Do you ever wish you could go back in time and smack your younger self? I sure do.
Like many Christian-school students, I studied apologetics, the art of providing a reasoned defense of your belief. “Defense” was the word used (I Peter 3:15); it’s the Greek root of the term. Also like a fair number of Christian-school students, I adamantly wanted to attend a secular college, partly out of the desire to get out of the cloister, but largely because I’d been trained on the likes of The Case for Christ and Evidence that Demands a Verdict and was itching to unleash my skills on the world.
Did I expect militant atheists to be jumping out of the bushes and demanding that I address the weaknesses of Pascal’s wager? I’m not sure. I attended public school through fourth grade, so I was already halfway to disillusionment. I knew that, despite popular belief, no one patrolled the elementary-school cafeteria waiting to expel anyone who bowed zir head in prayer (but we didn’t bow our heads at private school, did we? We only did it when we thought we might be seen by nonbelievers). But college was a hotbed of sin; everyone knew that. If there was any place a Christian was going to be truly challenged, it was here.
The phrase “self-fulfilling prophecy” comes to mind.
I don’t remember a single real life instance of someone making a mean, dismissive, or belittling comment about my (or any) religion in college. There may have been one or two, but if so, they weren’t particularly memorable or formative experiences. I sure got into a lot of arguments about religion, though: Heated, knock-down, drag-out arguments. How? I started them.
I learned quite a few harmful things in apologetics, but the most harmful of all was the idea that it’s impossible (or pointless) to have any kind of conversation about religion with someone of differing beliefs except to try to convince them that they’re wrong. They taught me how to argue; they never taught me how to just talk, or even more importantly, how to just listen. They’re wrong; they presumably think you’re wrong; why would you have anything else to say?
And so I ended up baiting a lot of people into a lot of stupid arguments without even realizing I was doing it. I didn’t understand that jumping into a casual sharing of people’s beliefs by throwing down the (to me) insurmountable problems with each of them might be considered off-topic, derailing, or, you know, rude. I couldn’t tell when other people didn’t want to argue; I simply assumed that they felt about their beliefs the way I felt about mine. I had no paradigm for understanding that the Baha’i girl down the hall might actually just want to get together and pray with people of other faiths, or that my agnostic roommate might actually not care all that much rather than being in a spiritually vulnerable place just waiting for someone to tip her over in one direction or another. I must have pissed them off constantly, but I wasn’t aware of it.
Unsurprisingly, I didn’t learn much about other people’s religious beliefs, since any mention of religion automatically put me into attack mode. I remember once asking a Jewish friend who believed in an impersonal “watchmaker” God why she would bother keeping kosher if God didn’t care. What I meant was “What are your personal motivations for keeping kosher?” but I didn’t know how to ask except by framing it as an attack.
I never convinced anyone that my beliefs were right. I doubt I even convinced anyone that my beliefs were less wrong or more reasonable than they had thought. But I’m sure I convinced many people that I (and Christians in general) was an asshole. That was my legacy: The obnoxious kid who was sure she was right and constantly argued with everyone.
Ironically, my inability to listen and my insistence on offering a “defense” even when I was not actually under attack not only made me a worse person, but it actually made me a worse apologist. Since I never listened, I never learned, and I could never offer an argument based on what people actually believed rather than on the vague, shallow characterizations in the apologetics books.
And central among those descriptions was the idea that people who disagreed with my beliefs just didn’t understand.