Subtitle

The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Friday, May 9, 2008

Better Evangelism?

On the forums over at the Friendly Atheist Blog (http://friendlyatheist.com/2008/05/09/whats-the-best-method-for-evangelism/), this question was asked by user Roar:

… What method was the worst when people tried to share their faith with you? I
know some people hand out pamphlets and other people tell you you’re going to
hell on the street corner, all kinds of ‘fun’ things. As a follow up question,
how has rude/mean/annoying encounters like that caused you to feel about the
Christian faith ? My last question is, what method of sharing faith has made you
at least open to talking to the other person about their faith?

I hope the wording hasn’t offended anyone. I’ve never talked to an atheist before (well I did over this forum for the past few days but not in person) and I would really like to learn more. Thanks for taking time and reading this.

It is, I think, and interesting question – and if the user who posted it had truly never spoken with an atheist before, it shows a good deal of intelligence and insight that he recognized that many of the accepted practices of evangelism do harm without winning many people over. Given that the majority of people in our society claim to believe in some form of a god/gods/goddess/great spirit/cosmic muffin, and that a large number of these folks (though probably still just a sizeable minority) see it as their purpose, need, or right to try to convert everyone (a trend that is stronger in some sects than others), I think that this is also a worthwhile question.

I would answer it by starting with a pet peeve of mine – I dislike the use of the word “faith” when what the speaker/writer means is “religion” or “beliefs.” When someone says “I am part of the Christian Faith” I have to resist the urge to say “No, you’re part of the Christian religion. You have faith that the teachings of your religion are true.” It’s a mild mis-use of the word, but it always irks me, probably because it feels like the folks who use it are trying to euphemize themselves out of being a member of a religion (for whatever reason, being in a “faith” is generally considered good, while being in a “religion” is not, despite the fact that they are used to mean the same damn thing).

Okay, with that off of my chest…

The basic problem that I have encountered with evangelism is that it tends to work from the premise that the person being evangelized needs to be “saved” – and condescension and insult naturally follows from there. Not only is someone never going to convert me by talking down to me, they will irritate and alienate me, preventing me from hearing anything they have to say, whether it has value or not.

What is more frustrating is that most folks who wish to evangelize make assumptions about their target, and then will not listen when their target points out that the assumptions are false. I can not count the number of times I have had someone inform me that I am miserable because I don’t have Jesus in my life (and then refuse to listen when I point out that I became significantly less miserable when I stopped trying to convince myself that I believed in Christianity), or that they have accused me of all manner of immoral evil-doing because I don’t believe in a god (despite the fact that I have done little in my life that anyone would consider immoral or unethical, and I tend to hold myself to very high ethical standards). I understand what drives this attitude – these folks seem to recognize that if their belief system is not necessary for either morality or happiness, then they, perhaps, have been on the wrong track, and this frightens them – but this understanding doesn’t make the attitude any less harmful to those who have to deal with it.

However, even when the evangelizer is acting not out of fear for their own world view, but from an honest desire to do good for others, this patronizing attitude (“I know the way the truth and the light, and I have to teach it to heathens like you!”) is problematic. If the person is right, and they do have the key to salvation, then they are alienating the people who they can save. On the other hand, if they are wrong, then they are annoying, alienating, and hurting other people for no good reason.

So, Hemant, the keeper of the Friendly Atheist Blog, asks “what is the best form of evangelism?”

Well, I don’t think there’s a good form of evangelism – whether religious or for a secular cause. They all start from the premise that the person who does not share your view is wrong and must be saved from being wrong, and in the case of religion, this assumption is made based on faith – by definition an arbitrary assumption. So, the basic concept of evangelism is inherently arrogant and insulting towards the target.

Now, if you wish to persuade someone such as myself that your beliefs are true, and that I should adopt them, you have to take a different tact. Give up evangelism, and try discussion and argument. These take a completely different form – both argument and discussion start from the premise that you have a position that you think is correct, but unlike evangelism they proceed with the realization that you may be wrong and that the other person may have something worthwhile to say. However, this is more difficult for people in general for a very simple reason – when you listen to the other person, you stand a chance of being persuaded to their point of view, just as they stand a chance of being persuaded to yours, and this frightens many people.

Of course, as mentioned, religion isn’t the only thing about which people evangelize. The author Chris Hedges, for example, argues that many of the current spate of pro-atheist books are evangelizing in nature, and while I think he over-states the case (having read many of them, I can say that while their tone may be objectionable, their content is stated in a way that invites the reader to question rather than simply demanding that the reader accept the author’s conclusions), his argument is not entirely without merit. Likewise, I remember my college years, when I would often find myself arguing with devout Marxists who were completely unwilling to hear any argument contrary to their idea of the inevitability of a proletarian Utopia.

And lest you think that I am simply some hippy liberal Satan-worshipping atheist (and yes, I have been accused of being a Satan worshipper due to my lack of belief in a god – on more than one occasion, I might add), there are ecclesiastical folk who agree with me about the problem of evangelism – check it out:

http://www.episcopalcafe.com/daily/interfaith/a_dialog_with_atheism.php

So, there ya’ go, a rambling and probably incoherent blog entry

4 comments:

AV said...

The author Chris Hedges, for example, argues that many of the current spate of pro-atheist books are evangelizing in nature, and while I think he over-states the case (having read many of them, I can say that while their tone may be objectionable, their content is stated in a way that invites the reader to question rather than simply demanding that the reader accept the author’s conclusions), his argument is not entirely without merit.

I haven't read Hedges' book. (How can I read it if he doesn't believe I exist?) I did catch him recently on Point of Inquiry, and it seems to me that his whole animus-against-the-New-Atheists thing is simply window-dressing for a political disagreement he has with Harris and Hitchens regarding US foreign policy in the Middle East. (The biggest clue was when he remarked that he didn't have anything to say about Richard Dawkins "because he's British.) He could have been open about the fact that this was the substance of his disagreement. But I guess he thought he could only get away with critiquing US foreign policy before an American audience if he coated that bitter pill in some good old-fashioned atheist-bashing.

You're absolutely right. If these guys (Hitchens, Harris, Dawkins) are evangelical atheist fundamentalists, then anyone who advances an impassioned or strident argument in favour of a position is an evangelical fundamentalist.

Anthroslug said...

More specifically, some of the writing does take the "I don't have ot listen to you, I have to save you!" line, which, even while I may agree with the sentiment, isn't likely to convince the faithful. We can argue about whether or not we should be trying to do so, but if we agree that we need to (and many of these authors do), we need to figure out a way of actually doing it, and not just turning them off.

Otherwise, I am inclined to agree with your take on Hedges based on the interviews I have heard and read, and the writing of his that I have read (I've not read the new book either, so I can't comment on that).

Kay said...

I don’t think there’s a good form of evangelism

I agree. I believe in the attraction rather than promotion style of reaching people (religiously or otherwise) and I truly believe that when people seek out something it is a clear indication that they are willing to make a life change, but having something thrust upon them is a sure fire way to push them even further away from whatever it is.

I also think that education and having the knowledge available should one desire to learn it is a good thing on all sides. I wish I had had a wider access to different views of thought when I was younger.

Todd Sayre said...

You're absolutely right. If these guys (Hitchens, Harris, Dawkins) are evangelical atheist fundamentalists, then anyone who advances an impassioned or strident argument in favour of a position is an evangelical fundamentalist.

That's an interesting point. That's (sort of) been happening for a while now. Not the fundamentalist part, but the evangelical part. Just as an example, Ben Forta is Senior Technical Evangelist at Adobe. I don't recall ever seeing the word evangelist be used outside of a religious context before I attended one of his presentations. But apparently evangelist is a term that's used quite frequently in technical circles. I know I've seen it be used more frequently in the past few years. But I admit that may just be because I've had my eye out for it. I'm not so sure anymore that calling someone an evangelical atheist is necessarily a slur. I do think that most people who would say it are trying to imply that atheism is just another religion; but I wonder if that's how most people will understand it in the future. I see "canon" and "apocryphal" being used secularly far more than in their original religious meanings.