Reading Time: 2 minutes

(Post 32 of 33 in my 16-hour shift for the Secular Student Alliance Blogathon.)

11:30 pm EDT

About ten years ago, I had a conversation with one of my favorite people, a theologian and deeply good guy who taught at the same Catholic college I did. I’d been growing frustrated with the gap between the college’s theory and practice regarding the “open marketplace of ideas” and ever more outspoken about that frustration. I was getting reckless and didn’t care. He was worried about me.

That was nice. Most of my colleagues just kept smiling — though not with their eyes — but he came to my office and sat down to see what he could do. The pained expression on the face of this exceptional man just about killed me. He seemed completely at a loss to understand where I was coming from.

Then this intelligent man said something so unworthy that I was the one stuck for a response.

“Dale,” he said, “I can’t help thinking that the God in whom you don’t believe…is one I don’t believe in, either.”

I’m sure you’ve heard this one before. I’ve heard it countless times, always presented with the confidence that it’s mind blowing and novel. It’s often followed with a tiny, patient smile that shows the speaker will wait as long as necessary while I reel from the impact of this new idea, then walk me back into the Garden.

It is almost always well meant, I know, but it’s deeply insulting. After all the work and thinking I’d done, all the deep engagement with the concept of the divine, and all the risk I was then confronting, he really believed that I had merely gotten myself stuck on the nine-year-old’s conception of God — white beard, big throne, deep voice — and having decided that was silly, chucked the whole thing, instead of moving past it, as he did, into the highly attenuated (and intentional ill-defined) version he had found more supportable. Or shall we say, less deniable.

If I had found my voice, I might have asked if his God created the universe and/or us, and/or cares about us, and/or exists in a supernatural realm in any way separate from our own material universe, and/or provides for us a life after the current one. If he would cop to any one of these features, I would say, like a witness in Law & Order — “Yep, that’s him, that’s the guy.”

But as much as his misconception bothered me, it was overwhelmed by the fact that he had cared enough to talk to me when very few others would. That was more important to me then, and it’s more important now.

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Dale McGowan is the author of Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies. He holds a BA in evolutionary anthropology and a PhD in music.