Shall I never be free of Carl, the nattily attired Jehovah’s Witness who corners me at work annually with his unsophisticated theological redux? He’s been sticking me with his extra copies of Awake! and The Watchtower for more than ten years now. After the first several years, I let slip that I’m a “nonbeliever” (he inevitably says “atheist,” which isn’t quite on the money, but I usually give a Costanza-esque “ehh,” as a sub-verbal surrender to imperfect terminology), so he comes back about once a year, always on a beautiful day, to see if he can convert me with his puny rhetoric.
That way, Carl can hold up his hand at the sky and say, “God created all this beauty, and gave us eyes to enjoy it, and all the senses….” He can also keep his suit dry, and not feel too bad about leaving hapless passengers fermenting in the minivan. There’s always someone in there, cracking the window to get some air, or worse, coming out to join the Lord’s gentle mugging of my sensibilities. But this year, the minivan has become a much loftier, pearlier contraption, while Carl and I both have more nostril hair than in previous meetings. The Lord giveth and the Lord giveth.
I understand that there’s a thing, based apparently in scripture, compelling Christians to proselytize, so I try not to be too mean. Early this summer I even bought a lame cookbook from two college girls selling icky fundraiser (insert Hellraiser parody horror pic here: “FUNDRAISER”) illiterature to fund their own educations, even though I wanted to say something like, “I prefer not to give money to stuff that detracts from human progress.” They wanted to sell me overtly Christian children’s books at the outset, but I went ahead and broke them the news that I was unholy, and frowned on Christ in my storybooks. The cookbook was pitched as some sort of soft-core consolation item, but on later inspection, it was peppered with little doxological snippets alongside spiritually intrusive dingbats. Why did I buy it? Because, you know, they seemed sweet.
A couple of years ago I told Carl that there was a certain assumption (condescension would be more accurate) in casually trying to convert people. It sort of implies that they haven’t given life— or at least metaphysics—much thought. So, from that point on, I was going to try converting him. I wasn’t really joking, but I knew it would be taken as a joke. That’s part of the assumption: that this discussion will take place on a one-way street. Of course you should talk to God, but don’t talk back.
After some awkward small-talk about real estate or whatever, Carl gets down to brass flim-flam. He asks if my wife goes to church.
“Yeah, out in Billings.”
“Oh, I always forget. Disciples of Christ, I think. They’re pretty easy to get along with. They let women be ministers, so they’re pretty liberal… they’re, oh,” I say with a smile, “They’re the same denomination that Jim Jones was, the guy who killed with Kool-Aid!” A joking truth.
“Ah, no wonder you don’t want to go!” I think he’s kidding.
“So, they’re one of the more liberal denominations in all of... Christendom, I guess.” An unusual word choice, but I think it works.
A sort of lightbulb flashes above Carl. He says “Christendom” is a word they like to use at his church. I feel a tic of vocabulary pride, but simultaneously, I feel I may have unexpectedly stepped in something worrisome. Nothing really comes of it.
Carl wants to know if I will change my mind about God if I’m ever about to die.
“I don’t think so, ‘cause I don’t want to be a coward about it. I don’t know if you know the writer Christopher Hitchens, but people asked him the same thing when he was dying of cancer. It just made him mad, because he said that would be the most cowardly way to go, changing your mind at the end just because it’s comforting and easy… there was some philosopher who had a term for this, Kierkegaard maybe, Kierkegaard’s Gambit?”
I couldn’t think of it then, of course, but with the aid of Wikipedia, I remember it’s Pascal’s Wager. It's simply a formulation showing the economical wisdom in choosing to believe, based on having everything (eternal salvation) to gain and nothing to lose (plain old inevitable death). It’s logically true and shrewd, but still kind of cheap, reducing transcendent truths to monkey-grabs-banana self-interest. To me, Hitchens's stance is more heroic.
Carl also whipped out that same old scammy thought experiment about an intelligently designed universe being too beautiful and finely tuned to be a “random occurrence.” Everything works together like a fine timepiece. “So, if you break apart a watch into a bunch of pieces and toss them into a bucket, evolution should make them come together into a watch again?” He uses this one every time, but never gets better at it. Last time, I think he pulverized a hypothetical jet airplane.
“No, but that analogy doesn’t mean anything,” I say, “it just demonstrates a poor understanding of science.” I never think on my feet well enough to assemble a really good counter for this one, because it shorts out my brain slightly on the conceptual level. With hindsight’s advantages, I can say:
• For starters, there’s nothing “random” about natural laws; to the contrary, physics is much less random than the irrational outcries of religion. That said, it’s just as easy to refine one’s definition of God to recast natural laws as “His” thought processes. This would at least put Carl and I on common ground in a “book of creation” model, where we would be separated only by metaphorical interpretation.
• Further, a watch is clearly a man-made thing. Sure, it evokes the “watchmaker” metaphor for intelligent design, but to paint a complete picture, it should be partnered with a hypothetical guy who can fix watches. Of course we know watches don’t magically reassemble. Magic is for irrational people like Carl. If it worked, you wouldn’t need a watch for the analogy. I could turn around and say, “Carl, if only God can make a tree, why can’t I just put a bunch of firewood in a tumbler, pray over it, and pull out an intact tree later?” Hopefully he would answer, “Because that’s crazy, that’s not how things work,” so I could say, “Exactly. It’s a stupid scenario, huh?”
• Unfortunately, the only valuable refutation of Carl’s clunky misinterpretations would be to bonk his head clear and then make him take a long regimen of science classes.
At some point, speaking about the language of the Bible, Carl mentioned that “some translations of the Bible were tampered with.” Ha! Yes.
“The original writing of the Bible WAS the tampering!” I said.
“I don’t know about that…”
“Yeah, because how can you convey infinite wisdom and ultimate truth in some limited human language? Just translating it into another language changes some of the meaning.”
Just when I was getting somewhere, Carl had to leave. Some old ladies in his car were getting antsy; one had popped the back door open, presumably to get some air or stretch her legs, since they’d been waiting for 20-30 minutes. He’d had something of a hot daughter with him one time, pretty, dressed like a Little House on the Prairie character, but today it was only old ladies. Carl encouraged me to read The Watchtower. The next day, I did. Thanks to a sophisticated form of print-based hypnotism and aerosolized LSD in the ink, I’m now a Jehovah’s Witness.
Joking. What would I do with all of my kick-ass Halloween stuff? Not get rid of it!
But the same week, in a parking lot, I walked by a table with a sign reading, “WHAT DOES THE BIBLE TEACH?” I wanted to stop and say, “I suspect it teaches nothing very well. If it did, wouldn’t all Christians agree on what it says? Wouldn’t it make this table unnecessary?”