Saturday, 10 October 2009


Earlier in the week, on my way home from a long day, I passed a group of protesters outside one of the hospitals here. The professional-looking signs and banners that they were displaying said "Pray to End Abortion". My immediate and cynical reaction, as both a supporter of abortion rights and an atheist, was one of approval: these people are using as ineffective a means as possible to support a cause with which I disagree entirely. Two of them had big pieces of cardboard with handwritten signs as well. One said "Today? Abortion - Tomorrow? Godless Anarchy", and that almost made me stop. I am a big fan of civilisation (see my previous post for more thoughts on that) and, Ursula K. LeGuin notwithstanding, I suspect anarchy to be its antithesis. I do not see the connection between abortion and anarchy, but was not tempted to ask the protester for details. Rather, I was more than a little incenced at the use of the word "godless" as a negative modifier. "What's wrong with being godless?" I wanted to ask. The obvious connection that the religiously deluded seem not to get over is that it is impossible to be moral without a belief in God, and I feel that this should be challenged vigorously and often.

But I had had a long day, which began with swimming for the first time in six months and at a time far earlier than I am usually out of bed, a surprisingly busy and productive time in the lab, and just now a soccer game, and I just wanted to get home. I passed the protesters without comment, but I thought about the possible consequences of heckling on the way. Would it be possible for me to make a difference that way? I would not attempt to argue for abortion rights, or make any snide comments about the efficacy of prayer: just challenge the notion that "godless" is a bad thing. Perhaps I might make the person think a little. Perhaps I might at the very least make him aware that equating "godless" with "immoral" ranges from annoying to offensive for a substantial number of people. Keep the topic focussed and the discussion civil, and maybe some good would come of it. That would be worth the effort. But I figured that the effort would have to be spent another day.

A couple of days later, as I got on the bus to go home, I was heckled myself -- by the bus driver! It was late, and it was windy, and I was cold. For those of you who have not lived here, Halifax can get impressively windy. It would not actually have been unpleasant except for the wind-chill factor. The bus pulled up, and I stepped in, grateful to start warming up, and the fellow that was heading out pushed by me. I flashed my U-Pass and headed back, and the bus driver barked at me to come back and "take those things out of your ears" (meaning my earhones). I figured that maybe he needed a second look at my U-Pass, but no, he asked me, "Why did you charge in here without letting that guy off first?" I told him that it was cold outside, and I wanted to get out of it, and he went on that I was supposed to let people off the bus before I got on myself, and that "you can't just push people around like that." I have no idea what made him think that I got some sort of satisfaction from bullying people, but there were people behind me waiting to get on the bus as well, and I did not want to keep them out in the cold, so I tried to shrug it off. But the bus driver was not going to accept that. He kept at it, insisting that I change my attitude to those around me. The fellow that I had bumped into was long gone, and did not seem to have made any issue of the matter: why was the driver so offended? Eventually I expressed enough flustered apology for him and he let me go.

I would have fumed had I not recently contemplated heckling people myself. But I think there are definite differences between the two situations. The bus driver was acting on an event that took only a few seconds, and did not consider the possibility of extenuating circumstances. The protester was, after a fashion, asking for a response. I was not about to give the protester the response that he was expecting -- and in fact I had made up my mind when I fist saw the sign not to address the issue that he was protesting. In retrospect, "What's wrong with being godless?" is a rather confrontational approach, but there are worse ways of addressing the topic, especially if one maintains a calm demeanour while doing so. Perhaps I am deluding myself, but the more I think of the two events, the less similarity I see between them, aside from a spontaneous interaction between strangers. Still, it had me thinking, and that is always a good thing.