Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Atheist meets Mormon Missionary: My in- flight discussion with Elder Troy

An atheist and a mormon were sitting together on a plane. Sorry, I wish I had a witty punch line to follow that but this, my friends, is no joke. It happened this week during my trip through the Caribbean, en route from Guadeloupe to Antigua. I always make a point of getting know a little bit about the person I am sitting next to when I am  on a plane. It adds to the whole travel experience. But when this young, white man dressed in the traditional black and white with his "Jesus Christ Church of the Latter Day Saints"  name tag, took up the seat next to me  I knew I was in for something different.

I sat and watched him settle into his seat with his Book of Mormon in hand and wondered if this little LIAT plane could handled such a potentially combustible combination of characters side by side. If that wasn't enough we were seated by the emergency exit and would have been called upon to work together in the event of  something untoward happening. Wow, that would have been a story if we had been called upon to pool our skills to save the day.

Well before I could even say a "hello" to my mormon neighbour, I knew I would be in for a fun ride . This guy was quick to announce himself to all around him and you could see he was not just another passenger. As is typical with mormons he was travelling with a companion but his colleague was sitting the row behind and the one sat next to me hardly seem to notice him. It was like he was trying to establish his own identity he was in his world a 'freethinker.' His name was Elder Troy.

Breaking down the stereotype

They say that the easiest way to break down a stereotype of a group is to take the time and really get to know a member of that group in a personal way. Even in the first minute and a half of meeting him he was breaking down a few mormon myths I had. I have always seen mormons walking through neighbourhoods dressed in pristine white shirts and silky black ties. Two blank faces staring like androids from a sci-fi movie, stalking the next unsuspecting victim looking to send them into a hypnotic trance and leave him droning, " I believe, I believe, take me to your master."But Elder Troy was nothing like that, he just oozed personality and it struck me he could be the life and soul of any party and he clearly had a wicked sense of humour to boot.

When the attractive Barbadian flight attendant was  handing out the brochure with the details on how to handle the emergency exit, Elder Troy gave a wry smile. The lady asked him that cursory question that you get in all flights once you are seated in such positions. " Would you be willing to assist in the event of an emergency?" Troy looked up and his smile got even broader. " Lady, I would be very happy to assist you even if there is NOT an emergency. I would be VERY happy to help you in any any way that I can during this flight!" I just about fell out of my seat in spite of having a tightly buckled seat belt on. This was too much. Did I really just witness a Mormon missionary hitting on a LIAT flight attendant?

The Curious Missionary
It struck me as I looked more closely at Troy that he was Elder in name but certainly not in nature. He turned to me an actually asked me many questions about myself. Where I was from and what I was doing in the Caribbean. I spoke to him about the energy project I was involved in.  He responded with excitement  "Oh energy, you mean like kinetic energy?"  he responded while punching the air in front of  him to demonstrate that he understood the concept that kinetic meant moving energy. A bit of a strange way to look at it but energy transformations usually involve some kind of movement, even solar if you look at it at the atomic level. So I responded with, "Yes, I suppose so." I spoke a bit more and mentioned something about geothermal energy. Ted laughed and told me that when I said geothermal energy he wondered if I meant energy that you  can capture in a flask or a bottle. This was an awkward moment, I was not sure if Troy was making a joke here or if it was just that he was ignorant in the subject, so I just smiled and then went on to explain what I did some more and he seemed quite intrigued. He then got  more serious  in discussion and explained to me that he was really very limited in his exposure to many things. He was not allowed even to watch TV or go on the internet very often to learn things. So even though he was 21 he felt like he was just a novice not just as a missionary novice but a total novice in life.

The Heineken Church
At that moment I felt a bit sorry for Troy but I also realised I had a great opportunity to share with him. "Do you enjoy your missionary work?" I asked him. He said that it was fun but he once again mentioned about his lack of exposure in other areas and he acknowledged that this was a challenge in many interactions with persons because they were often more informed than him and had a broader view. He then asked me a bit about my upbringing church wise. I told him I was raised in the Anglican church which over the roar of the engines   sounding to him that I was saying the "Heineken Church." Now that might not be a bad place of worship, I would drink to that. We both had a good laugh at that one.

I then thought it was about time I came clean on where I am now so I told him I was an atheist. His response was surprising, " Oh,  I know." he said casually. This stumped me, I wasn't wearing my 'A' pin at that time and as far as I could remember I hadn't said anything ungodly. Then he pointed to my i-phone which I was holding in my hand. "I saw that you were listening to something there called the Atheist Experience." I looked down and sure enough the name of the program was there etched in big white lettering on a dark blue background. During this period of travel it is very difficult for me to catch the show live or even in the days following its airing. I have therefore taken to downloading the podcasts on to my phone and listening to them while in flight. It has been great listening to Matt, Tracie, Russell and Jen battle out with  people like Mark from Austin Stone church  while I am 30,000 feet in the air. Nothing better than listening to reason when all that is between you and the ground below is two propellers and some jet fuel. Contrary to popular belief it is clear rational thinking that helps you in emergencies not " a wing and a prayer."

Anyway, after  that moment that Ted  caused me to glance at my phone I started chuckling again. Yes, he got me. He knew all along what I was he was just humouring me, waiting for me to tell him. Indeed since LIAT has open seating Troy  might have sat next to me deliberately after he saw AE on my phone just to have this conversation. By now I knew Troy was a curious traveller and he was just fascinated by the concept of The Atheist Experience. "What do they do there? What's it all about ? How does one get to have the atheist experience?" The questions kept coming thick and fast. Troy said that after he saw the title on my phone  he had visions of non believers going on to a show and being asked to choose between competing religions. I suppose he thought that an atheist was just somebody who hadn't found the right religion yet.

I, of course relished the opportunity to explain  'Atheist Experience' to Troy. This was as great a chance as I had ever had to 'evangalise.' Believe it or not this entire exchange  happened before the plane even left the ground , because I remember the flight attendant breaking our conversation at that moment to announce that the flight was about to take off and flying time would be approximately 20 minutes.  So many times in my life I had been on those long trans Atlantic flights or those across the North American continent wondering how on earth I would pass the hours. Now I had serious godless missionary work to complete and all I had was 20 minutes. But there it was, that was the time I was given to build on Troy's curiosity to sow some seeds of doubt. No, I was not looking for an instant conversion but there are enough ex mormons in the atheist movement to give me some hope.  You never know, Elder Troy  mormon missionary today could be host of 'Irreligiosophy' tomorrow.

Anyway in fairness, the curiosity went both ways. Already Troy had opened my mind by his willingness to engage me in honest conversation and was every moment breaking down some of my own stereotypes. This had the potential to be a great learning experience for us both. It was certainly the first time I had had a discussion with a mormon and I am quite sure this was his first encounter with an open atheist as well. So, I just got right to it. I told him that Atheist Experience was actually  a call in show where theists were encouraged to call in and try to justify their belief in God. Troy seemed a bit confused by this concept so I thought the best way to explain what the show was about was to actually just enact the show right there.  When I told him that  we would play 'Atheist Experience' right here he beamed. " Oh, I am so honoured to be here " he exclaimed. I told him the pleasure was all mine and then I put on my Matt Dillahunty hat and went to work.

Atheist Experience in the Air

This was not going to be a one hour show so I went straight for the jugular. "Why do you believe a God exists?"I asked. Troy for the first time since he entered the flight cabin was speechless. " That's a very good question," was his eventual reply. That was a poignant moment and a response I didn't expect. AE callers regardless of the quality of the reasons they give always have something to offer up to the hosts. Here was a man whose life to this point was all about spreading the gospel,  a man who I had come into contact while he was still dressed in uniform right in the middle of his work day.  Yet, he had no ready reply to this most basic of theological questions. It was to me equivalent to a doctor having no response when asked  why he thinks its a good thing to prescribe medicines for patients with ailments.

Troy did after mulling over the question for a while, go on to talk about his father who was a devout member of the Church of the Latter Day Saints. He spoke of how wonderfully supportive his Dad was and how much love he showed and what a wonderful role model he was. He said that having that earthly experience he could only begin to imagine how so much more magnificent his heavenly father would have to be. I was glad to hear Troy speak so glowingly about his father but I had to point out that I saw this argument as an argument from metaphor. It was just a quantum leap to jump from something you experience in an earthly sphere to assume that the same or something greater must of necessity exist in the heavens. I think he got this point but I sensed he felt I was cheapening the deep relationship he had with his dad by suggesting the love and respect they shared was merely something human.

Christianity I- Pad 2

Troy went on to say how much he saw the words of God reflected in all the love and beauty around us. Then he turned to his text. He began thumbing through the Book of  Mormon that he had in his hands all this time.
"This is the Holy Book. It is something like the bible but it has much more!" He looked at me with excitement and seemed surprised that I was not that moved. I realised that what happened there was that he was using a technique on me that he would use on the people he usually met, ie Christians. Christians even of the casual agnostic type you sometimes find in the Caribbean are generally impressed by people who show respect for the bible and its teachings. I don't think that at that point he had put together that ' it's like the bible' is not a phrase that would endear me to his product. So he continued pushing his book as if it was a bible with new and enhanced features the equivalent of  a 'Christianity I Pad 2.'

Circular Reasoning with the Angel Moroni

He went to the end of the book and started to read to me out loud from what I discovered was a Portuguese translation. I was very impressed with Troy's linguistic skills. Clearly he could proselytise in many languages. His English was flawless, he had just come from Guadeloupe where he had been speaking to the people in the street in French and now he was demonstrating he could easily handle Portuguese as well. However, by his own admission the language of science and evidence  was still very foreign to him. He started reading the words of the angel Moroni. " Oh , I know of him'." I replied. " You have heard of the  Angel Moroni!!!"  You could almost hear Troy's scream above the engines. He looked shocked that I would know of someone so prominent in his faith and then slightly perplexed that I would know of him and still not follow him. It is a bit like how so many Christians can't understand how a person could know of Jesus and the story  of the resurrection yet still reject him. " Moroni was just such an awesome guy !" he went on to tell me all about the revelation , I didn't want to interrupt him with a " No, no, no you're done!" so I waited patiently until he finished, even as I was recognising that time was starting to run out. Once he ended I followed up, " But how do you know that this is true? Why do you take this book as an authority?" He told me to hold on and continued to read the verses that came after. I smiled , it was the same as the biblical fundamentalist. The all in one package deal; claim and proof of claim neatly bound together in the same literary work. It all came down in the end to the fact that if you asked God he would tell you that the Angel Moroni was telling the truth.

I sighed, there was so much I could have said but I had to start my rebuttals or I would never be able to make a point before we landed . I could already feel the plane starting its descent. I told Troy that what he was doing was just circular reasoning. It just doesn't work to use one book to prove itself. I told him that for me I was quite prepared to accept that the supernatural was possible but once I entered the realm of faith there was simply no method available to me to separate the true from the false.  To choose any faith position and reject others would therefore be a purely arbitrary process. I explained that I couldn't determine truth through what made me feel good or because I had a devout father  that believed these things. To discover truth I had to use the only method that gives reliable answers and that was the scientific method. There was just simply no other way out there to use. I added that things like love in the world and beauty could be explained in purely natural terms without the need of a creator. I  emphasised the point that  the universe would be no less awesome just because a God didn't do it. Surprisingly to me he nodded in agreement. As the wheels  extending from the plane in preparation for landing I felt quite happy I thought that in those few minutes I had sown some seeds of doubt that Troy would go on to reflect on some more. Who knows where that will take him? I thought.

You don't want a God to exist

Then my bubble burst. Troy said the following, " So you don't believe in a God because you don't want there to be a God." This statement just floored me. How could Troy have come to this conclusion based on what I had argued? I am still trying to wrap my mind around this. So often theists think we atheists are just consciously making a choice to reject. " NO!" I said. " It's absolutely not the case. I am just searching for the truth. Whether there is a nice God, a horrible God or no God. I just want to find out. What I want to be true just doesn't come in to the equation. If the God is going to throw me into eternal hell I won't be happy but I'd still like to find out if that is so." Troy seemed to finally get it but I can't really be sure.

Everything happened by chance?
Less than a minute later, I looked out of the window and was able catch a glimpse of the world famous harbour in St. John's, the lovely greenery inland and the beautiful  supposedly 365 beaches along the coastline."So that all happened by chance." Troy said grinning. I shook my head, this was a cheeky last blow before the bell by Elder Troy. No way I could possibly explain my view about how all those things came to be  now. We were a mere seconds from touching down on the tarmac  at this point. So I agreed but stated there was some natural selection, man made contributions and other geological and cosmological elements. Not sure Troy was convinced with my answer this time but that was all I could do for now. I however thanked him so much for what was the most memorable and enjoyable discussion on a flight I could remember. We both rued the fact that the trip was so short. I wished him the best of luck and gave him my card and the link to  this blog . I really hope that Troy pays a visit sometime.

Troy, if you are reading this, maybe you can call in one day and have the authentic Texan 'Atheist Experience.' Matt and Co. are likely to bring your God down to earth with evidence and reasoning far better than I ever could have done on that day when we were cruising together above the clouds.

1 comment:

  1. Have you ever read Surprised By Joy by C.S.Lewis? C.S. was a literature professor at Oxford and then Cambridge. He trained pretty thoroughly in Dialectics before starting out at Oxford as an undergrad. As a kid his family'd been Anglican but he turned Atheist sometime a little before adolescence. He converted to Christianity again while studying at Harvard. I think you'll find this book worth your while. You seem pretty open-minded. Beside any empirical interest you might have in understanding his experience, he's an entertaining writer, you'll enjoy reading him.