Evangelicals Revise Their Strategies For Relating To Serious Atheists

It is clear from my personal experience that nearly all Christians throw out the evangelist playbook when they deal with me.  I suspect I’m not the only one of the growing demographic of serious and self-assured atheists that they are approaching differently.  Aaron points me to this article which gives me a little hope for the future of Christian-atheist relations in general, but not nearly enough to quell my wariness of evangelicalism:

When Doug asked me what advice I would have for the assembled missionaries in training, the answer came quickly: If you want to have influence, I said, you have to be willing to be influenced. If not, I asked, would anyone want to have a conversation with you? (This was obviously not news to Pollock, as evidenced by his inviting me to participate in the first place.)

‘Necessary interlocutors’

As Christian pastor Samir Selmanovic has written, two-way conversations with the not-like-minded are vital for a devout person’s spiritual growth. Selmanovic, author of the 2009 book It’s Really All about God, wrote in aHuffington Post article that friendly atheists are “desirable and necessary interlocutors in our human conversation. … To us religious people, atheists are not only precious neighbors but also strangers who see what we cannot see and ask questions that we don’t know how to ask. … Atheists are God’s whistle-blowers.”

Benefits flow in both directions when Christian-atheist conversations break out. Matt Casper, the atheist co-author with Henderson of Jim and Casper Go to Church, and Henderson’s partner in the ChurchRater.com venture, says his engaging with Christians is motivated by his desire to get them to question their certitude and to see that atheists don’t have tails and horns. Being around Christians, Casper adds, “has made me a better person.”

Conventional evangelism is often accused, and rightly so, of “bait and switch” tactics; think attractive social gathering or sports outing that, unbeknownst to invitees, is really designed to segue into a Gospel pitch. Henderson has a fascinating alternative to propose: all bait, no switch.

Call it promotion by non-promotion, evangelism by attraction, goodwill mongering, or letting one’s life speak for itself, but this is what will best represent the faith among the many Americans who do not share the evangelical faith. Henderson and his fellow travelers are right in urging would-be evangelists simply to get to know people, become their friends and let the spiritual chips fall where they may.

While this is a far more admirable and humanly respectful way to deal with those outside one’s group, I still am suspicious that with more vulnerable and impressionable people, the tactics would be the same emotional bullying and manipulation, the same exploitation of our natural cognitive errors for persuasion, the same condescending attitude, the same ulteriorly motivated charity, and the same reduction of people to conversion projects, that for ages have been staples of religious proselytization.

In other words, evangelicals abandoning strategies which more and more atheists are growing properly resistant to, is only the first step.  It does not necessarily indicate any moral growth among evangelicals but rather their adjustment to our intractability on their old methods.  The real and valuable moral step for evangelicals would come when as a matter of course they stop exploiting the weaknesses of the vulnerable in whatever ways available to them so that they can convert them.  Real respect for people’s intelligence and well-being involves abandoning all baits and switches, not just reserving them for the gullible.  Let’s see that change institutionalized before we start patting our evangelist friends on the back as genuinely caring and open-minded friends to non-believers.  And let’s see if any evangelicalism even remains after that.

Your Thoughts?

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About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • http://relationshipcreatures.blogspot.com P. Hamilton

    As far as I’m concerned evangelist are just like advertisers. They use anything they can to promote THEIR agenda. They are greedy in their own ways. I think they have nothing to do with spirituality or the ‘growth’ of anything, but are limited in their thinking and emotions. That’s my two cents.

    • Daniel Fincke

      I essentially agree. When I brought up “growth” I referred to what would count as actual growth for Evangelicals so they stopped fitting your description here. It would mean not simply conceding the futility of aggressive and demeaning methods with some people but abandoning them altogether. It would involve abandoning their unscrupulous advertisers’ mindsets.

  • mikespeir

    No, atheists aren’t God’s whistle-blowers. Atheists aren’t God’s anything.

  • http://wwwtgsblog-teege.blogspot.com/ Teege

    If I were still a Christian, I wouldn’t go by halves. I’d either devote every waking moment to active evangelism or just live my life and let God worry about the people who aren’t saved yet. Both are ways to justify inconsistencies and jump through the hoops the religion creates.

  • Aaron

    Dan, you’re right that if there is still a condescending attitude, even unshown, it’s not really any better. I’ve had people think they know how to respect my beliefs, only to find out eventually that I’m a “project” of theirs when they feel I’m vulnerable (which they inevitably do, because I try to be respectful of their beliefs).

    I have a few friends who are evangelical at heart (Christian, Jewish and atheist, if you will), but with an approach I respect: respect others, be open with them, and learn from them. If you want people to think like you, be an example to them of why your moral guidance is worth following. Show, don’t tell. If they choose to follow, OK. If not, well, maybe you need to be a better example.

  • Jonathan – a different one :)

    We’re all “limited in [our] thinking and emotions”, so no surprises there.

    It’s much easier to distract one’s self with a limited perception of somebody else’s problems than it is to do the hard work of attending to one’s own (spiritual? psycho-social-emotional?) growth.

    That said I think the point made here about our own growth being dependent upon community interactions is valid, so Teege’s all-or-nothing approach seems borked.

    I’d’ve thought that everyone could agree that atheists are blowing the whistle on [gG]od. Okay, so some think that there is somehow more content to the referand (?) than others do, but there’s still some pointing out nakedness going on. Evidently my limited thinking is exposed. Again.

    I don’t have enough time, energy or even, at the moment, inclination to engage deeply with the a/theism debate, but it feels important to keep tendrils over here on several levels – community cohesion being one I’d not consciously been aware of until today. I am informed and affected even by this limited level of engagement. So again, Daniel, thanks for your blogging.