I am woefully behind on answering emails thanks to a busy weekend conference plus, well, my normal life. But this morning I want to take a second to answer a question I got this week for the benefit of anybody else who’s wondering the same things.
Over the weekend, a reader asked me this:
Since you’ve been in the evangelical world, maybe you can offer a little conversational assistance to fellow atheists.
Can you suggest a polite response that will deter someone who wishes to witness to me about Jesus Christ, without starting an argument or prompting even stronger efforts to convert or scold me?
That’s a good question. Evangelical fervor has a funny way of entitling people to invade personal space and ignore personal boundaries. They have been taught that your immortal soul is in jeopardy, which means that nothing matters more than warning you that you need something they’ve got to offer. This way of thinking also has a funny way of making people oblivious to interpersonal cues so that they won’t stop even when you try to signal to them that you’re not interested.
The easiest thing for most people is to just match their rudeness (because let’s face it, this is rude–you didn’t ask for this) by shutting them down and telling them to go away and leave you alone. Under the circumstances I think you’re entitled to do so. It might even be the best thing to do if you’re someone who still has baggage from years of being in that world. I’ve written before how these pitches can be triggers for people who spent years under the fabricated guilt of evangelical and fundamentalist theology. If you’re one of those, I’d like to encourage you to consider that a little rudeness might do you some good. Chances are you’ve been mistreated before, and sometimes the only way to learn to stand up for yourself is to be a little more assertive than is your natural preference.
But this reader asked how can they be deterred in such a way as to not start an argument? She knows as well as I do that if you push back too hard, you can inadvertently feed their fervor. Your resistance might signal to them that “the devil’s gotcha,” and now you’ll become their special project. I’ve lost count how many times this has happened to me since I left the faith.
Here’s What I Would Do
My first response is similar to what a boss once told me when a newsworthy controversy erupted at my place of work (I’ve worked so many places I can’t even remember which place this was now). She instructed us all that if we encounter a reporter out in the parking lot we should endeavor to give the most boring answers imaginable to everything she asks us. That’s clever, and I know exactly why she told us that. Organizations pay certain people to be their public face to the media, and they would really prefer that the press only talk to them. But since they can’t control that, their alternative strategy is to encourage the other employees who might not be as good in front of a camera (or who might say something that embarrasses them!) to avoid saying anything too memorable or quotable.My first advice is to give a boring reply. Say something noncommittal like “Thank you but I’m not religious,” or “No thank you, I don’t discuss religion with people I don’t know.” I know those won’t turn everyone away, but if you really want to avoid stimulating their evangelical nerve, you might not want to “go full atheist” on them, as I like to call it.
Maybe you’re in a mood for a fight, and that’s fine. Maybe you’re working on “coming out” and becoming more “openly secular,” and that’s cool. I’m in the process of encouraging more people to do that very thing. But this reader is simply asking how to politely turn people away when you’re not in the mood for another round of witnessing. My suggestion under the circumstances is to communicate to them that you’re not interested in talking about this, not that you disagree with their beliefs. Telling them that point blank will likely make them defensive and now it will be even harder to end the conversation without being rude.
But what if they don’t get the message? What if they can’t take a hint?
My second suggestion is to explain to them that they are being rude to ignore your wishes and that’s no way to talk to people. It’s disrespectful. Clearly they were never taught that. Obviously they’ve been programmed to ignore your requests for privacy, but maybe it’s time someone offered an alternative interpretation.
You won’t always get very far directly challenging their religious dogma, and if you’re trying to avoid an argument, I wouldn’t advise that. That feels threatening to their core beliefs, and it will almost certainly rile them up. But perhaps you’ll have more success if you simply address their way of approaching you–their method, not their message. Possibly you could encourage them to have more respect for personal boundaries. Clearly they have not been taught that by their religious tradition, but maybe their style of approaching you is less sacrosanct than the content of what they’re trying to communicate.
In other words, they simply need to learn better manners. Perhaps this is a good time to make them aware of that. If they want to win people over to their belief system, it’s in their best interests to learn how not to be a jerk about it. That may not work, but it’s worth a try, right?
One final word: If you’re a Christian reading this and if the behavior of your fellow believers embarrasses you, would you say something to them for us, please? Help us out here. They won’t listen to us but they might listen to you.