ReligionSkepticism

Ask Surly Amy: Door to Door Religions

Ask Surly Amy

Dear Surly Amy,

I’m a bad skeptic.

OK, Let me back up. Today I got a knock on my door from someone asking to show me some pamphlets. He asked if I believed in God, and I said I was an atheist. He then asked if I would be interested in a different point of view, centred on design. I let him know that I was not impressed with the notion of Intelligent design, and he started to engage me with the idea that things that have been designed must have a designer; things like my front door, for example. He also started to physically inch inside my doorway. I let him know I was not interested in having this argument on my front step, and shut the door in his face.

His attempt to push inside my house was unconscionable, but I confess this is not why I gave him the brush-off. I knew he was peddling rubbish, and resented the attempt to clod-call me about it. Also, I hate confrontation.

However I later regretted not engaging him on some points. Primarily, he asked why I was an atheist, and I said it was just my default position, not thinking about my reply. However I was raised Catholic, and my atheism came to me gradually and after a lot of thought. I did not let him know I had read a lot about this idea, and would welcome new arguments. I also did not get any information about the scope of his notion of design – was he anti-evolution? Did he support the notion of the Big Bang, but assert that it was set in motion? I didn’t bother to find these things out, I just sent him packing. I am certain he left with the clear idea that I was closed-minded, and I was to be pitied for my inability to see other points of view.

So I need some guidance… did I do the right thing? What should I have said? What can I try to do the next time this happens?

-Seth “w_nightshade” Hanisek

Dear Seth,

My advice is to counter their questions with questions.
“Who designed the designer then?”
Or, “Why do you keep inching your way into my house without me inviting you?”
“Would you like me to call the cops or would you prefer to design your way off my porch?”

In most cases, it doesn’t really matter what you actually say to the people that come knocking on your door.

They have been taught to preach a specific message and have also been given canned responses to pretty much every argument you can give them. When all else fails and they realize that they can’t win an argument with the information they have, they just play the pity card and look sideways at you, shake their heads and say something like, “It’s too bad you are so closed off to the word of the Lord. Please take this pamphlet or book or flyer or prayer rug (or whatever) for your time of need. God bless you.”

Now, if you are really bored and you want to learn more about their arguments then take the time to engage them. I used to play a game where I would try to keep the Scientologists or other marketing firms who called my house on the phone as long as I could. I would do the same thing with whatever church group knocked on my door. I would ask them all kinds of off topic questions about their family and personal lives or how they came to the church or organization. I would ask anything I could think of to throw them off their canned speeches and keep them talking about other things. It was a great practice in conversation skills. The key is never to ask a question that can be answered in a yes or a no response. I talked to some very interesting people, actually.

However, if your goal is to change someone’s view on something as personal as a religious belief then most, if not all of this sort of engagement is a waste of time. I only recommend it if you have a lot of free time on your hands. The true believers won’t be swayed.

Of course, in the very rare chance when you can find someone sitting on a fence… then maybe it’s time well spent.

Got a question you would like some Surly-Skepchick advice on? Send it in! We won’t publish your real name, unless you want us to and creative pseudonyms get bonus points! Just use the contact link on the top left of the page.

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Amy Roth

Amy Davis Roth (aka Surly Amy) is a multimedia artist who resides in Los Angeles, California. She makes Surly-Ramics. She is the fearless leader of Mad Art Lab. Support her on Patreon. Follow her on twitter: @SurlyAmy or on Google+. Tip Jar is here.

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47 Comments

  1. The last time someone knocked on my door and asked my religious views, I simply said “I’m a skeptic.” That ended the conversation right there, and they left. Apparently they recognized that as a watch-word and have not returned since.

    My favorite method came from my friend’s mother who opened her door and said before they had a chance to say anything “Oh you’re not out spreading religious lies again, are you?”

  2. It occurs to me that you could also print out the Friendly Atheist’s 34 Unconvincing Arguments for God ( http://bit.ly/9lwZmq ) and tell them, “I’ll read yours if you read mine, and when we’re done we can talk.”

    I may do that, and leave it in the drawer in the table next to the door… not that I expect to ever see them again.

  3. Don’t bother. Just tell them you’re busy watching Oprah reruns or something and close the door. There’s no upside to engaging with these useful idiots. You won’t convince them and any time you waste with them is time you could have been watching TV or cleaning the bathtub.

  4. I used to argue with them, then I realized that life was too short to put up with them wasting my time. Neither of us going to convert the other and it’s been a long time since I found it amusing.

    We now have a sign on our front door that keeps away, ‘witnesses,’ door to door preachers, salespeople, etc. We tend to give the Girl Scouts a pass because Mrs. QA is addicted to Thin Mints. ;-)

    It also helps that my wife is a telecommuter and is extremely busy during the workday. If someone does interrupt her work or conference calls, she gets extremely upset. For someone that has multiple pastors in her family, she has quite a mouth on her…. :-D

  5. I think Seth did exactly the right thing. Seth clearly stated that he was not interested in a different point of view on his front step and that this was not an invitation to carry this discussion inside his home.

    Seth, if you are interested is discussing this topic from their point of view centered on design, perhaps he has a forum that you could join. I wonder if they would be interested in a different point of view, centered on chaos. Probably not.

  6. It is dangerous to let a stranger with weird beliefs inch into your home and I think that was a scary red flag. You did the right thing.

    Whenever I am not expecting someone and my doorbell rings, I peek out and see who it is. If I don’t recognize them, I just don’t answer the door. Same thing with unknown phone numbers on caller ID. I have no interest in wasting my time.

    I feel myself getting very angry when they show up at my door but I try to remember that they are not evil and probably most of them are nice people who believe they are being helpful and kind. So if I do get caught in a “conversation,” I try to remain polite and brief. ” No thank you very much, I am not interested”…door shuts.

  7. hmm.. there is one condition that has to be met for me to start talking to these people (and sometimes invite them in for tea) and that is if they have someone teenager or yonger with them (as often is the case with jehova’s witnesses). Then I make a point of being nice and friendly (but of course not changing my mind) just to show the kid that everyone out there isn’t evil to the bone, as those kids are often told. It might not matter much, but if it does, I think it is worth it.

  8. There is nothing impolite about not talking to strangers who show up at your door unannounced and without making an appointment with you first.

    It is exactly like a call from a telemarketer, or a spam email. Is it impolite to simply hang up on a telemarketer? Or to simply delete a spam email without reading it?

    These people have not checked with you to see if it is ok to stop by. You may have more important things to do than waste your time talking with disingenuous fools. You owe them nothing. They have not taking you or your feelings into account, why should you put yourself out for them?

  9. My two standard responses are “I do not except any {telephone/ door to door} solicitations.” Which usually results in a puzzled silence and enough time to shut the door. Alternately “I am not interested in misogynistic religions.” The response I usually get to that one is also befuddlement.

    These people are usually not well educated and would need to look up big words like solicitation and misogyny.

    Except for the one religion peddler who immediately explained that he wasn’t there about prostitution. Makes me wonder where he heard the word solicitation…

    Also, second daedalus2u. They’re being rude to you, you have no obligation to be polite to them.

  10. A friend of mine was harassed by two preacher types and he said…..
    Time is the passing of life.
    you are stealing my time.
    So you are stealing my life
    to take life without cause is murder
    I have the right to defend myself from harm
    Get out now or I will shoot you!
    They not only left very quickly but they nor anyone else ever showed up again.

    When two someones showed up on my door and asked… Have you taken jesus to your heart?
    I answered ….I want nothing to do with the zombie offspring of a psychotic petulant spoiled 5yr sky-fairy who wants to eat my brains!
    They left.

  11. The best I ever did:
    The door rings; I answer.
    Them: We have come to tell you the good news about Jesus.
    Me: Already heard it. (And I closed the door).
    The looks on their faces were priceless.

    The next time, I think I will answer: Does that cheap bastard finally have my money?

  12. Would you insist on giving a door to door knife salesman such time of day? Or any other spruiker of goods and services? I don’t see why one should give door to door proselytizers any more or less time than they would anyone else. Just saying “No thanks, I’m not interested” and closing your door is enough. You are under no obligation to engage and respond simply because you’re an atheist.

  13. Best one ever, and every word true: my elder daughter (early twenties) has a pet snake – a ball python. When it was very small – oh, pencil-sized – she would sometimes let it warm up inside her clothing; specifically, inside her sports bra.

    You can imagine the look on the JW missionary’s face when she answered his knock, and less than a sentence into his spiel, a tiny serpent raised its head from the lovely young lady’s bosom to stare at him…..

  14. They never show up at my door. I wish they would. I have such a deal for them. I’ll listen to their arguments while they clean my kitchen, including the refrigerator.

    QuestionAuthority – Keebler makes a pretty good knockoff of the Thin Mints.

  15. True Story:
    I was standing at the kitchen sink doing my dishes one evening. This is not my favorite chore by a long shot and I like to do it quickly to get it over with. I was interrupted by my doorbell and so when I answered the door, I was already irritable.
    There standing on my front step were two sparkily clean young men in white shirts and black slacks. They immediately went into their speil asking me what religion I was. Before they could get too deep into it, I said “I am a Druid monk and I sacrifice virgins at the full moon. Are you two virgins? Would you like to come in?” And with that last question, I gave them my most wicked toothy smile and held the door open wider.
    They almost levitated back to the sidewalk and I have not seen hide nor hair of a Jehovah’s Witness since. I have this fantasy that they have a map of my local area at their church with a big black pin poked in at my address with a note that says, “Stay away from this house! On fear of your life”!

    I hope they do anyway.

  16. The last time “they” (a man and a woman) showed up at my door, the man actually started with “I realize you have your own beliefs…”
    I interrupted, “I’m an atheist.”
    “How can you look at a tree and not believe in GAWD?”
    “Like this.” “Evolution put trees here, not some giant, invisible ghost who wants to spank you for all eternity for being naughty.”
    “The bible is PROOF that evolution is a LIE.”
    “For all I know, the bible was a best seller on the fiction shelf before the last apocalypse.”
    Now the woman chirped, “And it’s STILL a best seller!”
    This one kinda threw me. “Uhm…yeah.”

    Later I found out they used me as a scare tactic when they stopped an my Dad’s house, as well as my brother’s, and my sister’s. “Did you know that there’s an…ATHEIST living right down the road from you?!” My brother’s encounter with them is an epic tale in itself, but is pretty long.

    My Dad, BTW, usually just tells them he’s a Druid. They usually have no response to that.

  17. @The Edge: is it shaming I had to look up misogyny?

    Anyhoo i’v only had 2 times when christens ca\me a knocking at my door:
    1st I liked at it gave my debating mussles a streach although I admit I fell down at the clock-maker anology and I stumped them by asking where did MRSA come from if no evouloution.

    2nd showed (then gave) me a magazine and never mentioned the G word I only discovered it when looking through it I kept seeing scripture and it clicked.

  18. Creepy guy starts crowding the door.
    Me, “Are you familiar with the castle doctrine?”.
    Creepy stops and says, “huh?”.
    Me, “It says that I can legally shoot you dead where you stand for attempting an unlawful entry”.
    So far, that has ended the conversations. Kids, do not try this at home if you are not prepared to deliver.

    There have been daylight home invasions for several years lately here in ground zero for the jebus fan club so any ring of the doorbell is cause for raising the situational awareness. If I were a burglar checking out the neighborhood, my house is the one I would pick. So I do not go to the door unarmed. If this concept makes you uncomfortable, perhaps you would feel better with keeping a baseball bat behind the door?

    I average a visitation about once every two weeks. Maybe one if five is creepy and pushy. For the usual not very threatening looking sad sacks I tell them my religion forbids associating with people who have imaginary friends and close the door. For the typical JW that sends kids to the door I close the door behind me, go out and confront the matrons with a good rant about child abuse in their god book. It can really get the blood flowing in the morning. ;)

    Sadly, SWMBO will not let me put a no soliciting sign out front. I especially want one of those universal symbol no cross signs.

  19. My ancestors were handcart mormons (founding families), but my great-grandfather was excommunicated for challenging the church president. When I was a kid, some mormons came to the door and said, “May we tell you about the Church of JC of LDS?” Mom replied, “Honey, I could tell *you* about LDS, and closed the door.

    Another time I answered the door. I told them I was descended from an excommunicant. They weren’t expecting that!

  20. In college, I knew a guy who would happily let them talk for an hour… but they had to pay him $20. So long as they kept forking out the yuppie food stamps, he’d keep listening.

    He referred to it as the “Luke 6:30 challenge”. If they wouldn’t give him money when he asked for them, then they weren’t walking the walk and weren’t worth his time.

  21. Somehow I’m never home when the Jehovah’s Witnesses come calling. They leave Watchtowers stuck in my door, though. Makes great birdcage lining.

    My stepmom would always be very polite to the LDS missionaries that dropped by, and if they asked if they could talk to her about their church bs, she’d say sure, let them come in, serve them tea and cookies, etc. Then, she’d start coming on to them, making suggestive comments and hinting towards the bedroom. She was an actress with the local theater troupe, and loved the vamp parts, so she ate up the chance to practice any time she could. The two guys couldn’t seem to run to the door fast enough.

    She got these visitations about once a year… I had the great honor to be watching from the kitchen once, and it was all I could do to keep from dying of laughter.

  22. I usually just try and make them go away as quickly as possible. Years ago, when I was in college, a few missionaries of some sort stopped by my parents house. My brother (he must have been 14 or so at the time) was the only one home and he proclaimed that he worshiped Satan. A somewhat larger party came by later to see my Mom, and told her they wanted to pray for her son’s soul. She raised one hand in a devil’s horn, shouted “Hail Satan!” and slammed the door. Those people prayed on the lawn for the better part of two hours.

  23. I still think my favorite here was this

    me: Hello?
    God-botherers: Did you know that the Bible has answers for your problems?
    me (cheerily): Yes, and I believe those answers are wrong. Have a good afternoon! *shuts door*

  24. When my brother was in college (college students have lots of time, or at least are more willing to waste it), his roommate used to listen patiently to telemarketers and door-to-door salesmen and when they had finished their pitch, he would say “That’s very interesting, but I don’t have a dog.” This would completely bamboozle them and usually they would start all over again from the beginning. He would then explain again that he didn’t have a dog. I think this would work great with JW’s, Mormons and other religious intruders. Just don’t let them inside. Ever.

  25. My absolute favourite story about door to door evangelicals is from my sister. My family is, and has been throughout my life, pretty much peopled with atheists and agnostics (I know, very lucky me)…

    …anyhow, one quasi early morning my sister answered the door (shortly after having woken up) to an asian woman and man, whom she reported to have quite strong chinese accents.

    The woman did most of the talking, and opened with (imagine this with the accent, it is important), “Do you believe in Cod?”

    Do which my sister replied, confused but fairly certain the woman was not talking about fish, “I’m sorry?”

    “Do you believe in Cod?” The woman repeated…

    But this provided no further elucidation to my still sleepy sister who after a third round of this said, “I don’t know what that is…” rather helplessly.

    At this, apparently, the lady became visibly upset, and very surprised, “You do not know Cod?”

    At this point my sister’s brain finally caught up with her and she replied without thinking (extremely relieved to have figured it out), “Oh, God! Do I believe in God!? Of course not!”

    Needless to say this so caught them off guard that they had no idea what to say and pretty much left at this point….

    This story is much better told by my sister out loud (who I think could have been a comedian had she wanted to)… but it is definitely one of my favourites.

  26. I had a good one the other day. In my neighborhood, I get knocks on my door about twice a week. Last week I had some mormons say hi, and I interrupted and said “sorry to interrupt, but I’m a non-believer, so thanks, and a good day to you.”

    The talking-guy said “um, I… What do you believe, then? I’ve never met someone… like you.” I then gave him a two minute rundown of life and morality without invisible bearded men, and he seemed rather interested. Perhaps I’m an optimist, but he seemed intrigued….

  27. I used to live in a college town that hosted an annual Jehovah’s Witness convention every summer. Lots of practice. My favorite summers were when we (three housefuls of friends in a row) set up the early warning system which included a phone tree. Living in the middle house provided additional and timely prep time. The doorbell would ring and I would answer the door with my boyfriend who would start taking off his clothes. It took a couple of years but we finally got the routine down–meaning I learned to keep a poker face (not collapsing in tears of laughter) and talk with whatever family who stopped by to save us while Mark quietly began to remove whatever he was wearing. Our uninvited visitors were always gone before anyone was embarrassed–the striptease never got beyond a “G” rating.

  28. My true story.

    I was home from college for a long weekend to get my wisdom teeth removed. After my appointment, I was waiting at home for my mom to pick up my prescription of painkillers, when she got distracted shopping for shoes. The anesthetic wore off and I was stomping about the house, getting more and more distressed.

    The doorbell rang and I opened the door to two nice young men in suits.

    “Do you have any drugs?”

    “No?”

    “Then I don’t wanna talk to you!” and slammed the door.

    They never came back.

  29. I had two young boys approach me one day wearing the usual shirt and tie. I was pleasant but made it clear I wasn’t interested, when one of the boys asked if I knew who they were?

    Of course, you’re mormons.

    How did I know they were Mormons?

    WHAT DO YOU MEAN HOW DO I KNOW?
    This question really floored and amused me.

    However, a couple years back there was a group of three boys biking the neighborhood in the same shirt/ tie combo, and I politely blew them off several times before I found out they were preaching “the word of the true prophet” who’s living currently. Now I wish I’d taken one of there pamphlets and found out who they were talking about.

    Personal favorite story, from one of Robert Prices ‘Bible Geek’ podcasts. One of his acquaintences was on his mission, doing the door-to-door thing, but was having second thoughts. So he bought a set of vampire teeth. While his partner was talking to the marks/ potential converts, he would stand behind him, smile, and do the whole movie vampire hissing routine. His partner couldn’t understand why everyone was slamming the door so fast.

  30. Thanks for the responses, everyone.

    I have since re-affirmed to myself that I did the right thing. My only regret is not clarifying my position a bit to make it sound less dogmatic… I should have dismissed him with the thought that “I have read about this issue extensively, I am familiar with all your arguments, and have spent a long time thinking about this issue. I have come to the conclusion that there is no God, that the notion of intelligent design is not viable, and that you are unlikely to give me any arguments I have not already refuted. Good day.” I then imagine my monocle dropping before I slam the door on his face.

    I should get a monocle…

  31. ferulebezel: Not to put too fine a point on it, but the last thing we need is MORE Thin Mints…

    It took me a long time to realize that Robert Heinlein was right when he said that people need to learn to say “No” and to be rude about it when necessary.

    w_nightshade: you have no obligation to give anyone the time of day if they come to interrupt yours to peddle twaddle on your doorstep. “Peddle twaddle.” That’s kind of cool to say…(goes away muttering “peddle twaddle…”)

    hkdharmon: “The truth about Cheeses? I’m from Wisconsin and know all about cheeses. Blessed are the cheesemakers! ;-)

    oldearthaccretionist: “Cod? Cod is almost commercially extinct. So long and thanks for all the fish!”

    “Ahem. What does God need with a starship?”
    Gratituous Star Trek quote.

  32. My favorite story is from a friend who told a couple of Mormons all about his close personal relationship with Thor. After that, they would cross the street rather than walk by his house.

    My neighborhood gets very few of these, but I’m ready for the next batch. I have my Pirate Hat, my copies of the Gospel of the FSM and the Loose Canon, and a couple of explanatory pamphlets. Next Mormons come my way are getting an earful of the Good News that god is not very smart but heaven has a beer volcano.

  33. When I was a kid my parents world get the occasional visit from Jehovahs Witnesses. Usually my father was out and my mother would answer the door. Being very polite she’d take the the leaflets and smile and nod and try to get rid of them.

    Then one Saturday they called while my father was in and not busy so he answered the door. Almost before they had said a word he was asking all the questions you’re not supposed to ask. An hour later they managed to leave.

    And never came back.

  34. PS

    We have a dog. The sweetest most lovable pit-mix. When anyone rings the bell she hurls herself at the door just aching to cover whoever is outside in dog drool.

    The evangelists leave quickly, once in a while they stay long enough to shove a leaflet in the screen door.

  35. The ‘physically inching inside the doorway’ in the original story was absolutely appalling and that alone was enough to slam the door in that person’s face.

    However, I’m a bit… disappointed? that so many others here say that all they ever do is mock door-to-door preachers and try to get rid of them as quickly as possible.

    Why? Because I used to be one of them, and if not for the pointed questions I received from a couple of people on Saturday mornings over the years, I might be one still.

    We don’t always have the time or the inclination, of course. But we are skeptics who care enough about this stuff to read at least one blog dedicated to it, and even post comments. Someone comes right to our door, ready and willing to talk about exactly these topics. And our default position is to get rid of them as fast as possible?!?

    You really never know when a few questions about something that seems ridiculously basic to us (in my case, it was the Problem of Evil) might make a huge difference in someone’s life.

  36. I consider this part of choosing my battles. It’s not worth the time. I’m very polite, almost friendly, as I smile and say “No thank you, we’re not interested. But have a nice day!” Then I close the door.

    That said, I’m thoroughly enjoying the stories upthread. :)

    @QuestionAuthority:
    Blessed are the cheesemakers, indeed! And I’m a displaced Cheesehead.

  37. Many years ago when we were in our early 20’s, my best friend saw the Jehovah Witnesses coming up the driveway in their trademark cheap suits at 9:00 am on a Saturday morning. Unlike the many other times they had shown up at this ungodly hour, he was not sleeping off a hangover. He immediately stripped down to his tightie-whities, opened a beer and lit a cigarette. When they rang, he threw open the door, took a swig of beer and a drag on the cigarette and said ” hi there, what can I do for ya?” They muttered something inaudible and left…never to return.
    This might work for you too.

  38. I point at the ‘no soliciting’ sign right next to the door bell button they just pushed and ask them if they can read, and then I close the door before they can say anything. All this is done with a smile on my face but even then it embarrasses my wife to no end. I’ve been told I can be a bit intimidating in appearance so I’ve never had anyone make any movements like they intended to come into my house. But if anyone did try to inch in the door while making their pitch I’d probably be in their face or provide them with an abrupt escort off the porch.

  39. I like all of the silly stories; when I finally get my own place, I’m thinking about posting a sign that says “NO SOLICITING (unless you sell Girl Scout Cookies)” on my door. Mostly, it’s because as a former Girl Scout I feel a responsibility to support the troops of family and neighbors.

    On the original topic, some LDS came by two Lents ago. I answered the door, and the first question they asked was “Do you read the bible?”

    I said “Yes”. Didn’t clarify that it was as a work of mythology and literature, so they were happy about that. They invited me to some sort of meeting.

    “Sorry, I’m doing something with my family that weekend.”

    End of line.

    They don’t really come around here anymore, thank goodness… though it’s kind of weird. We’re not a mega LDS community, but the Local Mormons live right around the block. Their kids were always our first trick-or-treaters of the night on Halloween.

  40. My friend down the street had an excellent method of dealing with doorknockers. He would tell them that they had entered an obscene household, and that he was going to disrobe in 15 seconds. This would give them a chance to see *his* watchtower.

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