I manage this house; I don’t own it. But my real estate property management experience has taught me to be protective of property belonging to my clients. And as an assisted living manager, I am protective of the residents within. So when I saw two smartly dressed strangers approach the door of the house as I was leaving it, I stopped to hear what they had to say to the house manager I was leaving in charge.
The lead man in the trench coat carried a Bible and another book in his left hand. The gentleman behind him came similarly armed. The first stated his business to my house manager: “We stopped by last week and dropped off some Bible-based material for the people in the house. We just wondered if they had any questions.”
I manage six assisted-living houses and this was one of them. We are not affiliated with any religious organization and consequently keep ourselves open to all faiths—and none. Indeed, we have had not only Christian but Jewish and Muslim residents. We try to accommodate their special diets, as much as we can.
When I got into the field of caring for elderly people, I was rather surprised at the number who expressed no religious preference at all: I had always assumed that people gravitated toward God in their declining years, as if studying for their finals. But no, I guess life teaches some people that you don’t need God to be good or a mystical “elf-on-a-shelf” to guilt you out of doing bad things.
On the other hand, many of my residents do take their religion seriously and I do not stand in their way. I won’t drive them to church, but I welcome all clerics to make house calls, with one proviso: I do not allow proselytizing. It is one thing to enable religious practice. It is quite another to allow somebody to take advantage of a captive audience, my residents, to spread their religion. I do not allow then to talk to residents they do not know and I do not allow then to leave behind any religious literature for other residents to read. If they want to convert my residents, they will have to do it away from my house.
But today they were on my doorstep. My house manager looked nonplused, as if he had been caught doing something bad in front of his boss. He looked at me for help, knowing that it was he who had allowed them access to my residents on their first visit. I stood there, watching, not uttering a word. He stammered something to them like, “No. There are no questions.”
Now, if this had actually been my house, rather than a house for which I have responsibility to somebody else, I would have seen my role differently. Indeed, as I have written before, I would have relished a debate, a chance to shock them or to give them something to think about. But on this day, at this place, that was not my job.
Instead, I asked of the lead man, “Is this your last visit to my house?”
He turned to me, looking almost as stumped as my house manager, and hesitated. I could imagine him thinking, I am doing God’s work. Can he not see that I am only here to do good for these people and to get them to heaven? How can he forbid me to save their souls? Perhaps he needs saving. Perhaps he doesn’t know the horrors that await the unsaved! But he said, “I guess… that’s up to you.”
I said, “This is your last visit to my house.”
As they turned and left, a describable feeling came over me.
Why on earth should I feel guilty? I’ve been an atheist for over 40 years, yet I felt inside me the same emotion my house manager had shown on his face. Intellectually, I had justified my actions as protecting my residents and ensuring both freedom of religion and freedom from religion—in the best American tradition. So why did it nag at me that I had done something wrong?
Maybe it’s normal in this country, this culture, that Christians have free reign but atheists do not. After all my reading and debating, have I even now internalized Christian privilege? I hope not. And the cure may have come from the reverse perspective that I heard from the late Christopher Hitchens in a panel discussion of a few years ago. Hitchens noted that it seems quite acceptable for Christian proselytizers to approach dying people and tell them, in effect, “You’ve got one chance left; won’t you start believing now?” But, he said, what if the tables were turned? What if atheists started visiting dying people and saying, “Well, look, you may only have a few days left, but you don’t have to live them as a serf, you know. Just recognize that that was all bullshit, that the priests have been cheating you, and I guarantee you you’ll feel better.”
Somehow that would be in bad taste and unethical, but when Christians engage in the same kind of emotional extortion it’s seen as quite acceptable, even polite.
Maybe I should start making the rounds!
Here is an audio version of this commentary: