I’ve heard it before. You probably have too. Someone is “sharing” their religion with you. But this isn’t a dialogue to promote mutual understanding and find common ground.
This is a sales pitch.
And usually, a rather high-pressure sales pitch.
Then when you object – because nobody likes listening to sales pitches for anything, much less religion – it gets even worse: “I’m only doing this because I love you.” They want to save you from the wrath of their jealous and vengeful God.
I’ve heard this too many times. And so I have something to say to those who are trying to convert me to their religion and say it’s because they love me.
You’re proselytizing out of arrogance
There are over 4000 religions in the world, but you’re sure yours is the One True Way. Your own religion has hundreds of variants – you think all the others are heretical.
The origins of the universe, the nature of the Gods, and what comes after death are all mysteries that people around the world have struggled with for at least as long as we’ve been human, but you’re certain you have the “right” answers.
That isn’t confidence. It isn’t faith. It certainly isn’t love.
You’re proselytizing out of disrespect
Hundreds of millions of people practice religions that are far older than yours. These religions aren’t just a set of beliefs to be affirmed – they’re part of people’s cultural identity. Others are practicing newer religions that are just as meaningful and helpful to them.
As for me, I grew up in fundamentalist Christianity – it was a constant source of pain and fear. I got out of that and my life is infinitely better for it. My particular form of Pagan polytheism helps me navigate the challenges of life, and it’s part of who I am.
But you don’t respect my religion, or the religion of billions of other people. Proselytizing disrespects other religions and their followers. It says you see them as false and harmful.
No one is asking you to affirm that there are many Gods or no Gods or that there is one God and Muhammad is His prophet. We’re simply asking that you respect our sacred traditions, and that you respect our right to choose for ourselves without coercion.
And we’re not just asking – we’re demanding.
You’re proselytizing out of fear
I can hear you now: “yes, I’m afraid you’re going to hell.” Maybe so. If you genuinely believe your God is going to send everyone who doesn’t follow your religion in just the right way into eternal torment, then maybe you are afraid we’ll end up in hell.
But that’s not your biggest fear. Your biggest fear is that you’ll end up in hell yourself.
Did you really pick the right variant of your religion? Do you believe all the right things? Did you say the right prayers in the right ways? How can you ever be sure?
Proselytizing tells your God “see, I really do believe!” And then when someone else buys what you’re selling, that confirms your choice. Now it’s not just you – here’s someone else affirming that you’ve got it right.
That’s not faith manifesting as action. That’s fear seeking to be alleviated.
And it’s certainly not love.
You’re proselytizing to boost your ego
Proselytizing is a contest. An arrogant, disrespectful contest, but a contest nonetheless. You’re pitting your knowledge, your faith, and your rhetorical skills against someone else.
And it feels good to win.
You think about your “reward in Heaven.” You think about how good it will feel when people tell you “I’m so thankful you helped me get here.”
You think about the nice things your preacher will say about you… and the gratitude of your church treasurer.
None of this is about faith. None of it is about love.
It’s all about boosting your own ego.
You’re proselytizing out of spiritual laziness
This is the religion you grew up in, and you never thought to question it. Or it’s the religion you converted to, and you’re doing everything you can to confirm that choice. Either way, you’re not looking at the house of cards that supports the foundational assumptions of your religion.
At some point, arrogance and fear degenerate into laziness. You haven’t examined the propositions of your religion and the evidence that supports them. You haven’t considered just how long the odds are that you’re right and everyone else is wrong.
Or you’ve sunk into intellectual dishonesty, denying the reality of science in favor of a literal reading of stories that were never meant to be read literally in the first place.
I’ll be honest: this is hard work. It’s uncomfortable work. It took me over 20 years to get to the point where I actually started doing the work of building a good foundation for my religion and spirituality. It’s a lot easier to tell other people they’re wrong and they need to convert to your way of seeing things.
But don’t mistake laziness for love.
Publicize your religion all you like
The contemporary West – especially the United States – is the most religiously diverse culture in the history of humanity. While some are understandably uncomfortable with the term, it really is a marketplace of religions. People have the freedom to choose their own religion in a way that’s simply never existed before. This is a good thing.
Some argue that religion should only be a private thing – I’m not one of them. If your religion is meaningful and helpful to you, it may be meaningful and helpful to others, even if it doesn’t speak to me. Further, religions that don’t seek newcomers are likely to diminish and eventually go extinct. You have a right to promote your religion.
But do it honestly. Do it respectfully. Write books and blogs. Create videos. Hold public services and advertise them. Do community service and let people see what your religion inspires you to do.
And drop the high-pressure sales pitches.
I’ll be happy to discuss religion with you
I’m a religion geek. I want to learn as much about other religions as I can, even though I have no desire to convert to anything. If you’re a fundamentalist Christian I probably know your religion better than you do, but I’ll still be happy to listen as you explain what you believe, why you believe it, and how you live out those beliefs in the ordinary world.
And of course, I like talking about my own religion. I’m not interested in converts, but I like to clear up misconceptions and misunderstandings.
I’m not likely to debate you, because we probably don’t have enough common ground to have a debate. If your argument starts with “the Bible says” my response it going to be “the Bible is not an authoritative document for anyone except some Christians.”
Still, I enjoy religious conversations, even spirited ones.
But most people don’t.
Most people aren’t religion geeks. They just want to be left alone to do their own things the way they see fit. And as long as they’re not hurting anybody else, we have an obligation to respect their wishes… especially when “let’s debate” really means “I want you to listen to my turn-or-burn sales pitch.”
Judge me by my actions
Not all religions are good religions. The Westboro Baptist Church preaches hate – they’re a bad religion. Daesh – the so-called Islamic State – practices genocide. They’re a bad religion. Religions that motivate people to do bad things are bad religions.
And so I ask you to judge me not by my beliefs but by how those beliefs cause me to act in this world. Do I practice and promote compassion and understanding? Do I live in harmony with the Earth and all her creatures? Do I honor those who came before me, and build a better world for those who will come after me?
Judge me on these criteria… and know that I am judging you on them as well.
Know this: you will fail
Some of you have read this far and nothing has changed. You are still convinced you have the One True Way and that I really really need to convert to your religion. You’re going to keep proselytizing.
Honesty demands that I warn you: you will fail.
There is no argument you can make that I haven’t already heard, examined, and rejected.
More than that, the fundamentalist Christianity of my childhood was a constant source of fear and anxiety. It took me years to exorcise it from my soul. Why in the name of all that’s holy would I go back to that?
And if you’re pushing Mormonism, conservative Catholicism, an exclusivist version of Islam, or anything else, I may not know the details of your sales pitch, but I know the foundation on which it rests. It’s weak and it crumbles easily.
If you’ve found a religion (or the lack thereof) that’s meaningful and helpful to you, or if you’re still happy in the religion of your childhood, I’m happy for you. I don’t have to agree with you to be your friend.
But I’m very happy in my particular form of Pagan polytheism, and I’m not going to change.
If you love me, respect my deepest beliefs and practices
You cannot love someone while trying to change the core of who and what they are.
Religion is far more than what you believe – that’s a modern, Western, Protestant idea. For most people throughout most of the world, religion is about how you live, who you are, and whose you are. Asking people to change their identity because it makes you feel better is the height of disrespect.
I’m not asking you to affirm that there are many Gods and many ways to relate to Them, that Nature is good, that magic is real, and that we all live on after death. I’m simply asking – demanding – that you acknowledge that I affirm those things, that I have every right to do so.
I’m asking that you respect my religion.
And I in turn will respect yours.
That’s what love looks like.