iERA frequently run a stall on Islam outside the General Post Office. There’s a Christian street preacher and creationist on Wednesdays and Thursdays called Dessie with whom I’ve had many pleasant chats, and a stressed looking chap in Hare Krishna garb selling books on the benefits of meditation. Recently proponents of presidential candidates have attempted to engage passers by in conversation.
I've spotted a new addition, a small, woven basket that Moses would have found cramped, containing perhaps four books written by or on the Reverend Sun Myung Moon with a sign saying “Messiah? You Decide!” Suspended a convenient four foot or so above the ground, it’s attended by a pamphlet distributing member of the Unification Church – a Moonie, to you or I.
My fellow pedestrians seemed to be voting unanimously with their feet as to the Christology of the basket occupant. I decided to hear her out.
I asked if she could tell me a little about the organisation’s beliefs. She obliged at some length, and I refer those interested to the Wikipedia page on the subject. What I found more interesting was my follow-on question – why does she believe it?
Her first proof was biblical, and to my mind rested mainly on the assumption that the authors of the bible shared the same idioms of speech as King James. Because the translator used the euphemism ‘know’ for sexual intercourse, she said that the tree of knowledge was a metaphor for sex. Adam and Eve were supposed to be the ideal parents, they failed because Eve had an affair with Satan, so the Reverend Moon and his wife have to fulfil that role. (Those interested will likely enjoy this more in-depth article from an ex-Moonie, now Christian, on the Moonie interpretation of Genesis.)
I asked if she had any non-biblical proofs, or support from history, archaeology or similar. She asked what I meant, so to illustrate I said that a Christian might point to the early growth rate of the church, or a Muslim might point to outside accounts of Mohammed being considered trustworthy by his enemies. She said that Moon was the first prophet to build up a substantial following during his lifetime. I added Moses, Sai Baba, and Mohammed to the list, and she graciously agreed that Moon was perhaps not alone in this feat.
Her next proof was the rapid growth of the Moonies. She described them as the fastest growing faith category in the world. This seemed surprising; I came to the discussion with something of a blank slate on the Unification Church but a sound knowledge of the growth rates of those who profess no religion, Islam, and Christianity, all of whom seemed more likely contenders for this accolade. I gave some rough numbers, asked what the Moonies had achieved and what her source was. She said she wasn’t sure; she’d read it on the internet. I asked if it was from a Moonie website or from a more impartial source. She could not recall, and it seemed we had exhausted her proofs. I asked if she understood why these proofs did not seem convincing to me. She said that she recognised that it was unfair that she had been graced with spiritual gifts whereas I had not. I asked for further details of these gifts.
What followed was a cacophony of visions, synaesthesia and unusual experiences, including walls turning through psychedelic colours, furniture pulsating as though with a heart beat, and unusual sounds. Growing more specific, she told me how she could discern when men had lustful thoughts – their spirit bodies appeared to her as enraged animals. She also told me that she was troubled once because she saw people without mouths. Later, reassuringly, she discovered that the Reverend Moon had explained that liars will find themselves in the next life without mouths.
I bit my tongue. Prosopagnosia (damage to the facial recognition centre of the brain) is a serious condition and one which should be examined by trained medical professionals. Even allowing for the possibility that her experiences are genuine spiritual gifts, it would seem wise to rule out any potential medical concerns. I didn’t raise this with her, and I still wonder if this was an appropriate choice.
Still, she had made a verifiable claim. Contacting James Randi could net her a million dollars, a suggestion which I assumed would not be met with unmixed delight. I said, to the best of my recollection:
“That’s very interesting, and if it’s true I certainly want to learn more. I’ll make a statement, and if you can tell me if it’s true or false based on my spirit body I’ll happily buy one of your books and read it with an open mind.”
She stared at me for some time. I’ve never considered this description before, but the stare was best thought of as that given by a person who’s just seen a spirit body do something rather profane. I repeated my offer. Silence. I made my statement: “I am thirty years old.”
“You must be very clever” she said, backing away slightly. “Yes, I congratulate you on how clever you are.” She spoke with the gravitas of one addressing the Prince of Darkness himself.
I have been criticised in the past as perhaps being a little slow to pick up on subtle cues of body language and expression, but it was clear even to me that the conversation was at a close. My questioning had offended.
So, what’s my point? Am I merely trying to show how clever I am? True, it’s a fringe benefit, but my ego is of sufficient girth to not require further stoking.
A comparison with nearby political proponents seems appropriate. I can ask a supporter of Higgins if his age will be a barrier to the execution of the office of president. I can ask a Gallagher representative of his connections to Fianna Fail. It will not be considered wrong to ask these questions and offence will not be taken when I ask for evidence.
Rounding the corner Dessie, the Christian evangelist, is always willing to give an answer when I ask him the reason for the hope that he has. And he does it with gentleness and respect, even though we disagree profoundly on the age of the earth. The Islam stall have never ducked a question of mine. It is not my intention to suggest our Moonie friend's attitude is ubiquitous in the religious community.
I've done my best to think of a non-religious instance of evangelisation where asking questions is considered rude. Extreme nationalism perhaps qualifies, but only just. I can ask a homeopath for details of 'water memory' and I'll get a nonsensical answer, but an answer nonetheless.
I find myself imagining a society that gives automatic and unquestioning respect to alternative medicine, or computer games, or rocket science, or side salads. It does not engender hope.
Would religion and society not be better off without this?