January 11, 2019

Every Interaction As An Opportunity to Proselytize

graduate in cap and gown

While sitting through the commencement ceremony at the university where I work recently, I found myself thinking about the many references I heard from the speaker about some sort of god. Initially, I thought about how inappropriate these references were at a public university event where attendance was mandatory for many employees. Next, I thought about how he kept referring to "god," as if the audience was somehow expected to know which one he meant. Since this is Mississippi, I'm sure most of the audience assumed he was talking about the Christian god. But what about all the international students, staff, and faculty who had come from countries where they were raised to believe in different gods? My thoughts eventually settled on how this man seemed determined to use his speech as an opportunity to promote his god-belief.

Sadly, he's far from alone. In Mississippi, I regularly encounter evangelical fundamentalist Christians who are fairly up-front in their approach. They see every interaction as an opportunity to proselytize, and many of them attempt to do just that. It isn't that references to "god" slip out unintentionally in the midst of a conversation because they lack control. These slips are not slips at all but intentional insertions intended to promote their god belief. I'm not claiming that all Christians do this or even that all evangelical fundamentalist Christians in Mississippi do this. I am claiming that many of them are happy to tell others that they are doing this and that I am inclined to believe them based on what I have observed.

This may seem strange at first, but I am not so sure it should. We have all heard people, including atheists, suggest that we seek opportunities to promote various things we value (e.g., equality, civility, social justice, education, reason, environmental stewardship) in our interactions with others. And why not? Why shouldn't we promote what we value when given the opportunity to do so? Perhaps this is what the evangelical fundamentalist Christian is doing.

Some will object that the scenario I described above at the public school graduation is different, and I agree. First, this speaker pushed his god-belief to a captive audience. My employer requires me to be there. That changes the situation a bit. Second, one is not supposed to promote religion at public school functions. This sort of thing tends to run afoul of church-state separation. When these two factors are combined (i.e., I am required by the government to attend a ceremony where I am subjected to pro-religious nonsense), we have a problem.

The situation is far easier to handle when it involves the common everyday sort of interaction with the evangelical fundamentalist Christian who wants to use an interaction with me to push his or her god-belief. I can end the interaction as abruptly as I'd like. I can explain that I have zero interest in hearing about non-existent entities. I can even choose to fully engage in a conversation in which I share my thoughts on the particular god being promoted. I'm not saying I welcome these interactions, but I do appreciate having some options for how to handle them.

Take religion out of it completely for a moment and imagine an atheist who decides to use every interaction with others to promote a pet issue that has nothing to do with atheism. We could make it something as far-removed as human trafficking if we wanted to. Imagine that this person seems to inject human trafficking into nearly every conversation. I suspect most of us would tire of this after a while. We could substitute human trafficking with any other topic, including one we might regard as more important, and I think we'd still find this annoying. Not every conversation has to be about [random topic], especially those that do not seem at all relevant to it. The point is, I think many of us would tire of this sort of thing even if it did not involve religion in any way.

For the evangelical fundamentalist Christian who wants to use every interaction as an opportunity to proselytize, I'd guess there is a very limited audience for this. Most Christians, Jews, and atheists I have known want little to do with such a person. There's little to stop the evangelical from persisting, but I would think that negative reactions would be the norm.