure). Jerks, monsters, and saints exist in fairly equal proportions in all places and groups. The only thing that separates the religious from the non-religious is how they choose to dress up their baggage. Everyone has their own flavor of crazy, it’s just that some are more popular than others.
    The real problem, if you can call it that, is that the religious tend to be organized and fervent, and given large enough numbers this inevitably grants them political power. Then they get confident and loud enough to start spreading their version of the truth. That’s when the cart really goes off the wheels, and one group suffers under another’s craziness.
    On balance, religious belief is neither good nor bad. It all depends on what’s done with it. My real annoyance with the missionaries you wrote about is that they could just as easily spend those hours at a suicide hotline, hospital, or soup kitchen, instead of wandering around the streets of a major city trying to save people who neither want nor need it.
    And for the record, I’m agnostic, at best. 😉

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