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April 19, 2008 1:09 PM   Subscribe

What are some common arguments against religious evangelism/proselytism?

Over the past day or two, I've been involved in a friendly debate about the nature of religious (specifically Christian) evangelism. Although I am no longer Christian, I have always been of the opinion that it is no business of mine what others think in the privacy of their own mind. It seems that no matter how clearly I attempt to explain my point of view, I cannot get my point across about how people generally do not like to be told what to think. Tips?
posted by aheckler to Religion & Philosophy (26 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Perhaps the reason you cannot get your point across is because people generally do not like to be told what to think :)
posted by kosmonaut at 1:22 PM on April 19, 2008 [4 favorites]

The "good" (by my estimation) Christians in my family (mom and grandma specifically) don't proselytize because they think Heaven is a perfect place where they will be ever in bliss whether or not I or other sodomite godless heathens get to go. Also because it's frustrating for them and creates negative energy that hinders their good works.
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 1:24 PM on April 19, 2008

For many, evangelism is a requirement of fulfilling the faith. Of course, people don't like to be told what to believe/love/worship; but many feel personally responsible for the salvation of their loved ones and pals.

I agree that religion is personal. So, if you're a target, just let them know that you appreciate the concern for your everlasting salvation - you've chosen your Way, and so forth.
posted by sadiehawkinstein at 1:29 PM on April 19, 2008

Best answer: "I cannot get my point across about how people generally do not like to be told what to think."

Does your opponent actually agree with this characterization of evangelism? I highly doubt it.

I'd guess the reason you can't convince that person of your inherent correctness is that you're arguing from two different sets of assumptions and beliefs, and it appears that your beliefs presuppose the incorrectness of theirs.

If you really want to "win", you have to start trying to come to some common ground. Specifically, quit trying to generalize evangelism as "telling other people what to think." Talk about specifics. Instead of getting all high-minded about the nature of evangelism, talk about what exactly you don't think is okay about it.

You'll probably find that you have a lot more in common, opinion wise, than you think.
posted by toomuchpete at 1:37 PM on April 19, 2008 [1 favorite]

"I'm sorry, since all the faiths are offering me eternal salvation at the moment. I'm holding out for a better offer. By the way, did you know that the [rival faith] are giving free pens and flashdrives?"

This is my atheist snark for chasing off Mormons and so forth. Beyond that, I maintain that anyone who seeks to convert me wishes to be converted right back. And I call up religious organizations who leave fliers inviting me to their church and request they don't litter my front porch.

But aren't you attempting to convert them to your beliefs by telling them not to convert others?
posted by Phalene at 1:42 PM on April 19, 2008 [4 favorites]

Best answer: That depends on one's interpretation of evangelism.

One interpretation is that if you really like something, no matter what it happens to be whether religion or a really great brand of soup, telling your friends about it is good for everyone. "Hey, I really recommend that Jesus guy. I've learned a lot from his teachings." And then simply evangelize by living a good life as an example to others of how your choice made you a better, happier person.

(That's my own interpretation of what Christian evangelism was meant to be.)

Or there is the more sinister type of evangelism that I think you are talking about. The conversion by the sword, the constant harping, the trying to demand that others think the way you do. Those sorts of things, I believe, are human failings of the "misery loves company" variety. The odd human quirk that it's easier to believe anything if everyone else does to. Even if you force that other person to believe it. If there is a Jesus and afterlife, I don't think He'd approve of such nonsense.
posted by gjc at 1:45 PM on April 19, 2008 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I hate being evangelized to, and I have a religion - though apparently being a liberal Episcopalian is equivalent to being a godless heathen for some, given how many times I've been asked to switch to some other brand. Personally, I don't think the kind of in-your-face evangelism is very effective, very Christian, or very nice.

My argument to those Christians who practice what I call "in-your-face" evangelism is that you get more flies with honey than with vinegar. Scaring someone with threats of eternal damnation doesn't usually work, and in fact can make people more likely to dislike the evangelizer's faith. I also think intimidating someone into religion is a nasty thing to do.

Personally, I think the best way to evangelize anything whether it be Christianity, the Atkins diet, or an unfailing devotion to the St. Louis Cardinals is to be happy, well-adjusted, and open so that people are prompted to ask about how your religion/diet/baseball mania is contributing to your well being.
posted by pointystick at 1:47 PM on April 19, 2008 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: kosmonaut and Phalene: You both seem to be getting at the same thing, and I suppose you are somewhat correct. However, all I'm trying to say is that, if someone wants to become a Christian, they will do so; but if they've already rejected Christianity on its own merits, additional attempts at evangelizing (the "constant harping" that gjc referred to) are at best futile, and at worst, annoying and disrespectful.
posted by aheckler at 1:54 PM on April 19, 2008

Best answer: The problem is, these Christians believe that you will suffer eternally if you don't become a Christian, and experience eternal bliss if you do. Nothing you can do or say makes a significant difference in that equation -- what's a little annoyance now in comparison to that?
posted by winston at 2:07 PM on April 19, 2008

Them: "Have you let Jesus into your life?"

Me: "That's between me and Him, now, isn't it?"
posted by ubernostrum at 2:09 PM on April 19, 2008 [2 favorites]

Well, a good one is that evangelisation is its incredibly difficult to spell and to me, sounds as if one should be on a white charger with a suit of armour - its a rather strange word all in itself - but that aside i would say the main thing is its used by people to avoid looking at themselves and it has become very, very american in its character - the fake on tv and so on.
The first argument against it comes from jesus himself " you travel over land and sea to win a single convert and make him twice as much of a son of hell as you are !".
posted by sgt.serenity at 2:14 PM on April 19, 2008

Best answer: winston is on to something. The win is infinite, though secondhand. For a person who thinks that, the only reason to not proselytize all the time is they think that proselytizing will irrevocably turn some people away.

That's your wedge point. So, if they are ever not actively trying to convert other people, ask why. They could have saved a soul in the last 20 seconds! They're either being irrational or they secretly agree with you to some degree. (Or, they have grand unintelligible schemes that supposedly pay off much more in the long run. You know, like the Cylons / bad-writers-of-BSG.)
posted by cmiller at 2:18 PM on April 19, 2008

The problem is, these Christians believe that you will suffer eternally if you don't become a Christian, and experience eternal bliss if you do. Nothing you can do or say makes a significant difference in that equation -- what's a little annoyance now in comparison to that?

In my church, they emphasize "not giving up" on your loved ones when it comes to evangelizing. So like winston said, the evangelizing person thinks he/she is doing you a favor by "annoying" you in hopes that one day you will see just how wrong you were and thank them for not giving up on you and basically letting you go to hell.
posted by PinkButterfly at 2:18 PM on April 19, 2008

Best answer: My take, as a practicing Christian, is this: Evangelization is simply telling someone about what Jesus did on the cross to pay for our sins-the good news of the Gospel. By definition one can do this once. After that the person has heard and is responsible for the knowlege. NO ONE can be argued into faith. In fact, faith itself is a gift from God. FWIW, we are commanded to make disciples, NOT converts. If someone has heard the gospel and rejected it, about all one can do is pray for that person. If someone has heard it and wants to know more or to discuss, that's cool. If someone wants to become a Christian, there is where discipleship comes into play. I say this as someone who was "evangelized" for years by various and sundry but whose conversion was pretty much an internal affair.

This is an odd question for me to weigh in on, but I don't think annoying people with the Gospel is what God had in mind at all.
posted by konolia at 2:23 PM on April 19, 2008 [4 favorites]

I agree with the posters above that a lot of this is likely to stem from a difference in assumptions between you and your friend. If I were you, I'd start by figuring out what his assumptions are, and then asking yourself if you can effectively challenge any of them.

But since you asked, here's a common argument against evangelism that hasn't been mentioned so far: If someone changes under pressure, they'll tend to change right back when the pressure is removed. On the other hand, if someone changes for their own reasons, on their own initiative, the changes are fairly likely to stick. So if you want sincere, lifelong conversions, and not just lip service ("Yeah, yeah, okay, I accept Jesus as my lord and savior — can I go now?") it's best to focus your efforts on people who are already interested in Christianity for reasons of their own.
posted by nebulawindphone at 2:29 PM on April 19, 2008

Try quoting Thoreau:

"If I knew for a certainty that a man was coming to my house with the conscious design of doing me good, I should run for my life. I would rather suffer evil the natural way."

By the way, Thoreau went out in style. When asked on his deathbed whether he had made his peace with God, he replied "I wasn't aware that we had quarreled."
posted by arcadia at 2:34 PM on April 19, 2008 [1 favorite]

I'm going to buy a satanic bible for those times when mormons/ jehovah's witnesses knock on my door.
posted by majikstreet at 2:37 PM on April 19, 2008

I have always been of the opinion that it is no business of mine what others think in the privacy of their own mind.

If your friend believed in the privacy of his own mind that he could drive home after drinking six beers, would that be sufficient to let him go? It's the consequences they foresee that make them keep working on you.

You either have to convince them that the beer was actually ginger ale, or that they have to just give up & let the car crash, but you can't expect them to happily embrace drunk-driving.
posted by mdn at 2:37 PM on April 19, 2008

Best answer: My mother-in-law evangelizes on the topic of me and her daughter having kids, once telling me that it would be the key to happiness.

I responded that it sure hadn't worked for her as she is miserable most of the time. Zipped right to the center of the truth in her mind and she hasn't mentioned it since. (Brevity is the soul of wit, I have heard!)

Perhaps a similar line of reasoning might do for the religious evangelical.... to wit:

"Will it make me happy, less annoying, a better human? Am I that bad? Why hasn't it worked for you? Why didn't it work for Jim Jones, Jim Bakker, Tammy Faye Bakker, Oral Roberts, Jerry Falwell, Ted Haggard, Ralph Reed, Pat Robertson, Billy Graham, Jimmy Swaggart, George Bush, and on and on and on?"

Remember, like the auto salesman trying to sell you a new car, you are in a position of greatest strength. You've got the checkbook (or the soul-at-risk). Argue from a high point. Provable benefits now influence people to change. They want YOU to drink the koolaid. Let 'em sell it.

Eventually, you'll come up with your own techniques, but I'd really try and put this in proper perspective. It's well intentioned people lobbying for communal fantasy as a means of getting through the difficult reality that this life is short and death scary. It's really sad that we just stop being when it's over. Poor things can't handle that truth, and if you can, you should pat yourself on the back for being strong and intelligent and just try to be as nice as you can without letting on.

I've met some of the kindest people ever who are christians. I have also been screwed several times by the same crew sporting little fishies on their car bumpers. I've also met and had statistically better success with kind, smart, good, godless heathens and can think of no one I'd rather spend eternity in hell with! Much better company, IMO!
posted by FauxScot at 2:49 PM on April 19, 2008 [2 favorites]

Congratulations, you have been baited. Partly because, though you have shed the Christian worldview, you are still somewhat burdened by Christian (or other monotheistic) debating habits.

There is no point coming up with clever retorts, rhetorical tactics, irrefutable arguments, etc. If the other person is reasonable, he will give your perspective due consideration. If he is obstinate, he will not concede anything. Don't waste your energy changing minds that can't be changed. New ideas are accepted only by the curious.

Demonstrate your principle of accommodation by hearing out arguments. If you're unconvinced, simply say so...explaining why (if you can). And if the other party has no interest in entertaining your argument, just leave it at that.
posted by randomstriker at 3:40 PM on April 19, 2008 [1 favorite]

I will offer my simple punt-the-mormon-missionary line:

"I used to live in Salt Lake".

Say that to them. It's like pouring salt on a slug.
posted by hexatron at 4:59 PM on April 19, 2008 [1 favorite]

"Preach the Gospel always, and when necessary use words."
- St Francis of Assisi
posted by klarck at 5:27 PM on April 19, 2008 [1 favorite]

I have two minds about this. On the one hand, evangelism is a direct instruction from Jesus, after the resurrection, e.g. at the end of Matthew: "now you know the whole story, go and tell the world." On the other hand, people who spend lots of time following this instruction mostly come off as assholes.

I'm glad St. Francis's advice has already appeared here.
posted by fantabulous timewaster at 9:19 PM on April 19, 2008

People tell other people what to think all the time. We yell at people who swerve all over the road and don't signal. We push safer sex. We get irate with religious parents who won't give their kids blood transfusions. We don't let friends drive drunk. We tell people to DTMFA. We tell kids to look both ways before crossing the road. We pass seat-belt laws, and no-smoking laws, and employment laws, and tenancy laws.

Why? Because we think they're endangering themselves or other people. So do your Christian friends*, but on a much larger scale. They think you're about to walk off an eternal cliff and teach your children to do the same. Depending on how strongly this is drilled into them and how much their pastor or the books they read are pushing the idea that it is their responsibility to save others, they are going to try to save people from endangering themselves.

It's irritating like a false fire alarm is irritating, but they really think there is a fire.

*Some Christians believe the whole point is eternal salvation or damnation. Some Christians believe that the whole point is social justice and making the world better and more loving. I think St. Francis's quote leans towards the latter type, while you're probably dealing with the former. If you can open up a dialogue with your Type 1 friends and convert them to being Type 2 friends, you can probably get to a point of agreement on this issue. Otherwise they're just going to keep looking at you and saying "But I care about you and you're going to hell. How can that stop bothering me?"
posted by heatherann at 6:12 AM on April 20, 2008

Best answer: I can empathize with an evangelical, I used to be one. Try, "I already know ______. If you want me to believe trust in god to handle the rest." Don't leave openings in your statements that would encourage continued discussion. Don't get baited. If they try to bait you or press the issue, ask them to respect you and reiterate your statement. Maybe some will respect that and stop hassling you.
posted by bleary at 9:18 AM on April 20, 2008

Christians are commanded to evangelize by Jesus, so tough luck getting that to stop. But immature Christians often get the idea that evangelism consists of saying a few words in defense of Christianity to a nonbeliever, and then presenting a choice to either accept or reject it. Many nonbelievers get irritated at this, but it has no effect, because Christians are also taught to follow Jesus above all, so even though they have a mistaken concept of evangelism, they will continue to do it.

But true evangelism, to repeat the St. Francis idea that others have brought up, is done by the way you live your life - and no unbeliever ever got offended or irritated by that.

If someone won't quit "telling you what to think" (I won't call it evangelism!), your best bet is to explain that you don't want them to keep talking to you about it, and then suggest that they pray for you instead. If you don't believe in the God of the Bible, then prayer should be of no consequence to you, but the person in question also doesn't feel like they're "giving up".
posted by relucent at 9:05 AM on July 29, 2008

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