The Flexibility of the Word “Evangelical”

The Flexibility of the Word “Evangelical” March 1, 2011

In a previous post, I conceded that it was acceptable to call at least some activist atheists like me “evangelical atheists” on some possible senses of the word “evangelical”.  Greg wanted to say that this could not be so because all that atheists do (or should) advocate is tentative, skeptical empiricism, and that we do not (or should not) advance any strong guiding beliefs that rise to the level of dogmatism of faith beliefs.  To that general line of argument, I wrote the following:

Fine, but my point is that even such a skeptic can be broadly “evangelical” if she elevates allegiance to skepticism itself to the level of epistemological and ethical principle worth confronting people over publicly and privately with a strong concern to persuade them to change their minds. Changing people’s minds to make them stop holding positions dogmatically and instead hold them tentatively is still a change of mind one may zealously pursue.

In reply, Greg writes to me that:

What this essentially represents is a denial of my claim that the content matters when it comes to evangelism.

Now, I put it to you that your understanding of “evangelism” doesn’t match natural usage – that there is content in the term that you are not recognizing. Let me provide an example: We do not speak of an advertiser or car salesperson as “evangelizing” despite that the advertiser is presenting the target with “a strong concern to persuade them to change their minds.” In this example about the expenditure of the target’s money. To depict evangelizing as merely “forcefully presenting” or “arguing” is an error evangelists use to try to place tentative positings on the same playing field as dogmatic truisms. It is not the case that this is just a matter of equal and competing ideologies; those of us who refer to empirical reality are appealing to something external – empirical reality. This is an error that some buy into. I’m sorry to say, that that seems to be the case with Dan.

Nowhere have I ever said anywhere on this blog that this is a matter of just “equal and competing ideologies”.  For one thing, I only ever use the word ideology in a very narrow sense typically and never with respect to atheism. But, more to the point, I could not be clearer, over and over and over again, that I find faith-based reasoning to not only be epistemologically unsound but to be ethically unsound.  I positively rail against authoritarianism in belief, thinking that appeals to tradition and faith as justifications in themselves are the deepest problem with institutionalized religions as they are.

There is no false equivalence on this issue in my mind or in any of my writing.

But being loosely describably as “evangelical” does not mean being a faith-based thinker.  In fact, I have also been trying to distinguish that being “religious” may not have to require being “faith-based” in some sense.  Maybe even being “spiritual” need not.

My point in all of this is to say that faith is a bad epistemological and ethical practice that should absolutely be jettisoned.  We should live lives in which all our beliefs are scrupulously protected from prejudice and in which blatant, willful prejudice or decision to believe things contrary to evidence (or with insufficient evidence) is avoided wherever possible, rather than trumpeted as a virtue.

But that does not mean that much human practice and feeling that is presently exploited and molded to the ends of faith-based, faith-exploiting institutions cannot be put into the service of more rational lives.  In this way much that is quite naturally understood to be “religious” or “spiritual” might yet get genuine and valuable expression in atheistic, rationalistic, empirically and philosophically sensitive and informed shapes.

And someone like me can (and does) have great zeal for seeing this happen.  Like the Evangelicals I have a desire to change people’s minds about issues that are of central identity-forming impact on their lives.  Most Americans find such desires and efforts gauche or intrusive.  They think that it somehow must always be an assault on the personal conscience to go after people’s idiosyncratic faith posits that (allegedly) orient their ethics and spirituality.

My argument is that as long as I do not manipulate people or treat them like “projects” or disregard particular individuals’ wishes to be left alone or demand people submit to arbitrary authorities  or try to use the law to force anyone into disbelief or belief, etc., that I can avoid the vices associated with Evangelicals, while still affirming that the endeavor to persuade people about the truth about metaphysics, ethics, epistemology, and religion is not itself a bad thing, even if it is the same kind of goal Evangelicals pursue with notoriously bad attitudes and methods.

People mistake the Evangelicals’ conscience disrespecting approaches to evangelizing with an illegitimacy of talking about the topics they raise themselves. I think there is a way to “evangelically” appeal to the conscience rather than just disrespect the conscience, as some of their methods clearly do.

Whatever the particulars of the content, the content is important when using the word “evangelize.” Given the most common natural usage of the word, religious elements are involved in the content (i.e.: religious truth claims).

I maintain that mere advocacy is not evangelism. I suspect we have different words for these for a reason (they refer to different kinds of content), and I suspect that to confuse the two is a misrepresentation of the differences of content implied (entailed) in the uses of the different words. And no, I don’t think degree or intensity of advocacy is sufficient to span the gap between these two words, and I suspect natural language, despite the best efforts of evangelists and evangelist-influenced thinkers, supports my view.

I have no problem with most of this.  I am not saying that the natural meaning of evangelism applies to all forms of advocacy.  But language is naturally flexible too and all the way back to the Enlightenment secular humanists have been (sometimes gleefully and in a spirit of defiance) appropriating religious imagery, symbols, practices, etc. and filling them with their own content.

That is part of what I am doing here.  I am accepting, for example, that my own personality and enthusiasm for persuasion about matters of metaphysics, ethics, and identity-forming beliefs was shaped by my evangelical upbringing.  I am finding a continuity in my own psychology and saying that in a way I am still an “evangelical” in temperament (even though I am evangelical about some decidedly anti-faith ideas and abhor and denounce some of my Evangelical tactics and mindsets of my youth).

My spirit of advocacy is not rooted in car salesmanship (though my mother is a natural born, and professional, saleswoman and that’s part of my personality too), it is rather rooted in being on the opposite side of the same debates I am presently in.  My sense of propriety was not shaped, for example, by a common enculturation that would make me feel like it is impolite (or even “hateful”!) to challenge people’s religious beliefs (or lackthereof).

By sharing the Evangelicals’ sense of confrontationalism and their concern to change people’s religious beliefs (even as I denounce all their emotionalistic and bullying habits of reasoning and persuading) I am broadly “evangelical” in that I am like them and acting in ways that resemble them about the very religious issues they act this way about.

And even were I not engaged in a discussion about religious beliefs or lackthereof, the language is flexible enough to use the term.  People who address issues wholly unrelated to religion are routinely discussed with religious metaphors.  Someone could be said to be “zealous” about budget cuts or have a “religious” devotion to perfecting her golf swing.  People who argue a point their audience already agrees with are all the time said to be “preaching to the choir”, whether or not they are talking about anything remotely religious in content.

These are common extensions of words for religious behavior to describe analogous but literally irreligious behaviors.  In this sense too, when atheists (or even just skeptics) exhibit a zeal for mass persuasion and for something analogous to conversion of a public that is generally thought to be in error, then the metaphor of “evangelicalism” is a legitimate and meaningful one.

Our enemies and many observers already think this and I think it’s a waste of time and effort to insist they never use the word on the grounds of a pedantic appeal to the dictionary’s literal definitions.  Let people call me an evangelical atheist as long as they acknowledge the differences between my commitment to reason-based persuasion and other, emotionally manipulative forms that seek to coerce the conscience.

Rather than get into a huff about how I cannot in anyway ever whatsoever resemble a religious person since I am their total and dualistically complete opposite, I’ll just use it as an occasion to clarify the key differences in values between me and them, rather than demand the language be more restrictive than it is.

I do get Greg’s worry though that since our particular debate is on the topic of religion too there might be a higher value in keeping a strict contrast between us and them.  Calling someone religiously devoted to her golf swing is not as likely to mislead people into making wrong assumptions about what that means as calling an atheist “evangelical” would since there are key contrasts between what we advocate (rational thinking and practice themselves) and what our opponents advocate (ideas and practices that result from faith-bound thinking and deference to arbitrary authorities).

I just think conversations about the word “evangelical” are easier if we do not pointlessly try to restrict an understandable analogy or deny that at least part of our goal mirrors our enemies’ (we, like they, do want to confront people about their fundamental beliefs—an endeavor which many people automatically assume must be impolite).  I think the conversations would be better spent articulating how our approach and our views vindicate our adoption of the goal and how our methods of pursuing it and their approaches and their views do not.

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