An Atheist Meets a Theist on the Street… August 14, 2008

An Atheist Meets a Theist on the Street…

You’ve heard that setup a number of times.

But in Arturo Vivante‘s short story, written just before his death earlier this year and published in the most recent Freethought Today, it’s never been quite so poetic:

I was slowly walking down the main street of the Vermont town where I taught when a man aggressively came up to me and asked me point-blank: “Are you a Christian?”

“No,” I said, unwilling to be pigeonholed, “I am a heathen.”

“Who made that tree?” he asked me sternly, pointing to a maple near where we stood.

“It made itself.”

“Oh, itself, did it? Well, let me tell you, God made it.’’

I looked at the red, flame-like, burgeoning buds that would soon turn into tiny leaf, rosy at first, then broaden into lustrous green, and finally in the fall turn to fiery red, and lines from a poem of D.H. Lawrence that I had read to my class came to my mind, and I quoted them to him:

“Even the mind of God can only imagine
Those things that have become themselves.”

“Do you pray?” he said.

“No, but I do a lot of hoping.”

He looked at me as at a hopeless case. “Take this and pray,” he said, handing me a pink flier. “Read it every day.”

I looked at the words that perhaps someone of his sect had written. “When I hope,” I said, “at least I use my own words, and no one else’s. I don’t follow any dotted line.”

‘’What’s wrong with these words?”

“They are impersonal, dated. Said over and over, they become almost meaningless, while hope is new and fresh each time, and isn’t attached to any sect.”

“Pray to God and you’ll be saved.”

“I feel perfectly safe,’’ I said. “I have a home, a family, a job, even a philosophy.”

“You have no faith.”


“No,” he affirmed. “Pray to God, have faith, and your prayer will be answered. You have only to ask.’’

“‘Ask and it shall be given unto you, knock and it shall be opened,’ do you mean?”


“But I think one needs each time a very cleverly made, subtle and fortunate key. And besides, I should think one who really loves God wouldn’t want to ask him favors all the time, bother him with this and that like a lobbyist. I should think it would be very trying even for God. I’d be afraid of taxing his patience.”

“God has infinite patience.”

“Do you think so?”

“I know so.”

“I see him as beyond reach, too high, like fate,” I said, and again quoted a line I had read to my class, “‘moved of no man’s prayer to fold its wings.’”

“You are an unbeliever.”

“I believe a beggar woman who said, ‘God don’t care.’”

“That’s blasphemy. Praise the Lord, don’t curse him.”

“I’m not cursing. I think it’s as vain to curse him as it is to praise him. You want him as the almighty and the all loving, but if he is both why does he allow so much cruelty in this world?”

“It’s well known, to test us.”

“A suspicious God. I don’t want a suspicious God.”

“Boy, you’ll go to hell.”

I smiled and looked at him, a man much younger than me. “I’m not afraid of hell since I don’t believe in it, hell or heaven. How can you be happy in heaven if your brother is in hell? It doesn’t make sense.”

“You’ll find out. I’ll pray for your soul.”

“My soul won’t outlive my body. The soul is life, and death is the end, or at least I fervently hope so. This life is the real thing, not a rehearsal. And death is final, not an intermission. Dust and ashes, they can’t die; they are immortal, because they are not alive — immortality belongs to the unliving.”

“So you are a heathen.”

“Yes, if the word heathen comes from heath, the wilderness.”

He looked at me as if I were a lost soul, intractable so far, and yet grist for his mill, a substrate to work on, his chance to make a convert, to save me, and he wouldn’t let go. He gave me another flier of a different color. I took it. “You’ll read it?’’


Still, he was not satisfied. “God’s all around you, don’t you see?’’

“‘I see him in the flowering of the fields,
I see him in the turning of the stars,
But in his ways with men I see him not.’
“That’s from Tennyson.”

“So what are you, apart from being a heathen, I mean? Are you at the college here?”


“I thought so, a teacher. I pity your students. You tell them the things you told me?”


“You are a bad influence.”

“They are free to pick and to discard. I tell them to take nothing for granted.”

“But you are wrong, don’t you see?”

“And you are right.”

“Yes, I am sure I am right.”

“‘Man, little man, most ignorant of what he’s most assured.’ That’s from Shakespeare.”

“Don’t you ever quote from the Bible?”

“Oh yes, ‘Where the spirit of the Lord is there is Liberty.’ St. Paul.”

“So you do believe in the Lord.”

“I believe in freedom.”

“What else do you believe in?”


“Ah, now we are getting somewhere. God is love. But the other things you said, they are wrong. You are not a heathen. I’ll tell you what you are, you are a doubting Thom. Look at me, I have no doubt.”

“Doubt,” I said, “I love doubt. ‘There’s more truth in an honest doubt than in half the creeds.’ That’s Tennyson once more.”

“Say that again.”

I repeated the line. It seemed to make an impression on him, and for a moment I wondered if, unintentionally, I hadn’t made a convert. But another passerby soon caught his eye and, himself again, he aggressively strode over toward him, flier in hand.

A brief bio of Vivante can be found on FFRF’s site.

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  • Larry Huffman

    An atheist meets a theist on the street…

    “hello” says the atheist politely.

    “hello” says the theist politely.

    Hmmm…thinks the atheist, I know that, given the odds, that guy was most likely a theist. Nice fellow.

    Hmmm…thinks the theist…that guy had to be a theist, he was way too nice to be a godless fornicating atheist.

  • cipher

    Even if fictional, it may just as well be real. This demonstrates why it’s futile to engage in any sort of argument with fundamentalists – we’re proceeding from distinct conceptual frameworks, speaking two entirely different languages. Communication is impossible.

  • Larry Huffman

    I agree with Cipher…it is a totally different perspectifve that we approach these topics with…and it is almost like speaking two different languages.

    The interesting part is, however, this is typically the only topic the fundamentalist uses this language for. Even the most devout christians use logic and reason in their day to day life, as they make choices.

    The only time they switch to this other viewpoint…which results in an utter lack of rational thought…is in matters of belief in god.

    Let me relate a very brief little story to prove it. My boss at my previous employer was a devout christian…he knew I was an atheist, but one of my techs who worked for me was also a christian. I convinced him to go in on this with me…and the results actually opened his eyes, though he had been doubting a long time.

    We were building some complex redundant servers. The technology was somewhat new and the custoemr was large and high profile. It was a big job. I worked all night with my techs getting them done…but then we sprung the trap.

    I knew my boss would come in ask how the server build went. When he did, my tech replied as planned. “We had a little trouble at first, but then I prayed about it.”

    “Excellent!” Said my boss, “Good thinking. Always good to call on God when in need. And it worked after that, then?” he looked at my a little amused.

    “Well,” replied my tech, “I did not think I had to find out. I am trusting that god helped. I was moved to make a couple of changes. It felt like the spirit, so I am trusting god.”

    “Wait…you did not test them?” My boss went into a part panic, part rage. “How can you box these up and expect to take them out to a client if you have not tested them? We are not playing around here! This job is important to our company, and now we have to unbox each one and test them!”

    I let my boss off the hook…patted him on the back and smiled big and said “I will have you know…no praying went into the building of these machines. I built them, they work and have been tested.”

    Later my boss cornered me and said, “I know what you were trying to prove.” looking a little hurt.

    I explained to him that in my line of work…in the myriad of options to make dissimilar technology work together in the corproate data network world…prayer does not show up on the chart. I pointed out that when he thought prayer had been the mechanism we used, he paniced when he realized the implications to his business. I told him that I see prayer the same way in everything. When someone is troubled or hurting…they can pray, or they can open up the box, build the server and test it…and know it works. So to speak. hehe.

    But…it proves that this alternate perception only comes out when it is belief alone on the line. When this guy’s business was on the line…he did not want prayer…he wanted trained humans using their brains and logic and reason to conduct his business for him.

  • Timothy

    That’s an excellent story and one that I’ll potentially use when speaking with the people at my church.

    Thanks Hemant

  • Javier

    Great short story. It completely captures the mentality of both groups. All converting theists I have met in church or on the streets all sound the same. Spewing their false promises and even falser punishments if you do not join their religion. I tend to stay away from these conversations, because no matter how much I talk they will never relinquish their faith. I believe they are scared to live in a world without god. I don’t understand that at all why wouldn’t you want a world not governed by an all powerful, all seeing dictator? If they wanted a controlled life why not live in Nazi Germany or under an ancient demigod. I think people need the concept of god, because they’re afraid of being alone. Finally there has been geniuses in the field of theology who have written great work trying to prove the existence of a god or gods. Sadly I wonder what good would’ve came out of their knowledge and potential if they had not been duped into believing a lie.

  • Atheist Okie

    Scene: Atheist is walking down 45th and Bryant into the park to eat his lunch, Theist is handing out tracts and talking to people in the park.

    Theist: Excuse me, sir, do you know Jesus?

    Atheist: Sure, that’s my cousin from San Antonio.

    Theist: I mean Jesus Christ?

    Atheist: Oh yes! I saw him on TV the other day ranting and raving before he blew up a day care.

    Theist: You’re messing with me, aren’t you?

    Atheist: Yup.

    Theist: Go to hell.

    Atheist: You first.

    Scene: Atheist goes and haves his lunch, Theist moves on to others in the park more zealously, caustically looking at Atheist sometimes.

  • Oh yeah. Sounds familiar, this story. But I know why I do never discuss stuff like that with people I do not know at all or cut discussion fast. I know what I believe, I know what is the right choice for me and I am not interested in changing view, but in learning. Most offer only the first. So no interest from my side.. o_O

  • It’s a great story. When confronted by preachers on the street I most often find myself backing away slowly. You can’t be too careful.

  • Margy

    Love this story! It speaks volumes. Thanks for sharing it, Larry.

  • Never had that experience with a Christian. A Greenpeace activist though…Yikes.

  • Polly

    Nice story. Poetic.

    @Larry Huffman,

    That was a great little experiment. I’ve often stated how most rational xians would never use “faith” when anything important was on the line.

  • stogoe

    Love? Above all things I believe in Love. Love is a many-splendored thing, love lifts up where we belong, all you need is love.

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