What's the correct response to anti-atheist comments?

Former Arkansas Governor, Mike Huckabee, speak...Image via WikipediaI just had an interesting encounter with a real charming fellow at a hotel in Southhaven, MS (right outside of Memphis, TN). While I was sitting in the lobby eating my cinnamon roll an older gentleman came down, fixed his breakfast, sat near me and started talking about how the economy is all messed up, housing is terrible, etc. After a few non-specific pleasantries from me, he does a 180, and out of the blue says, "I think Mike Huckabee is right when he said [I should have known whatever came next was going to be a winner] that the atheists are welcome to stay in our country but they have their day, April first, and should leave Christmas alone. What they did out in Washington was terrible."

So what's the correct response to this? I'm minding my own business at 6:30 in the morning and get handed this gem. At this point The Wife has already gone back up to the room so it's just this mental giant and me in the lobby. So I tell him I'm an atheist and ask him what's so offensive about the sign out in Washington. He gets a little agitated and says, "It's offensive. It's horrible and they were rude for doing it. It's was horrible." I realized right there that this guy had never seen the sign. He'd just heard the Right Reverend Huckabee bitch about it and that was enough. So I asked him again, "This sign must have been pretty offensive to get you this upset. What was it that it said that was so bad?"

"It was offensive!"

I try one more time. "What specifically was said on it that was so bad? It was my understanding it basically said 'There's probably no God, but be Merry anyway' [turns out I was wrong. I had gotten it confused with the billboards]." For the record the sign he was referring to says:
"At this season of THE WINTER SOLSTICE may reason prevail.
There are no gods, no devils, no angels, no heaven or hell.
There is only our natural world.
Religion is but myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds."
"No, no, no it was horrible. They can live here, but they shouldn't put hate speech up right next to a nativity! Look I think atheists should be able to say what they want but they shouldn't spread immorality."

I asked him what was immoral about it but he kind of hemmed and hawed around. I asked him if he'd mind telling me what denomination he belonged to. He replied "Catholic...I mean the Universal Church. You wouldn't understand that."

I replied that, "I have a Christian background and know a little about it. I'm a former born-again Christian." I barely had that out of my mouth when he bit back, "That's impossible." I get this a lot. A lot. I just kind of shrugged and before I could say anything he said "You were never a real Christian. Not if you're an atheist now."

There really isn't anything I could say to him at this point. Not that would have convinced him. So I smiled and said, "If you think so." By this time another man was sitting down and he switched his attention to the new guy. I got up and filled my coffee and as I was leaving smiled and told him "Merry Christmas!" He just laughed like I'd told him a joke.

So did I respond the right way? I know some of my atheist friends would have let him have it. Lord knows (rimshot!) that it would have been easy. This was the type of guy who brings a mental knife to an intellectual gunfight. But I'm more in the mold of The Friendly Atheist. I think our grandmothers were right: you catch more flies with honey. These people already have a preconception of the bitter, angry (not to mention immoral) atheist painted so vividly for them by their preachers and theologians. I'd rather show them that this picture they've been given is wrong and so is most of the rest of the blather that comes from the clergy. I prefer to demonstrate that you can be a happy and well contented atheist - because I am one. And I really do wish him a Merry Christmas.

How would you have responded to this situation?


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