THOUGH I haven't really been able to accept the fact yet, I'm pretty sure I'm an atheist. I've tried my whole life to hold on to a true belief in God, and my whole life I've failed. This upsets me - I feel as if maybe there is something I can't see - but my reluctant detachment from religion does not make me feel that I'm a bad person. Misguided? Perhaps. Arrogant, foolish and self-absorbed? Maybe. But evil? No way. My intentions are pure, and my lack of faith has never been from a lack of trying. Yet when I passed the amphitheatre early last week, I was met with the assertion that I'm a wicked sinner who was "already damned" to hell.
But at least I was in good company. After listening for a short while, it became evident that pretty much everyone at the University falls within one of Christian evangelist Jed Smock's categories of the damned. Watch out - whether you are a "fornicator," a rock and roll fan or, God forbid, a devout adherent to a non-Christian faith - according to Smock it looks like you're all headed for the same burning pit in the afterlife. As a reluctant atheist, I'm confident in saying that I probably top the list of horrible human beings and that hottest spot in Smock's hell is reserved for me, yet I was not offended by his words. However, I was offended by the way several of the students in the amphitheater conducted themselves during Jed's evangelism.
Unlike myself, many students in the amphitheater were offended by Smock's claims. They attempted to argue with him, and while these endeavors began in earnest or out of sport, they all inevitably led to frustration on the part of the challenger. Not surprisingly, there is no arguing with Smock. Something students need to realize is that this man has passed the possibility of being influenced by debate. He is simply not open to it; he is there to preach and only to preach. We have the right to dissent if we feel the desire, but we cannot hope to make any progress by doing so.
Some students, either more perceptive or lighthearted than the first group, realized this fact. Some of them remained silent and listened out of interest, while others decided to actively ridicule this man. While of course this action is justified - if Smock wants to voice his controversial opinions in a public venue then he must expect to be met with dissent - to mock him was mean, short-sighted and immature.
To these students, this man no doubt looked to be somewhat insane to them and was voicing opinions that easily could have offended many people. Therefore, since this action appeared itself unjustified and unfair, these mockers thought it admissible to ridicule Smock publicly in order to get a laugh.
While this largely is a victimless crime - Smock appeared untouched by this ridicule due to his evident confidence in his beliefs - this does not make the actions of these students any more appropriate. What has been forgotten here - and what is so often disregarded in human relations - is intention.
While Smock's words may have seemed inappropriate or even absurd to many listeners, the fact remains that this man had something that we hardly ever see anymore: selfless intentions. Despite the ways we may view Smock's words, he truly believed in what he was saying, and that those who disagreed would go to hell.
We may not agree with this sentiment, but Smock stood in the amphitheater for two full days last week in the face of incessant attack and ridicule, and he did it for us. He did it because he believes that his way is the way to salvation, and he wanted all of us - perfect strangers to him - to be saved as well. Maybe he didn't go about it in the best way, but at the very least we should - if offended by his words - merely not listen. At the best, we should recognize that this man has one quality that we all should respect and admire: true and altruistic concern for his fellow man.
It's a valuable lesson that one must allow people to hold their own beliefs, erroneous as they may seem to us as individuals. If the complexity of the modern world teaches us anything, it should be that we have no right to claim absolute truths. Smock claimed to hold these last week, and this offended many of us, but by writing him off as "psycho," we need to recognize that we are in that respect falling to his level. We can claim personal truths, but everything in life is determined by circumstance and is subjective. Just as many of us did not enjoy Smock's attacks and felt that they were not deserved, his views equally are justified. To claim to know what is "truly right" or even merely what is right for any other individual is to be arrogant and short-sighted.
In the future, we need to apply the lesson we can learn from this interaction with Smock to our relations with all people. Do not try to impose your beliefs on others, and be confident enough in your views to not be offended when they come under attack. Many of us judged Smock severely because his approach to expressing his beliefs seemed harsh. We need to learn from his mistakes and make an effort to treat others with the respect we felt he denied us.
(Laura Parcell's column appears Fridays in The Cavalier Daily. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)