The Really Big Questions

A whole school of thought holds that practising small talk leads to all sorts of opportunities and casual life improvements. It can open doors to new contacts and experiences, as well as simply add a pinch of cheer to both parties' days. And those benefits are all grand, of course, but on this occasion the point was driven home to me that one should always exercise a bit of caution and prudence in any interaction.

Neither naturally cautious nor exceptionally prudent, and in addition suffering the heady lack of clarity that comes of having taken cold medicine before setting out for the office, I found myself stalled at a crosswalk in conversation with missionaries while waiting for the signal to change. To my chagrin, the light turned green thrice before we could reasonably proceed.

I had met these two men, or at least one of them, previously, at the same crosswalk. The conversation was then little more than a greeting, although they were bedecked in full missionary style, and we went happily on our respective ways--theirs going door to door to persuade the Japanese to take up their philosophy and live by the dictates of their holy book; mine translating documents, teaching classes, growing vegetables, reforming my house, and not believing in God.

To be fair, the missionaries were congenial and amiable, and good-hearted men I am sure. Missionaries almost always are. But after a few moments, any interaction with them has to come around to what is their purpose and calling, no matter how long you try to postpone it. Have you ever heard of our church? You have? Really? What have you heard? How can we persuade you to join?

How comes it that missionaries always seem to think the only reason people don't believe what they believe is that we just haven't heard the news yet? Well, the same reason political activists seem to think we've never heard of 'real' socialism before, I guess. A pair of Japanese missionaries came to my door several years ago asking if I had ever heard of Adam and Eve. Aye, I heard the story when I was knee high to a grasshopper, and decided then that it was bunk. But that's not what one can safely say if one desires to be as congenial and amiable as one's cohorts.

The way religious discourse creeps in is subtle and pernicious. Small talk can sometimes be allowed to go on for quite some time beforehand. I might resent the inevitable intrusion of pushy salesman tactics, but really, how can I? If I truly believed in life after death and that some deity would grant a privileged place to those who subscribed to a certain set of ideas and followed a prescribed set of practises, how could I not make it my life's work to win as many converts as humanly possible? There could be no higher calling. To do otherwise would be to shirk one's duty as a moral being.

And yet, there are those of us who have thought--hard and deeply--about all the Really Big Questions, and simply aren't convinced. There are those of us who are bound by our own scepticism, and cannot believe anything without empirical evidence. It's just the way our brains work.

I did tell these missionaries that I was a sceptic; I admitted to them the possibility that they might be right, with the caveat that I don't think it's at all likely. Perhaps I should have put it more strongly, because they wanted me to call them in the evening and arrange a time when we could meet and discuss it--in other words, where they could try to convert me, and I could engage in the same futile arguments of logic against emotion and superstition that I have had countless times already. No, thank you very much.

While it would be profoundly arrogant to claim that I have heard every argument in favour of religion, I can confidently say that I have heard my share, and that based on this experience, the odds of hearing a new and convincing argument are not good. I can predict with near certainty that the conversation would be similar to others I have not enjoyed in the past.

Perhaps I will be cautious and prudent in future. I'll still greet you, just because you're human and deserve at least that much courtesy. It's just that religion and politics are too big for the crosswalk, and we've all of us got things to do that are more likely to produce results than polemics.