On Proselytizing and Relationships

In a recent post titled “Do I want my siblings to be atheists?” I explained why I don’t proselytize to my siblings or friends. Some of the comments on that post, though, drew the (probably natural) assumption that this means that I don’t challenge harmful beliefs held by others, or that if my children turn out to be theists I won’t ever let them know that I disagree.

I think you have to understand my background to understand the distinction I draw. I was raised an evangelical Christian. As such, proselytizing was seen as incredibly important. And proselytizing meant something very specific. It meant that the world was divided into Christian and non-Christian and that it was our goal as Christians to convert everyone else. We looked at non-Christians as almost foreign and alien. And, most importantly, every relationship with a non-Christian focused on one thing: converting them. 

My parents used to host international students from around the world. We did this through a ministry our church set up to “minister to international students” at the local university. The international students who participated were not Christians. In fact, I think they probably thought the program just meant that they would get to meet American families and learn more about American culture. What they didn’t realize is that the whole point of the program was to convert them to Christianity so that they could then go back and convert their friends and relatives back home.

I have many fond memories of our time with those international students, but I was always extremely aware of why we were spending time with them and what our goal was: conversion. I have many memories of my parents discussing God with them, extolling the tenets of and evidences for Christianity. We never did convert any of them, but I would imagine we were, at times, a rather annoying host family.

I’m trying to remember if my parents ever brought non-Christian friends into the house. I’m not sure that they ever did. The closest they ever came to that, I think, was to invite people over that they said needed “ministering” to, people who maybe were Christian but weren’t fully on the straight and narrow, or were struggling. Once again, the point was to convert them into our beliefs. The point was to fix them. Inviting them over, taking them meals, doing them favors – it was all part of a plan to help them come to believe as we did.

Even relationships with our aunts and uncles could be strained. Those who were “not true believers” were seen as missions targets. My mom even handed out Bibles with verses about the rapture highlighted and a note that they were to be read someday when mass numbers of people suddenly vanished from the earth. Needless to say, these relationships became strained as well. We had relatives we almost never saw because my parents first saw them both as an almost foreign other and as targets for proselytism.

What am I trying to say? I think what I’m trying to say is that growing up I saw proselytism used in a way that could ruin relationships. If your relationship with a friend or relative revolves around your desire to proselytize to them, if your whole reason for having a relationship with them is to get them to share your beliefs, whatever those might be, you have a problem. That’s not healthy, that’s not kind, and that does not make for good relationships.

Growing up, I was only really friends with people who shared my exact beliefs. Anyone else was a target for conversion, a potential feather in my cap, a lost soul in need of conversion. I don’t want to repeat that same mindset today. If a friend asks, will I share my views? Sure. If a friend is making a religious argument I think is harmful, will I tell her as much? Of course. But I’m not going to view every friend and relative as a target for proselytizing and I’m not going to make my every relationship with a theist center on trying to convert him or her. Been there, done that.

A Matter of Patriarchy
Red Town, Blue Town
On Indiana
Why I Take My Kids to the UU Church
About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • http://www.facebook.com/jeffnords Jeffrey Nordstrom

    Hear hear!

  • charlesbartley

    So here is where I struggle: Like you, I want no part in proselytizing to friends and family. They can believe anything they want, and I will still love them. What I also don’t want is an emotional cold war, where the topics that are closest to our hearts are off limits because of our religious differences. I want them to know me. I want to know them. I want them to face me, and see has as a moral being, and figure out how that can be. I don’t want to convert them to atheism, but I do want their rock solid beliefs about the “other” challenged, because without that challenge, they will continue to view me as hopeless. going to hell, and damaged. This at a time when I feel the most whole, hopeful and happy in my whole life. This wall of belief is the only looming shadow. I can tell that they are all as afraid of this wall also because they don’t even try to proselytize to me at all. There is just big awkward silence.

    One of my friends recently reached out to invite me to go see Blue Like Jazz. This Christian film was directed by one of my favorite (back in the day) musicians , Steve Taylor. I was meeting my future sister-in-law for the first time that night so I couldn’t go with them, but I really appreciated this. It was the first time since coming out to them that they had reached out and tried to proselytize to me, even in this most gentle and oblique of forms. This effort really meant a lot to me because I know that, in her system of belief spreading God’s love to others is one of the highest ways of saying “I love you, I care for you.”

  • Jenna

    I just had a run in with this a couple days ago. My high school girls’ bible study leader was in town who I hadn’t seen in years since she’s been off doing overseas youth ministry. We met up for dinner, and of course it came up that I don’t do church or believe in everything anymore. It was incredibly awkward because bringing young people to jesus is her entire life’s work, so she was devastated to hear about one of her old kids’ apostasy. The hardest part is that she left it feeling sorry for me that I am so filled with pain and don’t have my faith to get me through. (I have had some pretty crappy things happen over the past few years, but its not like I am currently miserable and lost.)

    I definitely have no desire to proselytize anyone toward atheism. I guess what is hard is that the christian counterpart in the dialog cannot just “agree to disagree.” Its a moral imperative to save souls so they won’t be able ever let it go and just have a relationship without the religious part. It makes me think that before my next “coming out” conversation I do need to be a little more prepared before getting ambushed with christian language.

  • http://www.freeratio.org/ Brian63

    Since I was commenting heavily on the prior post, I am not sure if any of this post was made as a response to what I was saying, and so I want to try and clarify here too:

    “Some of the comments on that post, though, drew the (probably natural) assumption that this means that I don’t challenge others’ beliefs,…”

    I honestly do not remember if I was drawing that assumption myself or not, but either way your point is understood. As mentioned in that other post, I think you have expressed many good reasons to not be proselytizing for atheism in the same way that others are (a side note: I do not see the word “proselytize” as a dirty word that others reflexively do either. That it triggers such a negative reaction in people, undeservedly so, is a byproduct of its association with fundamentalist religion. It should not be regarded with the hostility that it is though.).

    My criticisms in those comments of that post were not towards people who were not proselytizing for atheism, like yourself. I was targeting the arguments of people who criticize those of us that *do* proselytize for atheism. Some people are even opposed to any and all attempts to persuade others of anything. They see just the act of trying to persuade others as wrong in itself. It is their view that I disagree with, not so much what you were saying.


    • http://patheos.com/blogs/lovejoyfeminism Libby Anne

      This wasn’t so much a direct reply to you, or to the couple other commenters who said related things, as that you and other commenters made me think about the issue a bit more and that thinking sort of turned into another post. I like it when readers comment, because often they have things to contribute and help me – and other readers – think things through in different ways. :-)

  • Kevin Alexander

    Thank you Libby for expressing so well something that I have long thought about but couldn’t clearly state.
    Whether we like it or not, humans are apes and apes ‘ape’. We learn by watching and emulating people we admire and respect. Overt proselytizing is counterproductive. The best anyone can do is be a good person and hope that others learn from that.

    • Leni

      Overt proselytizing is counterproductive.

      There is that. But there’s also something, and I don’t mean to sound like a snob, incredibly gauche and offensive about it. I’ve always found it distasteful and annoying, but then I read what Al Stefanelli, who blogs at Libby’s former site (Free Thought Blogs), wrote about his experience of being disabled while on the receiving end of this Christian “love” :

      Ms. Church Lady felt it totally appropriate to tell me, a complete stranger, that God is punishing me or has allowed the symptoms of my disability to continue to ravage my body to “get my attention” so that I may once again place my faith in him and allow him to “heal me” so that I may be a testimony to his awesome greatness, blah, blah, blah… I was not amused.

      This, from a stranger in a grocery store! If this is how they treat random people at grocery stores, I can only imagine how insufferable they are to friends and relatives.


      While I feel for Al, what Mrs. Church Lady did to him was not so different than what they do, or try to do, to all of us: prey on our insecurities and fears so that we can (as Libby said) be little feathers in their caps. Oh hurrah! When you think about it, it’s not just rude, it’s dehumanizing and essentially the total objectification of another person. And entirely selfish. Yes, I know they don’t “mean” to do it. I’m sure there are some innocent misogynists out there too ;) After reading Al’s account of his repeated experiences of being regarded as an easy target because of his disability, I don’t see the proselyting as such an innocent little social misstep anymore. It’s downright predatory.

  • http://potatoesarenotvegetables.blogspot.com Ashton

    Did your parents act this way before becoming part of the homeschooling movement or was this all a change that came afterwards?

    Have you reconnected with any of those relative now that you are an adult and non-Christian? What about the international students? Have you kept in contact with any of them?

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/lovejoyfeminism Libby Anne

      Yes, my parents acted this way before homeschooling. It’s a conservative evangelical thing rather than a Christian homeschool movement thing. And yes, I now find that those relatives who “weren’t truly Christian” are my best allies. :-P And finally, since I was technically a kid when we had international students, I didn’t keep any of their contact information. I don’t really see the need to be in contact with them, though I do know that my parents still are, at least with some of them.

  • http://kagerato.net kagerato

    Some people leave no space between proselytization (recruiting) and attempts at persuasion, though. Anyone who has spent enough time advocating for any even slightly controversial point of view will have run into people who see their efforts as advertisement or worse, propaganda. This happens to atheists, feminists, humanists, and socialists, among other groups. No similarly negative language will be used to describe the prevailing norms, especially among the predominant conservative media and its narratives.

    Where does the line lie between advocacy and proselytization? Furthermore, how do we prevent people from exerting hypocritical standards on the public discourse?

  • Noelle

    I was inoculated from proselytizing at a young age. When I was 5, I asked the neighbor girl where she was going when she died. She said nowhere, just in the ground. I corrected her and told her people who believe in Jesus go to heaven. She stood her ground with her opinion on nowhere, dead and in the ground. So I dropped the subject and asked my mom about it afterwards. She was embarrassed that I was bothering the neighbor kid, and told me that’s what some people believe and we don’t bother them about it. So I didn’t, and years of Suday school to follow, I inwardly scoffed at any insistence that I had to go pester people and convert them.

    I find it equally distasteful as an atheist. I will discuss with those who wish to hear my reasons for giving up believing. But that doesn’t concern me as much as the real-life dangers of religion. I’m all for challenging people who use religion as an excuse to hurt others. I don’t consider that proselytizing.

  • Saraquill

    The idea of “Convert, convert, convert” comes across as a disservice to Christianity by making it resemble a pyramid scheme or chain letter.

    • seditiosus

      I actually think encountering chain letters and pyramid schemes (and their later, more hi-tech equivalents) helped to make me very suspicious of proselytizers when I was growing up.

  • Scotlyn

    I understand what you mean about proseletysing perfectly. There are actually two sides to that coin, and both are equally destructive of the prospect of a genuine encounter between any two people.

    When associating with other Christians (presumably like-minded) it is my memory that we were brought up to be spiritual nudists. We constantly asked one another about how our “walk with Jesus” was going, and checked up on one another’s thoughts and emotions in a way that left no room whatsoever for privacy. I didn’t realise this when I was growing up and immersed in it. But, during one of my visits home as an adult, the realisation struck me with full force, that by definition a Christian can never be alone in their own head, therefore they can place no value on a privacy they can never themselves enjoy. My refusal to submit to this mental and communal “strip search” became an instant barrier – an announcement of my new-found “outsider” status.

    When associating with non-Christians, the goal is to entice or shame them into the fold of this state of “like-mindedness” in which one’s inner self is open to the constant interrogation of others. Every conversation and interaction must be directed to this goal. This will naturally eclipse any actual concern you might feel for the specifics of what THIS individual is going through, thinks, believes, or any appreciation you might have of how this person’s particular journey through life has shaped them into their unique and wonderful selves. You must instead be ready to seize any opening, take advantage of any vulnerability, and (like a time-share salesman), clinch the deal – make them one with your fellowship (and estrange them from themselves).

    What I think might help to think about this, Libby, is that ultimately, as social humans we only have the right to comment on and interact with whatever another person CHOOSES to reveal and make visible in the world. We have the right, likewise, to reveal ourselves to others only as and when, and with whom we wish, when we are ready.

    Proselytising is always an assault on another’s privacy – it requires laying siege on another person’s innermost thoughts, fears, desires and making them communal property. Whereas the kinds of conversations that we all wish to have, which are tools for genuinely encountering other human beings and creating shared social space with them, and which may certainly contain an element of challenge on occasion, are respectful people’s private thoughts (which after all will never be visible in the world, and therefore cannot affect others).

    What we can, and often must, engage with, in order to help create a social reality that is healthful for us all to live in, are the actions and words that people do make visible in the world. I hope that wasn’t too much of a ramble.

  • smrnda

    Proselytizing can be pretty rude; a lot of people try to pretend to be interested in you personally with the hopes that you’ll drop something immensely personal that can be used as leverage to suck you in. This has never worked on me since I’m a mistrustful and private person to begin with, and I tend to snap at strangers who talk to me in public, particularly if I’m reading or working.

    I remember once, out or curiosity, I went to a ‘Bible study’ that a friend of mine invited me to; what bothered me was the exact belief that everybody should just share everything and that holding anything back was ‘sinful’ and a lack of trust, as if there’s something wrong I felt betrayed since I was told I was going to a ‘talk’ where I thought I could just sit back and be idle and polite rather than having to sit through a bunch of girls giving themselves guilt trips over nothing. It was kind of scary, and those are exactly the types of relationships I would like to avoid.

    I think religious door to door stuff gets a free pass just because of social dominance. I’m sure someone would call the cops on an atheist, socialist feminist going door to door or would argue more. Part of it might be that religious folks tend to get the ‘good natured idiot’ assumption, or that people kind of feel sorry since many young door to door evangelists are probably pressured to do so by adults. All said, it’s always an embarrassing moment when they knock on the door. I half want to ask “listen, whose making you do this? I need to teach you kids to get some backbone and tell them that you won’t embarass yourselves like this again.”

  • Cecilia

    This post reminded me of this deleted scene from the documentary “Jesus Camp”: