On Malta, churches are plentiful. There's one church, chapel or cathedral for each day in the year. The island of Gozo and its capital, Victoria, is no exception. St George's Basilica[a] is the parish church of St George's parish, and is close to the center of the old town of Victoria. The church was built in the 1670s, but the dome and the aisles are from the 1930s and 1940s, respectively.
As I braced the camera against a row of seats and worked my way through the exposures, I overheard a pair of older ladies asking people what their religion were. When I had finished the shot, the turn came to me.
"Where are you from?"
"What's the religion there?"
A solid base of 85% damn blasted heathen atheists, a smattering of pagan worshippers and followers of the false prophet Muhammad... "Protestant, Lutheran."
Maybe they read my mind. "Are you... practicing or non-practicing?"
Destined-for-Hell atheist, which would be... "Non-practicing."
"Thank you. And remember...", her voice dropped to a whisper, "God loves you!"
It felt strange and awkward during the conversation, and it didn't feel better afterwards. I certainly sympathise with the core value of Christianity: "love your neighbor". There are also other metaphysical things that I have a hard time with, such as, for example, God - but to be honest, God is so absent that He doesn't really matter in practice as the ability to "agree to disagree" is always present. The big issues are when these good principles are to be made into secular law: Divorce. Abortion. Homosexuals. Evolution - although these were Roman Catholic, so that's not an issue in this case.
That's when it gets really awkward. On one hand, it is difficult to bring up contentious issues when someone just wants to wish you well. "God loves you." "Thank you. Let's talk about God's view of LGBT issues." Smooth.
But it is somehow a discussion that needs to be taken, because to some extent, silence implies agreement. It shouldn't taken head-on, as that would seem offensive and doubly so in a church. An ever so soft, "thank you, and I love you, too, but my way", would be the way to go. I would really mean it. They wished me well. They didn't judge me. It's just that I have no loving God to offer up in return.
Speaking for secular society, perhaps a "thank you! We love you, too," is the best.