Last week I did something I try to do often: I had a public dialogue with a Christian about the ways in which I feel non-believers like myself are misunderstood by people of faith. I was invited onto the podcast of Phil Vischer, creator of Veggie Tales and an evangelical Christian with an ongoing ministry among a theologically conservative crowd (I’ve included the video again at the end of this post in case you missed it before). I thought it was a good conversation and it’s one that I hope we will continue in the future because both of us share a desire to see continuing dialogue between people on opposite sides of the faith/skepticism divide.
Neither Phil nor his co-host, Skye Jethani, tried to directly challenge my disbelief, and nothing during the show would look to a conservative like they were evangelizing me. This disappointed at least one reader who wanted to see a bit of a fight. His impression of the show typifies some recurring motifs of evangelicalism, so I’m including a Reader’s Digest version of that conversation here to show you what I mean:
Him: It seemed like ya’all (sic) danced around some obvious questions with Neil: What about Christianity is false, What about famous atheists that turned to Christianity, Was he ever really saved… I realize that would take a long time to fully discuss but maybe he could have hit a point or two to give us an idea of what caused his doubt to be so strong to quit the faith. We all have doubts sometimes or it wouldn’t be faith….our faith will soon be sight…as our relationship with God increases our faith increases. He said he didn’t have a bad Christian experience that discouraged him in his faith, it all just didn’t make sense anymore…..what didn’t make sense? I was waiting for the answer. I realize the point of the short interview was show how friendly we can be to an atheist….but even Hannity and Colmes got into it a little bit and were still friends. just my thoughts…..looking forward to the next show. God bless.
Me: It’s interesting that you are disappointed by two people just having a conversation, modeling a relationship. If steps aren’t taken toward a conversion, does the conversation feel like a failure?
Him: Don’t get me wrong, I am glad this conversation took place, and was very interesting…..just feel like we avoided the elephant in the room and left me hanging a little bit……What great discovery led him to abandon his faith…Neil, don’t give up so soon, the world is yet to see someone fully dedicated to God…and maybe you are just the man….and you will soon write the article titled ” How I went from evangelical to athiest (sic) to Christian”. Besides if you are really free from the bondage of Christianity, you couldn’t just walk away w/o saying anything to us to free us from it too….that wouldn’t be friendly.
Me: Maybe I just have a different standard than you do about how to show respect other people’s boundaries ;-)
Him: Who makes the boundaries if there is no God…….it seems like nobody is passionate about anything anymore……it’s more important to “get along” than to arrive at and hash out the real true meaning of life…how bland, melancholy, and directionless.
Phil attempted to redirect the reader a couple of times to other places on the web where he could sample debates between Christians and atheists. Other commenters pointed out as well that you can always peruse the rest of my blog for that kind of content, but he still seemed disappointed for the conversation to end without a fight. He was also preaching to me, which I’m assuming is so second nature to people like him that they don’t even realize they’re doing it. When you spend all your time among people who think the same as you, you can become tone deaf to the many ways in which the way you talk shut down conversation instead of fostering more of it (that goes for atheists as well, btw).
I’d like to make a few brief observations about this interchange because they come up a lot for me.
First of all, his evangelical theology has made him value conversion over conversation to the point that he can’t even have one without forcing the former into the latter. This makes people tiresome to interact with. If you’re one of those people, could you just stahp please? Nobody’s going to want to talk to you if you constantly make them feel like something’s wrong with them that needs fixing. Seriously, we’ve got better things to do with our time.
Second, he’s clearly so accustomed to talking with other Christians that he cannot avoid getting preachy, even when talking to someone who wouldn’t respond well to that kind of talk. It wasn’t that long ago that I was a Christian myself, and I remember thinking that preaching “the word” had magical powers built into it. Just like this guy, I was taught that speaking the Christian message carried a divine blessing within it whereby the words themselves do things to people. I was taught the message itself had the power to change people, to break them down and make them cry and ask Jesus into their hearts. Been there and done that. But at this point it doesn’t have any magic for me, and I’d love for people like him to understand that this kind of talk turns people like me off.
Third, this conversation demonstrates a complete disregard for personal boundaries. I’ve written at length about this before on the Ex-Communications blog (see my “Christianity Has a Major Boundary Problem“) because this comes up a lot. When you’ve been told that you’ve been commissioned by God to bring a message to the whole world, it doesn’t matter what your audience wants or thinks. Like the Blues Brothers said, you’re on a mission from God. You’ll run roughshod over everyone to get your message across and it doesn’t really matter to you if they don’t want to hear it. You’ve got your marching orders and you don’t have a choice, nor do they. You must proselytize and woe to you if you do not discharge your duty.I can’t convince people like this that my preferences are more important than those of the Creator of the universe, and clearly it doesn’t register with them that I don’t even think such a person exists outside their own minds, but I can at least tell them that what they’re doing isn’t working. I keep hoping that at some point the pragmatic side of these people’s personalities will kick in and make them realize that if what they’re doing is having the opposite effect of what they want, they should try to change their strategy. The problem is that some of them have been taught to disregard results. That’s one of the problems inherent in valuing “faith” as a virtue—it leads them to disregard results because they’ve been taught that stubborn belief can actually change reality. That shuts them into an epistemic bubble from which there is no escape. I honestly don’t know what to tell such a person, so in the end I just won’t talk to them.
Fourth, note the condescending tone of his side of the conversation. His theology has taught him to look down on others whether he can hear it in his own voice or not, calling us “bland, melancholy, and directionless.” And yes, I know he said that about the conversation itself rather than about us personally, but is there really a difference? Isn’t he essentially telling us that we’re that way a little bit ourselves? Note the refrain we hear so often:
Who makes the boundaries if there is no God (?)
Gee, I’ve never heard that one before. I can’t tell you how predictable and how tiresome this line of questioning gets for people like me. It contains within it multiple layers of condescension. It implies that outside of his particular belief system there can be no morality, no virtue, no understanding of right and wrong. I was taught to tell people that myself when I was a Christian and at the time I didn’t see how utterly rude and disrespectful it was (and incorrect to boot).
Furthermore, his tone deaf behavior toward me indicates that he himself requires external motivation in order to be kind to people. Is he suggesting that without a divine overseer he would have no reason to show respect for other people’s dignity and personal space? I would argue that even with a divine overseer he seems to have a problem with that. But he’s suggesting that without fear of God I won’t have a reason to be moral myself, which makes this a truly ironic interchange. Personally I’m not convinced most people need such a thing. Maybe some people do. Maybe some folks really do need Jesus in order to be good. Without fear of punishment in the afterlife they will act like complete turds. Fine, I’ll grant that. But I’m not convinced that’s true of everyone.
Finally, sometimes I wonder if people like him—people who get confrontational and can’t resist inciting a debate with non-believers—are doing this because they need something from us. What is it that they need, exactly? Do they need confirmation that they’re right? The lack of respect inclines me to believe that concern for my soul isn’t what’s driving the conversation. If it were that, he’d work harder at listening to me instead of preaching to me. No, I suspect that some of these folks who can’t let this moment pass without a fight are trying to get something that they need from us. They want us somehow to help validate them in their faith.
Maybe insecurities are gnawing at the back of his mind and he needs a successful interchange with a non-believer to confirm that he hasn’t made a mistake with his entire life. I dunno. I can’t see inside his mind. I just know that this happens a lot, and it screams volumes about the person doing the proselytizing. I sometimes wonder if people like this are wracked with doubts themselves (a trait which would actually improve my evaluation of them) and they keep starting these interchanges because they need someone else to help convince them that what they were taught to believe really is worthy of their lifelong devotion. Far be it from me to put people “on the couch.” But then again I have been there myself, and I feel like that’s the thing that drove me to learn to defend the faith to others. I was really trying to do it for my own doubts. Maybe it’s the same way for him.
If you haven’t caught the podcast with Phil and Skye, you can check that out here.
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