September 28, 2015

Dear Christians: Proselytizing and Evangelizing is a pain

This morning, I dropped our older son off at school and started home. Just as we got out of the tiny town where his school is, my "dummy light" came on--my car was in need of gas. Yay! Rather than turning around, we kept going into the (bigger) town on down the road.

The first gas station we went to had no free pumps, so instead of waiting (I'm so patient!), we went to another station on down the road. No biggie!

While we were there, my car was approached by a woman in a long denim skirt. She looked like she had literally walked out of 19 Kids and Counting. As I was getting ready to put the car in gear and go, she handed me a bible tract through the window.

"What Is The Key to Happy Family Life?'

She seemed nice enough, and I am not opposed to receiving evidence for people's arguments and gaining a better understanding of them.

My big problem with proselytizing/evangelizing rests on two main points: it's often based on serious assumptions about the person you are talking to, and it's often not a two way street--a conversion is not  a discussion.

Let's take a look, shall we?

Assuming: A Terrible Way to Start a Conversation

Today's encounter focused on happy family life. This required the woman who handed me a tract to make at least one assumption: that I want a happy family life.

She's right!

However, there are further assumptions that are also heavily implied. For instance, does she think that I need advice on a happy family? Because that would indicate that she thinks that I do not have a happy family.

It also touches on a topic we've discussed before: Christians making it clear that their way is the only way, and that any other way is wrong. Not only did she assume that I want a happy family, and possibly assume my family was not a happy one already, but she also made the leap to assume that her way was the only way for my family to be happy, and that is perhaps the part of the interaction that I take the most offense to.

It became clearer after I got home and ran the references through Bible Gateway that she was making assumptions, potentially, about even my marital relationship, with references to man and woman becoming one flesh, and husbands loving their wives as their own bodies (I think this goes both ways for my husband and myself, truthfully).

There's a much bigger assumption to all of this: That the bible is an acceptable guide to family life for me.

And it's not.

The evidence that was presented for the bible being an acceptable guide to family life were all references drawn from the bible itself. However, as I don't accept the bible as the inspired inerrant word of any deity at all, I require additional evidence as to the validity of its claims.

I won't touch on it here, but I intend to do a serious for my Happy Heathen Humanist Homemaker blog about family life, comparing traditional structures and more modern structures. It's some months in the future, because it's in progress now. There simply isn't any proof that I've found (yet--it's still in progress) that leads me to believe that traditional (supposedly) biblical family arrangements are any more stable or better for children than more modern family structures.

Last year, when Bill Nye debated Ken Ham, they were asked what would change their minds, and Nye said, "Evidence." I agree with him, and I apply it to everything: changing my mind requires only evidence. Unfortunately, the evidence can't be self-referent, and that's where we tend to hit a snag with sources like bible tracts. They tend to rely on the bible to prove why claims in the bible are true.

Just to sum this up a little bit and bring us back to the point of this section: Assumptions are a terrible way to start a conversation.

Assumptions create strawmen. If you're looking at me, and you enter the conversation with an idea of what I think and who I am, without really taking the time to talk to me, you've already started from a poor logical point. Your arguments will be inherently flawed.

Consider these common arguments that atheists face from Christians, courtesy of a poll on Barrierbreakers:

If you start from one of these points, you are as likely to be wrong as you are to be right.

Take me, for instance. I'm an atheist. I don't believe in sin, but I do believe in living a moral and ethical life, which means most of my life is lived in a way that's not that different from the Christians around me. For example, I don't kill, steal, cheat, lie, commit adultery, etc, etc. I drink and I swear...but I know Christians that do these things also. I believe in marriage equality, and I'm pro-choice...but I know Christians that are too. Like most Christians I know, I'm kind, compassionate, and considerate of my fellow man. In fact, my life is indistinguishable from most Christians--make of that what you will, of course. Some people will take that not as evidence that I don't just want to sin but that Christians aren't doing enough to distinguish themselves from "The World."

Bad parents? I had the best parents, parents who are devastated by my inability to believe in the god they raised me to believe in. This one is one of the few that I find truly insulting.

You're mad at God. I'm also mad at Voldemort, and Tywin Lannister, and Roose Bolton, and Jafar. I don't spend my days mad at anyone; I'm a happy person.

Loving church? I've shared before that I had one dysfunctional church, but the church that I spent my teen years in was loving and wonderful in many, many ways. Although we have a difference of opinion regarding problematic doctrines, I can't fault them for being compassionate and loving Christians who truly cared about people. I may not agree with all of their outreach efforts, many of which were thinly veiled evangelism attempts aimed at the most vulnerable, but I do not doubt that those efforts came from a place of true love and concern.

And Christian apologetics was one of my favorite subjects as a teen and young adult. I loved studying the arguments for my faith.

If you start in any of these points, you start with a false premise, and that makes your arguments inherently flawed. Assumptions also risk making your conversation partner feel alienated, insulted or offended--and those states are not particularly conducive for conversations or discussions.

Conversion Is Not Discussion

I mentioned a little earlier that what would change my mind is evidence. It's one of the reasons that I accepted that tract today without saying, "No thanks, I'm an atheist." I'm always looking for evidence--not because I want to believe (I'm slowly leaving that desire behind, actually) but because I have made that commitment to several people that are important to me that if I find evidence, I will change my mind. That requires being open to evidence. Who knows? Maybe some day a Christian tract passed through my window will be that evidence.

But these types of interactions are unfulfilling for me. I don't enjoy them. I take them out of a perfunctory obligation to that commitment.

What I enjoy are discussions. Conversations.

Recently, I was having a Facebook Messenger chat with a very, very dear friend who is a progressive Christian. We were discussing morality and whether God is an appropriate arbiter of morality. It was a true conversation--we understand each other's starting points because of multiple conversations we've had over the course of our friendship, so we don't need to assume or construct strawmen to beat with sticks. We approach each other as equals. I don't assume that my friend is intellectually inferior for believing in a deity (because my friend isn't), and my friend doesn't assume that I am just misinformed or that I don't understand. Our conversations aren't conversions, then.

This isn't the same as what happens when someone proselytizes or evangelizes. Proselytization is a one-way street.

You see, you can't start a conversation with a solid end in mind for the other person. Even debates aren't about convincing the other person--they are about explaining your argument, clearly and without question.

A conversion, though--that has a clear end in mind for the other person. The objective is for the other person to become a member of your religion.

This doesn't give much incentive for most people to try to understand their conversation partner's point of view.

Christians Know That Proselytizing and Evangelizing Doesn't Work

Christians know that this doesn't work. They may not want to admit it, but you can see it--the way that proselytizing has been pushed is changing.

One of my favorite WikiHow's is "How to Persuade an Atheist to Become a Christian". It's got 14 easy steps. I don't think it would be particularly effective, but it does have a much different perspective on evangelizing. Consider the first bit of advice:

But the third bit was the best:

"This is a conversation with someone you care about enough to discuss your reason for believing."

That's the sentiment that I'd hope Christians would latch into. That's the conversation that's worth having if it's built on a mutual respect for each other and each other's beliefs (or lack thereof).

Advice for Christians on Proselytizing

This is weird. This is the part where I'm going to turn traitor for a little bit, and I'm going to tell you how I wish Christians would proselytize:


If you want to have conversations with your nonbelieving friends or family, however, here's a few pointers.

  • Be respectful. Respect the person you are talking to. More importantly, be respectful of the relationship you have with that person.
  • Respect their boundaries. Nonbelievers in religious countries like the United States are consistently confronted with religion and belief. We are often sent the message that we aren't patriotic or we aren't moral or our families and relationships are suboptimal to the relationships of believers. Sometimes, we are simply not in the mood to hear about how much you love Jesus, no matter how nicely you phrase it. Respect those boundaries.
  • Listen. Don't build straw men. Fight assumptions. Listen to what your conversation partner is saying, and refer back to the first tip on this list frequently.
  • Value the relationship more than evangelizing. This is hard for some people. Just this week, we had a story fundraising for a 19-year-old young woman who was completely cut off by her parents because she's an atheist. If your evangelizing is more important than your relationship with the person...that's a problem. I think even your god would agree.
  • Trust your friend/family member/this person you care about to make their own decisions.
Wrapping Up

I honestly don't blame Christians (or any theist) who evangelizes. When you accept that you have The Truth™, it's hard to keep that to yourself. I know. I've been there.

But there has to be a baseline of respect. Proselytizing is a pain, and that makes it not only a nuisance to the person you are attempting to reach...but also an ineffective tool for reaching them to begin with.

With a little respect--for the person, for the relationship, for the boundaries--you can go a long way towards easing the nuisance and creating an environment where dialogues on faith are fun and fulfilling, even when challenging.

You can do it. I swear.

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