Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Hi, I'm Dan. I'm a senior in college, and I'm not looking forward to my last semester at all.

My head is still spinning from a whirlwind trip to Europe, from which I've been back three days after being gone ten...

I met up with my girlfriend Anna in Paris and we went back to her place in Cambrai (Nord-Pas-de-Calais) where she teaches English. Nord-Pas-de-Calais is the region I want to be next year for the same job, when she'll be back here. From there we went to Brussels, Antwerp, Amsterdam and the Hague all in five days. I'd already been to our principal destinations (Brussels, Amsterdam), and spoke all the local languages at least well enough to get around (not that you really need to know Dutch in Amsterdam, but it's helpful), which gave me more time to reflect on what I saw around me.

That's all just the setting, though. A lot of stuff happened while we were there. There were the random encounters with people on the street, such as the guy in Antwerp who told me in three languages that I was "lucky" for reasons he didn't explain, or the guy who asked me whether he was in Amsterdam (he was, and I told him so; I answered in Dutch, which I am convinced is the reason he left me alone after that, since I was less likely to be a clueless tourist). Then there were the beggars. The woman who followed us down the street for three blocks in Brussels, calling, "S'il vous plaît, monsieur... S'il vous plaît...", or the woman who cornered us in the cathedral there and wouldn't leave us alone until I gave her something. Here was the real problem. I never quite know what to do when a beggar approaches me. Whether I give to them or not, I always feel conflicted about it: on the one hand, I've heard it advised that it's not a good idea, and I can't reasonably be expected to give anything meaningful to every beggar I see on the street... there are just so many in the big cities. On the other hand, when I don't... I just feel so terribly selfish.

In Amsterdam, on the big square in front of Centraal Station there's a house three or four doors up from the Sint-Nikolaaskerk with a blinking neon sign that reads GOD BESTAAT NIET ("God doesn't exist"). It's continuously lit, and I don't think its proximity to a huge Catholic church is coincidental. I have a kind of dark fascination with this sign, ever since the first time I saw and understood it. I find myself wondering what motivates its owner to put forward what I perceive as such an angry, hateful message. I recognize the fallacy in equating atheism with a necessary antipathy toward religious people, but it's nevertheless my most immediate reaction on seeing or hearing a statement like that: I feel personally affronted by it, even when I have my own doubts about the nature and existence of God.
I similarly wonder whether an atheist would feel the same way seeing an even bigger neon sign on the same square, which reads "Jesus loves you" in Dutch and English, visible as soon as you step out of the train station. I never used to really think that religious statements, or at least "happy" ones like "God loves you", would actually offend an atheist, just that they claimed they were offensive for the sake of making an argument against them. I'm not so sure about that anymore.

I have long been opposed to the statement made by vocal atheists that religion depends on the rejection of reason or intelligence; I find it nauseatingly arrogant and fairly naïve. I am, however, somewhat alarmed by my tendency to take that kind of criticism, or even a simple statement with no further implications like the one I mentioned above, so personally.

This is turning into a really long post. Especially for my first.

Anyway, the atheism question: I think I'm afraid of atheism, because I find myself easily talked into things. I'm not good at producing counterarguments, and I tend to be a poor judge of character. Furthermore, once I outgrew my "this-is-what-the-Bible-says-and-the-Bible-can't-ever-be-anything-but-literally-true" mentality and started actually thinking about religion for myself, by which point I was finishing high school, I realized I had no idea what to accept and what not to. I want so desperately for God to be what I was always taught, but I have trouble finding reasons to believe it outside of the Bible... and you can't use the Bible to prove itself. So, I look at signs that say "God roept U" (God is calling you) and "Lees de Bijbel - het boek voor U" ("Read the Bible, the book for you", in big, black letters on the façade of a white house by a canal) and I smile for a moment and then shake my head and wish I could be sure of it.


David Reese said...


Welcome to somefolks.

I enjoyed your post, and it got me thinking about proclamatory signage. There's a church by my friend's house, here in Chicago, that tops its steeple with a giant sign that says "Christ Died for Your Sins!" The funny thing about it, is that there's a McDonald's across the street, so taken from the right angle, it looks like the "Christ Died for Your Sins" sign is adorning the golden arches. Lovely. "Cows Died for Your Sandwhiches."

It would also be interesting to make neon signs about personal beliefs other than religious ones, but it doesn't seem to happen too often. I'd love to be walking down a street, and see a sign in somebody's window that says, something like, "Kangaroos are the best animal!" or "Rugby is a fine sport." "I like cheese!"


Rachael said...

Okay, the most interesting thing about this was how surprised I was that you found the ¨God doesn´t exist¨sign angry and hurtful. I was chuckling to myself about its proximity to the Catholic church.

Then after my surprise, I thought, maybe I laugh because it doesn´t threaten me too much. There is a ¨thing¨for lack of a better word that I call ¨God¨and it just plain old exists. Maybe it isn´t what other people call God, and maybe those ideas of God can be proved not to exist.

But my ¨God¨is the force in the world that allows people who have no reason to forgive, to do so, no reason to give, to do so, no reason to love, no reason to work for peace, no reason to admit vulnerability, no reason to help, to do so.

So, anytime I choose to leave my privileged United States middle class lifestyle and go to a third world country to be challenged in countless ways, I prove the existence of my God and I derive amusement from that sign.

Another thing: I am sometimes angry at Christian signs I see in the US that preach to me, such as Jesus Died for Your Sins. Sometime it would be good for me to examine why such a sign would irritate me.