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shoe32200I mentioned last time that I’m getting a sudden flurry of conversion attempts in my inbox.

One is particularly persistent. It began last November:

Dear Dale,
I’m writing an essay on the negative effects of spanking children and while researching I couldn’t help but come across your web site. I skimmed through it and I’m kinda confused; you mentioned your religious beliefs and I can’t help but wonder if you are an anesthetist or a Christian?

B___

I amazed myself by foregoing about 37 different wiseguy responses to “anesthetist.” Instead, I replied Here are some useful links to corporal punishment studies. And I am an atheist. All the best to you.

The reply:

Thanks for replying Dale and just to let you know, you and your family will be in my prayers. Maybe one day soon you will open your hear to God.

I sure hope you do

God Bless
B___

Fair enough. On Thanksgiving I received this:

Dale,

I just wanted to wish you and your family a Happy Thanksgiving. I hope that one day you and your family will find God in your lives.

God Bless and your all in my prayers
B___

I haven’t the slightest objection to this kind of thing. But I knew, from long experience, that the other shoe would drop. It took less than thirty minutes:

Just wanted to say one more thing, I know you don’t believe in God, but one day he will return and when he does it will be God, who you will explain yourself to God. Not me or anyone else.

This is the carrot and stick — first the appeal to love and comfort or high principle, and then…The Stick.

One of my favorites happened in May 2007. After a profile about me and my work appeared in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, I got a letter:

Dear Dale,
I’m sending these booklets to you so that you know God loves you. When you die, you don’t die like a dog. You will go on forever!

I’m 74, & received Christ into my life at age 11. I’ve never regretted it for a minute.

Love, & Rejoicing in the Lord Jesus,
Virginia H—

Again, very nice. But enclosed were two signs of God’s (shall we say) burning love for me: a Jack Chick tract, including this panel:

lakeofire

…and a second pamphlet:


first6days
YOUR FIRST SIX DAYS IN HELL.

As I said — I’ve seen that second shoe drop too many times to be surprised anymore.

I’ve always found it curious, and telling, that Christianity offers release from our greatest fear — death — but is so factually implausible that it’s been necessary to back up the gift with the threat of eternal hellfire if you don’t accept it.

Morality works in the same carrot-and-stick fashion. I saw this at work last summer as I stood in an endless line at Six Flags Over Georgia. A teenage scamp with a Christian day camp T-shirt ducked under several of the rails and cut in front of us in line.

Two minutes later his bright pink tie-dyed Jesus-fish shirt was spotted by one of the camp counselors. The counselor sidled over and reasoned with the lad, using the reciprocity principle:

“Michael, what are you doing? How would you like it if these nice people all cut in front of you?”

Wait for it, now…

“If I see that again, you’re out of the park.”

Whenever somebody insists that anyone who lacks the guiding example of Christ in their lives will quickly arm himself and bloody the streets, I

1. Note that I, though bereft of Jesus’ influence, have (so far) resisted this temptation, and
2. Note that street bloodying has actual, legal consequences beyond the Tsking of the Christ.

In other words, even if all positive appeals to principle failed to reach me, there is an earthly stick ready and waiting right behind that carrot.

What’s most interesting to me, though, is how effective the appeal to principle and conscience generally is — how well, on balance, we tend to behave. But when we don’t — and sometimes we won’t — there’s another shoe.

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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.