Monday, April 24, 2006

Missionary Trouble

The other day I was in my home office when the doorbell rang. I looked out of the window and saw two older women in their Sunday best (it was a Saturday) coming up the driveway. I recognized them as half of a team of missionaries who come through the neighborhood every month or so; the other half of the team, being fleeter of foot, were already on the doorstep.

I ignored them. I returned to my computer, sat there working quietly, and ignored them.

Just last week, my valiant spouse wasted nearly an hour of her time in conversation with missionaries on our doorstep - whether it was the same group, I don't know. I was unwilling to follow her example.

It's not that I'm afraid to talk to missionaries. It's that I can no longer be bothered with them.

I used to relish wasting their time, leading them in circles. When I was a graduate student living in Stony Brook, I rented a house with other graduate students. One weekday afternoon I was lying on the couch reading The Origin of Species when the doorbell rang. I went to the door, taking my book with me, and was confronted by a pair of Jehovah's Witnesses, there to tell me all about the evils of Darwinism.

You can't make this stuff up.

I spent a pleasant hour telling them all about Darwin and quoting freely from the Bible, which was still fairly fresh in my mind. That drove them crazy: what could they do with someone who knew the Bible nearly as well as they did, and who knew Darwin better than they would ever bother to?

In the end, they retreated in dismay - though they returned a few days later with a hardcover (!) religious tract about the origins of life, a tract so choc-a-block with fallacies and misinformation that I have in the past held it up as an example for my students, to show them how not to argue.

Example: the caption of a picture of street signs against the backdrop of a starry sky puts forward the argument that traffic laws require a lawmaker so natural laws require a lawmaker as well - an obvious play on the ambiguity in the world "law". A law of nature is a description of an observed regularity in nature, while a traffic law is a prescription of how people ought to behave when they are driving.

Example: the caption of a picture showing two humans, one of whom is holding a chimpanzee, declares that humans have "all the earmarks" of having been created separately from other primates. The irony here is hidden: one of the early pieces of evidence for common decent is precisely our "earmarks," since human ears are very similar in their formation to those of chimpanzees. It may have been Huxley who included in one of his books an actual picture comparing ears of different species of primate.

(Another feature of the tract has proved useful when I teach about the cultural roots of suburbanization. Jesus described heaven as a mansion, and the author of Revelation described it as a city. In this particular tract, heaven is represented as an exclusive country club, complete with wide, neatly trimmed lawns and a Tudor-style clubhouse. The membership of the club is telling: lots of happy white families, a happy Asian family, and a single black mother with her young son. There are, apparently, no black men in heaven.)

Anyway, when I saw who was at the door the other day, I wasn't even tempted to open it. I did not want to waste their time, or mine.

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