What is the most polite way to respond to a Christian evangelist?
March 21, 2015 3:03 PM   Subscribe

I have a gig coming up where I will be spending a LOT of time with very, VERY religious Christians. I have been warned they may try to evangelize to me during this gig, and to politely keep my mouth closed. I assume that's the best advice; however, I was hoping to open this question up to believers and non-believers: If I am cornered into a conversation were it's impolite to not reply at all, what is the most polite way to get someone who's evangelizing to you to stop? Without saying things like "I'm an atheist" or "You're barking up the wrong tree, sorry". Ideally I'd find a careful, diplomatic way to respond without directly putting anyone off, as I have to build a relationship with these people as part of my job. The best response I can think of is "I'm actually very private with my religious beliefs, and don't tend to discuss them with people outside my family and close circle". Any additional suggestions and ideas are very welcome. Thank you!
posted by zettoo to Religion & Philosophy (29 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
"I'd rather not talk about it."
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 3:04 PM on March 21, 2015

If by "gig" you mean you'll be doing some kind of paying work, you simply tell them that you're not allowed to discuss politics or religion with customers (say it that way so there won't be any "come over for dinner and we'll talk about Jesus" loopholing).

I'm a consultant, I've used this before and people tend to go "oh, gosh, right, of course" and then mind their manners going forward.
posted by Lyn Never at 3:07 PM on March 21, 2015 [32 favorites]

Can you provide more context for your job and what relationship you will have with the Christians? That would influence how I would respond to situations you anticipate coming up.
posted by nanook at 3:08 PM on March 21, 2015 [1 favorite]

The reason for my answer is that I don't think you should address the religion issue at all. Don't even mention it. The important fact is that you feel they are imposing on you to discuss something you don't want to discuss, and that's all you should talk about.

"I don't want to talk about that." Keep repeating it until they give up and go away.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 3:12 PM on March 21, 2015 [2 favorites]

I sometimes get services from Christian organizations. I bow my head and/or close my eyes when they pray. I do that in order to be respectful. I also typically say "yes" if they ask me if it is okay to pray for me. I thank them graciously for things they do for me.

In most cases, being respectful of their beliefs does not require me to say anything about mine. This is fortunate since that would likely go bad places.

Please note that as a homeless person receiving assistance, I am basically expected to put up with proselytizing. To some degree, listening to the sermon is a requirement upon which aid is contingent. It rarely leads to problematic conversations, in part because I feel sincere gratitude for the aid and sincere respect for their good works. Expressing sincere respect for them/their work and sincere gratitude usually means they don't even ask if I believe or not.

Between that and Lyn Never's suggestion, this seems like a non-issue to me -- unless you are sort of looking for an excuse to pick a fight. It's super easy to pick a fight and pretend to yourself they started it.
posted by Michele in California at 3:14 PM on March 21, 2015 [26 favorites]

I do say I'm an atheist. I say it politely, "thank you but I'm an atheist and I'm not interested." I think it's important for people who would evangelize to strangers to see that someone can be an atheist and still be a nice person.
posted by dawkins_7 at 3:17 PM on March 21, 2015 [23 favorites]

This might not suit you, but as someone who has no interest in adopting anyone's religion, but is nonetheless interested in religion, just as an interesting topic, I would say "Just so you know, I'm not interested in converting/being born again and I'm not going to do that, but I think this is interesting. Tell me more about how your belief/practice/theology about X works? " This may not be everyone's cup of tea, but I find it intellectually interesting to learn what people believe.

If you don't argue, they can't argue back and try to convince you. So if you ask someone what they believe, and they tell you what they believe, there's no point saying "but that doesn't make sense" because you're not talking about whether or not it's true, you're talking about what their belief/experience is and it is their belief/experience. Don't argue, just plan anthropologist. It's interesting stuff.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 3:18 PM on March 21, 2015 [5 favorites]

Or to paraphrase/tweak dawkin's suggestion: "I'm an atheist, and I'm not interested in converting or being born again, but I am interested in hearing what you think about X. Tell me more about..." You can still engage with people without leading them on (that you're going to convert).

Here's a question I've often wondered about with evangelical theology for example: Some schools of theology use this judge analogy to explain the whole God/Heaven/Hell thing:(God judges us by the standards of the ten commandments, which no one ever meets. Therefore, we're all guilty. God is a just judge and it would not be just to let the guilty go unpunished, which is why God justly condemns people to hell. But then Jesus came along and took the punishment for us, so as long as we sign up to let him count for us, we're off the hook.). I've always wondered, what's the logic by which evangelicals see this as just? Can you imagine a judge doing that? FInding someone guilty of a crime and then ruling that someone has to go to jail and letting it be someone other than the defendent? How many murderers mothers would be on death row if that were allowed? So how does punishment work in the evangelical cosmology that this not just allowed but viewed as just? Is punishment by proxy a thing that also exists in evangelical culture in this world?

Obviously you have to frame/word something like that carefully to make it clear you're interested in hearing what they make of it, not arguing with their view, but I've started to wonder that recently and would be genuinely interested to hear an evangelical's response.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 3:27 PM on March 21, 2015 [4 favorites]

"I'm sorry, I'm not comfortable talking about that, given our working relationship," combined with a redirection back to whatever you're supposed to be working on, is a start. One thing I've found with more evangelical types is that, well, for example:

"I'm actually very private with my religious beliefs, and don't tend to discuss them with people outside my family and close circle."

I think the response you'd be likely to get would be someone trying to wedge themselves into that bit where you say you "don't tend to" talk about them with people outside of that close circle--or else people then trying to get closer to you to get to the point where you'll talk. If you need to make it more polite than just a firm "not interested", I think that the way people tend to respect most is something that puts them on the side of having to make you uncomfortable in a way that they cannot politely do. It's not universal, but most of the people I've known have been somewhat pushy but still concerned about social graces, and the above is the best way I know of to make clear that any future intrusion is crossing the line.

Try to have discussions about things that are not religion. If this was a purely social interaction, talking about it could be really interesting. I'm not a conservative evangelical but I do occasionally enjoy talking with them. But it sounds like this is work, and I think keeping people at a bit of arm's length is probably more appropriate. In particular, though, talking about it, they do have a pretty high chance of deciding that it's a challenge to save you, and the more you can keep discussion centered around practical matters, the better. If you still engage in conversations about it, then the bit about being uncomfortable with the subject won't ring true.
posted by Sequence at 3:36 PM on March 21, 2015 [1 favorite]

Seconding Lyn Never's advice if it is indeed a professional context where that can work (with that "if it can work" caveat because I know from personal experience that sometimes it just doesn't).

As someone raised by evangelicals, yet who never proselytized myself because I thought it disrespectful, there are two routes. The first route is good if the person is indeed one of the types who accepts that there are other, valid belief systems. This does indeed exist among evangelicals; they're the most likely to be moderate. It consists merely of making it quite clear that you are equals. If they are going to proselytize, then you will have an equal chance to explain your own belief system. Seriously, you can state it upfront and outright: "are you going to explain your view of Christianity to me?" (there's a little reminder there too that no matter how strongly they feel part of a group, they're still an individual.) Yes? "Okay, if you really want to, then I'll explain my beliefs to you. I want you to be as accepting and non-judgemental of my beliefs as I am of yours."

If they can't manage that first route, then the second route is a sort of runaround. I pull it out when it's become crystal clear that Their Beliefs Are The One And Only Beliefs And They MUST CONVERT ME (and I'm not only talking about evangelicals there... have held off Mormons/LDS and Jehovah's Witnesses with this). "Okay. I already know Jesus and have accepted him into my life." You're not saying in what way you've accepted him. You may well have accepted him as a fictional character in a powerfully moving work of literature. That's still accepting him. You may have accepted him as the second coming of Flying Spaghetti Monster. It's still accepting him. You get to believe whatever you want with those words, yet in using those key words "I know Jesus and have accepted him in my life," you have effectively gone Gandalf and said "thou shalt not pass". And yeah, they'll get that you ascribe a different meaning than they do. Which is why it's such an effective move. Seriously, I even used this successfully in the frickin' Salt Lake City Temple (long story). It's because they're not allowed to question your acceptance of Jesus; doing so is tantamount to questioning Jesus himself. Only He is supposed to know people's hearts (and really, that's the deeper message too; "don't mess with my innermost beliefs"). Anyway. Only use in extreme duress.
posted by fraula at 3:39 PM on March 21, 2015 [17 favorites]

Captain Awkward's latest question deals with this.
posted by brujita at 3:46 PM on March 21, 2015 [1 favorite]

Although I'm not religious, I respect evangelicals. If that's what they truly believes and they're not trying to save others, then they're just an asshole. My response is "Out of respect for your time and energy, I already have a set of beliefs that I adhere to. I wish you luck with your ministry to others."
posted by JackBurden at 4:05 PM on March 21, 2015 [7 favorites]

Fraula's got the secret code to be used in emergency situations. I have shut up Texan evangelical Christians while wearing a star of David necklace during Passover by saying "I accept the existence of Jesus in my life" with solid sincere eye contact. That I meant Jesus as metaphor was ruining my day via these folks was not an issue. This doesn't work if you have to repeat it to different people in the same group and it can backfire if you use it often or early.

For the most part the easiest thing to do is to be very busy, and if you can't be busy, do exactly what one might during a bad date and turn things around on them. Asking "what do you believe?" will take up lots of time and all you have to do is practice your listening face and say thanks for sharing what they think with you. Don't offer what you believe in return. Keep asking variations of the same thing or pull another person into the conversation who is part of their community and slip away.

Most people who are serious about evangelizing know there is a time and a place for it. If you try not to ever make a time and a place for it the only people you should have to deal with are being rude even within their own culture, in which case you can use a variation of "I'm not able to discuss this right now" or "this is something I am very private about". If you are being paid, you can always say "this isn't something I will talk about with clients."

If they ask you to pray or say grace or otherwise participate past being quietly respectful or holding hands, try "I won't intrude on your moment/prayers/devotion." By saying won't instead of don't want to, it closes the door on "oh but we insist!"
posted by Mizu at 4:25 PM on March 21, 2015 [2 favorites]

The key words for me, when dissuading Evangelical coworkers or friends who have expressed an interest in saving my soul, have been along the lines "Thank you for your concern, but I am comfortable in my beliefs. I will let you know if I ever happen to want to discuss spirituality further with you." That helps draw the boundary that your non-religiousness is an actual position you have taken, rather than just some void or lack in your life that you are open to having filled.
posted by scody at 10:03 PM on January 9, 2012 [28 favorites −] [!]

Oh, how I miss scody. Some of the other answers in that AskMe ("Help me be godless at work") might be of interest to you as well.
posted by Iris Gambol at 4:33 PM on March 21, 2015 [8 favorites]

"That's so kind of you. It's not where I'm at on my personal faith journey right now, and I don't really feel comfortable discussing my journey right now, it's more a private thing for me just now, but thank you for letting me know that if I ever DO want to talk about it, I can come to you."

That both commends them for being a good evangelical (and names what they're trying to do as a way of reaching out to others, not a way of bludgeoning them with Jesus, which puts you on much more friendly ground) AND tells them to back the heck off and let you follow your own journey, while putting the ball in your court -- not theirs -- to contact them if you ever want to follow up. It sets a non-confrontational tone that shows you appreciate their actions as generous and sincere, while still not wanting to participate. If they persist, gently but firmly say, "I'm just at a place where I really have to work on these things on my own right now, but I will let you know if I ever want to talk." In general, American evangelicals are very respectful of the personal search and the personal journey, so "personal faith journey" will usually resonate, but you have a phrase more comfortable for you, go ahead and use that.

I have used this for many years with evangelicals and I'd say 90% of them respect it and never bring it up again, AND it puts me on good terms with them by not objecting to either their faith or the way they choose to share it. They hear it as respectful and I end up on the list of "People who aren't evangelical, but get us," and they will be more relaxed around you because they don't feel like you'll make fun of their faith or judge them about it. (You will probably get to hear some in-group evangelical jokes because they won't think you'll use those jokes to mock them later.) Part of what they are doing when they evangelize you is saying, "This is something that is very important to me; is it important to you?" If I'm getting annoyed by evangelizing attempts, I can almost always get my irritation under control by reminding myself that at least 50% of what's going on is another human saying, "I really care about this thing, can you give me validation that I'm not stupid for caring, person in my social sphere whose opinion matters to me?" Answers that affirm you recognize its importance to them (as many have suggested above, drawing them out with sincere questions, etc.) are also a good way to signal that.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 5:13 PM on March 21, 2015 [25 favorites]

If someone asks if they can pray for me or my family, I say, "Yeah, sure, thanks." If someone says I should come to their church sometime, I say, "Oh, thanks." Heh. I try to avoid saying more than that, but if they press the point, I try to drop a reference to a Jewish holiday, which many at least tend to respect...
posted by limeonaire at 6:40 PM on March 21, 2015

I don't know what kind of "gig" this is, but if it by any chance has anything to do with one of those evangelical preaching and healing events that you see on TV, be prepared with an escape plan in case of an ambush situation.

Unfortunately I have experience with this. I was invited to an event not knowing exactly what it was. I knew it was a christian thing and the person who invited me knew I wasn't a christian but they said it would mean a lot to them if I went, so I did. When I got there, I could see that the evangelical preist was "healing" people with the power of god and there were cameras everywhere and they were asking for money for some kind of church that would be made entirely out of glass or something weird like that. The person I was with was pushing me to go up front to be "healed" from an illness I had at the time that made moving too much a bit painful. I said, no way. But then all these Christians around us started pushing me to do it and the entire auditorium was looking at me and I felt SO pressured that I went ahead and went down there. My adrenaline was pumping and I felt so uncomfortable, but there were all these cameras and all these people pushing me to do this thing. So the minister put his hand over my head to heal me or whatever and with all the pressure being put on me I didn't know what else to do, but pretend to be healed and I did a little dance (that in reality was very painful for me) and said "it's a miracle!" all just to get out of there asap. The audience cheered just like they did for all the other "healed" people and I ran to the back of the audiatorium and got out of there as soon as I could.

I was young and out of college when this happened. I'd like to think that if I were older at the time I wouldn't have felt so pressured into the ambush that resulted in me becoming a part of this charade. To this day I am scared that some day the video of my very adamantly non-christian self at an evangelical event getting blessed and healed or whatever- will pop up somewhere which will bring up all sorts of questions from others- and may even cost me employment because I'll look like an idiot who actually believed in that stuff to anyone who sees it. When the reality was that I felt enormously pressured to give these people what they wanted so I could get the hell out of there. Looking back on it I think many of the people who get "healed" in those events are doing it because of the pressure that's being put on them in that moment.
posted by rancher at 8:01 PM on March 21, 2015 [1 favorite]

Along similar lines, since this sounds like a professional gig (or something associated with a larger organization), I would say something like, "I appreciate your input but am not allowed to discuss such matters at work/while representing *insert organization here*. You have certainly given me a lot to think about. Enjoy your evening/day/name of event!"
posted by katemcd at 9:38 PM on March 21, 2015 [1 favorite]

I just smile and nod and say noncommittal things like, "Good deal", "Sure", and "Alright" in a friendly way, and then I nudge the conversation to anything else. If they are really pushy, then I politely excuse myself. Unless they are clueless, they'll get it. If you're trapped then, "I'm sorry, but I find religion and spiritually to be a really personal thing, and I'm not comfortable discussing it." If you have to work with them, say it with a smile. I don't envy you; obsessive people can be draining.
posted by dashDashDot at 5:50 AM on March 22, 2015

This really isn't the time or the place for such a serious, personal topic. If you don't mind, I would like to focus on the job, thanks. If I have any religious questions or concerns, I will call you during our time off and I appreciate knowing that you will be there for me with your answers.
posted by myselfasme at 5:53 AM on March 22, 2015

Somehow, most of the above answers seem like too much explanation to me. Too much explanation opens the door to exactly what you don't want. Chocolate Pickles's "I'd rather not talk about it" seems closest to the mark.

Your emphasis on staying friendly and positive is understandable, but these people are relentless. This probably goes against the training of everyone in the Western world, but a firm smile and an equally firm "No" is your only hope.
posted by BostonTerrier at 7:12 AM on March 22, 2015 [1 favorite]

If I'm getting annoyed by evangelizing attempts, I can almost always get my irritation under control by reminding myself that at least 50% of what's going on is another human saying, "I really care about this thing, can you give me validation that I'm not stupid for caring, person in my social sphere whose opinion matters to me?"

I guess I'm just not a nice person, because I don't even try to get my irritation under control. I grew up gay in a fundie-evangelistic mishmash of a family religion and experienced first hand how much pain, suffering, guilt and stress it can cause. I will not for one minute be respectful of people who believe they can ride roughshod over my always-unstated religious preference (none) just because they happen to believe it's their job to share the good news of Jesus Christ.

I share right back, as caustically and succinctly as I can manage at the moment, with maybe a bit of restraint depending on the relationship. Why on earth should it be my job to validate these nitwits in any way?

It came up at work once, years ago, and since I had to work with the person, I was firm but not insulting. I assume word got around, because no one ever talked religion in my presence again, which was my preferred outcome.
posted by Short Attention Sp at 7:35 AM on March 22, 2015 [6 favorites]

My go-to for situations like this is to smile and say some variation of, "You know, my grandma used to say there are three topics you don't discuss in polite company, and religion is definitely one of those." Then if they ask what the other two are, you can keep smiling and tell them politics and sex, which is usually enough to let them know the door is firmly shut without being rude or judgmental.

If they persist beyond the next stage - "Do you want me to get in trouble with my grandma?" - then you know that religion isn't their problem, but something else like social cues or bullying, which are dealt with differently.

(This approach also works with any of the three topics as the conversation starter.)
posted by Celsius1414 at 8:27 AM on March 22, 2015

The mission of every evangelical Christian is to evangelize. If you tell them you are not a Christian/an atheist, you are now a target.
If you want to avoid as much confrontation as possible, don't let them know that you aren't a Christian.
posted by littlewater at 9:03 AM on March 22, 2015

The evangelical thought processes is that your going to be tortured forever amd that they are trying to stop that from happening.
It is well meaning but annoying. But it explains why they are so insistant.

"Oh thank you but you don't need to worry about me. How are you doing?" sends the message without lying and changes the subject.

Professing faith outside of general terms (the jesus quote will work with some) is risky as even some forms of Christanity aren't correct depending on the group.

Being busy works. Body language cues aren't nessisarily helpful as people are taught to interrupt then with "excuse me but" ,a tap on the shoulder- or" can I help you with..." which all leads into talking about religion. Verbal cues need to back up the language ones. Remind them that you are doing your job and they are there to have fun.

Relax. Your friend wouldn't have given you the gig if he assumed you would be bothered or cause problems. A couple lines should do. You can always pretend you know someone across the room and leave with an "I'm sorry but I really need to talk to May right now" and rush across the room before they can protest.
posted by AlexiaSky at 11:10 AM on March 22, 2015

Also if they follow a very evangelical lifestyle, please understand that religion is the common ground thing to talk about to start a friendship. Because their lives are consumed by religion. Really. I remember going to church for 4 hours on Sunday plus wed. evenings plus chior rehersals. It was extremely time consuming. Politly talking about other common elements in life like a job, a hobby, fashion or food can help break the ice and move away from religion. So some religious talk is normal. They have common phrases that are used in the subgroup that are similar to "how's the weather?"it is just chit chat. You just agree and move on. Just by listening you can pick up on these phrases and repeat responses as necessary.
posted by AlexiaSky at 11:26 AM on March 22, 2015

I usually say something along the lines of "thank you for your kindness in caring about my spiritual life. I'm at peace with my path right now, and not being called to anything else. However, I do respect your personal journey."

The "not being called to anything else" part seems to really nip a lot in the bud, as does the part about respecting their personal journey. After all, who can argue with someone else's call? It works both ways.

The first part of the phrase is for me, a reminder that evangelicals really are trying to do the right thing.
posted by rpfields at 1:17 PM on March 22, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I was stuck like this once, taking shelter from a tornado in the home of a super christian family. Of course, they thought I was "sent" to them for conversion and they wanted to pray over me, etc. Of course I was super grateful for the shelter during a storm, and didn't want to offend them.

This answer helped me weasel my way out of further conversation:

"I would think that Jesus/God comes to everyone in their own way. That just hasn't happened for me yet."

Using a bit of their own logic and leaving the door open to a future conversion seemed to put the breaks on the conversion talk for the rest of the day.
posted by amoeba at 1:57 PM on April 4, 2015

Response by poster: Thank you so much for all of your answers! I wanted to give you an update that my evangelical clients have been very kind and cool, and though I've heard random assumptions that I'd think along the lines that they do (i.e. prayers, mentioning obama and how he's declared war on israel - and I'm like: no he hasn't!), noone has asked me about my beliefs, or if I've been saved, or asked why I'm not married. This has actually been a very eye-opening exercise on live-and-let-live and reminded me that, even though folks may not believe what I believe, I'm happy to allow them to live their life the way they want to and not assume they're bad just because they're super-religious;) Again, thank you for all your advice! This atheist needn't have been so concerned - virtuous people, though they may not believe what I do, can still be genuinely considerate, kind, cool and not at all presumptive. Apparently I'm the one who was presumptive. That said - thank you all for your thoughtful advice!!
posted by zettoo at 10:09 AM on April 5, 2015 [5 favorites]

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