Last week’s The Murray State News Faces and Places series installment featured Cash Willis, senior from St. Louis, Mo., and his preaching to the Monday and Wednesday lunchtime student and faculty traffic on the walkway between the library and the Curris Center. Willis “shares the Gospel” from his park bench, to all who happen by. As he was quoted in the article: “The Gospel is for everyone who has sinned,” Willis said. “Unless you are perfect, it does apply to you. In other words, it is targeted at everyone.” Not surprisingly he also states: “Sometimes insults are thrown at me,” said Willis. “Sometimes they’re not.”
Why does he get insulted? Why if not insulted do some of us secularists who happen by challenge him as I and other nonbelievers I know have on occasion. Shouldn’t everyone be glad that he has, as the article states: “ … been preaching on campus for roughly two to three years and continues to do so in order to hopefully encourage others to come to Christ”?
I’ve heard Cash in person and had many a Facebook exchange with him. We have always been friendly and civil to one another despite vehement disagreement and he certainly doesn’t wail on the passersby quite as accusingly as some of the fire and brimstone preachers like the notorious “Rev. Jim” who shows up on campuses to make sure college fornicators and homosexuals know they surely deserve to burn in hell. Cash’s delivery is much softer by orders of magnitude than that, although the message is the same. So why the insults, why at very least intellectual argument from members of the Murray State secular community?
Two reasons come to mind. One, despite Cash’s sincerity and good intentions (and yes, even Rev. Jim’s) many walking by contend these fellows know absolutely nothing about anyone’s personal behavior, intentions or circumstances nor anyone’s ultimate fate. Street preachers, ‘armed with the truth,’ sincerely believe they do but they haven’t a clue any more than anyone else on the planet, and that angers both nonbelievers and believers of whatever stripe alike. Second, it is downright obnoxious to impose your beliefs on anyone else, branding anyone a sinner, especially in public and completely unrequested. If someone chooses to attend a church service to hear that sort of message, I’ll defend their right to voluntarily engage in such degrading behavior regardless of my or anyone else’s opinion as to its ultimate idiocy. But many in the growing secular New Enlightenment movement won’t stand for the uninvited intrusion on our personal life anymore and will regularly challenge being preached at by the likes of Mr. Willis or Rev. Jim. Unsolicited religious proselytizing doesn’t get a free pass anymore.
The head of a Muslim student group I met briefly one night nearly eight years ago said to me with a look of disdain bordering on disgust that he knew all of us nonbelievers were out to turn everyone in the world into atheists. Wrong.
Frankly, most of us secularists and many, if not most, believers don’t give a damn what others believe. What one ultimately believes is one’s own business. What a person has faith in or not is their personal and private choice. Nonbelievers especially don’t threaten anyone with eternal damnation or social ostracization if they refuse to believe as we do. We don’t admonish others that they will surely descend into a despairing, nihilistic, hopelessly immoral existence if they don’t join our club of disbelief. We have a more modest goal: believe whatever you choose, but leave everyone else alone. More bluntly: Whatever cultural myths you want to buy into is your business, but kindly keep it to yourself. Our goal is to eliminate the moralizing judgments and legal restrictions the religious are so quick to impose on everyone else. The pious have been misbehaving to the detriment of all for centuries. It is time it comes to an end, more like an abrupt screeching halt. Challenging street preachers, however benign in their delivery, is but one effort toward accomplishing that goal.
Believe what you must but you will no longer impose your delusions on anyone else. We want you all to be like the Amish or the Jains; devout but benign, utterly un-evangelical or intrusive in the behavior of others. We don’t give a flying fling at a rolling donut if you wish to believe in the Flying Spaghetti Monster; go for it, enjoy, just don’t expect any of us to stand by and listen to you judge us, claim we are sinners or condemn us to some imaginary eternal punishment.
Most times one of us walks by, some preacher rattling on about sin and damnation is offhandedly ignored as harmless, momentarily distracting noise, but sometimes the effect is as irritating and obnoxious as it truly is. We’re done with that.
Column by William Zingrone, Associate professor of psychology