In my Christian days, I heard it said that early persecuted Christians used the symbol of a fish to signal to a stranger they suspected of also being a Christian.1 The Christian would subtly draw half of the shape of the fish with their foot and if the listener was also Christian, they would draw the other half. Thereby they avoided being put to death for talking about their religion with a nonbeliever.
We all have subtle signals in conversation with new acquaintances to discover their stances on controversial topics so as not to offend or not to be discovered. People do this all the time when talking about politics, sex or religion.
Yesterday, on rounds in the hospital, I was having the “Your father is dying” conversation with a patient. The son of the patient surprised me with his combination of compassion and calmness when speaking about his father’s unexpected deterioration. As the conversation progressed, I could tell we had much in common but neither of us was being forthright — this was, after all, a medical professional relationship, we had our roles to play. But as the son spoke of death he used phrases like, “all we have is the here and now” and “we must learn to accept what is real”. I returned his signals with strong agreement and using his style I blatantly avoided religious phrasing. And it came out that he was an atheists. It was kind of easy to tell because most people, by this point of the conversation, would have brought religious elements into the conversation but we were consciously avoiding them.
As far as drawing in the sand, I find drawing the Flying Spaghetti Monster very laborious but maybe the Invisible Pink Unicorn symbol would be better. But seriously, in conversations, what are your examples of signals you use in touchy situations to discover if your new acquaintance is an Atheist?
1. The word for fish in Greek is I-Ch-Th-Y-S, which was used as an acrostic for
“Iesous Christos Theos Yios Soter” or “Jesus Christ of-God Son Savior”.