A Question for Former Believers Who Were Once Religious Proselytizers

Last weekend I was talking with someone who insisted to me that the urge to proselytize signals a weak faith. He argued that if someone was truly strong in their faith, they would not feel any such strong need to have everyone else around them agree with them. I said in reply that he must have never been a believer and he laughed and said something to the effect that he had apparently revealed himself.

The reason I said he could not have really ever believed was that he was completely not able to empathize with the frame of mind in which you really believe as, a matter of literal truth, that everyone outside your faith is going to hell and so really are motivated by actual concern for their souls, and not necessarily by any hidden agenda of not simply being afraid of being alone in your beliefs. I also pointed out to him that proselytizing was typically only found in religions like Christianity or Islam where it is actively insisted upon by the religious founders. Jews rarely proselytize and not because they are somehow less insecure but rather because theirs is simply an ethnic religion in which they understand themselves to be a uniquely chosen people. It’s not meant to be a religion for everyone and so they usually feel no impetus to convert others. Christianity and Islam have proselytization baked into their self-understanding and so for logical reasons many Christians and Muslims feel like their beliefs simply require that they try to turn outsiders to their faith.

Do you think I was right? If you once believed and were concerned about proselytization, do you think it was really because you felt Jesus had obliged you in the Great Commission or that Muhammad’s comparable injunctions to convert and to conquer were binding upon you as a believer? Or, in retrospect, do you think it is reasonable to charge you with, deep down, simply being insecure in your faith and needing the validation of having everyone else agree with you in order to reassure yourself?

Please answer in the comments and if you are having problems figuring out how to post a comment, consider writing me an e-mail with your comment at camelswithhammers @ gmail. As part of the e-mail let me know if you would prefer you would prefer your comment be kept private or if you are opening to me publishing it either in a follow up post or in the comments section below if I find it particularly striking. Any comments alerting me to problems with the commenting system would be very helpful as well. I know there were problems last week and I’m not sure if they’ve been resolved.

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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.

  • eric

    Sounds like your friend has fallen victim to the fundamental attributional error. Inside his head is the assumption that while he tries to convince others of his position because he thinks its the right/best/most reasoned position to hold, other people try to convince others of their position out of some psychological need for external confirmation.

    Realistically, we all act for both good and bad reasons; there is a bit of both in everyone’s arguments. But if one finds that too difficult to accept (“eric, that phychological bias stuff may apply to others, but I’m the exception! I don’t suffer from it!”), then at a minimum, one should assume other people are as honestly motivated in their beliefs as you are in yours…unless and until you have proof otherwise.

  • http://criticallyskeptic-dckitty.blogspot.com Katherine Lorraine, Chaton de la Mort

    I think the answer in retrospect is, both.

    Back when I was a fundie, I spoke my faith for multiple reasons – one) because Jesus required it, two) I honestly cared for the people I was proselytizing to, three) because I wanted people to see me as a Christian and see what a good person I was, and four) I did not have strong faith and thought God would reward me with stronger faith if I kept preaching.

  • asonge

    I was a Christian who evangelized somewhat, but not very much. I was first raised in a heavily Christian environment, going to my Church’s elementary school from K-8, until my family moved where I started attending a public High School. Suddenly I did feel the need to save people’s souls, but I knew that preaching would drive them away. Instead, I tried to make my entire life as upright as I could. Walking the walk while not being pious or showy (or preachy) did seem to succeed in making people very curious about me. I managed to save a couple people directly, but most of the time I ended up inspiring newer Christians to become more devoted. While retrospectively some of my activity may be considered part of “love-bombing”, I don’t remember ever holding my relationships to others hostage for church or personal reasons, so I don’t think that criticism is valid in my case. I genuinely cared about people, which is what generally led to the problems I started having. I only stopped preaching when I began to doubt because of problems with my church’s leadership, and later with my church’s doctrines that drove the leadership decisions.

    In some ways my life is a mirror as I’m still evangelical about my points of view. I don’t know if I’m evangelical about my atheism, per se, but I am evangelical about the things that make me an atheist, and I do not shy away from the results. The posts here on morality being rooted in power/autonomy have been key to my continuing construction of the kind of life I want to live, and in the ways I want to help people build their own lives.

    What I do think are desperate attempts at fortifying a weak belief is the scatterbrain reaction that some people seem to have. Sometimes it’s just that they’ve never been confronted before with good ideas that are *explicitly* outside of Christianity. Other times, there is an attempt to achieve some kind of comfortable silence where they can go on pretending their beliefs are sound. Silence just promotes the status quo. Most people aren’t going to run across books and websites discussing atheism, they’re only going to run into atheists, and that’s going to determine what kind of ideas they consider…most people don’t invent ideas, they run across them. They still should also consider them, but I just am not one of those persons that “figured it out” as a kid. It took seeing the ideas.

    • asonge

      I should add that this is why I feel evangelism is so important: place yourself in the other person’s shoes. Ironically, this can also lead you to know what kinds of evangelism are INAPPROPRIATE. “What if I were this person? What kind of person is this, will they react well? How would I want to be treated if I were like this person?” I would’ve killed to have argued with atheists when I was a Christian…I just never happened to have run across anyone willing to argue.

  • Nature Dude

    Proselytizing for me was a blessing and a chore.

    As a preteen and early teen I’d rather be surfing and fishing than trying to convert the uninterested but I felt that I had to otherwise those people could be lost.

    When my brother, a year older than I, realized that what we were doing was bullshit, I tried to convert him back — He was going to be lost forever!

    Now I realize that proselytizing is just another example of the brainwashing that kids are so susceptible to and that adults are afraid to let go of.

    Fortunately I was able to find the real truth and be set free from the mind control that made me want to convert others.

  • http://wanderinweeta.blogspot.com Susannah

    I was a preacher’s wife, and later an active missionary. I was always a low-key, non-aggressive proselytizer, depending mostly on “friendship evangelism”, but that’s just my style. I was every bit as serious about it as the most in-your-face street evangelist.

    And I definitely believed. I always put doubts down as the result of my own lack of understanding, and forgot them.

    It was hell that kept me going. People I knew and loved going to hell; I would do anything in my power to change that. I remember a fellow missionary who would break down and cry at the thought of so many people obliviously going to eternal torment. He was my sort of guy.

    When I realized that hell was a lie, that there was no evidence for it, that it was a relatively recent addition to the Bible, and that the Biblical references to it could better be read as descriptions of annihilation, not perpetual torment, my reaction was, “So why have we spent our whole lives trying to convert people?” If there is no hell, there is no point to proselytization.

    I resigned from my mission shortly after that. With the year, I left the church entirely.

  • http://marniemaclean.com MissMarnie

    If I truly believed in an afterlife and if I truly believed that proselytizing would get me into heaven and if I truly believed that “saving” someone was a form of charity, I probably would have done it. It would have been, primarily, a selfish endeavor, I think, akin to selling the most candy bars in a school fundraiser so I could get the new Schwinn bike with the banana seat. It would not be a reflection of my doubt in the merits of my school.

    But, jeeze, I mean, people have any number of motivations for doing what they do. Maybe someone DOES have doubts about their religion and they might think that committing more fully will help them overcome those doubts. Maybe someone is worried that a person they love won’t be with them in heaven so the proselytize to ensure they spend eternity together. Maybe they haven’t ever put any thought into it and do it because that’s how they were raised and they think it’s normal.

    Just as it’s totally ridiculous for someone to argue that anyone with an atheist blog, discussing atheist topics is simply trying to cover for a deep, closeted belief in god, I don’t think any of us are in a position to claim that all people who proselytize have a deep closeted doubt about their faith. In both cases, it’s possible that assumption is true for some individuals, (hard to imagine the former, but I’ll allow that it’s possible) but being true for some doesn’t make it true for all.

  • plutosdad

    I performed some evangelism, was in a christian band Global Wave System, I did not really do too much evangelism due to my natural introversion. But I was certainly sure in my beliefs, enough that I kept pushing, reading the Bible completely a few times (well Numbers I could only read once :)), studying history and apologetics, etc.

    The funny thing is, christians also said the same thing this guy did. “Why are you studying that stuff? You don’t have enough faith. You don’t need to study that” They wanted me to wallow in ignorance and be blissful along with them. I always thought that they were the ones whose faith was weak, if they were too afraid to look around at the world.

    The thing is, I thought I had something that would help people, and wanted them to have it too. Luckily I took the gospel seriously, and was not “proud to be a christian” but felt lucky, which is appropriate. Feeling grateful/lucky, because we are all the same and no one is better than anyone else, precludes you from feeling like you are better than gays or criminals or foreigners (plus I grew up outside of a large city in the north).

    Of course, eventually those same studies led me away from theism.

    The thing is, even now as an atheist, I am still motivated to be an evangelist, but for “reason”, similar to what asonge writes above: “evangelical about the things that make me an atheist”. I still don’t try to convince people to become atheists (I’m about to marry a theist this month) but instead just try to talk about challenging issues or bring up interesting topics I’ve read. (Plus it is easier on my introversion to not just start out with “your god is dead”)

    I think, trying to convert people to atheism, or to a particular religion, is not going to work. But converting them to rethink HOW they think will eventually lead them to atheism, and help them to become better people. Since as we know, atheists are not immune to immorality and tribalism. The use of reason, and skepticism – not in the modern sense of “I am a dick and going to disbelieve things I don’t like” but in the older sense of not taking positions you are unsure of, is what really improves society.

  • http://www.facebook.com/connorbd BrianX

    It’s impossible to underestimate the degree to which fundamentalism is about following orders because you believe they’re inherently right. Having said that, I think people take different approaches to proselytization. The most aggressive ones are most likely either the most fanatic or the most insecure — Mother Teresa comes to mind in the latter case, as someone whose faith was essentially dead but who threw herself into it even more rather than do something useful with her mission. See also the great many homophobic religious closet cases.

  • http://www.facebook.com/CharlesDavidE charleseggebrecht

    I evangelized for three distinct reasons: genuine compassion and concern for “the lost”, to brag about “saving souls”, and/or if I wanted to date you (we weren’t allowed to date non-Christians. The irony being that I’m gay). We were encouraged to make friends with non-believers in order to “be a light in the darkness” and to “be Christ’s ambassadors”. Cold evangelism was rare and arguing with non-Christians or “baby” Christians was discouraged.

    So if my options are the Great Commission or insecurity, then Great Commission. When I felt insecure about my faith I argued with other, less faithful Christians.

    Sorry for all the scare quotes. It’s amazing how the meaning of these words have changed since I quit using them to talk about Jeebus shit.

  • girlreading

    I hated proselytizing, preferring to “witness” with my life, but when I did speak up, it was with a sincere conviction and fear that the people I loved were going to hell.

    In fact, there are some people in my life who don’t know I’m an atheist; I just can’t tell them because I know their sincere and loving fear for my soul will cause them stress and anxiety (and they’ll kick the evangelizing into high gear–so, I’m not entirely unselfish).

  • kagekiri

    When I tried converting people, or considered it, I think it was mostly Great Commission based, or based on wanting my friends and family in heaven, and no one to go to hell. So I think it was definitely more geared toward saving people than convincing them to assure myself.

    I didn’t end up converting many people when I was Christian, but I did try to live my life as perfectly as possible to be an example of how Christians were different from non-believers.

    Of course, the fact most fellow Christians at my various schools were nigh-indistinguishable from non-Christians in behaviors diluted my attempts at Christian “walking-the-talk” or being “salt of the earth” quite a bit.

    I think I was too scared of not having answers to friend’s questions or arguments, so I threw myself into apologetics and pseudoscience like YEC stuff. I supposed that could have been projection of my own doubts, but most of my Christian life, it didn’t really seem like it to me.

    I had a few episodes where I literally wept uncontrollably over failing to reach my friends, and crying out for their souls. I was terrified to be their one chance at salvation, possibly turning them towards hell without recourse, so my fear usually got the better of me.

    Mostly, I think the concern was genuine, but in the long run, I don’t think I converted any friends due to my chickening out for fear of shame or rejection. All my siblings converted a few of theirs, which made me feel guilty for not caring about my friends enough to risk our friendship on confronting and converting them.

    I may have helped convert some kids during Vacation Bible Schools or Sunday School, though. I feel pretty dirty for doing it now; being part of the brain-washing machine.

  • articulett

    I tell proselytizers that I’d expect a real god to tweak things however he needed to in order to get people to believe whatever he wanted them to believe if belief was important to him. (and would have no-one to blame but himself if he was disappointed.)

    If a god is omnipotent, what excuse could he have? And if he’s omniscient, doesn’t he already know how everything is going to turn out?

    It’s not the god belief that bugs me… it’s the belief that there’s a god who wants ME to believe the same thing the proselytizer does.

    I was worried as a kid that some god might really expect proselytizing from people– which seemed awful to me… but I suppose I’d have to do it if my eternity depended on it. I was also worried that I might get a calling to be a nun (I’d already decided that if I did, I wasn’t going to listen becaue I could never be sure it wasn’t just a voice in my head.)

  • carlie

    If you once believed and were concerned about proselytization, do you think it was really because you felt Jesus had obliged you in the Great Commission or that Muhammad’s comparable injunctions to convert and to conquer were binding upon you as a believer? Or, in retrospect, do you think it is reasonable to charge you with, deep down, simply being insecure in your faith and needing the validation of having everyone else agree with you in order to reassure yourself?

    Oh gosh no, to the second. I hated proselytizing with every fiber of my being. I was shy and introverted and it always felt terrible and awkward and I avoided it as much as possible and when I was doing it I felt like dying of shame and embarrassment. The absolute only reason I ever did it was because I was told that it was one of the most important things to do and that I couldn’t be a good Christian if I didn’t. It was the most torturous part of being a Christian.

  • raymoscow

    Well, the NT taught me that just about everyone was going to hell to be tormented forever unless they accepted and (to some extent) obeyed Jesus. Therefore, I spent a lot of time and effort to help people avoid that fate.

    Also: Jesus told us to bring people to him. I loved Jesus (although I wanted to love him more than I actually did, I think) and therefore I tried to share him with people, even without the ‘avoiding hell’ incentive that was always in the background.

    Now, is it possible to believe in Jesus and yet ignore most of what the NT taught about hell and spreading God’s message of salvation? Sure, I’ve known lots of Christians like that, but I always considered them rather stupid, insincere and willfully ignorant.

  • vikingrunner

    I didn’t do much proselytization because I was too damn shy. Combine that with the fact that I didn’t really own any good arguments for why people should believe and you don’t have a recipe for aggressive evangelism.

    I pretty much only believed because it was how I was raised. I went through confirmation at the appropriate time because that was what you did (embarrassed the heck out of my mom by stating that as the reason during the service). I did become more fervent in church life due to a couple of charismatic youth group leaders who were amazingly Evangelical. They were intelligent people who were also kind to teenagers, so I really looked up to them for a long time. The husband was even a PhD chemical engineer, the only one I knew, and since ChemE is what I’d decided to be (at the time under the false impression that the field actually had anything to do with chemistry – ha!!) that just made him even more awesome to me. So my logic was basically, “These intelligent people that I respect greatly believe this, these are the reasons they give, so both the reasons and the beliefs must be true, therefore I will believe it.”

    ‘Cept I didn’t actually LIKE that it was true, I thought it was basically a major bummer that it was true. So even though sometimes I did get quite upset at the thought of people I cared about going to hell, in retrospect I think I didn’t own the beliefs enough to risk the social stigma of being an active proselytizer. I had enough social problems as it was.

    • vikingrunner

      Oh – completely forgot the original thought in my mind when I started my comment. If I ever did any sort of preaching/proselytizing activity, it was DEFINITELY out of fear and desire for sameness. The entire basis of my faith was “intelligent people I deeply respect have told me this is true, and many others believe it.” I did honestly see other people disagreeing with me as a threat to that faith and, by extension, a threat to my validity as a person.

  • BubbaRich

    I served an LDS mission for two years. I never had what you would call a “certain” faith, but I was always confident enough in my current analysis of likelihoods. I did it because I was instructed to do it. I wasn’t particularly good at it, because I was very interested in talking to people, connecting with them, and discovering what they believed, too. Now that I write that, I still wouldn’t think insecurity of belief was an important factor, but searching for truth is always an important factor with me. It’s why I ask hard questions, which some people don’t like.

    And, of course, I obeyed (nearly all of) the rules for my two-year mission, and I learned Finnish much better than the average missionary. And I made a lot of friends in Finland, and still enjoy staying in touch with them, and teaching and using Finnish every day.

  • CC

    I definitely felt obligated to fulfill the Great Commission. My fundamentalist sect was more exclusive than most. I was taught that everyone we didn’t reach and everyone who didn’t respond to our message was lost, meaning going to hell. I proselytized because I was driven by guilt that people were going to go to hell if I didn’t talk to them.

    The pressure from the church was relentless. The leaders emphasized numbers a lot. Our numbers had to keep increasing.

    It was exhausting.