June 5, 2013

The Arrogance of Evangelism

English: 4 days of Evangelism Training in Sout...
English: 4 days of Evangelism Training in Southern California provided by LivingWaters Ministry. Obeying the great commission of Jesus Christ. "Go into all the world and preach the Gospel to everyone" Mark 16:15 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
It makes sense to me why an evangelical Christian would evangelize to close friends or family members who did not share his or her beliefs. This could be seen as a way of trying to bring the friends or family members closer, strengthening their relationship through this aspect of a shared worldview. This is not terribly difficult for me to wrap my head around. At the same time, the evangelical Christian who seeks to persuade stranger to adopt his or her beliefs strikes me as quite arrogant.

Most evangelical Christians I've known seem to start with the assumption that nobody can be truly happy without believing in their particular god. It does not seem to matter whether the targets of their evangelism are Christians who believe in the "wrong kind of Christianity," former Christians who knowingly rejected their beliefs previously, or persons raised in an entirely different religious tradition. This basic assumption is the same, and it goes a long way toward explaining how they can live with themselves as they devalue all other belief systems, talk about "false gods," threaten people with hell, and the like.

When the evangelical Christian targets the Catholic, the Mormon, the Jew, or the Muslim for evangelism, he or she is proceeding from the assumption that his or her religious beliefs are superior to all others. The target of the evangelical efforts is clinging to a "false faith," and the evangelical is acting in his or her best interest. The arrogance here really is astounding. Of course, the evangelical Christian has been thoroughly indoctrinated to perceive it not as arrogance but as compassion. He or she really believes his or her efforts are helpful (i.e., saving souls).

When it comes to evangelizing to atheists, an additional bit of irrationality seems to be required. At least in the U.S., the atheist is likely to be a former Christian. While the evangelical can tell him or herself that the Catholic, Mormon, Jew, or Muslim just needs a different (and obviously superior) religion, the ex-Christian atheist presents a bit of a puzzle. This is a person who may have even been raised in the same evangelical tradition as the evangelist but has since rejected it. It seems that the evangelist must convince himself or herself that the ex-Christian rejected Christianity for reasons that almost always have no resemblance to the actual reasons.

I have observed some evangelical fundamentalist Christians struggle with this, and I find it quite fascinating to see their minds at work. They often begin by suggesting that the ex-Christian was simply exposed to "the wrong sort of Christianity" and push this as long as they are able. The ex-Christian must have had bad experiences that would never happen in the evangelical's church, with the evangelical's pastor, etc. The ex-Christian must not have read the "correct" version of the Christian bible, must not have understood it, etc. Once it becomes clear that the ex-Christian did not have any particular bad experiences, read the same version of the Christian bible as the evangelist and seems to recall it far better than the evangelist, things get really interesting.

What the evangelical cannot do is acknowledge that he or she may be interacting with someone who abandoned Christianity after critically analyzing it and realizing how flawed it is. Such an acknowledgment would crack the evangelical's entire worldview, and this must be avoided at all costs. Instead, we see the evangelical going to great lengths to explain away the ex-Christian atheist.

The arrogance which underlies this enterprise is rarely difficult to spot. The evangelical seems to be saying, again and again, some variation of the following:
Nobody who has had experiences similar to mine could possibly reach different conclusions than those I reached. And because my faith has done wonderful things for me, there is no question that it will do the same for you. We just need to work through your reluctance to accept the fact that I am right, and then we'll be okay. You'll see.
The person on the receiving end does not seem to be viewed as a thinking, feeling human being with the freedom and responsibility to make up his or her own mind. He or she is merely a character in the evangelical's narrative.

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