Tuesday, April 26, 2011
Atheist meets Mormon Missionary: My in- flight discussion with Elder Troy
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