Rights and wrongs of evangelism

WitnessingPlenty of people have written about whether atheists should evangelise, but that’s not quite what this post is about.

Most people, especially atheists, are acutely aware of how annoying evangelism can be. This might be one reason why I think the vast majority of atheists don’t talk about their beliefs. Not only do they not wish to become an irritating preacher, they fear that expressing their beliefs may invite tedious religious lectures. We don’t go knocking on doors asking if people have thought about atheism partly because we know the reputation Jehovah’s Witnesses have for being irksome evangelists.

For the record, I do think atheists should evangelise, although in a passive and respectful way. I’m in agreement with Ebonmuse when he says we should: “…inform people of our existence without intruding directly into their lives…”.

So I’d like to hear your opinions on what kind of behaviour is acceptable when evangelising. I’m talking about evangelism in the broadest possible sense. Where you are evangelising Christianity, atheism, healthy eating, a political party, feminism or your favourite music, I think similar guidelines should apply.

So what is reasonable? What is effective?Alternative rock group

I think in many cases what is most effective at getting your message across is likely to coincide with what is thought to be reasonable and respectful behaviour. People are less likely to want to hear about your alternative rock band if you barge into their house, insult them and make their children cry. However, there may be cases that are not so obvious.

I know evangelism of any kind rarely converts people on the spot, but it may generate some sympathy or curiosity for a point of view the listener had not previously considered.

I’d start by suggesting the following:

  1. Be willing to take “No” for an answer…

11 thoughts on “Rights and wrongs of evangelism

  1. No-one can change a person’s mind for them – the best you can do is present your evidence and encourage someone to think through their position in light of it. If they don’t want to change then no amount of evidence or arguments will make a blind bit of difference. That’s why I think it’s incredibly important to maintain a polite and respectful tone: The more comfortable you make the other person, the more comfortable they’ll be with any doubts you raise.

    If someone is unwilling to engage in debate then there’s a real limit to what you can do. You’re best bet is to simply and unconfrontationally (is that a real word?) make them aware of what your views are and some of your reasons for holding them.

    Reading through some of the debates on the Internet (be they religious or political) it’s clear that, for a lot of people, the intent isn’t to change other peoples’ minds, it’s simply about asserting their opinions and contempt for those who think differently. Unsurprisingly, this latter form of evangelising rarely gets people anywhere.

  2. Socratic method. Just ask them questions about their faith, very politely, and lead them to use their own reasoning to point out the flaws in what they believe.

    Try not to get accused of corrupting youth and sentenced to death, though.

    As we all know, telling someone outright that they’re just wrong is a guaranteed way to strengthen their grip. Hell, I’m guilty myself – more than once I’ve adopted an untenable position in debate because I didn’t think it through, then stubbornly clung to it because my opponent insisted I was wrong. Just ask my wife…

  3. First, the quibble: For the record, I do think atheists should evangelise, although in a passive and respectful way.

    Should, or could, or may?

    Second, the answer: For me, reasonable is when it’s invited in my best judgement, whether implicitly or explicitly; as for effective, define it please. I suspect you mean mainly in the sense of consciousness-raising, but I’m not sure.

  4. First, the quibble: For the record, I do think atheists should evangelise, although in a passive and respectful way.
    Should, or could, or may?

    I think “may” is probably the best answer. It’s not easy, sensible or safe for everyone to do so.

    Well I think evangelism is aimed at changing someone’s mind. Getting them to understand you and raise their consciousness are prerequisites for that – so only partially effective?

  5. I agree with yunshui as to using an interrogative approach. I try to ask a lot of questions – firstly to get a sense of where people are and then to try to open their minds just a bit more. If I sense my interlocutor is a literalist fundy, I would try to get them to overcome their literalism by pointing to places in their holy writ where they themselves resort to an unambiguously metaphorical approach, e.g. “Take and eat, this is my body.” If someone is a deist, I try to get them to tell me why they think there is some sort of cosmic mind superintending the universe, and open their mind to the possibility that only our self-oriented anthropic thinking which allows us to presume that the universe has a mind (something very like one’s own subjective sense of self) as its ultimate foundation. Just a little nudge in either case.

  6. Allow me to expand on that just a bit more. I want fundamentalist Christians to become more open-minded non-literalist evangelical Christians; evangelical Christians to become liberal Christians; liberal Christians to become deists, deists to become soft agnostics, soft agnostics to become hard agnostics, and so forth. At every step, people can allow just a bit more critical thinking into their worldview.

    I’ve never seen anyone make the leap all at once. Kudos to those who can, but pushing an ordinary mortal towards a chasm is more likely to result in pushback than heroic leaps forward.

  7. Thanks Enshu.

    Then I think the atheist presence on the internet has certainly made a difference; it may not show up for a generation or so, but I fancy I already see etiolation of the atheist stereotype in culture at large (e.g. House).

    I try to be careful – it’s not far from evangelising to proselytising. :)

  8. yunshui – thanks for pointing out the socratic method, which I’ve been attempting a half-arsed version of for some time. It seems similar to what Matt M was getting at too.

    John Morales said:

    …reasonable is when it’s invited…

    Yes, that’s a pretty good rule of thumb. I have a lot less problem with evangelists of all stripes if they only spoke about their beliefs when invited to do so. But I guess then their beliefs wouldn’t have got very far, so they’re unlikely to be willing to accept that.

    DAM10N said:

    Just a little nudge in either case…At every step, people can allow just a bit more critical thinking into their worldview.

    Yes, it’s often a case of moving people in the right direction and will probably take more than a single influence. There are some who have sudden startling revelations, but I think they’re in the minority.

    John Morales said:

    it may not show up for a generation or so, but I fancy I already see etiolation of the atheist stereotype in culture at large (e.g. House).

    I think you may be on to something there, with each passing generation, opinions can change a bit. It seems to be easier for someone to reject their parents beliefs than to change their own beliefs (no matter what the evidence). I sometimes wonder if humans were immortal and didn’t have children, whether anything would ever change.

    Thanks for all the responses, however I was particularly interested in what rules you think all evangelists (whether atheist or religious) should follow. Perhaps the right question should have been – What would make an evangelist with differing opinions to yours less offensive to you?

  9. Well, two factors I consider paramount are intellectual honesty and a willingness to engage. Surprisingly, I find it quite difficult to generalise about this, because so many subjective factors (e.g. personality clashes) can apply.

  10. Good post. As a former evangelical Christian minister, I have watch myself for tendencies to evangelize in the other direction now. I think engaging in dialog, when invited to do so, is the way to go. I also think respecting that people need time to think through issues is important. The evangelical Christian approach is to demand an instant response: now is the time for salvation…. It is based on inciting emotion and disengaging intellect. The atheist approach should be the opposite. I do not want to see atheists replacing street corner preachers, pushing our views in their faces regardless of whether they are ready to think about the matter, whether they have the time to deal with it right then and so on. We need to be polite rather than pushy, courteous rather than condescending and always, always respectful of their rights to refuse to listen to us and to refuse to see things our way.

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