Recently, while taking a walk, I ran into a woman who introduced herself as Patience.
She was from Africa and had seemingly come to America as a missionary. Generally, in these situations, I would make some excuse for not having time to stop, as I’m typically not one to try and experience those classic atheist moments. However, I’d recently been trying to challenge myself to be more bold, and it just so happened I had a few moments to spare.
“I would like to offer you a weight,” she said.
“A weight?” I asked, not sure if I’d heard her right.
“Yes. Have you heard of Jesus Christ?”
By this point, I figured there was no point in getting into my own history with Christianity and religion in general. It was clear she wasn’t well-versed in most of the questions I might ask of a traditional American evangelist, so I decided instead to try and see what she was specifically trying to pitch. So instead, I told her about my family and how my parents had moved to South Dakota to get involved in Native ministry. When she asked about myself, I simply replied I didn’t really do that stuff anymore.
At this moment, the white woman who was accompanying and been doing her best to not barge in felt that it was her time to speak up. She asked me how it came to be that I no longer believed in God? I simply replied that I’d realized at a certain point I had been making exceptions for believing in a god that I didn’t make for other things. “What kind of things?” she asked.
Not wanting to create too large of a rift between us in the conversation, I did my best to present the idea in a way they’d understand.
“Well,” I began, “I assume, for instance you don’t believe in the gods of Hinduism or other religions.”
“Oh, I believe in them,” she replied.
“You do?” I asked, somewhat shocked at this turn of events. Polytheism is a bit of a no-no in traditional Christianity.
“Yeah, the Bible talks a lot about other gods. But they don’t have any power. Some of them are made out of wood or stone.”
“Then they aren’t real, are they?” I asked, “If all you’re proposing is that the idea of god exists, then I believe in that too.”
“But Jesus is the only one who rose from the dead.”
“How do you know that?”
“Because of history!”
In hindsight, I believe when she said history, she meant the stories about Jesus that have remained prevalent throughout much of culture over the last two-thousand years. When many people refer to history, they’re referring to stories all with equal authority. When real historians examine these stories, however, they use evidence of what other things they know about the time period, as well as archaeological evidence, to corroborate the validity of the historical claim. However, this examination process was not what my interlocutor was referring to.
“I don’t know where you get your information, but I get mine from history,” she said.
“So do I, but I don’t understand how you can refer to a man coming back to life as a historic claim.”
“But they never found his body!”
“It’s been two thousand years; at this point, I’d be more surprised if they did! How could you possibly prove a claim from that long ago?”
“How can you disprove it?”
“I can’t prove a negative, but I don’t have to. The onus is on you as the one making the claim to provide the evidence.”
“Well, this is just what I believe.” She said, a bit exasperated at my bullheadedness.
This was honestly where I was trying to get for the past two minutes. Faith claims are nothing to be inherently ashamed of, given their prevalence in the world, but I’ve found many Christians like to make their faith-based claims come across as historical or scientific claims.
“I can accept that you believe that, but it’s just a belief,” I said.
“Well, I think you should reconsider your opinion,” She replied, “this woman came all the way from Africa just to tell you about Jesus. To me, that sounds like proof.”
At this moment, I had to rejoin the group I was with, thus cutting our conversation short, though I didn’t have much interest in attempting any more quips. It’s often easy to imagine what amazing things you might have been able to say, but the reality is it didn’t really matter what I said. And anyway, I found what the woman who was accompanying Patience said to be more interesting.
The claim that someone coming from another country to tell you about something is evidence that this something is true is certainly a non-sequitur, to say the least. It might be evidence that one is devoted to their faith, but that isn’t really evidence of the validity of that faith. Many people have sincerely held beliefs, some of which they’d die for. But this does nothing to back up their claim.
In hindsight, I also can’t help but feel that we both ended up treating Patience as a bit of a prop in our sidelining of her in the conversation. The other woman she was with treated her as a point in her argument, but Patience never actually got a chance to present her position. If I had the chance to do it over, I would’ve gotten off the subject of myself as soon as possible and instead asked her what experience made her such a devoted Christian and what she believed Jesus could offer to others.
Both Christians and atheists like myself tend to get self-obsessed, seeing every person’s faith through the lens of what we’ve experienced from religion. Taking a step back to listen rather than jump straight to trying to argue or correct can give some invaluable insight into the religious people around us.