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.