When Did You Reject God?
Back during Reason Rally, a friend and I were walking around the edge of the National Mall looking for some street food and passed a megaphone-amplified street preacher. As you might expect, the area was lousy with them that day, and I had no desire to chit-chat. Unfortunately, my friend was quite polite, and answered his initial questions which quickly devolved into the usual factless "the bible says you're evil" scripted rant. Prompted no doubt by my Bad Religion T-shirt, a second preacher, more reserved than the one barking at my friend, tried talking to me. He commented on the importance of dialogue between believers and non-believers, but I have a rule where I don't talk to anyone who feels a dialogue can exist when a megaphone is involved. I expected to continue ignoring him, but he asked the one question that is my kryptonite:
Were you ever religious?
I adore talking about the fact that I was once religious because it's a reminder of something very important, that people can stop being religious. No matter who I'm talking to there is always something to be gained by answering. Insular religious people don't believe that any sane person could ever be an atheist, so it's important for them to talk to one in the flesh. People raised in a secular environment don't believe that any sane person could be a Young-Earth Creationist, so it's important for them to know how easy it is to indoctrinate a child. And for people who were once religious then deconverted, like me, it's important for them to know they're not alone and there are many other people who have become far happier after leaving the shackles of religion.
So, I told him how I used to be Pentecostal, but before I could explain further, he hit me with his scripted follow-up:
When did you reject God?
It seems like such a simple question, but it's pregnant with implications. It's like asking a spousal abuse suspect, "when did you stop beating your wife?" Not only does his question imply his god exists, but also that I know his god exists, and that I reject his god's divinity. I saw the question for what it was, and explained that I didn't reject God, but rather, after learning more about science, critical thinking, and philosophy, belief in gods became irrational.
Little was said after that, my friend's patience with megaphone-man had reached its limit, and we left the preachers so we could enjoy the rest of Reason Rally, but lately I was reminded of his question, and I had to wonder, did he know what he was doing? Had he considered each word carefully the way a prosecuting attorney does in order to twist the testimony of an indicted witness? The more I think about it, the more forgiving I've become. Rather than being sinister, I think he was just so inculcated in his religion's oft-repeated phrase, "everyone knows in their heart that God exists," that he just couldn't comprehend someone simply not believing.
Having been an atheist for over a decade now, and having met hundreds of other atheists, I find it telling that not one became an atheist by "rejecting" the god they once believed, but rather all of them became atheists after education made the belief in gods an unnecessary hypothesis.