As a break from my preparation for final exams yesterday, my wife brought me a nice little present: Jehovah's Witnesses at the door.
I have heard many stories about JWs bothering people at home, but I've never had the good fortune to be visited by any myself. When the doorbell rang, Ginny peered out the window and said "Oh Russell, you'd better get that." "Really? Who is it?" I asked.
She explained that she'd been visited by this little old lady a few weeks ago. After telling the nice lady that we were atheists, Ginny received an edition of "Watchtower" (which I remember rifling through and chuckling at, but not reading all the way through). This time, the little old lady brought her (50ish) daughter along with her as reinforcements.
I opened the door with my most polite smile, and then I introduced myself. They said they'd heard I was an atheist, and I immediately said I was an OUTSPOKEN atheist, and that they should watch The Atheist Experience on Sundays.
The younger woman immediately launched into a prepared shpiel about how she probably agrees with each other that people who do not understand TRUE Christianity do very bad things in the name of their religion, and their religion is not like that at all... I cut her off and let her know that, while I sometimes don't care for the practices of religion, that has almost no bearing on why I am an atheist. I am an atheist because I don't believe in any evidence for God.
At that point, as you might expect, we started to bounce around from topic to topic at a furious pace. The younger lady was doing most of the arguing (albeit in a nice, friendly tone), while the older lady's role appeared to be periodically brandishing the Bible that she clutched like a security blank, and occasionally either alluding to a passage within it or looking it up and reading it to me. I kept reminding her that that was nice and all, but I don't believe that the Bible has any special status as an accurate source of information, so reading those quotes means little more to me than quoting "The Odyssey."
The younger woman would ask, for instance: "If there's no God, then where do you think morality comes from?" I replied quite matter-of-factly that morality comes from human perceptions, and develops over time as societies do. The older woman said "Oh, but our societal morals are so much worse now!" "Not at all," I replied. In many ways, it is better. For instance, I said, during the time of the Bible, people supported slavery as a good idea. Now they don't. There you go: the perception changed, and it was an improvement over the Bible.
Naturally, they started to mount a defense of how "Biblical" slavery is different from slavery as we know it, which I headed off by asking if it would be a good idea to bring back Biblical slavery in modern times. It was a roundabout discussion, but eventually the answer (to my somewhat surprise) was "yes." So I said "I guess that's one way that my understanding of morality differs from the Bible. I believe that slavery is wrong, and clearly you do not."
Then they started trying to talk about how we are enslaved in OTHER ways even today, and I said "Even so, I believe that metaphorical enslavement is a big step up from explicit, instituional slavery." Then the mother started talking about how the devil enslaves us all. "Yes, I understand that you believe that," I said. "But you see, I don't believe in the devil, so that doesn't bother me."
The daughter stressed several times that they were not going around trying to convince anybody of anything. "Really?" I asked, acting surprised. "Why not? It's okay if you DO want to convince me; that wouldn't bother me at all." But again, she insisted that she had no desire to make me change my mind. "But why not?" I asked. "Don't you believe that unbelievers will be tormented in the afterlife? If I believed that, I'D probably want to convince other people to change their minds."
No no no, said the daughter. That's those other, FALSE Christians who believe that stuff. "Oh," I said. "Then please explain to me what your religion says will happen to people who don't come around to your point of view." She hedged and waffled a bit, first saying it's not only Jehovah's Witnesses who are saved. "Yes, but what about an atheist like me?" I asked, keeping her on topic. She said "Well we can't judge you, only God does that. Perhaps you'll be saved anyway." "Yes, but what if I'm not?" I persisted. "Then you will be destroyed." "Oh, *I* see!" I concluded, trying to grasp the fine points of a religion that says my punishment is merely to be destroyed rather than tormented, and yet live eternally apart from God. "So again, why don't you want to convince me? You don't want me to be destroyed, do you?" Of course, she said that's really up to me, and shortly thereafter we changed the subject.
From there we moved on to how I can't be frightened by threats when I have no good reason to believe in the threats. There are thousands of religions to choose from. Perhaps you're going to hell too, if it turns out that Islam is correct. All these Christians whom you say are false Christians, maybe they're right and you're wrong. I have no basis for choosing between all these religions except your word, which is based on your holy book, which you assume is correct but I have no reason to share this assumption.
Then she started telling me how the modern Bible so perfectly predicts all the findings of modern science, and I said "Oh really, what about a six day creation?" I wanted to feel out whether she was a young earther, and it turned out she wasn't. So I asked why not. "There's certainly nothing in the Bible to indicate anything other than a six day creation, and if you're right then what's up with all Christians who use the Bible to justify a six-day creation?" She explained why the Bible COULD support a reading of non-literal days. "But that's not the Bible being accurate about science," I objected. "That's science making discoveries, and religion being reinterpreted to match the facts afterwards." She insisted that this was not the case, and so I asked why it was that people never realized that the earth was billions of years old just from reading the Bible. Science had to come along FIRST and discover the age of the earth, and only then could the Bible be interpreted to support what scientists had already found out.
She didn't know the answer to that one, but then she changed the subject to the inaccuracy of evolution. So I asked if she could explain to me how evolution works, because I was pretty sure she didn't understand it. She said defensively, why don't you tell me?" So I did. Luckily I had just had a bunch of practice talking about the subject on The Atheist Experience last week.
But before long, of course, we shifted away from evolution to abiogenesis and then -- when it was apparent that I had some knowledge of that too (I started explain Stuart Kaufmann's autocatalytic cycles) we almost immediately moved to first cause. As I recall, when I explained that the natural workings of physics behave in a consistent way, she said "Thank you!" in a smug finalized way, as if she'd proved something. "You're welcome," I said. "So what?" And she told me that natural laws require a designer, and we were off on the argument from design.
So she started gesturing at my house, telling me that it was so orderly that it must be designed. "Unlike, say, a pile of random rocks in the desert," I replied. "Exactly!" "But according to you, the pile of random rocks also requires a designer. So this thing about design being recognizable in order is a red herring. Your religion teaches that disordered things are ALSO evidence of design." Then she started trying to explain why a random pile of rocks in the desert is also a very intricately ordered pattern... and I said "If I thought the way you do, then I might as well just go live in a pile of rocks, because they're just as well designed as my house."
So eventually we moved on to religion's last resort of trying to prey on fear of death. She asked where I expect to be when I'm 90. "Well," I said, "If I'm still alive..." "Aha!" said the older one. "But that's the point! What if you're not still alive? Then what?" So I said: "Then I'll be dead." "But then what after that?" "Then I'll still be dead."
But, they blustered, you can't possibly believe THAT. Doesn't that bother you? Sure it bothers me, I said. But there are lots of things that bother me that I can't change. It's better to recognize and accep those things than to make up comforting stories about why they aren't really true.
Then the mother told me a very odd story about her grandson, who accidentally killed a bird with a BB gun and was just torn up with sadness over it. He came in and asked what would happen to the bird, and they said that for the bird death was final, and that made him extremely sad.
"So," I said, "That means you think birds don't go to heaven." "Of course not," they told me. "Well, what happens to them after that?" "They just decompose." "Well there you go," I said. "I have no reason to believe that what happens to the bird will not also happen to me."
Eventually they asked if they could leave another "Watchtower" with me, which I said was fine, but it's unlikely that I would read it because I'm busy with grad school. They gave it to me anyway, and then they kindly invited me to attend their Bible study. (Because clearly, outnumbering me by two to one isn't nearly enough. :) I, in turn, told them when to watch the show and encouraged them to call in if they wanted to.
So anyway, that was a fun diversion. Since I'm on hiatus from the Non-Prophets, I wouldn't mind getting my own Jehovah's Witnesses to play with more often.