Category Archives: Communication

The Well-Tempered Evangelist

This week’s guest blog is from my friend Bryce Moore Cundick.  I asked him to write a companion piece to my post last week about how I as an atheist navigate the minefield of discussing religion, but from the perspective of a person of faith.

Confession: this is the second version of this article that I’m writing. The first one was an immediate response I started as soon as I read Dan’s original piece. It was an article where I defended my beliefs and explained why I believe what I believe. I didn’t send that article to Dan. In fact, I didn’t even finish it–for a number of reasons, the main one being that I think it missed the point of Dan’s post. He didn’t write it as an assault on religion, although his views definitely colored it. Rather, he wrote it to explain how he can believe one thing (firmly enough to participate in a rally about it) and yet at the same time be accepting of other people’s very contradicting ideas.

Web comic xkcd. also helped that I had the chance to talk about belief extensively in the Facebook comments section of his post. (Honestly–sometimes I wonder why we even have comments sections on blogs. Everyone wants to do the talking on Facebook.) By the end of that discussion, I felt like I’d come to a good place as far as my reaction to the piece went, and I could move on to the real question Dan had asked me:

After some discussion with Dan, we decided the exact topic was “How to talk about religion in a way that is both non-obnoxious but also makes people listen.”

More or less.

Reading over Dan’s remarks, I was surprised by how much Mormons and atheists have in common. Growing up in a very non-Mormon area, there were tons of times when my beliefs felt marginalized. For example, I remember the time in eighth grade social studies when my teacher (whose name has been lost to the sands of time) went on and on about how silly Mormons were. In the middle of class. I am not making this up. He ended his mini-tirade saying, “I hope I don’t have any Mormons in *this* class.”

Have any of you had an experience like that? A time when someone very publicly calls you out for being stupid–not knowing that he’s doing so–and then gives you a chance to self-identify as stupid? How about when you were thirteen? I’d been sitting there in my chair, squirming uncomfortably and feeling more than a little irate about the topic, and then came that question. What was I going to do?

I didn’t bat an eye. I raised my hand. “I’m a Mormon.”

The teacher got quite uncomfortable and asked to see me after class, where he apologized. Called it a “misunderstanding,” as I recall.

Mormonism has had plenty of opportunity to get grief from believers and non-believers alike. We’re one of the few groups in America which the law said was okay to murder, so I suppose things have improved remarkably since then. Now we just have people make fun of our missionary efforts or our clean cut appearance. (Or get outraged by our social views, of course.)

Just like the thirteen-year-old me, I’ve continued to engage any and all comers to talk about my religion. Why I believe what I believe. For two years, I served a mission for the LDS (Mormon) church in former Eastern Germany–a place that has since been declared the most godless place on earth. In other words, I spent two years talking to people who had spent 40 years believing there was no such thing as religion or God. As a missionary, this was far from a part time experience. I’d spend eight or more hours every day talking to complete strangers–many of them hostile–about what I believed.

Is it any wonder that I have no qualms discussing it on the internet?

The thing is, I don’t take an approach of “I have to prove I’m right and you’re wrong,” and I think that’s likely why Dan asked me to write on this subject. I’d like to believe I’ve developed an approach that can both engage all readers, letting me discuss my beliefs in a way that will both make people listen and also not come off as obnoxious. (Those two don’t always go hand in hand.)

Like Dan, I had a chance after high school and my mission to go to a place where my beliefs were accepted and even encouraged: Brigham Young University. As a Mormon church owned and operated school, there were prayers and hymns before classes and football games. You had to take Mormon theology classes as part of your general education. Almost everyone I knew was a Mormon. They all knew what I believed and why.

And yet I still found myself not fitting in. After I got over the rush of having everyone agree with me on a topic so many had disagreed or ridiculed me for, I began to see that not everyone really agreed. There were gradations of belief akin to the range from heretic to orthodox (though Mormonism doesn’t really have anything approaching rigid lines like that). In other words, I found I had to defend my beliefs against believers, as well.

For example, there’s a series of “rules” that elicit no small amount of discussion and debate among Mormons. You might think they’re silly, but they have some deep-seated feelings for many members. Whether or not caffeinated soda is okay to drink, or whether watching R-rated movies is acceptable. Yup. We’ve got the wonders of eternity to discuss, and sometimes we end up quibbling over caffeinated Coca Cola.

In my experience with believers and non-believers alike, it seems at times that we’re arguing about what the winning lottery numbers are going to be. Everyone has an opinion, and everyone wants to be right, but the only way to prove “once and for all” who’s right and who’s a few numbers off is to actually have the lottery. Many people have real reasons for why they picked what they picked, and they want everyone else to come around and acknowledge that their numbers are the one true numbers. Often this is for very noble reasons: if they can just convince others that their numbers are the right ones, then those people can win when the numbers are drawn. (Or, in the case of atheists who choose not to participate in the lottery, they can convince everyone to avoid the stupidity tax altogether and spend their money on something more worthwhile.)

So how do I go about wading into this debate? I keep a few rules in mind:

  1. Be respectful. People can have very real, valid opinions about this topic. Dismissing them is akin to stomping on either their family heritage, their relation to God, or both.
  2. Be informative. I do my best to tell people what Mormons actually believe (or at the very least, what I do). I learned early on in Germany that if I went up to people and said “you better believe what I do or you’re going to burn in hell,” that wouldn’t go over too well. It also helps that I don’t believe that. I believe (and Mormon doctrine will back me up) that all people who earnestly try to do good and improve themselves and follow the light and knowledge they’ve been given will one day return to live with God, regardless what their current beliefs about the existence or non-existence of God might be. My job as a missionary (and my goal in discussions like this today) is to let people know what I believe and offer them the chance to find out for themselves if those beliefs are right. After that, it’s up to them and God to figure things out. I’m happy to answer follow up questions, of course–but this leads me to my third point:
  3. Remember that I’m not going to “convert” anyone. In the end, religion is about a personal relationship with God. I might point out to people what I have discovered is true, but if they reject that, they’re not rejecting me. It’s between them and God.

It feels like I should have a few more points there, because who has just three bullet points? But really, it boils down to “Don’t be a jerk.” I avoid arguing like the plague. Discussion is fine. (The difference for the present case is that people discussing something rarely get emotionally charged and involved. People arguing something, on the other hand . . . ) If we keep things at a discussion level, defenses are lowered across the board, and an open flow of communication can happen. Once we escalate to an argument, it turns into the climax of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.

One of the things I’ve learned working at a public institution (yay libraries!) is that to be fair about things–to avoid discriminating against people–you need to come up with a core set of rules and then apply those rules across the board to everyone. No exceptions. So for example, if you see homeless people sleeping in your library and decide that sleeping isn’t allowed there, then when you see a tired well dressed senior citizen dozing with a book, you go over and wake them up. The rule gets applied to people you like and people you don’t like. It’s once you start only applying rules to one or another that you get yourself into trouble.

So I apply these “rules” to any discussion I have about religion, regardless of who I’m having it with. It’s easy to always assume that other people agree with you. We like to believe we’re reasonable beings, and we like to think that everyone agrees with us. In actuality, opinions range all over the place, and it’s easy to step right into a minefield when you make foolish assumptions.

Anyway. I could go on about this topic, but I think I’m about typed out at the moment. If anyone has specific followup questions, I’d be happy to answer them. Thanks for reading this far, and let’s try to keep things civil.

Bryce Moore CundickBy day, Bryce Moore Cundick is a librarian, currently serving as the Vice President of the Maine Library Association. By afternoon, he’s the author of Vodnik, a young adult fantasy set in Slovakia (which you can find at


The Ethical Atheist

My mother was raised Catholic; my father was raised Jewish.  So perhaps it was a bit of a surprise the day in second grade when I announced to my predominantly Christian classmates that the Greek pantheon of gods was the one I wanted to follow.  I’m not sure if I really believed it or if I was just set myself apart from my classmates (if the latter, mission accomplished, as they reminded me for the rest of the year).  It also could have been the only way I knew how to let my classmates – and by extension the world – know I didn’t believe in their Judeo-Christian God.

My penchant for atheism only grew from there.  Later in elementary school I would desperately try to crack the arguments of my classmates that hinged on the simple truth “the bible was written by God, so anything written in it is true.”  In middle and high school, I had many friends who were devout Christians, though I never quite felt I could relate. When I got to college, I got particularly adamant about my disdain for religion.  I remember in one class when the teacher asked why many pagan holidays lined with with Christian holidays, I proudly replied “because Christians like to convert things.”  I started making plans to rewrite the Christmas carols with secular lyrics instead, and every year I avoided the dreaded “Christmas Sing” in the main hall of my school.

After 9/11, I became even more convinced that religion was a misguided and deleterious institution.  Certainly I was horrified that the hijackers would murder thousands of innocent people in the name of their god, but I was also disgusted by the jingoistic Christian-led backlash in the United States.  Watching people with supposedly Christian values demonize and call for the extermination of Islam invoked the memory of a history we were doomed to repeat.

At the height of my atheist zeal, I was asked to play a show with the band overlord at the Godless Americans’ March on Washington in November 2002.  It was a rally on the National Mall in Washington D.C. in which atheists, humanists, and freethinkers spoke about subjects such as creating a national identity for atheists, the separation of church and state, and the harmful effects of organized religion.  It was exhilarating to finally be surrounded by people with whom I could identify, in a context where we could rebuke the religious.  I had a great time laughing at the ridiculous religious people who believed in the “invisible man.”

Lest you believe I wasn’t actually there:

So there are a few things I want to point out in my rhetoric to this point.  Things like my “disdain” for people who follow the tenants of a religion, and how I “rebuked” the religious.  I was trying to “convince” my classmates that their blind faith in the bible was misguided. I’ve even used the word “zeal” to describe my passion for the subject.  It kinda sorta sounds a little like I was doing and saying the same things that irritated me about organized religion.  And while I do believe that atheism is attacked most frequently by a cultural machine that equates “no god” with “no morality,” I also think we atheists do ourselves no favors by sinking to the same level.

This has become increasingly more apparent with the development of social media and Facebook arguments.  For one thing, the ad hominem arguments against the religious are vicious.  “Jesus freak idiots who can’t think for themselves believe in an invisible man.”  “Faith is a waste of time, as science subsumes and disproves every piece of fiction the believers come up with.”  The slightly tenable arguments of those statements are hidden underneath a pile of insults.  It’s no wonder no one ever gets convinced to change their minds in these situations.

Indiana Jones with Sousaphone

Throw me the idol, I throw you the sousaphone!

While we’re on the subject, why do we try to change people’s minds?  Certainly when I’m directly affected, I may need to persuade someone to “book my band,” or “put down that hacksaw,” or “throw me the idol.”  There are so many great ways in which one can go about his or her life.  Your belief in a higher power does not threaten my lack of belief.  There may be specific times where this isn’t true, such as if a law were passed making prayer mandatory in school.  But that’s not the fault of organized religion.  That’s the fault of organized people, as my depiction of vehement atheism demonstrates above.  There is plenty of space for both belief systems, and plenty of overlap of lifestyles outside that single pillar.

These days I’m as much of an atheist as I’ve ever been.  I still don’t believe that a higher power exists, and I still don’t see the appeal of faith over facts.  However, my disdain for religion and the religious has been replaced for an admiration of the beauty of a belief system outside my own.  That something so delicate and intangible can be the source of so much happiness is delightful to me.  I find the discussion of why we believe what we believe to be an incredibly exciting and interesting exercise, as long as both parties are treated with respect.

I regret that my younger self couldn’t see when he was saying things about religion that hurt other people’s feelings.  And also that he couldn’t see that he was so threatened by the implications of what atheism meant that he had to show disgust towards the institutions of religion just to make a point.

Last Christmas I was surprised to come to terms with the fact that there are things about the holiday that I absolutely love.  I love the music (and the religious lyrics that come along with it), I love the lights people put up, I love the traditions that bring people together.  I even love the story of Christmas, regardless of whether Jesus was really born in the summertime, regardless of what race he was, and regardless of whether the holiday came together as a way to co-opt the Winter Solstice.  Sure, the false sense of righteousness about the War on Christmas makes me crazy, and I’m not really into buying presents.  Overall, though, I really do love the season.  I wish I could have been so brave when I was younger.

I don’t like the term “Ethical Atheist,” as it implies that the natural state of atheism is unethical.  What I mean by it, though, is that we can overcome the cultural perception of atheists as lawless selfish people.  We can also overcome the cultural perception of atheism as a nihilistic and vindictive way to give Christians a “taste of their own medicine.”  The tools of elitism, condescension, and ridicule don’t get us anywhere.  Let’s instead be tolerant, respectful, and perhaps even engaged with the fundamental stories in the lives of our fellow humans.  Let’s be ethical in our approach to religion and open up the door for others to be ethical in their interactions with us.

New Brand Day

I recently finished up my third month of busking in the SEPTA terminal. This month I got to play in my preferred location and time. I continue to learn what I’m doing down there (and how to do it better).

In addition to the actual music I play and how I play it, I’ve been looking for other ways to connect with the people in the station. By and large, everyone is in a pretty big hurry, so I only have a few moments to make an impact. One way for me to connect that I have been using is Twitterstalking afterwards to see if anyone mentioned me and introduce myself. It’s been great, but by the nature of it, I only get that connection after I’ve stopped playing. So I started playing with signs.

Since the beginning, I’ve been putting up a sign with my Twitter handle asking for requests. For the most part, it got a quick glance before people moved on. And I got zero requests for music, meaning it wasn’t having any impact. After viewing it from the audience perspective I realized why.

They were clearly wary that I was selling something (which I sort of am). I thought the novelty of a busker offering an online correspondence would be amusing enough that someone would try it, but apparently that’s a bigger hurdle to jump than I thought. It turned me into just another guy trying to sign people up for my mailing list.

So I opted for a much more innocuous sign to try to connect with people without their feeling like they were at risk of further contact with me. A simple sign with a singular message: “GOOD MORNING!”

Apparently it was too innocuous. Or perhaps to much of a commonly disingenuous statement that people make without thinking. In either case, I got barely a glance at it as the throngs passed by. I meant it sincerely, in a “hey, we’re all in this together kind of way,” but no one cared to infer that much sincerity. Which I completely get.

The next sign was a product of the whimsies of my mind. For example, when I see a jar of garlic, I immediately think “Jarlic.” So one night, I came up with a silly little riddle about public transportation, that looked something like this:

What do you call a 70 year old who rides the train in Philly?

This one got peoples’ attention. I saw a few double-takes as people walked by, and a few smirks. I posted it to Twitter and Instagram at the same time and got a bunch of peoples’ responses. And as I finished my final song that day, a man approached me and gave me the answer:

A SEPTA-genarian.

The next time I played, I didn’t have a sign, and I was playing sousaphone instead of accordion. In the Twitter comments that day, a few of them mentioned that I was playing a different instrument.

guy who has been playing an accordion 4 the last week @market east station now has a tuba some1 needs 2 teach this guy how to play guitar

(And by the way, I didn’t let that comment at the end slide. We ended up having a nice 140 character conversation about it.)

What this told me was that people were actually noticing that I was down there, even though it looked like they were rushing by and ignoring me. I was having some impact, because when I changed it up, they commented.  So for my final day, I printed this sign:

This is my last performance here this month.  I'll see you in October!  Keep in touch (take a card).

At the bottom, I included cards for people to take with my Neon and Shy info on it. In addition to making a more personal connection by acknowledging that the people in the station acknowledged me, I also had a small hope that this would earn that precious sympathy dollar.

Now, interestingly, I had offered cards for people to take from the first time I was down there playing, but no one would touch them. The sign and the connection gave people a bit more permission (and trust) however. Across the 2 hours I was down there, about 10 people took cards, which was huge as far as I was concerned.

Later that morning, I got a call from the owner of a few restaurants in Old City who asked if I would be interested in busking in front of his bar during happy hour. We ironed out the details, and suddenly I had my first gig from busking.

When I had first started playing in the station, I was not looking at it as a stepping stone to getting paid work. However, I knew it was a project that had many potential doors. It was incredibly exciting for me to open one of those doors, and reap the fruits of my labor.

Last Friday I played at the restaurant, and had a blast. The people there were incredibly friendly, the atmosphere at the bar was great, and the food was delicious. I took some time to talk with the owner before I played. We had an interesting conversation about live music in a restaurant setting (told as a dialogue for dramatic effect).

“Thing is,” he told me, “whenever we have a live music event here, we are guaranteed to lose money.”

It wasn’t what I wanted to hear, for sure, but it was something that rang true to me. It certainly explained why restaurants frequently balked at the prices I charge when trying to book Polkadelphia. I thought it was because restaurants don’t explicitly budget for music, but I never considered it was because it was an active loss. He continued.

“When we bring a band in, people are more interested in listening to the music than buying food and drinks. It hurts our sales and we end up with a lower than usual income that night.”

He went on to tell me that even so, he still has bands play from time to time. And clearly he was going against the grain by hiring me to play that night. So why does he do it?



“We don’t do music events for profit. We do it to build the brand. To build loyalty in our customers. So they know that when they come to our place, they just might see an accordion player singing Toxic strolling through the bar. That’s a draw.”

And suddenly everything seemed to fall into place for my experiment down in the train station. While making enough money to sustain myself by busking is a noble (and incredibly ambitious) goal, my real purpose down there is building my brand. I’m exposing myself to thousands of people each morning as a snapshot; a character; a brand. When I make a sign that connects with people, it’s further defining my brand and creating loyalty in my fan base.

Just because I don’t quite know what my brand is yet, it doesn’t necessarily detract from the building of it. The more I do know, the more I can focus, but at the moment, it’s once again just a bunch of doors waiting to be opened.

The bar owner’s comments also made me re-evaluate the way I approach restaurants when trying to book Polkadelphia. Unless it’s a special event that is advertised, a German restaurant is (probably) not going to make more money the night we play their restaurant. They might even make less. But they become known as the place where that awesome polka band that plays Radiohead performs, and that causes both buzz and customer loyalty. They build their brand.

I was struck today that playing in the train station has given me significantly more exposure than performing in established venues over the past year or two (even some big ones). I’ve also made more money in the station than I have as a solo artist playing bars and clubs. Whether this is an indictment of the music industry or my own personal loophole, I’m not sure; so much remains to be seen. But I can see the path unfolding around me, slowly coalescing into something awesome.

Time to stoke the fire, heat the metal, and see where the sweet sizzle of flesh takes me.

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