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Always be prepared to give an answer

A Baptist minister has a chance encounter with an agnostic in a coffee shop. How did the conversation go? By Colin Sedgwick


Coffee Bible

“Religion – if we all work together we can find a cure.”

So proclaimed the tee-shirt worn by a man sitting opposite me in the coffee-shop. (I’m in Waterstone’s bookshop in Birmingham, waiting for my train back to Nottingham.)

At first I’m not quite clear what the slogan means. Is it saying “If all us religious people work together we could find a cure for the world’s ills”? Somehow that seems unlikely.

Then I notice something else in smaller print – the name “Richard Dawkins”. Ah! So the man is a disciple of one of the most militant atheists in public life: religion is a disease which needs a cure.

I reflect as I drink my coffee. He’s quite a beefy chap – possibly a bit aggressive? But I think to myself “Given that he’s decided to preach (so to speak) his anti-religious message in this public place – which, of course, he’s perfectly entitled to do – why shouldn’t I politely challenge him?”

Only problem: how to do it? I’m not really the confronting-strangers-in-public-places type (I am English, after all). Yet it seems wrong to let the moment pass.

I pray, asking for guidance. The taking-the-bull-by-the-horns approach seems the best, so as I get ready to leave, gathering my things together, I address him with a smile: “You seem to be very confident in your unbelief.”

I’m not sure what I expected might happen. Might he deck me with one blow of his fist? Might he angrily respond “Yes, I am confident in my unbelief, so if you’re thinking of ramming religion down my throat, I’ll advise you right now not  to bother, you pathetic loser”? Might he just tell me to something off?

Actually, none of those things happened.

No. He smiled in a slightly embarrassed way.

And assured me that while he himself wasn’t a believer in any form of religion, he respected people who were (“Some of my own family are religious”).

He wouldn’t actually call himself definitely an atheist, but certainly an agnostic (which reminded me of exactly what my own father said when I told him I had become a Christian at the age of 15).

I remarked that indeed you need an awful of faith to be a real atheist; at which he smiled.

Apparently he had been put off religion by school assemblies (“led by people who didn’t believe a word of what they were saying”), and how disgusted he was by vicars who “don’t believe in their own Christianity” (apparently, so he said, a survey revealed that 40 percent of clergy don’t believe in God: not sure how true that is!).

Time is running on and I need to get to the station, so I tell him that I fully share his dislike of religion: “I don’t really think of myself as religious, and I avoid the word as much as possible, but I am a follower of Jesus.” He slightly inclines his head, as if to say “Fair enough”.

Then he raises the old question: “Is religion the root of great evil?” …at which I wait with attention, expecting the standard answer about all the wars waged, all the blood shed (some of which, of course, we Christians can’t deny). But no. “Absolutely not!” he says, and refers to the kindness and compassion and good things done by many religious people.

I need to go. So as my parting shot I simply tell him that I became a Christian over 50 years ago, and that Jesus has been my guiding star ever since. Again he nods his head, and as we part he stretches out his hand and we shake with expressions of mutual respect.

Why am I telling you this story? Not, I beg you to believe, in order to show myself up in a good light! – I have no doubt I could have handled the situation a whole lot better.

But perhaps for two reasons…

First, it reminded me of the New Testament call to be “always prepared to give a reason… for the hope that you have” (1 Peter 3:15). I’d like to be able to tell you that that man, at the end of our conversation (it only took about five minutes) had fallen on his knees crying out “What must I do to be saved?” But I’m afraid I can’t. But possibly – just possibly – a seed was sown in his mind which will one day come to fruition.

Second, it reminded me that just as Christians can experience doubts and go through questioning phases in their lives, so too can the strongest-seeming unbelievers. (I read recently about the totally non-religious poet Philip Larkin, who admitted that during a time of stress in his life he couldn’t help praying.)

So… That agnostic/atheist friend you have is nowhere near as rock-solid in their unbelief as they might want you to think. No; they too are just as much a bundle of doubts, questionings, prejudices and fears as everybody else! Behind a flinty exterior they may be crying out for peace and a purpose in living.

So pray for them with love and compassion, saying with Paul “I am not ashamed of the gospel!”


Lord Jesus, help me to see every person I ever meet not just as they appear, but as a follower one day of yours. Amen.


Image | Scott Broome | Unsplash

Colin Sedgwick is a Baptist minister with many years’ experience in the ministry.

He is also a freelance journalist, and has written for The Independent, The Guardian, The Times, and various Christian publications. He blogs at sedgonline.wordpress.com




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