Another question that came up in our recent symposium was “what do you do when someone knocks on your door trying to convert you to another religion?” The group had a variety of answers, and I found it interesting that the two Christians at the table were even less enthusiastic about dealing proselytizers than the Pagans. Nobody likes being interrupted to hear somebody’s sales pitch.
Occasionally I hear stories of Pagans who answered the door naked, or in full ritual regalia and holding an especially large athame, or in some other way guaranteed to shock the innocent young Mormons at their door. I’m not sure if I believe those stories or not. If I’m in the middle of a ritual – especially one that requires changing or losing clothes – I’m not stopping to answer the door for anyone. In any case, these things either happen organically or not at all.
But the door knockers are going to show up. What’s the best way to deal with them?
What we owe people who knock on our doors
I’m immediately skeptical when I hear a knock on the door. That skepticism isn’t always justified. Sometimes it’s a neighbor delivering mail that the carrier put in the wrong box. Sometimes it’s a kid looking for a lost pet. If it’s neighbors doing neighborhood things, I want to be neighborly.
If someone knocks on my door in need, I owe them basic hospitality: food, drink, a bit of gas money, directions to social services. It’s not my job to judge whether they’re “truly needy” or if they’re “gaming the system.” If I have reason to believe the person on the other side of the door may be dangerous, I’m not opening it. But other than that, if they’re in need, I have an obligation to give… up to a point, anyway.
If someone knocks on your door to sell you something – whether that’s cable TV, a political candidate, or Jesus – you owe them nothing. Not your time, not your attention, not even basic courtesy. If they’re interrupting your life to benefit themselves, how much time you give them is entirely up to you. I usually cut them off with “I’m not interested, thank you” but I’ve been known to, if not exactly slam the door in their faces, close it quickly and solidly and without a verbal comment.
If you engage with proselytizers, make sure it’s because you choose to do so, not because they manipulate you into thinking you owe them even a second of your time.
If you’re still wounded, do not engage!
When I wrote Escaping Fundamentalism – which was based on my own personal experience – one of the early points was “first, stop the bleeding.” Fundamentalism and the fears it generates are like a disease. You may have gotten away from it, but if you’re exposed to it again before you’re good and healthy, there’s a chance of a relapse.
Don’t assume that because you used to be a Baptist and these are Mormons that you’re safe. The core message of all the door knockers is the same: you’re a sinner and you need what they have. It may seem helpful to argue with them, but hearing their sales pitch just reinforces the old beliefs that were planted in your head long ago.
If you’re still religiously or spiritually wounded, be as nice – or as rude – as you like, but do not talk to proselytizers.
The only two reasons to talk to proselytizers
You don’t owe door knockers your time. Why do you want to talk to them anyway? Nobody gives out trophies for Best Performance in a Front Porch Religious Debate.
One valid reason to talk with them – to listen to them – is to learn. I’m a religion geek – I like hearing other people talk about their religion. I’m honestly disappointed that every time the Mormons have shown up on my doorstep I’ve been too busy to listen to them. I know a bit about Mormonism, but I’d like to hear about it from a practicing Mormon.
On the other hand, I don’t need to hear one more thing from the Baptists, and I’m just not interested in the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
The second valid reason to talk with door knockers is to educate them about Paganism. Not to convert them – Paganism is not a proselytizing religion. But they’ve probably got an idea in their heads about what Paganism is that’s 1) wrong, and 2) negative. If I can make a good impression on them, they’re less likely harass the next Pagan they meet who may not have the ability to articulate Paganism as well as I can.
Doing this requires being polite, and it requires knowing your Paganism well enough to explain why you believe and do what you believe and do. You are under no obligation to educate proselytizers, but if you like doing this, and if the person on the other side of the threshold is willing to listen respectfully, good can come from it.
Do not debate on their terms
Proselytizers have a goal and a method. They want to find a point of agreement and from there build a logical case for why you should convert to their religion. It isn’t intended to be a debate, but that’s the form it usually takes.
Do not debate on their terms. I can’t emphasize this strongly enough. First and foremost, never argue from the bible. Yes, it can be fun to show Christians how you know their holy book better than they do. But when you argue from the bible, you reinforce the idea that the bible is a legitimate source of authority. It is not.
When someone says “the bible says…” my response is “the bible is a set of ancient writings by and for a particular group of people living in a particular place and time, and it’s not binding on me.” If they persist, I point out that the bible says the Earth is 6000 years old when it’s actually 4.5 billion, and that it says humans were placed on the earth when we actually grew out of the earth. If they persist, I point out that the bible condones slavery and genocide and therefore has no credibility when it comes to moral instruction. If they continue (“who are you to question God’s word?”) then the conversation is over.
Pagans have radically different foundational assumptions from Christians. Most times even well-educated Christians aren’t aware of how much they assume is true that isn’t necessarily so. Of course, the same can be said of most Pagans. Make sure you understand your intellectual and philosophical foundation well enough to argue from it and not get caught up playing by the rules of your opponent.
“Winning” is not the goal
I get it – somebody made you get up off your couch or step away from your computer. They’re trying to sell you something you have no desire to buy. Probably they’re doing it with the condescending attitude that they’re doing you a favor by looking out for your soul.
My soul has been fine for a couple thousand years and I’m pretty sure it will be find for a few thousand more.
But you’re angry. Maybe you want to destroy their arguments with precision logic. Or maybe you want to play up to their expectations of Pagans and scare them half to death. You’re not wrong to feel that way.
But before you launch into your counterattack, ask yourself one question: what’s my goal?
If you want to make them go away, “I’m not interested” and closing the door is the fastest and easiest way to get back to what you were doing before you were interrupted.
If you want to make them abandon their proselytizing, you’re not going to succeed. They think their God requires it of them, so they’re going to keep doing it. You may make them feel like a martyr, which only encourages them to keep it up.
If you want to annoy them because they’ve annoyed you, you can do that, but how does that benefit you in the long run?
Engage to learn, or engage to educate, or decline to engage.
It’s your door – you decide when it’s time for them to go
Most door knockers have a script, or at least a roadmap for how to get someone from conversation to conversion. Throw them off that script and some of them are lost. Others keep coming right back to it. Either way, admitting defeat is not part of their script. Their strategy is to wear you down until you agree to read their book or attend their church or do something to insure their hooks are still in you.
Whether your goal is to learn or to teach, eventually such a conversation reaches the point where it’s no longer helpful – and you have no intention of letting them get their hooks into you. At that point, it’s up to you to say “thank you for the conversation, but I have things to do” and show them the door. The better ones will say a pleasant goodbye and move on. Others will continue their sales pitch all the way down the sidewalk. As with opening the door in the first place, you owe them nothing.
The fact that you have given them some of your time does not obligate you to give them any more of it (now where have I heard that before?).
After they’re gone
Take a few minutes and replay the conversation in your head. How did it go? What did you do well? Where could you have expressed yourself better? Did you find yourself agreeing with something you really didn’t agree with? You will always – always – think of a witty response five minutes after they’re gone. Don’t dwell on any disappointments.
Were there questions raised where you didn’t have a good, solid, Pagan answer? If so, write them down so you can do some research and have a better answer – for yourself, if not necessarily for the next round of door knockers.
Perhaps most importantly, did they leave any hooks in you? Did they say anything that made you uneasy about your religious choices, or worse, that feels like it might pull you back into a religion you decided to leave? If so, deal with them sooner rather than later.
Ground and center. If necessary, do a quick cleansing and recharge your household wards. Get back to your Pagan work.
Publicizing your religion is an honorable thing. True religious freedom means the freedom to change your religion, and in order to do that you need to know what’s there that you can change to.
But there’s a world of difference between publicizing and proselytizing. One is passive, the other is aggressive. One says “here it is, if you want it” – the other says “you must do this now!” One is respectful, the other is presumptive.
I wish there were no more door knockers – not for cable TV, not for politicians, and certainly not for religion. But there are, and likely there always will be.
Decide now how you want to deal with them.