The local dogs tonight taught me a lesson in apologetics.

I was taking a walk in the evening. Plenty of shops are open and pedestrians are walking around at 8:30 in my Chiang Mai neighbourhood, and there was a bright full moon. At the doorway of the laundromat lay three or four dogs, resting. I see plenty of dogs here. I hear that they are more or less free, but they often act like guard dogs. I always take care not to look funny at them or linger near them. But I think I looked funny at a spotty one by accident once, and my theory is that he has a grudge against me. That would explain why, while I was still a couple of shops away, he got up and came up to me, barking, and bringing his friends with him.

Normally, I ignore barking dogs, and they eventually lose interest. But I like that laundromat. I wash my clothes there every week. I wouldn’t hit dogs with a broom like the laundromat cleaning lady does. But I jolly well like to sit there, and I decided I would do so right then, right in front of those overzealous guard dogs.

I walked toward the laundromat, ignoring their continued crowding and barking. They sniffed me as well. I took a seat near the washing machines. They kept up the crowding and barking a bit, with some growling thrown in, but also stopped to sniff more thoroughly. I let them have a good sniff while I looked at my phone. I guess they got comfortable (or bored) with me, because they lay back down and dozed again. When they had dozed a few minutes, I walked out.

I was halfway down the road when Spot realised I was gone. ‘Woof,’ he said, ‘Woof! Yeah, you better leave! And don’t come back!’ But neither he nor his friends followed me.

The experience got me thinking about apologetics. Whether we are Christians, atheists, or whatever, when we disagree with people, sometimes we feel like barking at them – taking up a debating posture. Barking is a way to give warning that a hostile person is near, or that a line has been crossed. But sometimes, barking is rude and unnecessary. When people rudely bark at you (debate at you in a rude way), you could sign off and move on. But another option is to take a seat, exercise your right to be present (if indeed you do have a solid right to be present), and give them a chance to ‘sniff you’ – to get to know you. You should neither cower nor shout; either of those may escalate the rudeness. Meanwhile, you will get to know them, too, and (probably) find out that they don’t bite. Afterwards, they may make a pose of winning the debate or looking down on you. But the reality is, you both shared the same space for a while, and maybe learned something from it.

Postcript: Some dogs sniffed me again a while later, and since then I have not been barked at.

I still reflect that on the experience. Real malice is out there. It can also lurk inside, in our hearts and our manners, and we need to deal with that. As for malice out there, in some atheists and various people who naysay the faith — it is understandable to be cautious of those who, say, use a lot of bombast or ad hominem arguments. There is a time to just avoid unconstructive stuff. But, on the other hand, as people who have received grace, we should have the grace to give people a chance, the charity to think the best of them, and some healthy confidence. After (or during!) their heated tirade or coarse and provoking language, someone might just settle down to getting to know you.

Luke Williamson is studying a Master in Linguistics at Payap University in Chiang Mai. When in his hometown of Hamilton, he helped run Thinking Matters events there (Mining for Truth). He combines his passion for apologetics with elements from his background including linguistics, literature, children’s ministry and evangelism.