Ask Richard: Dealing With Evangelizers Who Seem Fragile

Hey Richard,

First, I want to say that I’m really loving your advice column. I’ve always respected the thought you put into your posts and comments, and I think this format really works. I hope it’s a permanent feature.

My question deals with people who say their life was the subject of country songs before they found god. Every now and then I’ll have a religious conversation in which someone says that if they hadn’t found Jesus, they’d be on drugs, raising ten welfare babies, or dying in a gutter with no reason to carry on. I’d guess that most of them would learn other ways of dealing with their problems, but there probably are some lives held together only by religion. Not wanting to mess up their life, I generally make an awkward move to drop the subject at that point. The odd thing is, sometimes people will say this and then continue to evangelize and press the debate. How do you think these situations should be handled?

Thanks,
Mike

Dear Mike,

Arguing with their beliefs is one thing. Arguing with their decision to keep evangelizing you is another. Both are completely okay for you to do, although the former is probably pointless while the latter might relieve you of an annoying pest.

I don’t think you need to worry that arguing with these people about their beliefs will mess up their lives. The only thing that might do is mess up your evening. They’re not going to end up “on drugs, raising ten welfare babies and dying in the gutter with no reason to carry on” just because you disagreed with their beliefs. If they were that fragile, they’d already be dead. The world is a tough place, and many people are not very tactful or diplomatic.

They have come to you, you have not come to them. You won’t be the first person who as disagreed with them, and you definitely won’t be the one who persuades them to abandon their beliefs. My point is that it’s almost always a completely futile task, like bailing out a cesspool with a bottomless bucket. The only despair coming out of such a discussion will be from you, for having wasted an hour that you could have much better enjoyed by, say, watching your Aunt Mildred’s old grainy 8mm movies of the Ice Capades in 1961.

I’ve heard many of these “tales of woe” at the beginning of testimonials for the transformative powers of a religion. They take two forms:

  1. A claim that this is how they actually lived, and now they are so much better because of their conversion to their religion, or
  2. A claim about how awful they would be if not for their religion.

In either case, It is impossible for you to know how much of it is true at all, and how much of it is embellished. That becomes moot anyway, because the more often they repeat the story, the more set and vivid it becomes in their minds, so that eventually they believe it themselves, even if at first it was an exaggeration or a complete fabrication.

I think that often it is a ploy, a manipulation with two purposes: Firstly, it is dramatic and grabs your attention. If you assume it is a true story or a likely scenario, then it impressively portrays the power of their remedy. The second thing it does is to make it more likely that a listener will refrain from challenging them, as it did to you, for fear that you might undermine their support and they would fall into that squalid life.

Because it has stirred your compassion, you might also be reluctant to ask them to please stop evangelizing you, and you’ll let them go on and on out of a sense of kindness to them. Their illusion of vulnerability is actually an armor, and they are taking advantage of your sympathy.

So let’s assume that you’re in a patient mood, and you listen to one of these missives of misery, and you say “uh-huh” at all the right places, and then at an opportune moment you try to close it with your version of “Well. Thank you for sharing,” but they don’t take the hint and they keep on going, starting into the really unwelcome evangelizing.

Remember, the vulnerability is an illusion. If they were that fragile, they’d already be dead. You can’t destroy them by merely declining to listen any more. You don’t need to be rude or snide, but it is really okay to be firm.

Try saying, “Jack, (always get their first name, and don’t offer them yours) I’m glad that you have something that has helped you with your challenges. However, I don’t have those challenges, and we all have to find our own solutions to our own problems. Thank you for telling me this, but it’s not for me. Now let’s talk about something else, like…”

You will have already thought of some change of subject, because while listening to their story, you were observing something about them, or making note of some non-religious interest of theirs that they had mentioned.

This change of subject part is completely optional. You could just end it with “…but it’s not for me.” No guilt is necessary. You have the right to be left alone. They came to you, you didn’t come to them. You have not been aggressive, merely assertive. Good for you.

Or, you could just look them right in the eye and say with finality, “I’m an atheist.” More often than not, they’ll leave faster than if you told them that the building is on fire.

Richard

You may send your questions for Richard to AskRichard. All questions will eventually be answered, but not all can be published. There is a large number of requests; please be patient.

About Richard Wade

Richard Wade is a retired Marriage and Family Therapist living in California.

  • http://www.madatheist.wordpress.com NiroZ

    The thing that always bugs me about this is that, if god was powerful enough to help them, then why do so many still get crushed by life yet still be religious. They say that believing in god prevented them from diddling children, or gave them strength. Why doesn’t everyone who believes get strength or diddle children? Priests, even.

    Because it was they who managed to have the strength and to resist diddling children.

  • Michael Kingsford Gray

    My simple response is:
    Your newly acquired support cult demands that you insist upon the outright crime of compulsory infant genital mutilation of infants.

    After a few wahs? I explain that their Abrahamic cult *insists* that non-consensual male infants have the end of their penis removed in a brutal ritual, under penalty for non-compliance.

    That shuts them up. Guaranteed.

  • Laura Lou

    It’s awe-inspiring when a person can overcome poverty, a drug addiction, or any other dangerous situation. It’s tragic when that person discredits their own personal strength and says it was religion that saved them.

    But like Richard said, I don’t think that’s really the case for who Mike was referring to. I HATE hearing that argument from religious folk. It’s usually just a sleazy tactic to heroicize their faith. And, after all, only a villain opposes the hero.

  • http://hoverfrog.wordpress.com hoverFrog

    I simply don’t believe that their tales of woe are true but I understand that it is rude to call someone a liar to their face.

  • muggle

    The Freedom From Religion Foundation nontracts work wonderfully too. Two old ladies approached me at a bus stop once with their pamphlets. Told them, I’ll read yours if you read mine and handed them something titled “Dear Christian” that went on to explain what was wrong with Christianity from there.

    They were smiling thinking they’d stumbled across a like blindly faithful (who god was being so kind to she was waiting for a bus with a small child) but after glancing at it scurried quickly away like the devil himself was after them.

    The Atheist thing works amazingly well. Sadly often with people you believed friendly too.

    To the ones who state they’d be whatever horror without god, I just cringe and say in an obvious you’re creeping me out tone of voice, “Okay, then” and back away slowly (I don’t ever open my door to strangers so it’s not a problem at home). Politeness not required. As you said, they disturbed you. If true, what a creepy individual that you want to avoid. If not, they’re liars at the very least. Not someone to trust. Definitely not desirable people to have in your life either way, especially if it really is such a fine line between them and total depravity. Though you’re right. They’d be dead if true. However, they’re still stinking liars.

    It can be great fun sometimes though to get those who ask with all seriousness if you’ve found Jesus. I tie their tongue in knots and they slink away.

  • http://miketheinfidel.blogspot.com/ MikeTheInfidel

    Ask them why they didn’t turn to Allah or Buddha instead. People’s methods and results vary, but none of them does much better overall than any other.

  • http://redheadedskeptic.com Laura

    My least favorite conversation along this lines occurred when a woman (who didn’t know I was an atheist) told me that it was God who helped her through her recent loss of an infant, followed by a pregnancy loss during the fifth or sixth month of pregnancy (which is pretty rare). She was very religious and said she didn’t know how people “without the hope of God” make it through. It hardly seemed like an appropriate time to argue, but it did annoy me greatly.

  • Tyro

    Funny how it’s always God that saved them, not growing maturity, not their growing control over their lives, not an improved social group.

    It’s like homeopathic cold remidies – with them you get better in seven days, without them you get better in a week, but homeopathy always comes out as the miracle cure.

    Since God didn’t save them and they’ve clearly found a way to live successfully, losing their religion isn’t going to change anything major, so nothing to worry about.

  • Miko

    Saying “without god, I’d be a horrible wretch” is like saying “without the architect who designed my house, I’d be homeless.” In both cases, if the existing solutions were unavailable, you wouldn’t just declare everything to be hopeless. Instead, you’d seek new solutions which were available.

  • Someone

    I don’t have any suggestions for a response off the top of my head, but I have a general observation about these types of people.

    This is a class of person who can often be described as an addictive personality, and who really, REALLY wants someone or something else to handle what should be their own personal responsibility.

    These types often go from substance (or other) addiction to religious addiction. I don’t find that I can relate to such personalities well at all, so I don’t try. They are living in what amounts to a parallel universe – it has different rules from a reality-based world, and usually they are not interested in what reality has to offer. I just move on.

  • nomad

    “Remember, the vulnerability is an illusion.”

    I don’t think that’s true. Many religious people are very vulnerable. Your suggestions are primarily for dealing with those who are not. So you really haven’t addressed how to deal with that proportion, however small, who are vulnerable. And the most vulnerable are often those closest to you. Or at least those are the ones you care about. It’s is a real problem. Do you have an answer?

  • Richard Wade

    Nomad, you asked,

    “Remember, the vulnerability is an illusion.”
    I don’t think that’s true. Many religious people are very vulnerable. Your suggestions are primarily for dealing with those who are not. So you really haven’t addressed how to deal with that proportion, however small, who are vulnerable. And the most vulnerable are often those closest to you. Or at least those are the ones you care about. It’s is a real problem. Do you have an answer?

    That is an excellent question, Nomad. I think it warrants a separate post to address it.

  • http://miketheinfidel.blogspot.com/ MikeTheInfidel

    My least favorite conversation along this lines occurred when a woman (who didn’t know I was an atheist) told me that it was God who helped her through her recent loss of an infant, followed by a pregnancy loss during the fifth or sixth month of pregnancy (which is pretty rare). She was very religious and said she didn’t know how people “without the hope of God” make it through. It hardly seemed like an appropriate time to argue, but it did annoy me greatly.

    How astonishingly myopic. Yes, God helped you get over the death of your babies. Curious that he didn’t prevent it in the first place…

  • Richard Wade

    To no one in particular:

    If there’s one thing that I hope people consider from my remarks, it’s to see the difference between being clever at argument and being clever at cruelty.

    Whether or not you think their stories are true, whether or not you think they are vulnerable people, if you choose to interact with them, please be aware of your motives, and let your actions come from wanting to support your view instead of wanting to cause humiliation.

    Practice your fencing skills for the purpose of improving the world around you, not for the pleasure of running someone through. Don’t let sadism reside in your heart. Like a tumor, it grows.

    I have done cruel things with my talent with words, and while my guilt for that has faded, I hope that I never completely forget it.

  • Jim

    When people say things like, ‘had I not done this I’d have…’ are projecting a future that never happened. Obviously for these people they were already aware of their poor lifestyle choice and were looking for a way out. God was their placebo, but there is no doubt that the person that is making that claim is the sole factor in their change in lifestyle.

    Those people that say, “I’d not be able to do this without the help of god.” are also saying, “No matter what I’ve done in the past or what I do in the future, it’s not my fault.”

  • Murine

    Found this site while looking for ways to tell born-again Christian friends and family TO LEAVE ME ALONE.

    I don’t debate religion, ridicule their beliefs. I don’t even tell them they can’t talk about their faith (in terms of “I read a Christian book today. I went to church yesterday” etc.) as it pertains to their day-to-day lives.

    All I ask or tell them is to STOP suggesting, urging me to suit up.

    A recent dear one has gotten me in his Come to Jesus Cross-Hairs, and he is recently widowed and grief stricken. So I felt guilty TELLING HIM TO STOP. But I did it anyway, and with firmness first and then anger when he kept saying (what they all say),”OH, but I’m not ‘evangelizing.’ I’m not like those typical evangelizers. I’m just doing this because I love you and want you to have what I’ve found.” Then he broke down in real tears. Had I not been through this before, with another friend, I would have ceased and desisted my protestations. But I was a little un-moved by his tears. I don’t doubt they were real. But I felt manipulated all the same. I also was sad because I felt the tears that came so freely now were ones that had been bottled up for months. He has spent so much time putting on a “let’s be positive!” persona, it has been impossible to try to just help him with his grief. I doubted he was “fine” but was perplexed as to why he always claimed he was fine. I was sure he was grieving in private, shedding many tears and having sleepless nights as anyone would. But in public, even to me on the phone, he would refuse to cop to anything “negative.” So it’s been a year of trying to be there for him should he need me, only to be rebuffed.

    Now, with my confrontation, telling him, DO NOT evangelize to me again. Ever. You know I don’t like it. I’ve told you a million times in the past I don’t like it.” he has become emotional and crying.

    I still feel manipulated, angry, and very much that I have a right to be left alone.

    He is insulated in that he isn’t aware that all of his “arguments” about being a Christian have been fed to him by generations of pastors, writers, etc., who want to “spread the word.” So I think his shock that what he is saying to me is not original is kind of sad, but real.

    When I speak up about this to him, my motivation is not to skewer him, deflate him, humiliate him, or make him doubt his beliefs. But I DO have a big motivation to DEFEND myself. I feel very picked on. Why is that? Why do these evanglizers get to me? I guess I know the answer. It’s because it makes me feel like they are criticizing me somehow. And it makes me realize that any conversations we’ve had where I’ve revealed bad things going on in my life, problems, etc., have now been “used against me”: They now use any problem I have not solved as more “evidence” that if I only had Jesus, I’d have a better grasp on solving my problems and would be “calmer” and “at peace.”

    What they ignore is that in my life I have survived tragedies, deaths,much as they have. They never recognize or comment that I obviously do have inner strength to get through these trials.

    Thanks for letting me get this off my chest.