Atheists: Respecting Religious Beliefs Like a Christian Missionary

San Diego mission

Religious believers often accuse atheists of being stuck in the past, bringing up examples of religious atrocities from ancient history they no longer consider relevant. While many atheists do discuss historic atrocities from time-to-time, it isn't like there is any shortage of modern religious atrocities from which to draw. Would religious believers rather discuss those? I'd guess not. Besides, I suspect that those of us who bring up the historic examples do so because we believe that history has much to teach us. Historic events such as the Crusades, the Inquisition, or even slavery in the U.S. reveal some disturbing truths about Christian morality we would do well to heed. After all, many of our neighbors continue to equate Christian morality with goodness and any alternative with evil. Both history and current events offer plenty of evidence to the contrary.

In this post, I'd like to mention a Christian atrocity that is both historic and contemporary, one I don't think I've addressed previously. The topic I have in mind is religious missionary work. I find myself thinking about it because it seems relevant to something we have all been hearing about on a daily basis: the demands from religious believers (especially Christians in the United States) that we respect their religious beliefs.

But what do Christians demanding I respect their religious beliefs have to do with missionaries? Whenever I hear this demand, I find myself tempted to say something like the following:

I'm happy to offer your religious beliefs the same respect your missionaries afforded the religious beliefs of those they sought (and continue to seek) to convert to your religion. That is, none whatsoever.

Perhaps this is petty of me, but I can't help thinking that nobody who comes from a religious tradition steeped in missionary work has any business expecting others to respect their religious beliefs. Why? Because the whole idea of missionary work clearly demonstrates their lack of respect for others' beliefs, culture, and so on.

Can you imagine a horde of non-Christian religious believers descending on the U.S. with the stated goal of converting Christians to some other religion? How do you suppose that would go over? Do you imagine the Christians would feel that their religious beliefs were being respected by these missionaries? No. And they'd be correct.

The atheist need not claim that missionaries never accomplish anything positive during their missions. Some of them have build hospitals, schools, and made similarly valuable contributions. The atheist also does not have to insist that the missionaries despise the people they are attempting to convert; it is enough to point out that they are there to convert. I believe this effectively undermines any whining about how others should respect their beliefs. If they respected others' beliefs, they wouldn't be trying to convert them. And yes, this extends beyond missionary work and applies to evangelism more broadly. It is just that missionary work seems like a more blatant and obvious example for making this point.

It is undeniable that many early Christian missionaries looked down on those they targeted, calling them "savages" and describing their societies as "primitive," "godless," and the like. I think it is fair to say that many of these early Christian missionaries were merely seeking to grow their numbers and had little regard for those they aimed to convert. While I would not claim that this was the case (or continues to be the case) for all missionaries, I would suggest that missionary work entails the conviction that one's own beliefs are superior to those of others. This doesn't sound like respect. Trying to persuade someone else to drop their religious beliefs and replace them with one's own does not seem consistent with respecting others' religious beliefs.

The modern Christians in the U.S. who continue to demand that you respect their religious beliefs are being sincere. At least, I suspect some of them are being sincere in the sense that they really do want you to respect their religious beliefs. Of course, they are not willing to respect your beliefs (or lack thereof) at all. In fact, some probably view persuading you to respect their beliefs as an important first step in persuading you to adopt their beliefs. This is transparently one-sided, and no atheist should be fooled by it.