Defense Against the Proselytizing Arts

all the Truth and Authority you need is here

As I mentioned in the previous post, on Saturday I attended a workshop led by Bryan Lankford titled “Counter Evangelism – Defending Yourself from the Army of God.” This was originally a six-hour workshop and Bryan had to cut it down to one hour for this event. I’d like to hear the rest of his presentation, but that hasn’t stopped me from thinking about my own approach to this topic.

In general I prefer to focus on what we do believe and not on what we don’t believe. Religious liberals – whether we are Pagans or Druids or UUs or free thinkers or whatever – need to define ourselves in our own terms and not as not-Christians or not-fundamentalists.

But while religious liberty is theoretically guaranteed by the United States Constitution, in reality religious liberty is the privilege of those in the majority religion, unless you have the means and circumstances to deal with the fallout. If you’re a Pagan teenager living with and dependent on your fundamentalist Christian parents, you need to know how to defend your religion – to yourself if not to others. If you’re a stay-at-home Pagan mom whose husband is a conservative Catholic, you need to know how to defend your beliefs and practices. If you’re a Pagan parent whose third-grade children are subject to religious taunts on the playground and religious bigotry in the classroom, you need to know how to defend your family against those who want to “save” them.

The purpose of Defense Against the Proselytizing Arts is defensive – it’s not for winning arguments with fundamentalists and it’s certainly not for aggressively promoting your own religion. Its goal is to help you and your family stay safely and comfortably on the path to which you’ve been called. Its goal isn’t to change someone else’s mind – its goal is to keep someone else from changing your mind.

Understand that most Christians – even those in conservative denominations – don’t really care if you’re Pagan or Buddhist or atheist any more than you care if they’re Baptist or Methodist or Catholic. They may think you’re wrong, or misguided, or even headed straight to hell, but they’re polite enough to keep their opinions to themselves. That’s something we can respect – and emulate. There are only a few who aggressively proselytize… but it only takes one to cause problems.

Don’t feel like you have to justify your religion to fundamentalist Christians. What would you do if Muslims were trying to convert you to Islam? Would you dive into a long debate about the origins of the Quran? Or would you simply say “no thanks – I’m happy with the religion I have”? If you can walk away, walk.

Far and away the best approach to preventing proselytization is a strong, committed Pagan spiritual practice. Proselytization works because it offers something you don’t already have, something you think you need. If you’re communing with Nature and with your ancestors, reading and meditating, speaking to your gods and goddesses and letting them speak to you, then you’ve already got a good religion and you won’t need a new one. Building confidence in yourself and in your path is the first and best defense.

The next critical defense is to be a part of an active religious community. Ideally that’s a local coven or grove or CUUPS group, but any group that supports religious freedom and encourages spiritual growth will help. It’s the rare person who can live a truly spiritual life alone – most of us need the encouragement and reinforcement and accountability that comes from being in community with other like-minded folks. Most effective evangelism is personal – people already in your life tell their stories and convince you to join them. That works both ways. The people you’ve circled with and studied with and planted trees with are part of the reason you are where you are – and a big part of the reason you’ll stay where you really want to stay.

It helps to have a good working knowledge of the history of Christianity and the history of the Bible. Not what they teach in Sunday School, but real history written by real historians and scholars of religion. One of my favorites is Karen Armstrong’s A History of God. Read books by Bart Ehrman, Elaine Pagels and other knowledgeable liberal Christians and former Christians. Aggressive proselytizers tend to know their denomination’s doctrines and the scripture that support them – they rarely know the story of how those doctrines and scriptures came to be developed.

This isn’t ammunition for debates – if someone is convinced the Bible is the literal and inerrant Word of God and the translations have been divinely preserved there is nothing you can say that will change their mind. You don’t have to change their mind – you just have to keep them from changing yours for no good reason.

While a good, honest knowledge of Christianity and the Bible is helpful, a collection of verses to throw at proselytizers is not. Yes, it can be fun to ask if they eat shrimp or lobsters (Leviticus 11:10) or wear blended fabrics (Deuteronomy 22:11), but there are rationalizations for any inconsistency you care to point out.

More importantly, when you use the Bible to make a point, you reinforce the idea that the Bible is a legitimate source of authority. It is not. The Bible is a collection of ancient texts written by and for a particular group of people living in a particular time and place. Evolution and cosmology clearly show that Genesis is not literally true – to believe otherwise requires willfully ignoring the facts. The Old Testament is the Hebrews’ story of who they are and where they came from, a story like the story of every other tribe and nation on the Earth. The Gospels (four out of many) tell the story of Jesus and were written between 40 and 100 years after his death. The rest of the New Testament was written to promote and explain the new religion of Christianity.

None of this is controversial among liberal and mainline Christian scholars. It is only fundamentalist Christians who insist on believing things about the Bible that are clearly not true or at best highly unlikely.

You aren’t engaging in formal debate and your goal isn’t to score points. Your goal is point out that you have very different foundational beliefs about the Bible, that you’re in good company, and you don’t accept the authority of the Bible. If you insist on debating, debate on your grounds: what is reasonable? What is meaningful? What has proved helpful throughout history and what has proved harmful?

But what do you do when someone tells your kid he’s going to hell? I don’t have children and I’m far from an expert on raising them, but it seems unwise to either become hyperdefensive or to blow it off as nothing. The best defense is for them to have a good foundation in liberal religious education. I am both envious of and happy for the kids in the RE program at Denton UU – they’re being exposed to many religions and to the principles of free and honest inquiry.

For very young children who haven’t yet learned to separate the mythical from the literal, it seems helpful to simply restate what you believe. This will be more effective if the child has already been to a Pagan funeral and has seen and heard concepts of joining the ancestors, traveling to the Otherworld or the Summerlands and eventual rebirth. Older children can be taught the many beliefs of the world’s religion: some teach an afterlife, some teach reincarnation, some teach there is only this one life. Children that mature can start to understand the difference between “facts” and “belief” and understand that those who tell them they’re going to hell really don’t know.

The best defense is to crowd out bad religion with good religion.

Enough defense. Now it’s time to talk about what we do believe and why Paganism is a meaningful and helpful religion for our contemporary Western world.

Next post: Pagan Evangelism.

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About John Beckett

I’m a Druid in the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids. I’m an ordained priest in the Universal Gnostic Fellowship. I’m the Coordinating Officer of the Denton, Texas Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans. This year I’m also serving as a member of the Board of Trustees of CUUPS National. I’m a member of the Denton Unitarian Universalist Fellowship.

I write as a spiritual practice. It helps me organize my thoughts and work through ideas and concepts. It helps me evaluate my beliefs and practices against my core values and against what I know (or at least, what I think I know) to be true. It helps me interpret my experiences (religious and otherwise) in ways that are both meaningful and honest.

  • Anonymous

    "Its goal isn’t to change someone else’s mind – its goal is to keep someone else from changing your mind."

    So are we after truth, or just after a way to not have to change our minds?

    It seems to me that we should not be closed to other people's opinions. Most pagans were not born to it — at some point, we were persuaded of a truth in paganism, whether through a person or through our own studies.

    If we're really after the truth, how can we be sure that a thoughtful Christian might not have something to say that we should consider?

    Perhaps it's my UU nature talking, but I'm put off by the suggestion that our goal should ever be just to defend our own position and never have to consider that we might be mistaken.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00875369837359076688 John Beckett

    There is a huge difference in 1) seeking the truth, 2) being open to new concepts and new ideas, and 3) having to deal with aggressive proselytization. 
     
    I welcome – and enjoy – respectful conversations with people of other religions, especially those who are knowledgeable and passionate about their beliefs and practices.  But I refuse to accept anyone’s special revelation as authoritative and I encourage others to reject it as well.  Show me how your religion is meaningful and helpful to me and to others and I’ll consider adopting it, or parts of it.  Start every sentence with “the Bible says…” and I’ll employ all the Defense Against the Proselytizing arts techniques at my disposal.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16043952277363071918 Gray Glamer

    Well spoken, John. It's worth observing, as well, that there are different forms of persuasion – not all of which are respectful of the persuadee's right to live on terms which are relevant and meaningful for them. At the university where I study and work, for example, we've recently had a "pray away the gay" group attempting to convert LGBT students on our campus. That particular "ministry," for those who might not know, often involves playing upon high-pressure psychological tactics, which rely upon societal shaming, along with the instilling brimstone-related fears. That's not converting someone by rational argument, or even by emotional appeal – It's simple bullying against an LGBT individual, spiritual violence born out of hatred and fear. Perhaps that goes beyond the scope of your original post, but that's the reductio ad absurdam of evangelical impulses in certain religions, and we have every right to defend ourselves against such bullying, and the duty to protect others. Blessed Be!


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