Friday, October 15, 2010

Evangelical Failure: The Flaws In Aggressively Pushing Your Belief

A few weeks ago, Dave Carrol published a review of the documentary Collisions on his blog Big Ear Creations. I haven't seen the film, but according to the review, it is about a debate between famous anti-theist Christopher Hitchens and Pastor Douglas Wilson. In the review, Carrol took a stance that even though he doesn't agree with Hitchens, he does respect him for sharing his views, and Carrol could not understand why anyone would not openly promote what they believe to others. The article ended with a stance that there has to be one truth, and there is an obligation to push for that particular truth (I am paraphrasing and also interpreting here). This immediately dragged out mass amounts of rantyness (it's a word and will have a wiki stub when I get to it) from me, and motivated me to comment on the article. This then lead to a rather lengthy discussion in the comments section among several individuals. My goal is not to do a recap of everything discussed, because if you have an interest, you can mosey on over there yourself. Instead, I wanted to focus in on evangelism, and why I believe it is usually more harmful than good.

First of all, if I am going to write a massive opposition to something I am sure many of you believe in, then it is monumentally imperative that I first lay out exactly what I mean by evangelism in this context. First of all, I do not necessarily mean Evangelical Christians, which is often what you think of when one uses the term evangelist. An evangelist can be anyone who is openly telling others about their beliefs, and has the specific goal of converting people. This can be any religion, and it most definitely can also apply (as stated in Dave Carrol's post) to the non religious as well. I also want to make it very clear that I am specifically defining evangelism as one aggressively promoting their religion in an attempt to change another person's beliefs. Which means, this is not an attack on missionaries or churches or religious organizations. There is countless missionaries that go to third world countries and help provide schools, clean drinking water, food and numerous other charitable things. I know of several churches in our area that concentrate doing acts of kindness such as mowing the elderly's lawn, or helping at a soup kitchen or so on. I understand that these people are not hiding their faith, and when they do these deeds that may make it clear what they're Christian (or Muslim or Buddhist or Hindu), but I am not categorizing these things as the type of evangelism that I am targeting here. Actually, these are the type of things that I feel most belief based organizations should be concentrating on, since religion has its greatest value in promoting mercy, love and hope.

My target is more along the lines of those who spend their time shouting out their view on the city streets, and aggressively engaging in debates with the sole purpose of changing the other person's beliefs. As I stated in the comment section on Carrol's blog, I am not opposed to debate or discussion either, because I believe it helped both sides start to understand each other, and allows for various views to be heard. I do think that debates and discussion are detrimental when the participants are so focused on proving the other wrong and getting them to agree with them. This displays a lack of willingness to hear the other side, because you're so focused on proving your own, which really can impede growth and understanding.

The calling card of a hardcore evangelical is that there is only one truth, thus it should be the goal of all to find this indisputable truth. I do agree that there clearly is a truth. I also feel that my own beliefs are the right ones. After all, I don't make it habit going around believing things that I think are probably false. I think I'm right about what I believe, but I also know there are countless of people in this world that don't agree with me. Actually, they think they are most definitely correct in their beliefs and religion (or lack of one). You see, that is the crux right there. This is a rather large and diverse world that contains numerous beliefs and religions, and many of those people are pretty confident that their religion and belief is the correct one. If each person took the stance that it is their duty to be evangelical and convert everyone to their religion, then you can basically write off anything else ever happening again (good bye clean sink).

In order to prove that your specific religion or belief is correct, then you need to set out to disprove the other person's belief or religion. Most of the religions and beliefs contain some form of supernatural element that is not explicitly visibly. You either have a god who is said to be involved in your life on a daily basis, but you can't actually see him or literally hear him. Or you can have a belief in reincarnation, but you can't see that actually unfold before your eyes. Or you may believe in fairies (a key part of Irish folklore that still has its followers), but they also have the powers to remain concealed from the non believer. It is easy to say that the belief or religion makes no sense to you, and since you don't see the deity or power or essence or whatever then you can't follow that belief. It is much harder to try to convince a believer that those things don't exist. The main reason is because they can feel it or sense it themselves. A Buddhist feels the power inside them and senses their ability to reach a higher sense of understanding. A Christian or Muslim sense the presences of their god, and has daily communication with him. Each of these groups knows their beliefs are true, because they can sense and feel it in their very being. Which of course, makes it really hard for anyone to actually disprove.

The big question is, why is their a need to disprove it? Religion can give a person hope during a tough time or gives them the power to love others. Religion leads many to do charitable acts. It can make many people feel good about themselves. Also some religions are a crucial part of a person's cultural identity, and is an ingrained part of who they are. So, why should one tear that away from somebody? What actual value is there?

This might be where someone starts spouting off Pascal's Wager, and how what if there is a heaven and hell. There is the stance that it might be better to believe in a god because it will help you avoid hell and get in heaven, if the religion happens to be right. But again, that only works if there is two options, but as I've been making clear, there is numerous. There is several religions or beliefs that could be right, thus following one faith does not guarantee anything for your life after death. A person joins a faith and belief, because it impacts their life in a positive way. This feeling inside them convinces them that they must be right. There is very little that can really disprove a belief that a person is feeling internally. The only way to know for sure (without a trace of doubt) that you are on the right path for afterlife bliss is for the higher power to reveal itself and tell everyone exactly what must be done. Until then, there isn't a safe bet for your afterlife.

History has proven that rather than aggressive evangelism being a positive for communities, it has actual often been extremely detrimental. In Canada, the First Nations people are still recovering from the loss of their culture, identity and language. Residential schools were designed to convert the children and make them better citizens. Of course, 'better citizens' meant more like the Europeans. This meant the children were deprogrammed and they were told not speak their language or to follow their ancestors' beliefs. The idea was that these people were being 'saved' and 'civilized'; this was apparently being done for their benefit. Now, I am not saying that these atrocities were all centered on evangelism, and actually, it was only a small part (religion was being used to justify a much deeper and darker agenda and mindset). The fact is, the white populace believed their way was the right one, and it was their duty to 'tame the savages.' The notion was that the First Nation were wrong in their beliefs and culture, and they needed to be shown what was proper. This is an extreme example, but I think the idea behind evangelism is very similar. It is the notion that you are right, and by changing others beliefs, you will make their life better. The history throughout the world shows that many indigenous people's lives were made worse rather than better.

In the same vein, pushing aggressively your belief or non belief can cause countless of other harmful and unforeseen elements. It can cause friction in a community that had once held a strong set of beliefs, but now the members are in opposition. Family can be torn apart by tension when members begin to have dissenting views. A person who once was filled with hope can become disenchanted because they have lost what they had made a focus of their life. Obviously, in many cases a community or family or individual will recover (though remember, indigenous population are still reeling from the effects today). In some cases, people do embrace the new idea and it actually improves some lives. The question it comes down to, is it worth the effort and risk?

This leads me to my biggest reason I'm opposed to this style of evangelism; it takes massive amount of time and energy that can be better used in other areas. There is so much effort being put forth by certain organizations trying to prove why they are right, or pushing their beliefs on other people. The fact is, the amount of people 'converted' is usually fairly insignificant compared to those who becomes offended or hostile. It seems the real goal should be one of understanding and empathy. The religions should try to focus on trying to civilly communicate with each other, and figure out what the true goals and needs are. There is a hurting world out there, and it seems it is better served to perform charitable acts rather than evangelism. They need food, clean water, education, and compassion. A cooperation between people of various religions allows for a pooling of resources, and an increase of manpower and ideas. Rather than trying to find the ultimate truth or getting people prepared for heaven, it seems much more worthwhile to try to create a heaven on earth and a world of ultimate understanding. Unfortunately, it is almost impossible when groups are constantly stuck on the idea that they must be right and others just need to see their view.

Now, am I saying that sharing your beliefs is bad all the time? No. If there is someone that has lost hope and is hurting, then they are obviously looking for you to provide something for them. When someone comes to you with questions, then I obviously think it is a place for you to share your beliefs and offer up that it might be an answer for them too. Or on the other hand, when someone uses their religion to promote bigotry and hatred, then I think there is responsibility to point out the holes in the religion and get them to question their agendas. Obviously, I am not saying it is wrong to be open about who you are and what you believe. The issue is pushing a belief on someone who is already happy and not interested in it.

I do agree that there has to be one truth. It is impossible that every person is right. But I also think that there are much more important things than knowing the ultimate truth, and trying to get everyone to believe what you do. Instead, the focus should be on ultimate understanding, and creating a world of community, empathy, hope and love.

9 comments:

  1. Anonymous11:44 am

    Michael Bryant via Facebook:

    Well said Chris.

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  2. Well written and I agree with many points like how Christians should working hard at meeting "felt needs".

    But I think your argument fundamentally falls down with the last paragraph & premise of the argument. "...there are much more important things than knowing the ultimate truth, and trying to get everyone to believe what you do. Instead, the focus should be on ultimate understanding, and creating a world of community, empathy, hope and love."

    The second sentence works. But the first is dangerous. It's only true if your worldview is correct (and you’re obviously writing it with your worldview as a base). And it’s the same with my argument. But if your worldview is incorrect, what you're espousing is essentially a false utopia that, if based on a wrong worldview, leads to only temporal gain and potentially eternal suffering.

    Understanding, patience, empathy, love, peace... yep yep yep yep yep. I'm in. Jesus preached these things too. But how we apply and institute these things ARE entirely based on our view of absolute truth. They are inseparable.

    There are good and bad ways of communicating truth’s. thought’s and idea. But from the Christian standpoint, if it's played out, it's quite impossible to separate believing in the full story of Christ and the mandate to share it in some way. Christians didn't write the story of their faith but are called to pick up their cross and follow Jesus. It's a part of the package. It doesn't mean that we all have to be divisive jerks about it (and BELIEVE ME... I know this happens. Jesus needs new PR. This is my life) but keeping it to yourself if Jesus is who he claimed to be is an awful option.

    Not sure if you've seen this clip of Penn (Penn and Teller) but it's the story of the day someone gave him a Bible and shared Jesus with him after a show.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_2Pql9pbiJs

    "How much do you have to hate someone to believe in a heaven and hell afterlife and NOT proselytize?"

    It DOES come down to ultimate truth being the most important thing, and if that ultimate truth includes loving people so much to share the possibility of life? It’s selfish lunacy to keep it to yourself… having feel-good parties by yourself. It was only because God via man became extraordinarily uncomfortable (ummm… public humiliating death) and self-sacrificial for my freedoms. Spiritual hedoism is dangerous and is exactly the kind of watered-down, publically uninvolved, pablum that has caused its cultural irrelevancy in the first place.

    We must (and likely already are) functioning what we find as ultimate truth in creating our method of living. When we know how and why it’s best communicated, it just works better

    CS Lewis (Mere Christianity) said:

    "I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: "I'm ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don't accept His claim to be God." That is the one thing we must not say. A man who said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic--on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg--or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to."

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  3. First of all, thank you for the lengthy and well thought out reply, Dave. I really do appreciate it.

    I think it is important to reiterate that when I am talking about making an ultimate truth the central focus, I mean a stance where your number one goal is to convert everyone into your line of thinking and belief no matter the consequences. This includes evangelizing to people who are happy and peaceful in their own religion, or folks who are not interested in hearing your view. I'm talking about going into a community and causing massive social upheaval with the sole reasoning that your ideas and views are better (even though it then leads to this community to be chaos for the next several generations).

    I realize that one's belief in an ultimate truth might involve things like eternal life or a hell, and if you believe that, then you obviously want to save as many lives as possible. I question if aggressively evangelizing to someone is necessarily the smartest strategy at conversion, because to me it seems like a better chance at alienation and friction.

    If you hold a belief that a person's well being hinges on them believing exactly what you do, then yes there is a need for them to convert, but it doesn't have to be an aggressive form of evangelism. As I stated in the post, I am not opposed to one sharing their beliefs when someone is open to it or asking for it, but rather when one who is pushing their ideas on someone who is not causing any harm but happens to have a different worldview. The fact is, if there is a real god that is begging for a relationship with everyone, then he should at some point prepare that person's heart so that they are willing and needing to listen. A huge point in religion is that it is this personal experience with god and a feeling that causes them to sense god, which would make you think that god would eventually need to convey those feelings to the non believers. If someone is sensing god in the wrong religion, then you'd assume the real god would have the power to correct those misguided emotions and spiritual feelings, right? Otherwise, it causes one to question all notions of spirituality (because why are so many feeling the same thing but believing differently). The fact remains, if someone is already experiencing a relationship with a god, but happens to be the one you feel is wrong, then there is very little you can do the convince them otherwise. It would seem rather than aggressively trying to change their mind, then you should just try to build a solid relationship (then eventually, maybe god will do something to get them prepared to hear your side).

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  4. I don't think it is an issue of hiding your faith or beliefs. Personally I believe, it is important to express who you are and convey to others what you believe. At the same time, there absolutely must be a respect and understanding that in a multicultural landscape, others will do the same and should be allowed to do so. I also don't have any problem with two people discussing their ideas of ultimate truth. The issue is the arrogance of feeling what is fulfilling and right for you, is exactly what other happy people actually need. By all means share and let others know what you believe, but be careful in then trying to shove those same views down their throat as an attempt to 'save' them. I think for the majority of the time, it will do the opposite, or in the case of Penn, it does very little in changing his actual beliefs. Which is why I think spreading love and understanding are way more effective because you've formed this lasting friendship and bond, where they do know where you stand (but also know you accept them in their current state). If there is this god that needs people to be in a relationship, then he'll do what is necessary to get people in a place where they need it. Because from my experience, preaching hell fire and brimstone is maybe good at scaring some people or upsetting others, but doesn't do a whole lot in making large amount of lasting conversions (it does some, I admit).

    If I believed in hell, would I be a hate filled and unloving person for not telling others about it? Maybe, but I would question why a loving god created people that are stubborn and set in their ways, and needed a flawed, simpleton like myself to convert them.

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  5. That's actually the beauty of it though. Christ in man is the hope of glory. God kinda digs that stuff actually that make little sense

    Bono said: "It really sank in with the Christmas story. The idea that God, if there is a force of Love and Logic in the universe, that it would seek to explain itself is amazing enough. That it would seek to explain itself and describe itself by becoming a child born in straw poverty, in shit and straw... a child ... I just thought: 'Wow!' Just the poetry... Unknowable love, unknowable power, describes itself as the most vulnerable

    And God also chooses flawed, bumbling, inarticulate man to be the hands and feet of his kingdom coming. It's humbling and beautiful... and yes... very messy.

    But you're right in the manner that it is God who draws men. And Far too often, the zealous are just plain rude about it all. Being a jerk... doesn't show the love of God that we're asked to communicate and share.

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  6. And real honest sacrificial love speaks pretty loudly... it made Jesus such a publicly divisive figure that they had to try to kill him to stop him from creating further societal "issues".

    Kinda backfired on them though

    Good conversation again Chris!

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  7. I agree with the sacrificial love speaking loudly, and it is the charity and compassion that makes religion valuable, thus why I'd never be one to outright seek its destruction. It is the acts of love that would do more in promoting a worldview than trying to aggressively promote your belief as the only truth and road to legitimate happiness (especially when you recognize there is so many people who have been living just fine with their worldview and beliefs).

    I also agree that the notion of God using 'flawed, bumbling, inarticulate man to be the hands and feet of his kingdom coming' is quite beautiful and uplifting (and I am sure a massive appeal of Christianity for so many broken and hurting people). The problem is that the reality sometimes doesn't turn out as beautiful. They take matters in their own hands and push the 'kingdom of God' on to people in a ways that is so misguided and lacking in love. Certain groups have used religion as their reason to push an agenda so full of hate and bigotry, that it does very little converting but a whole lot of damaging.

    It would be far more effective for religious groups (or any groups) to actually take the time to understand other communities rather than jumping to the mass conclusion that they're wrong and must be changed. From my own experience in being involved in a conservative church for years and being entrenched in the Evangelical Christian community, there seems to be this dangerous habit of making those of other beliefs into the 'other' or to have them demonized to the point you forget to treat them like real and valuable humans (please understand, I am not saying all do this). There is a point where people start becoming these objective (to convert) rather than humans to understand and have a relationship with.

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  8. Anonymous8:29 pm

    Another interesting post, Spicer. I have to be honest though, I like it, but I somewhat disagree.

    Let's take Christianity for example, Jesus final words to his disciples, were to "Go and Make more disciples" to not hide their faith, to share their faith - to evangelize.

    I like your idea of doing good things, I think thats honourable and just flat out great, but if that is just your method of evangelism, then all people are seeing is your good works, but are not hearing about Jesus.

    Just some thoughts.

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  9. My post never said one should hide their faith and beliefs; it stated you shouldn't force your beliefs upon people who are completely happy without them. If you want to do amazing acts of charity, while claiming it is in the name of Jesus Christ, then by all means do it and I am sure he'll appreciate the good PR.

    My issue is using your faith or belief to condemn others because they have a different lifestyle or religion. Then you actively try to convert people who are completely happy and peaceful in their own religion or belief, because you think you know the ultimate truth.

    I think, Mother Theresa is a good example of a way to properly promote your faith, while Jerry Falwell (for Christians) and Sam Harris (for atheist) would be examples of people who were more likely to spread venom and friction to the other side.

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