A boy, a bible, and an atheist.
This morning I heard the familiar “rap” of a fist on my door. In this city an unexpected knock usually isn’t the neighbor asking for a cup of sugar. Indeed, with the season in mind I think we can all readily assume just who it might be calling for my attention. I opened the door to find a young man (perhaps 12) dressed in his best, yet rumpled, clothes holding a bible and pamphlets. He happily wished me a good morning and immediately started to read, haltingly for a boy his age, from a pre-prepared speech he had been given by someone for this situation. Behind him stood an elderly man with an even smaller boy at his side. The old man smiled as he stood back, allowing the young evangelist to take the lead in his commitment to proselytize. I stood there, waiting patiently as he fought through the words of his document until, upon finishing, he asked me if I thought the “meaning of the season had been lost in society?” In that moment I stood and reflected on what action I should take. Before me was this young man, most likely here only at the behest of his impeccably dressed grandfather (?) asking me, an atheist, my thoughts on the season.
Who am I, I thought, to take away this boys hope? Who am I to say “I am sorry; there is no Jesus, no final deliverance or everlasting life, no rich reward at the end of it all”? In the city, many times, religion is all the hope people have. It binds families (Usually Grandparents to grandchildren unfortunately) together as a united front against the poverty, the racism, the hate, and the despair that they face as a part of their everyday lives. Should I give him the nuanced response, something like “Although love and charity are important and admirable notions, they are not dependent upon a deity for existence”? This is, remember, just a boy.
I told him that indeed, the meaning of the season had been lost in society, that people were too involved in material possessions rather than each other and that with just a little more love, we would all be better off. I looked down and saw him beaming, as if my simple response somehow connected us in our view of the meaning of Christmas. On some levels, he was right.
He walked down the stoop to his smiling grandfather’s side and, as all three walked away to find the next door to knock on, they turned and wished me a Merry Christmas. I found myself hoping that that the boy would stay in the church, away from the streets. I hoped that he would hold on to that vain belief in a distant savior for whom he should stay vigilant in life, if just long enough to escape his life in the city and then decide for himself if he still needed that invisible man to guide him along. In the best of all possible worlds we wouldn’t need this type of paternal religion but, as I’ve written before, in this world we just might.