Recently I was sitting in a quiet place at the gym, tired, taking a break after working out, when another guy came and sat down near me to chill out. I nodded hello.
"How you doing?" he said.
"All right. You?" I said.
"Please say a prayer," he said. "My mother is in the hospital." The way he said it sounded mournfully final.
I looked up. "I'm very sorry to hear that. I'll send her all I have. I lost my mother years ago, and I maybe understand."
Quiet for a few beats.
"Your mother. Was she a believer?" he said.
"Did she believe in our Lord Jesus Christ?"
Oh, Jesus, I thought. "No. She went to church but she wasn't religious. She was very spiritual in her own way."
"She went to church?" he asked.
I exhaled. "She wasn't religious. Neither am I."
"Did she accept our Lord Jesus Christ as her personal savior?" he asked.
"Look," I said with a raised voice. "I'm not going to talk to you about my mother this way, and you have no right to ask."
He backpedaled at warp speed. He said he was sorry, he apologized if he'd offended me, he hadn't meant to be rude. I told him to forget it and that I wished his mother well. As I got up to go I again wished his mother my best and he again apologized.
As I walked away, I realized that this is what I loathe about organized religion. Here is a perfectly decent guy, well-intentioned, who instantly becomes a tone-deaf bully in the presence of a stranger because his own dogma has taught him that it is the only truth to be heard. This is exactly how white missionaries told themselves that they were doing divine duty as advance men for the slave trade and for colonial slaughter. It is how men, and some women, tell themselves that girls' clitorises should be cut off. It is how straight couples tell themselves that marriage and legally recognized family life should be denied to everyone but them. It is how people, particularly men, who claim to love human life tell themselves it is all right to be hateful and to do harm to living women who choose abortions, and to turn a blind eye to the hungry, neglected lives of children they would force women to bear in the interest of a fetishistic fetus narrative.
There is plenty that I honor about religious practices I have seen. Further, religion is by no means the only way by which good people learn to do monstrous things. But it is one of the big ones. And that is the irony: an ethic that praises love becomes a blunt instrument of hatred. Or at the very least, an otherwise nice guy at the gym whips around and gives a backhanded whack to a stranger's space in the guise of goodness.
It's like what my old girlfriend once said we should say to any abusive or oppressive zealot who claims to wish us God's forgiveness: Tell them we hope God forgives them.