Saturday, June 9, 2007

NYC Atheists Table Report #1

I'm a member of the local NYC Atheists. In the summer we set up a table on the street to interact with the public. We give out our newsletter, sign up people to our mailing list, and answer questions. We take a passive approach, so we aren't getting in people's faces pushing pamphlets on them or yelling at anyone. Mostly you would find us relaxing on folding chairs behind the two tables under a canopy. Here's some older photographs of the setup to give you an idea of what it's like.

I was inspired to write a report about this event from Abe's Atheventures which used to be posted on the Internet Infidels web forum. Abe would stand near a church holding a sign saying something like "God is Fake" and then write amusing reports of the hilarity which ensued. Since our table is in the Sodom of America, New York City, and not in front of a church, and we aren't holding such provocative signs my "atheventure" is pretty dull compared to Abe's. Here's a link to Abe's first report. If you click on his name, this link should help you find the rest. (You may need to be a registered user.) He wrote 38 in total!

Despite the lack of fireworks in my report, (I haven't been punched yet!) I wanted to get into the habit of writing this report so I figured I'd start now. I hope Abe won't mind if I copy his format:

The main characters are:

The militant agnostic.
The mystic atheist.
The loud father.
The spooky Christian CIA agent.
The NBC crew.

I arrived at the table around 2 PM, on this blustery partly sunny day. It was hot at first, but under the shade of the skyscraper and with the wind it got uncomfortably cold later in the day. They usually set up the table around 11 AM or so and pack up around 6 PM. I greeted the usual gang of atheists there and settled in for another fun day of tabling.

This being NYC, 90% of the people coming up to the table supported us. These smiling infidels happily take our newsletter and sign up on the e-mail list. Others simply fly by in a rush giving a thumbs up, or yelling "yeah!". Although these positive interactions are gratifying, they don't make for an interesting report, so lets get to our first character.

The militant agnostic comes up and immediately takes issue with the slogan on our newsletter, "atheism is a conclusion not a belief." He insisted that atheism is the positive belief that no gods exist. I tried to explain the standard definition used by most atheists, but he wasn't buying it. Then he got touchy because some of our more enthusiastic members were talking over him. "Don't interrupt me!" he said. I think I got him to calm down and make his case in peace. In the end I basically agreed with him, and tried to say we only conflicted on the small semantic point. But then the mystic atheist pulled up on his bicycle.

This guy loved us. He quickly drove off the militant agnostic with his loud argumentative style. Sometimes we get in the situation where an atheist supporter from the crowd ends up causing us more trouble. Anyway, I call the guy on the bike a "mystic" because he started talking about some Indians somewhere taking mushrooms or something and blah blah blah. I couldn't really pay attention. I advised him to go read Sam Harris who I think likes some of the mystical stuff (grounded in neuroscience of course.)

Later the loud father shows up with his two kids. I think he was Puerto Rican since he and his family were all decked out with the Puerto Rican flag. (Tomorrow is the Puerto Rican Day parade here in NYC, so I guess they were getting prepared.) This guy was one of the hardest types to deal with. I call them dive bombers. They swoop by the table yelling something like "read the Bible!" and then zoom away never giving you the chance to respond. He seemed pretty excitable to, and his arms were covered in weird leprous bumps so I didn't want to engage with him very closely. Another member of our group did and I overheard them arguing about Young Earth Creationism.

During this craziness there was this spooky looking guy sitting a little ways away from the table staring at us. Sometimes he took pictures, but he never approached or said anything. After a while I couldn't resist and sauntered up to him:

Me: Hiya doing there.
Spooky Christian CIA Agent: Hi
Me: That camera looks nice, what brand is it?
Me: Uh..., are you OK, you seem a little standoffish.
Me: (Gesturing to our table) I guess you are on the other side of the fence from us, eh?
Me: Are you Christian?
Me: Well, why don't you come chat with us?
SCCIAA: Because you're against us.
Me: We're not against you! We are just promoting separation of church and state. Everyone should be free to believe whatever they want as long as they don't harm others.
Me: Er... OK, well have a good day. (I walk away.)

Looking back I screwed up the encounter pretty bad. I should have approached him with different questions, and at least get him to open up a bit. I could have asked him why he though we were against him instead of immediately contradicting him, or ask more about his beliefs etc. I'd make a horrible politician or diplomat. Well, it was a learning experience and maybe next time I could approach it differently. But the dude was pretty scary! He had this cold stony expression and really seemed to hate me. If he wasn't so clean cut and well dressed I would have really been freaked out. Why was he taking all those pictures too? I wonder if he's in some kind of fanatic Christian terrorist cell and now my house is going to be firebombed!

There were other negative reactions of course, but most of them don't engage with us directly. Some just scowl as they walk by, or spit out "God bless you" making it sound like a curse. Others stare at our sign as if they never heard of atheists before, and then walk away shaking their heads.

Finally there was the NBC crew, which really was a film crew from NBC. They were actually there for much of the afternoon filming and interviewing us, and also interviewing people who came up to the table. I don't think it was for a specific show, but just a generic report that might or might not be picked up by either a local NBC news show, or some other report on NBC. Nothing really interesting happened with them. I think they were disappointed that we weren't being more aggressive with our atheistic propaganda so they could get some real conflict going for their taping.

At around 6 PM we packed up and went home! So nothing really exciting happened this time. I should have wrote a report like this last year for the dozen or so times I did the tabling. Better late than never I guess.

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