Thanks to commenter Derelict from my Summer Reading entry, I listened to a talk with Christopher Hitchens on the Dennis Prager show. There was one particular item that caught my ear. Prager posed the following question:
“If you were in a strange city in the USA at night and you saw ten men coming toward you, would you or would you not be relieved to know that they had just come from a bible study class?”
Apparently, Hitchens mentioned this question in his book God Is Not Great, but generalized it to “religious study” and any city in the world. Hitchens then recounted a number of instances where he’d definitely feel less secure with this knowledge, for example, in Beirut or Baghdad, but Prager countered that he specifically meant the USA and bible study. This got me to thinking how I would react.
Quite simply, I would be relieved, but not for the reasons that Prager implies.
My guess is that Prager is implying that there is something about bible study per se (or perhaps by extension, the men being Christian) that makes the stranger feel better in this situation. Therefore, being Christian (or studying the bible) is a good thing. I think this is way off of the mark. In fact, the scenario really ties into fear of the unknown. Consider the two options:
1) Ten men of unknown origin,
2) Ten men coming from bible study.
In the former case, these men could be coming from anywhere. They could be a bunch of ruffians just out of a bar or gang members prowling their turf. In this instance, the mind has a tendency to run to the extreme, the worst case, in order to operate cautiously. After all, you are in a strange city at night. You are vulnerable. Consequently, knowing something about the men (i.e., that they’re coming from bible study) may remove some of these extreme possibilities and therefore reduce the tension.
The important thing is that the same effect can be achieved with a variety of other schemes. For example, in the same situation, would you be relieved to know that the ten men had just come from a night out on the town after attending an ice cream sales convention earlier that afternoon? I certainly would. By all means, attack me with a few pints of mint chocolate chip. Fling a maraschino cherry at me. And don’t skimp on the chocolate sauce, ’cause you know I’ve been a very naughty boy. Or consider this variation: Would you feel less at ease if the ten men were young, with disheveled clothing, and hadn’t shaved for at least a day? What if those same ten men turned out to be young computer programmers who had just gotten out of a movie marathon featuring the entire Star Wars series from start to finish? Not quite so scary, is it?
Now consider a comparison: Would you rather that the ten men have come from bible study or that they’re a bunch sci-fi loving programmer-types? I don’t know about you, but I’d take the programmers because at least then I’d know that they won’t verbally accost me and try to sell me “the good news in the good book”.
Of course, in either case I’d be looking over my shoulder for those ice cream salesmen.