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lisaveg4498A couple of years ago, Becca and I had a college friend over for dinner. Hadn’t seen him for years. An engineer and a gentleman. We had a great time catching up, and inevitably he asked about my work.

He listened thoughtfully as I filled him in on the nonreligious parenting book I’d just released, nodding his head, occasionally making a supportive sound or saying “Wow, that’s really great stuff you’re doing.” But I could tell there was something left unsaid.

Right in the middle of the Long Minnesota Goodbye (Step 2, I think — standing in the living room with coat in hand, talking), he came out with it.

“I think what you’re doing is awesome. I’m so impressed. I’m a Christian myself. Doesn’t make sense, I can’t support it, there’s no logic behind it, it’s completely unreasonable, but there it is.”

I knew by his tone and tempo that he was uneasy divulging this, figuring I’d think less of him, or worse, try to talk him out of it. To discourage this, he’d headed straight into L.M.G. Step 3 (slip one arm into jacket, keep talking) just in case he’d have to bolt.

I assured him it was completely cool, to each his own, etc. But my inner jag-off was thinking, “No, it’s not OK. Different belief, fine. But you don’t get to just sidestep the question of whether your worldview makes any sense. Beliefs have consequences. You don’t get to hear my evidence and then say, ‘I just don’t wanna!’ “

And that’s when I heard it — another person in my head, clearing his throat and staring accusingly at my inner jag-off with a wry smile. The jag fell silent and wet himself, ever so slightly.

The accuser was my inner vegehumilitarian.

Ever get into a discussion of religious beliefs, only to have the other person sort of glaze over and look away? Nod, grant you every point, then just…shrug and smile? Nothing drove me nutsier during my brief secular-evangelical phase than this shrugging disengagement. I mean, what’s the friggin’ point in having Kevlar arguments if the other person refuses to shoot??

Then came the day I felt myself doing exactly the same shrug.

For me, the topic is vegetarianism. I should be a vegetarian. When my dad died, my doctor told my mom that a genetic vascular defect in Dad’s head most likely caused the aneurysm, and that we kids could easily have it as well, and that to keep our blood pressure under control and for several other reasons it would be a good idea for us to consider vegetarianism.

When Mom shared this with me, I glazed over, shrugged, and took another bite of my wiener.

Years later I came across the moral dimension, most vividly in the documentary short Meet Your Meat. I was and remain horrified at such depictions of animal cruelty in our food production system. I had to glaze over and shrug especially hard to finish my tangerine beef.

I told myself for years that we need the protein, or that there’s not enough variety or interest or texture in vegetarian cuisine, despite massive evidence to the contrary. Let that phrase echo a bit: Massive evidence to the contrary…ary…ary…ary.

Please don’t think I’m being glib. I’m exposing myself as indefensibly inconsistent and hypocritical. I’m much worse than people who don’t know why they shouldn’t eat meat because I KNOW WHY. Have I examined and refuted these arguments like the good rationalist I am? No, because there is no refutation. I don’t go vegetarian for one vague and pathetic “reason.”

I don’t wanna.

I don’t even know what that’s supposed to mean. Why don’t I want to? Dunno. It doesn’t get patheticker than that.

So whenever my inner jag-off tries to kick-start a smug, self-righteous response to someone who’s sinking into glazed disengagement in the face of the three hundred excellent arguments against religious belief, I have only to call forth my inner vegehumilitarian. This does NOT mean I disengage from challenging toxic religious ideas. I obviously don’t. It simply means I start from a position of empathy for the believer — a much more effective starting point if we’re ever to make headway.

And I hope for similar mercy from all the vegetarians shaking their detoxified heads at me. Don’t stop trying to get through my glaze, but please — have mercy.
A dose of humility for carnivorous atheists

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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.