Follow up to yesterday’s evangelism post

There are two useful parallels to evangelism for us to consider. One, proposed by Cranky Curmudgeon in the comments trail is the efforts of environmentalists in the face of global warming. The second is action taken by friends and family of a drug addict to try to get them to enter rehab.

Dom and others in the comment trail are right to point out that aggressive, impersonal acts of evangelism are counterproductive. All it takes is a look at the effect that visiting evangelist Jesse Morrell had at Yale to see that application of effort matters. It is possible for anyone to criticize the efficiency of any Christians form of evangelization, just as most of us would criticism acts of eco-terrorism as misplaced passion. This is not a negation of goal, only of method.

John Shore (a Christian) argues that all evangelization is ineffective in a post titled “How Is ‘Convert, You!’ Loving Others?” (h/t No Forbidden Questions)

And that’s where the logic board of so many Christians seems to blow: they can’t grasp why telling a person that they need to radically alter who they are is profoundly, offensively disrespectful to that person. The inseparable subtext of the message, “It’s absolutely essential to your well-being and happiness that you completely change,” is the message, “I don’t respect you. I don’t respect the choices you’ve made, the opinions you hold, or the values you’ve chosen for yourself.”

But the idea of “It’s absolutely essential to your well-being and happiness that you completely change” is exactly what’s expressed to an addict at an intervention.
At a smaller scale, this is the idea expressed by me, when I tell a friend they hold an incorrect belief about their beliefs.

“You don’t hate math, you only hate the math classes you’ve taken in the past!”

Both the above interventions are motivated by love and a desire for the other’s well being.  It is not an act of disrespect to try to intercede when a friend is hampered by personal blind spots or a lack of data.  From my conversations with Christians who evangelize (distinct from Evangelical or Born Again Christians), their actions are similarly motivated by compassion and concern.So what differentiates these cases?

Simply put, I believe the environmentalist, the drug interventionists, and me (the mathematician) are correct on our facts and the Christians are wrong.  However, given their beliefs about salvation, they are logically compelled to try to convert me if they believe they stand a chance of success.

I can try to dissuade evangels by convincing them that their tactics are ineffective or by convincing them that their premises are wrong.  However, I can not simultaneously respect their beliefs and expect them to respect mine.


What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Dominick Lawton

    …so I promise not to get in extended comment wars on all these posts, but I can't help but ask: do you really think someone who just doesn't much care for maths needs to fundamentally change who they are for the sake of their well-being, or necessarily holds an "incorrect belief about their beliefs" rather than just not much caring for maths? Where do the implications of this end? At what point is it okay if someone believes different things, or has different priorities? (And how much weight do the words "if they believe they stand a chance of success" carry in the final sentence of your penultimate paragraph?)(Also, and on an entirely unrelated note, did you tell me recently that you picked up a copy of The Master and Margarita, or did I entirely invent that? If it's the former, you should add it to your booklist and write about it for this blog! Admittedly I'm mostly motivated by a desire to see people write about The Master and Margarita, but it's actually somewhat relevant. If, you know, you consider stories to be of some ideological import, which is a position I understand you're not entirely averse to.)

  • Stephen Marsh

    Dom, I'm not *exactly* sure if this is what Leah was going for, but I think what Leah's talking about is less changing fundamental beliefs and preferences and more about informational completeness. There's a really nice example of this from an episode of House I like using for this, bear with me if I've told it to you before:Basically, what happens is that this woman comes in to Princeton-Plainsboro with repeated, violent seizures. Nobody knows what to do. So House does what he does and has people break into her house, slips her medications, does tests, etc etc etc. He eventually diagnoses her correctly (with tapeworms, I think) and she still refuses treatment. At this point House lets the case go. Basically what's happened here is sort of a permutation of the idea of medical consent, which is an analogue to this: House considered the woman's consent uninformed without the benefit of his diagnosis and is willing to do whatever he wants in order to obtain the correct diagnosis. But once he has that and the woman still refuses treatment, that comes down to a fundamental aesthetic preference, and at that point she's given informed consent — she's chosen to die, even with knowledge that she could be treated. Going back to the original question: I think the way the math-pundit frames the question is that the person in question *can't* know that he or she hates math until he/she's taken higher-level math classes (the ones that deal with more abstract concepts and, as far as what I can tell of Leah's perception of math, have an inviolable intrinsic beauty); the lower-level "toolbox" classes don't count, and if you form your perception of math based on "I didn't like MATH 115 / 120", then your opinion is based on incomplete information that the math-pundit would feel obliged to correct. If the person *still* rejects math, even after experiencing abstract beauty etc, then it's an aesthetic preference. Same applies to Christianity / most religions generally. If you accept the truth claims on rational grounds then you're working on incomplete information (ie you think that some natural process is required for the operation of the universe, which it's not), whereas if you just accept the religion on aesthetic grounds, or Kiekegaard's "leap of faith", or as a cultural performative (as long as you're not hurting anyone / infringing anyone's legal rights / etc), then it's just a (albeit strange) preference.Of course, that might be more relativistic than Leah's willing to be, but those are just my thoughts on the subject. And said mention of the Bulgakov is true, if the post on Madeline Popelka's reading-list-note still holds. Additionally, I'm going to do that myself two or so more books down the line.

  • Dominick Lawton

    …I remain unconvinced. Even a concern that people stick with Math long enough to make ABSOLUTELY SURE that they don't like it should be on a very different level than a concern about the ultimate integrity of someone's soul (religion) or someone's body and sense of self (drug addiction), or so it seems to me. And Stephen, I think you've got an impoverished set of reasons for faith (not least because it leaves out "experience of the divine" — which lots of people claim to have).

  • Christian H

    Leah, how do you define respect? I'm thinking of your sentence, "However, I can not simultaneously respect their beliefs and expect them to respect mine." This is something I've had trouble with before in atheist's writings, in that this word seems to be employed differently than I would employ it. I can't expect you to speak for the other places I've seen this, but I don't suppose there's any harm in asking you.I ask because I don't think it's heretical/unorthodox/whatever for Christians to respect an atheist's beliefs, if we take respect as "accepting that the respected has an inherent dignity." (That's an awful definition–what do we mean by dignity?–but it's what I'm working with right now, in this context.) Therefore it seems that you have ever right to expect Christians to respect your beliefs… but that's different from expecting them to not try to evangelize or not disagree with you.

  • Leah

    @ChristianI guess I'm using 'respect' both in the sense of 'tolerate' and 'give deference to.'I can respect a person, in the sense of thinking well of them, and still believe them to have a blind spot, bias, of lack of data that causes their opinion on a certain subject to be terribly flawed. In that case, my duty is to try to argue them out of their mistake.@DomYes, The Master and Margarite is on my bookshelf, but I'm still in the middle of Christianity: The First 3000 Years, so it will be a while before I get to it.Also, obviously I think that, for a Christian mathematician, the impetus to get friends to have a religious conversion is greater than that to convert them academically. I'm just less familiar with that feeling, so I used the analogue closest to my own heart.

  • Stephen Marsh

    @Dom- I thought that argument was silly when Ferny made it the first time and I still think it's pretty silly. It unnecessarily privileges certain modes of experience because of historical longevity and popularity over time in a way that's not particularly helpful.Since you brought up the drug addiction thing thing simultaneously, I think it'd be interesting to juxtapose the two — suppose someone takes a lot of drugs at once and claims to have had a transcendent experience / "experience of the divine" as a result of the drugs, as some native american / African tribes do (I remember reading a blog post once where a guy, as part of an initiation ritual, was heavily covered with Vicks Vapor-Rub and consequently had an out-of-body experience). How do we differentiate between the sensations caused in the religious experience and drug-induced experience? In fact, how can we say that someone's religious experience is of a different kind than someone's appreciation for math?It's sort of interesting. You say that the "ultimate integrity of someone's soul" is something that should be privileged over mathematical experience, but contextually, the soul is historically considered to be final and above-all in and of itself, so the repetition of "ultimate" undercuts the historicity of religious understanding. Additionally, "integrity" suggests that the soul can be broken up, which likewise undercuts the traditional understanding; the use of the word shatters the unbreakable soul even as it attempts to justify it. And of course it's not the integrity that we're talking about anyway, it's the placement (do I go to Heaven, or Hell?), so talking about the final integrity of it is interesting as well not only because it's self-referential and self-consuming but it belies the end goal of the Christian narrative. Plus you use the word "should" implies a self-fulfilling subversion of the authority of the following statement (it denies the argument a place in the set of existence). Supplementarity reigns. The chain is perpetually incomplete.The "someone's body and sense of self" doesn't need the same treatment, so long as you're still on-board with the Death of the Author.Thus the argument seems to defend something that shouldn't need defending (much like Milton's "to justify the ways of God to man" and how that undercuts the authority of what it protects) and privileges something because of its historical cachet and cultural staying-power, which is effectively a reification of a status quo. Which is why I never liked the argument. It dodges the question at hand and falls back on authority it has only because of oppression.

  • Dominick Lawton

    @Stephen – that whole post was a joke, right?

  • Stephen Marsh

    @Dom — Partially (the third-to-last paragraph was mostly, but deconstruction is about language play, is it not?), but my critique of the argument still holds. It's still a weak argument because it asserts that because this certain thing has been around for a while and because it uses *really important sounding words*, therefore it's more worth our time / more important than other things, without really offering a good reason to do so besides an argument from authority.

  • Dominick Lawton

    So, yes, deconstruction is about language play. In fact, deconstruction is about the playfulness *inherent to all linguistic expression* (the text deconstructs itself, etc.), and so isn't very helpful at all in an a/theism discussion (you could take any given piece of writing on either side, deconstruct it, and get precisely nowhere). For what Derrida himself thought of the transcendental, universal validity that language-based claims necessarily imply, as *well* as their inherently historical and delimited nature, I recommend "On Forgiveness".As for the rest of your critique, I'm a bit lost. What did you think I was arguing? Yes, necessarily, if the immortal soul exists, it's of paramount concern, and so it makes sense that people who believe the immortal soul exists think, feel, and act as though it's of paramount concern. I don't believe the immortal soul exists, and so have no intention of trying to convince people that worrying about it is worth their time (I think Christianity's fascinating, but not because I see myself on the road to conversion). But I'm not inherently bothered by the fact that there are people who DO think the immortal soul exists, and not offended when they refuse to speak to me in entirely secular terms all the time. In any case, if you thought I was suggesting that we all ought to be wandering around concentrating on the sanctity of our souls, then colour me misunderstood.