Proselytizing and Apologetics

promoting Paganism through public service
I mainly listen to Shhh! There are Pagans in Texas!! for their coverage of Pagan events in North Texas. But in their most recent episode, they replied to a listener who had asked their opinion on responding to Christian apologetics and on whether or not Pagans should proselytize.
I encourage you to listen to their comments yourself, but essentially both Renny and Rose say that we should not attempt to convert others to Paganism, and that their preferred response to someone attempting to convert them to Christianity is to simply thank them for their concern and politely walk away. They say we should let our actions speak for us (through our community, charity, and environmental work) and only present our faith when someone explicitly asks.
I think that’s a good answer. And I’m in complete agreement about not proselytizing. As a universalist, I find proselytizing unnecessary. As a UU, I find it arrogant and rude. As a Pagan, I’m reminded that our gods and goddesses call who they choose to call. If a deity tells me to give you a message I’ll deliver it (and I have), but I’ve seen nothing in either ancient lore or modern experience to indicate that Cernunnos is the least bit interested in trying to convert the whole world to his worship.
Instead of proselytizing, what we should be doing is promoting Paganism. I agree with John Michael Greer that contemporary Paganism is the indigenous religion of modern Anglo-American industrial society. It arose and is growing because too many of us are cut off from our ancestors, from the natural world and from the Divine Feminine. Paganism isn’t the only answer to those problems, but it is a very good answer. We have no need to go door to door “saving souls,” but with our books, websites, blogs, podcasts, and especially with our public presence, we let people know we’re here and that there is an alternative to both orthodox religion on one side and to atheism and secularism on the other.
I’ve bitten my tongue too many times to criticize someone who declines to engage a proselytizer, particularly an aggressive one. And someone who is engaging in aggressive apologetics is unlikely to have a sudden change of opinion because of your ingenious or witty responses. The classic liberal mistake (for both religious liberals and political liberals) is to think that if we could just get people to see the facts then they’d agree with us. They won’t, not because they’re stupid or arrogant or blind, but because they have different foundational beliefs and different life experiences.
So attempting to rebut Christian apologists is a waste of time. At the same time, we need to be able to give a rational explanation of our beliefs and practices. And someone who offers an unsolicited religious opinion to me has just obligated him or herself to listen to my religious opinion.
It need not be an elaborate opinion. I tend to stick with a basic three-fold explanation of Paganism: a view of the Divine as both female and male, a connection to Nature and its rhythms and cycles, and a resonance with our ancestors and their beliefs and practices. It’s enough to let someone whose only exposure to Paganism, Witchcraft, and Druidry comes from Hollywood know that there’s something real here. It won’t change their beliefs, but it may change their opinion of Pagans, and in some cases it may make true interfaith dialogue and cooperation possible.
I generally won’t debate Christianity. If people start spouting “young Earth” creationism I’ll lay out the basic scientific facts. If they quote the Bible I’ll let them know I believe it was written by and for a particular group of people in a particular place and time and that it carries no more weight with me than any other religious or ethnic group’s ancient writings. And if they push, I’ll let them know that any god that would condemn any – much less most – of his children to eternal torment for following the “wrong” religion is unworthy of worship. Arguments about what a particular passage of scripture “really” means is pointless and puts the debate on their terms. That Jesus said nothing about homosexuality is interesting, but what is really important to me are all my gay friends whose lives are as healthy, productive, and good as my straight friends.
So while proselytizing is not something we should do, I encourage everyone to promote your faith to the extent you feel safe. Be prepared to offer a reasonable explanation to those who ask and to those who open the door to religious dialogue – even if they expect that dialogue to be one-sided.
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  • You seem to be saying that "the god or goddess" predisposes people to believe and act in certain ways, but then you also appear to disapprove of those who decide to proselytize others. Wouldn't it be more consistent to say that if the god or goddess predisposes people to believe and act in certain ways then fault cannot be found in any person, circumstance, or event since these were all orchestrated according to the will of someone/something else?

  • No. Deities do not predispose people to believe or act in certain ways. Free will and personal responsibility are a key point of modern Pagan religion.

    Deities call people to do their work in this world. That call is an invitation, not a compulsion. You can always say "no", though if you've asked for favors in the past I don't recommend it. Reciprocity is another key point of modern Paganism.

    The point I was trying to make is that deities call some people but not others. Proselytizing is useless, since we don't know who is called and who isn't. And unlike the Calvinists, we don't believe that those who aren't called to our ways are damned – they're simply called to a different path.