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The 5 People You Meet at Religious Conferences

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A couple of months ago, I went to a religious conference for youth at the Hyatt Hotel in Wichita, Kansas. The theme of the conference was ‘Go and Make Disciples’ and it was all about going out into the world and savin’ souls. Needless to say, I felt hopelessly out of place, and I spent most of my time alternating between despair and outrage.

One of the most popular seminars was on evolution, and how science supposedly did not support it. This seminar attracted roughly half of the attendants at the conference and was held in a large ball-room.

A man named Craig was leading the class. Craig was a doctor. He was, as I recall, an orthodontist. Earlier I’d eaten lunch at a table with Craig, and a girl that happened to be gay. Craig attacked the girl mercilessly in front of her classmates and then compared homosexuality to child molestation. The girl left, sobbing.

Craig didn’t have the most popular recent arguments and intelligent design stuff. Instead he did the old spiel about ‘micro’ and ‘macro’ evolution, and how those two supposedly differ. Someone pointed out that he was supporting the central contention of evolution (that species can change over time to cope with their surroundings) without carrying it to it’s logical conclusion. Everyone looked at him and he didn’t pipe up again.

He showed us examples that evolution scientists supposedly used to support their findings and then explained why these were invalid. He talked to us about the evolution of horses, and had some arcane point to make about that. Then he got to the evolution of the eye.

“The eye,” he said, “how could evolution possibly have led to the eye? Is half an eye useful?”

Everyone nodded in agreement, and a few people started clapping. They all looked like fish, eyes slightly glazed. I probably imagined the flecks of drool at the corners of their mouths. They probably weren’t really just taking this in, just letting it wash over them.

After he had used his witty and humorous speech and his entertaining PowerPoint presentation to convince everyone in the room that evolution was total bunk, he opened it up for Q & A. I confess that I didn’t understand the futility of trying to reason with any of the people there. Earlier he had discussed people that incorporated evolution into their religious views: namely the new age hippies with their ‘Age of Aquarius’ where evolution has reached it perfect conclusion.

“Surely,” I said, “you aren’t trying to ascribe this dawning of the age of Aquarius view to evolutionary scientists? I mean the musical Hair wasn’t written by Richard Dawkins.”

“Well, no,” he said, “but my point is that whether they themselves believe that or not, that’s the religious view that their conclusions support.”

And of course that is just as important as what they actually mean. I got the same glares that the previous questioner had received. I took the hint and shut up, contenting myself to observe the proceedings.

There were no more real questions. The rest were just like “Wow, it all makes sense now. I don’t believe I even thought about considering evolution for a moment. Just wow. This really enhances my faith in God.”

Craig was certainly gratified to hear that.

Then he moved on to hydro-plate theory. Hydro-plate theory is too ridiculous to spend much time on. Basically the idea is that ..err…there was a whole bunch of water under the tectonic plates, and then the world sprung a leak and the whole place flooded..and then–err–it all just went away again?

This would have been too ridiculous for even the religious zealots to accept at the beginning of the seminar, but by this time we’d already had an hour and a half of brain-numbing, and were less than prepared to challenge it. A dozen people looked a bit incredulous, and the rest were nodding their heads.

After the seminar was over I decided to ditch the next one. I stumbled out into the wide hallway outside the ballroom and looked up at the light fixture.

One of God’s many miracles, I thought. I looked out at the sun. God spoke and there it was, I thought. I was tired. My eyes were glazed. I may have imagined it, but it seemed to me that I had actually begun to enjoy the repetetive worship music emanating from the speakers placed all over the hotel.

I stumbled over to a plush leather chair in the lobby and sat down. I stared at nothing for about an hour, and then got up and went to my hotel room, which I was sharing with three others. They weren’t there at the moment, they were in seminars, but I could see the signs that they had been there recently.

The three Bibles, all in their cloth carrying cases, all creatively decorated. And then of course the Christian self-help books. Daily devotional books, The 5 People You Meet in Heaven, all the books that make me vomit.

I grabbed one of the Bibles and opened to the first lines.

“In the beginning,” it said, “God created the heavens and the earth..”

My thoughts turned to a passage I’d read in another book.

“These rocks, he thought, are here for me; waiting for the drill, the dynamite and my voice; waiting to be split, ripped, pounded, reborn; waiting for the shape my hands will give them.”

I closed my eyes and tried to sleep.

Cross-posted to Leoniceno’s Corner

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  • Bennett

    I had to come back to this. Was in a hurry this morning, and didn’t take the time to tell you that I enjoyed reading it.

    Why did you decide to attend this conference?

  • Hi Bennett, I’m glad you enjoyed it. To answer your question, I was kind of required to. My friends and family are all religious, so religious activities are kind of part of the social norm. I could be brave and declare my religious views, but I don’t feel like making the sacrifice when I won’t make any difference in anyone elses thoughts whatsoever.


  • Bennett

    I understand, when I was a kid everyone in my extended family was JW. My mother had split from that cult before I was born, so I didn’t get indoctrinated. When visiting my aunt and uncle in LA is was more amusing than anything else, the extreme fervor displayed, the huge conventions, the sallow skin and musky odors of *The Saved* dressed in suits not sent to the dry cleaners quite often enough.

    Heavy drinkers, big eaters, and big fans of having The Carpenters smother the world in pink syrup.

    It got old fast and I had had enough before I hit 12. Thanks Mom, you did the right thing!

  • Thanks for the inside view, Leoniceno. Any chance your family would ever get a hold of your blog and associate it with you? I hope not, for your sake.

    Anyway, while I can understand the sacrifice you would need to make to express your true beliefs to your family… isn’t it worse to have to sit through seminars that bore you, and perhaps offend you? Isn’t it worse to have to live, in effect, a lie?

  • Whenever my MIL tries to engage me in religious debates, as our beliefs are poles apart, I use qoute to silence her- “Enough wars have been fought in the name of religion and I’m not going to start one in my own backyard.”

    I understand Leoniceno’s position as I too have sat through a lot of boring religious affairs out of respect for my MIL but then again I have drawn a line and told her that our kids would have a different set of beliefs from hers.

    One has to know when to give in and when to draw a line in these matters.

  • As a matter of fact, my entire family knows about and reads my web-log. They also already know that I hated that conference, because when I came back I was traumatized. I don’t feel that I’m living a lie; when anyone asks me about my religious views, I’m honest with them. I just don’t feel like it’s advantageous to me to become a martyr for rationalism. That kind of missionary mind-set is part of what I dislike in religions anyway.

    I went to the religious conference out of curiosity as much as anything. I wanted to see what it was like, and then I wanted to write about it, which is what I’ve done. I’ve been going to church since I was born, and it’s such a big part of my life that even though I’m not really on board with the spiritual aspects, I can’t forgo the social aspects. Besides, it’s a Quaker meeting, which is about the most tolerable and tolerant that I can think of.


  • J. Steele, CSC


    I can’t tell me how much I appreciated your viewpoint. I share your pain. As the son of an evangelical father and liberal Catholic mother, I was raised on the sometimes hostile boundary between fundamentalism and a thinking faith. As a Catholic who ascribes to the belief that faith and reason can assist one another in the pursuit of truth. When faith ‘trumps’ reason you get the kind of schlock that gets peddled at conferences like the one you attended. Mere rationalism which I attempted for a time can lead to Ayn Rand’s Objectivism or Communism, both of which are materialistic and can lead to inhumane results. While I am not an apologist or an evangelist for all things Catholic [reason would not allow it], I am constantly astonished that such a flawed and human institution can still offer the world such great souls as John Paul II and Mother Theresa. The world would surely be a sadder place without the like of these and their countless lesser fellow travelers also striving for a soulfulness that embraces all dimensions of life from the intellect, to the spirit, to selfless generosity.

    It was just such generosity of attention and reflection (including self reflection) that was missing from your religious conference. Fundamentalism in all it forms in any religion or ideology, is an attempt to control by shear force of ego the terms of discussion. This is, of course, what you experienced. However, this is not the approach of a religious tradition which insists that faith and reason are essential to one another, have no need to fear one another, and therefore have no need to seek the dominance of one over the other.

    We may not agree on many things, but I believe we could agree on this: fundamentalism whether evangelical, Catholic, feminist, Marxist, gay, fascist, ecocentrist, capitalist, multicultural or otherwise in which one narrow experience becomes the measure by which all other experience is judged, is an intellectual, if not a moral failure.

  • sydney

    ” To answer your question, I was kind of required to. My friends and family are all religious, so religious activities are kind of part of the social norm. I could be brave and declare my religious views, but I don’t feel like making the sacrifice when I won’t make any difference in anyone elses thoughts whatsoever.”

    — This is perhaps the most disturbing statement in the whole post…and that’s saying a lot.


    That you can hide in the shadows like a coward while your family and friends participate in what you and the rest of the thinking world believes to be unethical practises, is beyond me. You need to wake the fuck up!

    How can you sit at a table and listen to a man chastise a teenage girl for her sexual orientation – How can you let the conversation escalate to the point of her sobbing. I don’t know who I feel more anger towards, you or the idiot doctor. All you had to do is step up and say, “Mr. Craig, I disagree with your views, and they are inappropriate for discussion at a dinner table. Moreover, the aggressive manner in which you make your points is offensive”. You would have save that poor girls heart and you would have taught everyone at the table a valuable lesson.

    It is not easy, nor cool, nor is it perceived as acceptable for a teenager to be gay in their teenage years. It must have taken unbelievable courage for this girl to ‘come out’ as such and she undoubtedly puts up with more derision from her peers than the average teenager. Now she has to take this derision from a group of adults sitting around a table at a spiritual conference. You are witness to a teenager who is likely in the darkest days of her life and she likely needs all the help she can get to survive them. Instead you abide those who ridicule her.

    Why don’t you grow some spine and let your family know who you are. You don’t know need to unnecessarily tell them all your beliefs, but you should let them know what your views are quite different than their own. IF you disagree with the discourse surrounding their version of Christianity than you have an ethical obligation to tell them so. Open up your good book, and look to the story of Christ’s’ crucifixion, see if you don’t identify with Pontious Pilate.

    As it stands now, you are one of those people that your post aims to criticize. Your piece is one of self loathing and guilt.

  • Sydney: did you miss the part where I said that my family knows and accepts ‘who I am?’

    My family does not engage in practices that I consider unethical, and neither do my friends.

    And by the time I arrived at that breakfast table, the conversation was reaching it’s peak of conflict, and the girl was already in tears. Shortly after I sat down, he made his final comments and she left. Then I did basically what you said.

    I didn’t put that information in because it didn’t mesh with the tone of my essay, which I was trying to make observational. I wanted the article to function more as an account of what it is like to be at one of these religious conferences than as an account of my experiences of at a religious conference.

    Also, I don’t appreciate that you’ve chosen to judge my entire manner of life based on the limited information that I am willing to impart to the world in an anonymous online essay. I believe that the fact that you are willing to do so says something about you.

  • Tristan

    I think those Quakers have the right idea myself; and I especially like it when the oats are covered in warm milk with lots of brown sugar.

  • To J. Steele, I certainly agree with your last statement. That’s why the motto of my web-log is “To doubt one’s own first principles is the mark of a civilized man,” by Oliver W. Holmes. 🙂

  • Bennett

    Wow sydney, chill out! Give it no never mind Leoniceno, she sounds a bit angry to begin with.

    As you point out in your artice, the peer pressure at this conference was huge, and sometimes bucking the system is pointless.

    Knowing when to hold your peace, and save the stress of confrontation for a time when it will actually do some good, is wise.

    This was a youth conference, you’re in your late teens? You present yourself well, and your writing is excellent.

  • That’s a great Holmes quote — I love it.

  • sydney

    I apologize if I used some strong language. I have a bad habit of doing that when I haven’t posted in a long while. I tend to forget that their are real people on the other end of the line. I simply choose strong language to make my point stand out. Anyway … I’ll tone it down.

    Still, in my defense I have to reiterate what you yourself state; “I could be brave and declare my religious views, but I don’t feel like making the sacrifice when I won’t make any difference in anyone else’s thoughts whatsoever”

    I don’t like this attitude and I disagree with it wholly. You may not change your friends minds but by making your beliefs clear you create a counterpoint to their views. This is all that maters, that the alternative view is expressed. If they have respect for you they will benefit from knowing where you stand.

    Similarly, in a public forum such as the conference, by speaking up you send out a message to all that are listening that “alternative views and critical discussion are permitted in the Christian discourse.” I get angry thinking that all these people at the conference sit idly by not questioning these controversial opinions that have such gross implications. There is no way that all of these people are so far right… there must have been plenty of moderates there who simply didn’t voice their opinion out of cowardice.

    Also, I believe the natures of the religious right’s views are discriminatory and bigoted enough to warrant strong opposition. These are not benign ethical concerns you’re discussing in this post. These religious views have great destructive power, both on a social level and a personal level. I think you have a responsibility to make a stronger stand than it seems you have thus far.

    It seems to me your putting your own personal comfort amongst family and friends, ahead of others. I’m not suggesting you need to be a saint and make some enormous sacrifice. But it’s my opinion that too many Americans are sitting idly by while the Christian right runs around trampling on people rights.

  • Tristan

    I agree with Sydney and her comment about feeling like Pontious Pilate —“I wash my hands of this whole affair—I have nothing to do with it” …..
    NOT TRUE! If you witness an iniquity and do NOTHING about it—you stand guilty also!
    Yes–it takes courage—but that is the price we pay to be human beings~~often we must stand up and be “unpopular” to be RIGHT….
    Look at Martin Luther King, John and Robert Kennedy, Jesus, and all who had to pay the price to stand up for what is RIGHT ….you will be in some very good company.

  • sydney

    actually, I’m a guy but thanks anyway. cheers

  • Tristan

    sorry sydney~~~
    but your statements still make perfect sense.

  • Tristan

    “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” — Martin Luther King, Jr.

  • Tristan and Sydney – by God you’re right! I’ve become silent on this thing that matters. Perhaps I should do something to rectify the situation … like writing an article about my experiences at the religious conference!

    I don’t think I’ve become ‘silent about things that matter’, I think that I’m smart enough to realize that even if it’s possible to get through to these teenagers, I am sure not the one to do it, and a religious conference, where they’re having dogma blasted at them eight hours per day is sure not the environment to try to do it in.

    You know, I apologize if you feel that I should have alienated myself even further only to have my efforts at appealing to common sense wiped out by four hours of praise-and-worship.

    I’ve found that with hard-core Christians, if you come off as radical anything (other than Christian), they immediately turn off their brains. Like a self-defense mechanism. Shortly after proclaiming my view that they are “discriminatory and bigoted” (which many are), I become a thing to be dealt with. They would make attempts to “save” me, subject me to a few weeks of relentless high-handed moralizing, and then consign me to eternal damnation.

    I find that a more subtle approach works better, and small groups work better. During Sunday school lessons I might point out particularly ludicrous passage and crack a joke. I retain my humanity in their eyes.

    You say that you “get angry thinking that all these people at the conference sit idly by not questioning these controversial opinions that have such gross implications.”

    Well, my goal is not to get them to switch to my view, my goal is that they consider both sides of things. Thus I consider both sides of things.

    If I tell them that all Christians are bad and they tell me I’m going to burn in hell, we have nothing to do with each other and nothing to say to each other.

    And finally, I’d like to point out another Martin Luther King quote:

    “The good neighbor looks beyond the external accidents and discerns those inner qualities that make all men human and, therefore, brothers.”

  • Tristan


    I agree with you on the x-tian conference thingie:
    Being a Wiccan (Witch in laymen’s speak!) —-I used to bash my head against TWO brick walls at 1st—trying to argue with x-tians; you can’t argue with them-they are quoting “god’s word”–which (not WITCH!) is infallible and always RIGHT…..
    Soooo~~~~ I learned not to engage in casting pearls before SWINE …..

    I was referring to the situation at the dinner table with the young gay girl where she could have used the moral support………

  • I gave some more information on that, you must’ve missed it.

  • Thanks for the post. I just got back from a spiritual retreat unrefreshed and stressed out. I think a part of the problem when you go to these types of events is that your expectations are higher than normal, so negative aspects stick out more.