In which I meet a woman at Botany Pond

August 26, 2022 • 9:15 am

Yesterday I had a strange encounter at Botany Pond. Two of us were giving the ducks their breakfast (we’re cutting down the food, preparing for the mallards’ departure), when a middle-aged woman and two young children came by, pulled out some crackers, and were about to feed the ducks and turtles.

I told her that crackers were bad for the animals, and, as I often do in these cases, offered her and the children—they turned out to be her grandchildren—a handful of duck food so they could feed them the good stuff.

She asked me if I worked at the University, and I said “yes” but that taking care of the ducks was an avocation, not a job. I then asked her if she was affiliated with the U of C, and she said no, that she had driven several hours to visit her husband in the hospital. I won’t reveal his ailment, but let me say that it wasn’t a good one, and when I asked her if he was okay, she shook her head “no” in an immensely saddening gesture.  (I’ve met several people who come to the pond to seek respite when they have relatives in the nearby hospital.)

I then showed her and her grandchildren one duck that we were taking special care of, G. G. (“Gritty Gertie”), a hen that had a badly injured leg and couldn’t walk or swim well when she flew in about two weeks ago. (The good news is that extra feeding has gotten her and her leg in better shape, though she still limps when she walks.)

I’ll try to reconstruct the conversation from there:

Woman: What do you teach?

Me:  I’m retired, but I taught biology—evolution.

Woman: Well, I don’t believe in evolution.

Me (stifling myself since there was no point in arguing) It’s not really a matter of believing in it, but accepting it. You know, I wrote a book about the evidence for evolution, which did pretty well. It’s called “Why Evolution is True.”  If you read it and still reject evolution, well. . . .

Woman: No, I’m just a good old-fashioned creationist.

At that point I decided to let matters be, But she continued:

Woman: You know, it doesn’t matter whether you believe in creation or evolution. What’s important is that you accept Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior. That’s the only way you’ll get to Heaven.

Me: Well, I was brought up Jewish, so I’m doubly damned. No, actually, now I’m an atheist, so I guess I’m triply damned.

This was all conducted civilly, like a normal conversation. Then the woman came out with a line I’ll remember until I die:

Woman: Well, you know we love our Jews, which is why we don’t want them to burn in hell.

At that point I went back to the ducks. The phrase “our Jews” made me feel like these evangelicals regard Jews as pets. And they love us, but they think we’ll bake for eternity if we don’t choose the right Savior.

I told her and her kids goodbye (her daughter was sitting nearby in a stroller), and they all left. All day I thought about this conversation, and wondered if her husband would find solace in his religion as he neared the end. I also wondered if the kids would grow up to be creationists, which would probably be the case.

But the one thing that lingers is that last sentence: “Well, you know we love our Jews, which is why we don’t want them to burn in hell.”

102 thoughts on “In which I meet a woman at Botany Pond

  1. The evangelical/fundamentalist Christian “love for the Jews” has always been transparent cover for a particularly insidious sort of anti-Semitism, in my opinion.

    Consider, for example, the classic eschatology of such believers, in which (broadly) there is a period of tribulation before the return of Jesus.

    In that scenario, there are two, and *only* two, fates for Jews: convert to Christianity or suffer eternal torment in hell.

    Now, of course, there’s zero reason to subscribe to that silly narrative, which reeks of typical human fear and gullibility. Nonetheless, it really does reveal what most such Christians *really* mean when they say (condescendingly!), “we love our Jews.”

    1. Wow I’ve read what micro aggressions are like but that last line by the church lady is more like a macroagression! I knew a family that home schooled their kids, they had very weird ideas,

  2. I’m going to assume that she was replying to something you said because otherwise a non sequitur mention of Jews like that is a little disturbing. Like she has Jews on her mind all the time and when an Evangelical has Jews on the mind all the time, it usually isn’t a good thing.

    These types of comments, however, I have found come from lots of various groups (mostly religious) who feel they have sole custody of “the Truth ™” and so they take a very paternalistic view of anyone else. It’s tempting to bite back, “Oh we Jews/atheists/insert “out” group here do love the fantastical ramblings of the religious/”insert person’s group here” but we don’t want you to be deluded”.

    1. Diana,

      Yes, you can see in the conversation I recalled that I told her I was brought up as a Jew. This might have been her way to try to be “nice” to me: by implying that I could still go to heaven if I converted.

      1. Seems to me she was trying to be nice. I would interpret “our Jews” as her acceptance of Jews. Can’t argue with her B.S. anyway…no point.

  3. Funny how the religious are always stating/claiming: “Where do you get your morality from if you don’t believe in god?” Yet in this encounter, you were being morally superior in being sensitive to her husband, and she was being rude and repugnant in claiming that if you don’t believe in the same supernatural fantasy as her tribe, you will be tortured forever. Another mind addled by religion.

  4. Sadly, her children heard the conversation and they, too, had it reinforced that Jews are lesser creatures imbued with evil. And, being destined to eternal damnation, Christians have no choice but to convert them or pity them. And so the generations turn.

    1. Or maybe the kids thought Grandma was bonkers and rude. Kids don’t always believe what adults say, and often learn early it’s best not to argue with them.

  5. I seldom encounter a Christian in the wild, and I’m sure I’d be flummoxed in such a situation. It’s important, though, not to conceal our lack of belief, but to let them know that we’re out here, all around them, looking like everyone else, caring for ducks and doing other acts of kindness.

    1. Yes indeed. I wonder if there are many atheists who don’t quite dare admit to it fearing opprobrium. If asked what is one’s religion, the expected answer is usually a denomination, thus ssaying “Atheist” can be startling to some who just take for granted that the answer will be a religion. We atheists must be braver, more matter of fact , bolder about answering. I have been an atheist since forever- am 94 and no chance of being silent about it.

    2. I had a wild-Christian encounter in a supermarket parking lot, and was indeed flummoxed into silence. But I did have l’esprit d’escalier, which I hope to use in some future encounter: in a very raspy voice croak out “What have we to do with thee, thou Jesus of Nazareth” (KJV Mark 1:24).

  6. Benefit of the doubt is she used the possessive pronoun as a term of endearment connoting affection, but who knows? Appropriateness is another matter. Maybe she felt a certain amount of intimacy, having divulged her husband’s medical condition.

  7. That’s funny yesterday someone commented on a post I made on a YouTube video about why God created so many people he knew would go to hell with the exact words

    “All perish, but those who do the will of God. It’s not rocket science.”

    My actual answer was charitable because I don’t like just insulting people, but what I really thought was

    “Spoken like a true sociopath”

  8. Ohh boy this brings me back..

    There is a TON of confusion within evangelicalism regarding Jews.

    I think probably the majority opinion is that there are two ways to be “saved”, the Law (the Jewish way) and Christ. A lot of evangelicals like to attend “messianic” Jewish (think Jews For Jesus) congregations, and I’ve known a good chunk who converted to Judaism entirely, some even to the point of moving to Israel.

    There’s another group that views Jews as stuck in the past and destined for damnation. Within this group there’s a spectrum of emotional responses ranging from the skinheads to pity. Your “friend” apparently fell here. A lot of times, as you suspect, people make a big show of being in the pity range but when they get comfortable will show signs of antisemitism. I do think you’re right that it’s often a cover. Who knows how often.

    My mother, super religious, is very self righteous in thinking she’s open minded. But as her kids and grand kids deviate further and further from her “norm” she’s continually being challenged to either accept her progeny as they are or risk exclusion from their life. She’ll never admit it but she has definitely chosen exclusion a number of times. She hasn’t expressed any interest in seeing my kids in years and I’m fairly convinced it’s because they have chosen atheism, not out of any kind of anger but careful consideration.

    I don’t know. I will say that evangelicals aren’t a monolithix group. The beliefs vary to the point of self contradiction

    1. Re. “I think probably the majority opinion is that there are two ways to be “saved”, the Law (the Jewish way) and Christ.” To the contrary, the notion that a person can be saved by the Jewish laws would be a tiny minority opinion among evangelicals, not anything like a majority. Why do you think it would be the majority view?

    2. Re “I think probably the majority opinion is that there are two ways to be “saved”, the Law (the Jewish way) and Christ.”

      Absolutely not, for fundamentalist Christian believers, who believe (it’s all but axiomatic for the type) that acceptance of Jesus as the messiah, the only-begotten-son-of-god who is also god himself, is the *only* avenue to salvation, full stop.

      This is why all the fundy Xtian pronouncements of “love” for Jewish people ultimately ring hollow. In their idiotic eschatology (typically based on Millerism, which strung together disparet bits and pieces of the Bible in the 1800s; prior to this, today’s commonly accepted “end times” narrative simply did not exist), Jews must either convert or die, no exceptions.

      1. Maybe the point to cease and desist in the conversation occurred when the lady claimed not to believe in evolution. Most likely she was stressed by her husband’s hospitalization and did not need any shade thrown on her faith or have it implied she’s a moron if she doesn’t agree with evolution once she’s been set straight by “Why Evolution Is True.”

        1. She thinks it’s the her love, and of others like her, that will prevent jews from burning in hell – that is what strikes me the most! So humble indeed…

          1. Don’t know what happened, this was not supposed to be an answer but simply a comment… though I tend to agree with you, Bunny

        2. Have to disagree. The point to end the conversation could have been when she asked Jerry what he teaches and he told her. She doesn’t need to respond to him at that point. No need for her to tell Jerry her opinion about evolution. Once she does that, the rest of the conversation follows naturally.

          1. One is feedings ducks, the other had a close relative dying in the hospital, besides, she just gave her opinion – one I don’t share, obviously.
            Jerry himself said there was no point in arguing, so, what was that for?
            Of course, I’d like to see those kids get a better education in science, if Michael Shermer got out of it maybe they will too.

    1. But it would have been fun (to see her reaction) if our host had said “And all the duck are being raised as Atheists, too.”

  9. The phrase “our Jews” made me feel like these evangelicals regard Jews as pets. And they love us, but they think we’ll bake for eternity if we don’t choose the right Savior.

    According to evangelical eschatology, the battle of Armageddon will take place in the ancient city of Megiddo, about 30 km from present-day Haifa. (The main impetus for evangelicals’ current support for the state of Israel is that they believe its continued existence will ensure that “Our Jews” will grant them access to this site when the End Times come.) They believe that, in the final days, Jews will be granted one last chance to accept Jesus as their savior and that those who refuse will be consigned for eternity to the fiery pit of hell.

    Add “duck feeding” to Hitch’s long list of things that religion poisons.

    1. (The main impetus for evangelicals’ current support for the state of Israel is that they believe its continued existence will ensure that “Our Jews” will grant them access to this site when the End Times come.)

      But, how are they all going to get there? Will they be able to hop on a plane in the End Times? What about the poor people of
      Appalachia? Will they be able to afford the fare? Or, do they believe that Jesus is going to magically transport them? So much to worry about!

  10. And let us not forget that it is only a small step from “god will fry them all” to “well then, must be ok for us to slaughter them,” a step that indeed has been taken many a time, by many religious sects, regarding any given “other”.

  11. I’m a Brit and was wondering how I’d react to such a dogmatic set of statements popping up in a casual conversation with a stranger in Leeds, where I live.

    I like to think I can pass the time of day with a broad range of people with differing viewpoints but the best I could muster here would be a kind of bemused silence.

    I was completely blindsided by the way conversation progressed. It was like you opened a box marked ‘Human bonding in the face of mortality’ but found only a lump of blithering insanity.

  12. Several hours drive from UofC can get you into serious crazy country!
    It does astonish me how fixated these people are on hellfire and damnation. I had 14 years in TN of being told on a pretty regular basis that I would end up in hell. It’s always done very sincerely and with a tone of regret. But the charm wears off pretty quickly. I though moving to Chicago had immunized me – apparently not!

  13. You chose kindness when she was clearly vulnerable with suffering. She needed the conflict free but honest connection that you and the ducks provided. Your differing beliefs about a deity and afterlife were less important than the connection to life she needed in that moment. That was very well done, Dr. Coyne.

    1. Seems like a very charitable interpretation, to me, Suzi. When a person consoles someone in difficult times and that person finds it necessary or fitting to bring up the “fact” that the other person is destined to burn in hell, well, I can’t help but thinking that this lady’s beliefs about her deity and the afterlife took precedence over the human hand extended to her.

      1. Jared, you may be right. I experienced the story differently, as one of unguarded connection while she was grieving her coming loss. The fact that she believes in heaven and hell and all that jazz defines her less to me than her suffering in that moment. Thus my response.

        1. I share the conclusions of Suzi above. The pond woman was constrained by morbid training training that likely began in her early childhood, but PCC treated her with kindness in response. Conscious not only of her current distress but also of her powerlessness to escape the bonds of the strange upbringing that shapes her awareness now, he responded generously and well. Perhaps she left with some inkling that even a heathen evolutionist might harbor a spark of kindness.

          1. Perhaps. I think it unlikely, though. Religious judgement runs deep. If there is any enlightenment to be found it would be with the kids, if they were listening.

      2. Jared, I was thinking that she was responding in a rather broken manner to the challenge she was experiencing in holding fast to her own religion. In a zero-sum sort of way, putting Jerry down helps her believe in eternal reward for herself and her husband.

  14. Hats off to you for reacting to her crap in a calm, mature, analytical way. Me, I’m angry reading this. Based on the headline, I was hoping you had met someone intriguing that had started your day with a positive spark. I am furious that she would say something so bigoted to you, apparently oblivious that her comment was anything but full of claimed “love.” Oh, the easy self-righteous ignorance of the fundamentalist religious folks. Grrrrr.

    1. Agree with you Emily. I don’t think I would have been calm and mature (as Jerry was). Probably would have said something like: “for fucks sake, don’t be such a moron” as soon as she mentioned Jesus being my lord and saviour. But then, I am a damaged, recovering catholic, so should be excused for feeling anger towards this crap. Jerry, on the other hand, is a class act.

      1. Had her family not been around, and had her husband not been dying, I would have been a bit more forceful, but probably not to the point of trying to argue the evidence for evolution with her.

  15. And that concludes this episode of

    Religion Poisons Everything

    Join us next week, in which the same stuff happens all over again!

  16. Somehow, in my tiny, twisted brain I heard “We love our Jews!” in my T**** voice impression!

    “We love our Jews, don’t we Mel? Just the other day a man came up to me and said, sir, sir, we love our Jews, don’t we and I said, yes, we do.”

    Don’t worry, Dr. C, you won’t burn. You’ll find yourself for all eternity feeding ducks at a pond that is visited by this woman every day … for … all … eternity!

    1. Now that Roe vs. Wade is obliterated perhaps we can hope that she has stopped. Prior to that issue and then same sex marriage being weaponized many evangelicals stayed out of politics. I’m wondering (hoping) whether they will revert to that mean. Not holding my breath though.

  17. A key feature of religion is that it allows you to believe that you’re superior to others and that you’ll get a special reward in the afterlife for which those lesser people are not entitled. Like getting into the executive lounge at the airport while all those steerage class passengers are relegated to the uncomfortable seating by the gate, except that those seats will be on fire.

    While some of them are sincerely concerned about our damnation, my experience for the most part is that they’re smugly satisfied with the arrangement and will look on with satisfaction at our eternal roasting.

    1. Yeah, it takes a certain kind of mind to dream up the idea of eternal roasting in the first place. And then to accept it as a believable and inspiring story in the second place. Probably not minds overflowing with love.

    2. Edit: meant to be free-standing, not a reply.

      If Jerry felt threatened by the woman’s parting line, even if not by her personally but by the anti-Semitism wrapped up in the thought, then I accept that without argument, history being what it has been. Forced conversions to prevent damnation and all that.

      Going back to the beginning though, Jerry says he stifled himself and didn’t want to argue, but then makes what is surely an argument, and a plug for his book. (If I really didn’t want to argue, I would have just said, “Well, to each his own. Best wishes to your husband.”). The woman is having none of it and goes on the offensive, perhaps motivated to profess her faith by the knowledge, which she has shared, that her husband is (presumably) dying, no doubt wondering where this guy gets off. He hasn’t made any soothing sympathy patter, at least not as recounted by Jerry, but wants to push Evolution on her. Jerry escalates, mocking her by announcing he is not just Jewish-raised but atheist and is surely irredeemably damned. That oughta shut her up. But it doesn’t! She comes back with an Algonquin-worthy riposte that leaves him speechless.

      If her husband was maybe having a good day and in the mood to hear the anecdote, I’ll bet her version ended with, “You’d have been proud of me, Earl. I sure put that Godless little pest in his place.”

      Maybe I underestimate the dangers posed by Evangelicals being allowed to wander around loose and proselytizing but I think Jerry was punching down here and yet she got the better of him, albeit with a dirty trick. And that’s just from hearing Jerry’s version.

      1. > “You’d have been proud of me, Earl. I sure put that Godless little pest in his place.”

        I’d bet the reverse— that she told him she met one of ‘those people’ who claimed to be an atheist, but she set him straight on the only way to get into heaven. And that she didn’t yell at him at all, she was charitable.

      2. What does “Algonquin-worthy” mean? I’ve never heard that one. And couldn’t find anything googling it.

  18. In such an exchange, I would offer my interlocutor the chance of joining Kosher Goyim. This is my own Christian denomination, in which worship of Jesus is practiced through such sacred artifacts as gefilte fisch. matzo brei, and the knish.

    1. Not the best selling points, I’m afraid. Try donuts and Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, you might get more recruits.

  19. A friend I’d known for 15 years once remarked that Jews deserved the Holocaust because “They claim to be the chosen ones.” I was shocked by the strength of her loathsome conviction — it marked the demise of our relationship. While she isn’t an evangelical, she was raised by evangelicals. She ditched the religion and kept the anti-Semitism.

        1. But evangelicals surely believe they are saved and also chosen. The (English version of the) NT repeatedly uses the word “chosen” in reference to, well, the chosen, both individually and collectively. Only difference is that there is no longer the national sense, but chosen just the same.

  20. And it sounds like soon her husband will die an early death and she will be alone to raise her two fatherless children. Nice god you got there. Working in mysterious ways, I guess.

    1. I think it’s her husband, the kids’ grandfather, who’s knock, knock, knockin’ on heaven’s door, buddy.

        1. I hadn’t refreshed my screen and seen Jerry’s comment before posting mine. Don’t want you to think I was trying to pile on. 🙂

  21. I was reading the headlines of NYT’s op-eds today and saw this one:

    Our social lives suffer because we underestimate how much we’ll enjoy chatting with a stranger, says David Brooks.

    Gotta love the irony.

  22. I’m reminded of a Dawkins exchange in which he criticizes the phrase ” our women”, as used in an Islamic context.

    I think the video exchange is buried in the Internet pile at this point.

  23. Oh, and another thing!

    (Last starter comment – promise)

    That XKCD cartoon – atheists have found a way to be “superior” to the religious:



    That ain’t what’s going on here. But it had every chance to.

    1. About this ^^^

      I’m not sure I’ve understood the comic ever.

      Interlocutor A sounds like they’re not an atheist or a fundamentalist Christian.

      But we know the problem with that – both are atheists.

      So … confusing … and does not illuminate the Botany Pond exchange either.

  24. “Our Jews” — wow. You thought of pets, and I thought of slaves. Slave owners claimed to love their slaves. What a thing to say after you had been so kind, as you always are. It’s bad enough that we have to witness the general nastiness on the daily news, but to be confronted personally is more than unpleasant. At least you prevented her from feeding crackers to the ducks.

    1. Slave owners would repeat that slavery was merely protection. Abe Lincoln is fabled to have made a riddle to illustrate this fallacy :

      If you call a tail a leg, how many legs does a dog have?

      Protection of whom, from what, and why not someone else, and from other threats, we do not know.

  25. Given the long-running seasonal soap opera that is Botany Pond, on seeing the subject line my first thoughts were of a romantic encounter, and worry that you might inappropriately call her “Honey”. 🙂

  26. “Our Jews’ . I find that not as bad as most here. In WWII there were slogans written on Amsterdam’s walls: ‘You ‘ Moffen’ (an invective for nazi-germans) keep your dirty paws off our dirty Jews”. I maybe mistaken though, but that sounds like they didn’t exactly approve of the anti-semitic nazi policies.
    And it should be noted that Jesus was a Jew, I always like to point that out in such conversations. Stronger, it is quite clear from the scriptures that Jesus’ (if he ever existed) preachings were meant for G*d’s Chosen People, not for Goyim (again, I might be mistaken there).

  27. ” . . . our Jews . . . .”

    Is anyone positioned to refer to “our Christians”? Bet she would have umbrage at that.

    1. That’s funny

      I mean, there’s no limit –

      “Our atheists”
      “Our Satan Worshippers”
      “Our Cubs Fans”
      “Our Windows Users”

      …. shows how meaningful an expression it is!

  28. I think your responses to her were entirely appropriate. I disagree with some others here that seem to find it important to believe that fundamentalists support Jews, but only in what is actually done in a fundamentally antisemitic manner.
    Whatever the original impetus that led initially to all the mingling of the two groups, the result has been years of hosting exchange students, Jewish guest speakers in churches, shared gatherings, as well as lots of trips to “The Holy Land”. After all that, one cannot easily avoid actual empathy and friendship.
    I see a lot of “I stand with Israel” signs around here, and knowing quite a few of the people who post them, I am pretty confident that they are sincere.

    We love our sweet tea around here. That is what I though of. Dr. Coyne did not mention whether she used a regional accent. Sometimes such differences can lead to miscommunication.

  29. Having grown into atheism more recently in life, I’ve decided that when a lifetime believer is facing their own mortality or that of a loved one is not a good time to bring up biology.

    That said, the woman’s comment that “we love our Jews” was over the top. I admire your restraint, Prof CC.

  30. What a weird thing to say! “We love our Jews”. I’m going to google it and see if this is a widespread thing that Christians say.

  31. Evangelicals support Israel the way a rope supports a hanging man. They are waiting for the prophecy to be fulfilled which said something to the effect that Jesus will return and usher in the horrific (fortunately fictional) “End Times” where the Evangelical people will go to heaven and the rest of us are condemned to eternal torture.

  32. I don’t share your reaction. Yes, “our Jews” sounds proprietary. But it also sounds like she has an interest in them and a concern about them. Nobody in Nazi Germany was talking about “our Jews.”

    Her wish that you not burn in hell also shows genuine concern about your well-being. I get it, you disagree profoundly with her premises. But from her point of view, your soul is in mortal danger, and she is rooting for it.

    1. Well I’m delighted that she cares so much about me.

      Have you heard about not proselytizing strangers with your faith, as well as the insanity of thinking that all of us Jews are going to hell?

      I’m sorry, but I can’t see this as a kindly gesture, any more than that of the Mormons who knock on your door, the Jehovah’s Witnesses who hector you from street corners, or the Jews for Jesus who grab me on the street.

      And “our Jews” is patronizing.

    2. There’s simply no excuse, IMO, for people to exhibit this sort of self-centered bigotry. In no reasonable sense is a group of people that have been subject of centuries of persecution “ours”. People like this woman, with so little self awareness that they can treat others like this, are not worthy of the benefit of a doubt. Maybe that sounds harsh, but Christians like this good woman have been handmaidens of suffering for a very long time.

  33. And unfortunately this subculture breeds a lot, little r substantially higher than the population as a whole. My father had 9 brothers and sisters so I grew up with lots of first cousins, and two of them have contributed to more than 50% of the great-grandchildren of my grandparents, and those two are just like this woman at the pond.

  34. There is an expression that cones to mind, the interpretation of which is distinct (IMO), I’ll give an example of : for the “sunk cost fallacy” as applied to prolonging wars :

    “Our boys will not have died in vain.”

    I’m not going to go on, just thought it’d be worth putting up – “our boys”. The sense is distinct. Not as weird, shall we say. I’m not sure why…

  35. “Woman: You know, it doesn’t matter whether you believe in creation or evolution. What’s important is that you accept Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior. That’s the only way you’ll get to Heaven.”

    This was a simple woman, with a simple mind. Not a bad person at all, mind you. This last sentiment of hers was the most honest…most creationists have no interest whatsoever in science…they just know and love their easily digestible Bible stories.

  36. The few times I’ve found myself in a similar conversation, I thanked the person for their concern for my soul … and assured them that, when Jesus returns, I’ll be the first in line to convert! 😀

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