Evangelicals Revise Their Strategies For Relating To Serious Atheists

Evangelicals Revise Their Strategies For Relating To Serious Atheists June 28, 2010

It is clear from my personal experience that nearly all Christians throw out the evangelist playbook when they deal with me.  I suspect I’m not the only one of the growing demographic of serious and self-assured atheists that they are approaching differently.  Aaron points me to this article which gives me a little hope for the future of Christian-atheist relations in general, but not nearly enough to quell my wariness of evangelicalism:

When Doug asked me what advice I would have for the assembled missionaries in training, the answer came quickly: If you want to have influence, I said, you have to be willing to be influenced. If not, I asked, would anyone want to have a conversation with you? (This was obviously not news to Pollock, as evidenced by his inviting me to participate in the first place.)

‘Necessary interlocutors’

As Christian pastor Samir Selmanovic has written, two-way conversations with the not-like-minded are vital for a devout person’s spiritual growth. Selmanovic, author of the 2009 book It’s Really All about God, wrote in aHuffington Post article that friendly atheists are “desirable and necessary interlocutors in our human conversation. … To us religious people, atheists are not only precious neighbors but also strangers who see what we cannot see and ask questions that we don’t know how to ask. … Atheists are God’s whistle-blowers.”

Benefits flow in both directions when Christian-atheist conversations break out. Matt Casper, the atheist co-author with Henderson of Jim and Casper Go to Church, and Henderson’s partner in the ChurchRater.com venture, says his engaging with Christians is motivated by his desire to get them to question their certitude and to see that atheists don’t have tails and horns. Being around Christians, Casper adds, “has made me a better person.”

Conventional evangelism is often accused, and rightly so, of “bait and switch” tactics; think attractive social gathering or sports outing that, unbeknownst to invitees, is really designed to segue into a Gospel pitch. Henderson has a fascinating alternative to propose: all bait, no switch.

Call it promotion by non-promotion, evangelism by attraction, goodwill mongering, or letting one’s life speak for itself, but this is what will best represent the faith among the many Americans who do not share the evangelical faith. Henderson and his fellow travelers are right in urging would-be evangelists simply to get to know people, become their friends and let the spiritual chips fall where they may.

While this is a far more admirable and humanly respectful way to deal with those outside one’s group, I still am suspicious that with more vulnerable and impressionable people, the tactics would be the same emotional bullying and manipulation, the same exploitation of our natural cognitive errors for persuasion, the same condescending attitude, the same ulteriorly motivated charity, and the same reduction of people to conversion projects, that for ages have been staples of religious proselytization.

In other words, evangelicals abandoning strategies which more and more atheists are growing properly resistant to, is only the first step.  It does not necessarily indicate any moral growth among evangelicals but rather their adjustment to our intractability on their old methods.  The real and valuable moral step for evangelicals would come when as a matter of course they stop exploiting the weaknesses of the vulnerable in whatever ways available to them so that they can convert them.  Real respect for people’s intelligence and well-being involves abandoning all baits and switches, not just reserving them for the gullible.  Let’s see that change institutionalized before we start patting our evangelist friends on the back as genuinely caring and open-minded friends to non-believers.  And let’s see if any evangelicalism even remains after that.

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