A random encounter with religious zealots

Friday afternoon, 2 PM.

In my current frame of mind, some things strike me as perhaps more bizarre than they would have normally. This is one such incident.

After vacation, arriving back from vacation only to turn around to have to head to Ohio for a funeral, and having to be in the operating room on Thursday, Friday was the first day since mid-August when I had very little scheduled. Consequently, it allowed me the first opportunity to sit down and figure out exactly what the heck I needed to do to get back to work and to get my research rolling. I met with my postdoc and had him show me all the data that he had gathered in the nearly three weeks that I had been gone. (Three weeks? Holy crap! I’ve never been away from the office and lab that long since I first took this job eight years ago. Before this, two weeks represented the longest time I’ve ever been away.)

Fortunately, it turned out that one of the two partners of mine whom I consider as much friends as colleagues also had a light day, with his clinic finishing around 1 PM. Consequently, we decided to do something we rarely do anymore: Go out to a leisurely lunch at a real restaurant. On our walk back to the cancer institute, we encountered them. A woman was approaching on our left, holding a sign; a man was approaching on the right, a pile of leaflets in his hand. Trapped! There was no way to avoid them without heading out into the busy street (something I was tempted to do). Then I saw what the sign said:


Great. Just what I needed.

So, as I often do when encountering such people, I hunkered down and tried not to make eye contact with them. Unfortunately, I was on the right, closest to the man handing out leaflets. As expected, the man held out a leaflet to me as I passed.

“No thanks,” I said, as I continued by them, the better to allow them to do whatever it is that they thought would please God but (I hoped) while leaving me alone.

As I made the transition from having this man in front of me to having him just behind me, he spoke again. It was in a low voice, but it was completely understandable. I was not imagining it.

“You’re going to hell,” the man informed me.

That was exactly the wrong thing to say to me in my mood at the time, my having just two days prior listened to a plethora of the usual platitudes at a funeral, none of which gave me any comfort at all. Unfortunately, I was not in a good enough frame of mind to come up with the pithy, devastating response that he deserved. The best that I could come up with was to turn around to him and say:

“I AM Roman Catholic, asshole.;

That wasn’t exactly my most shining moment, nor was my response exactly brilliant repartee, I know. In contrast, on the blog, I have as much time as I want to take to think about what I write. It also neglected the fact that I’m presently about as lapsed a Catholic as can be imagined, if you know what I mean. However, he didn’t need to know that. Besides, being a Roman Catholic has always struck me in at least one way as being a bit like being Jewish. Once a Catholic, always a Catholic, as even those who have long been away from the Church still tend to identify themselves as Catholic, even when it doesn’t make much sense to do so anymore. For me, this tendency pops up most unexpectedly at the strangest times.

The man kept walking away from me harassing others on the street, giving no sign that he saw me, content that he was saved, that I was not, and that anyone who failed to heed him would find themselves in the eternal flames after their deaths.


  1. #1 Zipi
    September 8, 2007

    If you were baptised Catholic once, then you remain Catholic for life. At least that is what they insist on, and they count you to engross artifically the number of followers they claim to have. There is only one way out, and that is to commit apostasy. Nowadays it is a more straighforward process than it used to be (at least they have an official process for it now), but it still requires interacting with your bishop or archbishop. I very recently did it and it was one of the most liberating experiences in my life. I plan to frame the certificate they gave me and hung it on my living room.

  2. #2 Tony P
    September 8, 2007

    We don’t get much of that around here. Oh a few years back the anti-abortionists were parading around with the photographs of aborted fetuses.

    I couldn’t help myself, I got into it with one of the women holding up such a sign. I asked her two questions:

    1) Do you use birth control. She did, I asked if the contraception wasn’t against her God’s rules. Uh oh, conflict time!

    2) I asked if she support the death penatly. She did. Imagine that, protect life on one hand, and destroy it on the other.

    I’m hoping I converted at least one person that day.

  3. #3 Ezekiel Buchheit
    September 8, 2007

    I do the same things when approached by zealots, which, coincidentally, is the same course of action I use while running and encountering a large dog loose in the neighborhood. I avoid eye contact, move as far to one side as I can, continue at my current pace, try and not attract attention to myself, all the while keeping the threat in my peripheral in case drastic measures are needed.

    The one time I actively engaged a Religious Force Squad (RFS) was under the inffluence of wicked amounts of fermented barley juice. This occured at night on 6th street here in Austin Texas. For those unaware of the powers that are 6th street, understand that the street is shut down to traffic nightly, children and families are actively removed from public view starting at 10PM, and anything less than an active murder is generally turned a blind eye. The group in question had taken a central location in the middle of the street, formed a circle back-to-back with a series of Hell Awaits (not the Slayer album) style signs acting as their spine. So I bit. Several minutes later, I had to be actively drug away by a friend.

    Of all the things I have done in my youth while under the influence, things ranging from stupid to ludacris, that was easily the most fun.

  4. #4 Scott Belyea
    September 8, 2007

    Never respond to them beyond a “No thanks”, much less argue.

    The old expression is that it’s like trying to teach a pig to sing – it just gets you dirty and doesn’t teach the pig anything.

  5. #5 nonbeliever
    September 8, 2007

    Why don’t all such believers (“if you’re not a [fill in the blank] like I am, you’re going to Hell instead of Heaven”) get in each other’s faces and have it out, leaving the rest of us alone? They could march en mass to each other’s massings and really settle things.

    All the other group’s members clearly believe in the same outcome set (Heaven or Hell) but have made a bad group membership choice. It would seem much easier for believers to correct one wrong belief in another fellow human being’s mind than two. But none seem to tackle things this way.

    Maybe they fear the collective realization that, if all the different sects holding that outcome belief all got together and applied a little Bayesian reasoning with all those priors, the most logical conclusion is that they’re all going to Hell.

  6. #6 Tegumai Bopsulai, FCD
    September 8, 2007

    Reminds me of a video I saw recently:
    Mormons vs. Jehovah’s Witnesses

  7. #7 Roov
    September 8, 2007

    Sometimes if people tell me I’m going to hell, I like to say “I’ll see you there!” in a bright, cheery voice (while continuing to move briskly away).

    I doubt it has any impact on them, but it sort of amuses me without angrying up the blood too much, which seems about the best outcome I can hope for.

    And, as has been pointed out, logic dictates that if there is a hell, we’re pretty much all condemned to go there by one version of God or another, so it’s also true!

  8. #8 Beth
    September 8, 2007

    I like what my lapsed-Catholic mother said: “I can’t be anything other than Catholic, but I just couldn’t be Catholic anymore.” My siblings and I weren’t brought up in the church but there are echoes of it that just can’t be shaken.

  9. #9 Science Avenger
    September 8, 2007

    I was raised Catholic, and confirmed as my (ironically) freedom from religion day, per a long agreement with my Catholic mother.

    I don’t consider myself Catholic any more, but it seems like I was raised in a real church, whereas other Christians just went to pretend-churches. Nobody does pomp and pomposity like the Catholics. That and they invented aerobics.

  10. #10 George Smiley
    September 8, 2007

    I generally ask whether they’re affiliated with the People’s Front of Judea, or the Judean People’s Front. Then I run.

  11. #11 Jon H
    September 8, 2007

    One thing you can do when they approach you is to mimic the response a movie vampire has to a cross: rear back a little, head to the side, hands up close to your chest to shield you. You know what I mean. Maybe a quiet little hiss.

    Nothing too loud or threatening. Don’t overdo it. You’re emulating a fairly meek vampire, not a Buffy vampire.

    I did this once to a religious pamphleteer in Chicago. She was surprised, and I think laughed a little, and I was able to walk on otherwise unmolested.

  12. #12 Kaleberg
    September 8, 2007

    Yeah, Jewish and Catholic atheists have similar attitudes towards their religions:

    Jewish: There is only one god, even if I don’t believe in him.

    Catholic: I cannot accept Catholicism, even though it is the one true religion.

  13. #13 SmellyTerror
    September 8, 2007

    When I was young, and an arsehole, I attempted to deconvert some Mormons. They wanted to discuss religion, so I invited them in. Went for a couple of months. I’d play the earnest, oh-so-close-to-coverting agnostic, and try to slip my own doubts into their minds. “Ok, that’s cool, but what I don’t understand is…”

    Long story short, the Bishop was visiting for the after-service bible discussion, and one of my Elders casually dropped in a theme we’d discussed so often he might have forgotten it wasn’t orthadoxy: most of the bible text is only useful to give a historical background into what Jesus himself believed.

    Much hemming ensued, my Elder was transferred interstate a few days later, and I retired undefeated. I like to think the seeds I planted grew at least a little more.

    …then I tried it on the local Scientologists, but I couldn’t find anyone who genuinely believed.

    Anyway, now days my answer to “You’re going to hell” would simply be “good”. I am a lazy, lazy man.

  14. #14 DuWayne
    September 8, 2007

    I love to get hammered by those kind of folks, but then I haven’t had the sort of couple of weeks that you have. My favorites are the ones who stand around, outside gay pride events ranting. The best is when the (currently) five year old hears folks like that, we get them in downtown Portland a lot. His response is always along the lines of; “Hate is naughty” or “Hates not nice.” He is capable of getting very indignant about it, occasionally telling the perpetrators they should go into time out. He gets especially riled when it’s connected to a pride event, we have several very close friends who are gay. He doesn’t really know much about sex, but he does know that the gay couples we know, love each other very much, one of them, their son as well. That’s more than enough for him. He gets downright pissy when people start ranting about hating gays.

  15. #15 Alan Kellogg
    September 9, 2007

    Many years back (before some of the readers here were born) I met an evangelical Roman Catholic. Upon learning I had been baptized soon after birth she informed me it was still good, even though it was a protestant baptism, and so I was clear for Heaven.

    As to Hell. Been there, done that, I’d rather have the lousy t-shirt. 🙂

  16. #16 Ahistoricality
    September 9, 2007

    I think my mostly likely response, if I had my wits about me, would be to laugh. If I was in the state of mind you were, I might actually have considered it an occassion for real, gut-busting, uncontrolled fits of laughter.

    Barring that, I think you nailed it.

  17. #17 Dianne
    September 9, 2007

    If you have a lot of spare time and no particular inhibitions about discussing religion in public you could do intentionally what I used to do accidently…

    When I was a teen, although I was already essentially an atheist, I was eager to find the “right” religion that would change my mind. This was difficult because the right religion would have to be able to rigorously demonstrate the veracity of its claims, including any afterlife claims. Needless to say, I never found it. Anyway, during my searching for a religion stage, whenever I encountered these sorts of people I would enthusiastically take their propaganda, read it through, and then start attempting to ask them about any illogical or unsupported statements I found in it. Most ran away within minutes, a few attempted to argue, sometimes rancourously, others referred me to an authority figure (Bible, priest, etc). None ever made any sense, so eventually I figured out the pattern and stopped looking. But it’s still an amusing way to annoy prostelatizers, if one has the time.

  18. #18 Graculus
    September 9, 2007

    For some reason the random religious here (not that many, admittedly) seem to veer away from me. Must be the +1 Trenchcoat of Chaotic Weird.

  19. #19 factician
    September 9, 2007

    I think the best response I’ve heard to questions like that is: “I’m a recovering Catholic.”

  20. #20 Bob
    September 9, 2007

    My favorite response to “You’re going to hell” is “OK, I’ll save you a seat.”

  21. #21 Freddy the Pig
    September 10, 2007

    I believe a mor appropriate porcine saying is “Never wrestel with a pig. You both get muddy, but the pig enjoys it.

    I think it would good to arm youself with a bunch of non sequitorious biblical quotations such as “My borther Esau is an hairy man, but I am a smooth man.” or quote some of the more repulsive parts of the bible such as the bits in Leviticus about stoning rebellious teenagers.

    If you were a an you could threaten to find out where they live an dburn a question mark on their lawn.

    Another approach would be militant agnosticism – Keep chantng “I don’t know if there is a god and you don’t either.”

  22. #22 HCN
    September 10, 2007

    I was essentially raised “Army Chapel Protestant”. This was where communion was given both in the pews and at the front of the chapel.

    Oh, and in the office area there were at least three offices all in a row: one for the Jewish chaplain, one for the Catholic chaplain (a priest and an officer!), and one for the protestant chaplain (the denomination was random, one year it would be Episcopalian, the other it would be Methodist, and then the next year Baptist).

    During winter there would be a nativity scene on one side of the walk, with a menorah on the other side.

    When I went to one of my sister’s weddings, I noticed that the post chapel had study/meetings/services for a much larger group of faiths. These included Islam, Buddhist and Wicca.

    Now that I have set the scene… When my dad was last stationed in Ft. Hood we lived off base, way out of town. So my step-mother and I attended services in a Lutheran church between us and town. One of her good friends was a good Lutheran and also attended this church. We had known this family in the Panama Canal Zone the year before (where my step-mother sang in the Ft. Amador Chapel choir).

    We attended this church for a few weeks, and felt very welcome. We even took communion at this church.

    Then my step-mother’s friend dropped a bomb-shell on us. She told us we were both going to go to hell for taking communion in that church when we were not confirmed Lutherans!

    Oh, good grief.

  23. #23 Dianne
    September 10, 2007

    Oh, and in the office area there were at least three offices all in a row: one for the Jewish chaplain, one for the Catholic chaplain (a priest and an officer!), and one for the protestant chaplain

    Did they ever walk into any bars together?

  24. #24 idlemind
    September 10, 2007

    Try this: to say someone is damned to hell is blasphemy, pure and simple. Only God can decide, and for one of us lowly humans to attempt to do so is a grave sin.

    Don’t know if it will actually convince one of thee nuts to stop harassing people, but it’s worked to keep them from harassing me.

  25. #25 Jud
    September 10, 2007

    Bob said: “My favorite response to ‘You’re going to hell’ is ‘OK, I’ll save you a seat.'”

    Dressing it up at the end with a good Satanic “MWAHAHAHA!!” couldn’t hurt.

  26. #26 Paul
    September 10, 2007

    These guys were obviously real wingnuts. I was brought up as a Roman Catholic (though happily I’ve now recovered)and unless things have changed a lot in the past decade or so the official church position was effectively that non-Roman Catholics could go to heaven, but that if you’re a Catholic you’re more likely to live the kind of life that gets you into heaven.

  27. #27 Calli Arcale
    September 10, 2007

    I’ve been trying to figure out a come-back in case I ever encounter folks like this. I’d like to use some variant on Hamlet’s wonderful jab at his uncle. This is right after Polonius got stabbed to death.

    “Hamlet, where is Polonius?”
    “In heaven. Send thither to see. If your messenger find him not there, seek him in the other place yourself.”

  28. #28 Ginger Yellow
    September 10, 2007

    “You must be Roman Catholic to go to heaven”

    It’s such a weird pitch, that naked assertion. What do they think other people’s responses will be? If you’re a believer, surely you think your denomination, and maybe others, will go to heaven, and just being told the opposite isn’t going to change your mind (“I thought I had all the answers, but then I saw some guy on the street with a big shouty sign!”). If you’re an atheist, or of a non-heavenly faith, you don’t believe in heaven anyway so you don’t care who won’t be going there.

  29. #29 HCN
    September 10, 2007

    Dianne asked “Did they ever walk into any bars together?”

    Why of course! They were all officers of the US Army. How did you think those jokes originated?

  30. #30 Koray
    September 10, 2007

    Well, if one thinks that the majority of the world population is going to hell unless they change the way they live, to warn them is the reasonable thing to do. I am truly heartbroken that more religious people aren’t trying to save me.

    In fact, people of all faiths should be approaching me at the same time so that I can arrange a mini-seminar right there, and they can sort out which one is the one true faith for me.

  31. #31 Malky
    September 11, 2007

    Giving up as a Catholic is surprisingly hard to do. I know I find it very difficult. The church also finds it difficult to accept you have done so as well.

  32. #32 GH
    September 11, 2007

    Giving up as a Catholic is surprisingly hard to do. I know I find it very difficult.


    don’t consider myself Catholic any more, but it seems like I was raised in a real church, whereas other Christians just went to pretend-churches

    Funny everyone I went to church with feels exactly the opposite. The the RCC is evil and a false demonic institution, the whore of babylon.

    I think they are all real churches but some, like the RCC, filled with more fascist traditions than others. Like anything youget to big you forget what you where supposed to be. Although they are just a fraction of what they used to be.

  33. #33 Coin
    September 11, 2007

    I’ve been trying to figure out a come-back in case I ever encounter folks like this. I’d like to use some variant on Hamlet’s wonderful jab at his uncle. This is right after Polonius got stabbed to death.
    “Hamlet, where is Polonius?”
    “In heaven. Send thither to see. If your messenger find him not there, seek him in the other place yourself.”

    Suggested alternate response:

    “Why, this is hell, nor are we out of it.”

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