On Proselytizing and Relationships

On Proselytizing and Relationships April 21, 2012

In a recent post titled “Do I want my siblings to be atheists?” I explained why I don’t proselytize to my siblings or friends. Some of the comments on that post, though, drew the (probably natural) assumption that this means that I don’t challenge harmful beliefs held by others, or that if my children turn out to be theists I won’t ever let them know that I disagree.

I think you have to understand my background to understand the distinction I draw. I was raised an evangelical Christian. As such, proselytizing was seen as incredibly important. And proselytizing meant something very specific. It meant that the world was divided into Christian and non-Christian and that it was our goal as Christians to convert everyone else. We looked at non-Christians as almost foreign and alien. And, most importantly, every relationship with a non-Christian focused on one thing: converting them. 

My parents used to host international students from around the world. We did this through a ministry our church set up to “minister to international students” at the local university. The international students who participated were not Christians. In fact, I think they probably thought the program just meant that they would get to meet American families and learn more about American culture. What they didn’t realize is that the whole point of the program was to convert them to Christianity so that they could then go back and convert their friends and relatives back home.

I have many fond memories of our time with those international students, but I was always extremely aware of why we were spending time with them and what our goal was: conversion. I have many memories of my parents discussing God with them, extolling the tenets of and evidences for Christianity. We never did convert any of them, but I would imagine we were, at times, a rather annoying host family.

I’m trying to remember if my parents ever brought non-Christian friends into the house. I’m not sure that they ever did. The closest they ever came to that, I think, was to invite people over that they said needed “ministering” to, people who maybe were Christian but weren’t fully on the straight and narrow, or were struggling. Once again, the point was to convert them into our beliefs. The point was to fix them. Inviting them over, taking them meals, doing them favors – it was all part of a plan to help them come to believe as we did.

Even relationships with our aunts and uncles could be strained. Those who were “not true believers” were seen as missions targets. My mom even handed out Bibles with verses about the rapture highlighted and a note that they were to be read someday when mass numbers of people suddenly vanished from the earth. Needless to say, these relationships became strained as well. We had relatives we almost never saw because my parents first saw them both as an almost foreign other and as targets for proselytism.

What am I trying to say? I think what I’m trying to say is that growing up I saw proselytism used in a way that could ruin relationships. If your relationship with a friend or relative revolves around your desire to proselytize to them, if your whole reason for having a relationship with them is to get them to share your beliefs, whatever those might be, you have a problem. That’s not healthy, that’s not kind, and that does not make for good relationships.

Growing up, I was only really friends with people who shared my exact beliefs. Anyone else was a target for conversion, a potential feather in my cap, a lost soul in need of conversion. I don’t want to repeat that same mindset today. If a friend asks, will I share my views? Sure. If a friend is making a religious argument I think is harmful, will I tell her as much? Of course. But I’m not going to view every friend and relative as a target for proselytizing and I’m not going to make my every relationship with a theist center on trying to convert him or her. Been there, done that.

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