Why I Think Proselytism is Wrong

I was so happy to see this outside the psychology department.

The whole controversy on our campus surrounding Cru and their “I Agree with Markwell” campaign has gotten me thinking about proselytism. (Proselytism, in case you don’t know, is just a fancy word for trying to convert people to another religion.)

In my view, proselytism is wrong.

I have two foundations for this view. One of them is my knowledge of psychology. Research in social psychology has confirmed, over and over again, that people are much more susceptible to peer pressure and manipulation than we’d like to believe. (For the sake of time and space, I’m not going to list studies here because I’m assuming most people have taken Psych 101 and have learned about them. But if you’re curious, ask, and I’ll send you a dozen.)

The success of dubious religious ventures like witch hunts and cults suggests that adding a spiritual element makes peer pressure even more potent. If people can be persuaded to do even such ridiculous and terrible things, how hard will it be to persuade them to take a pamphlet, give out their email address, come to church, donate money, gradually abandon the beliefs they’d had before?

This is especially harmful when it comes to non-Christians, who are a minority in the U.S. (and, in fact, in many other places). In many ways, it’s difficult enough as is to maintain your own beliefs and practices when the entire surrounding culture immerses you in another belief system. If you don’t believe me, talk to a Jewish kid at Christmastime. I still remember how indignant I felt when other kids got a big present from each of their extended family members and I got just one.

But in all seriousness, science typically shows that people are very suggestible. Proselytizing groups may claim that the only people who convert are people who really, genuinely, truly want to be Christians, I’m not so sure that you can always tell the difference between really, genuinely, truly wanting something, and being subtly manipulated into wanting that thing. And while I concede that Northwestern’s Cru chapter represents only the mildest, most harmless form of proselytism, I oppose any action that implies that you, the proselytizer, know better than everyone else.

Which brings me right to my next point. The second foundation for my opposition to proselytism is my moral code. I believe that, with a few exceptions, we have no right to try to alter the beliefs of others. I place religion on the same plane as several other areas of human experience, such as sexuality–things that are personal and that have no impact on anyone but ourselves. For instance, would you ever attempt to convince someone to have sex the way you have sex? I would hope not. So why would you attempt to convince them to believe the things you believe?

I obviously don’t think that all forms of persuasion are wrong. Arguing about politics is valuable and important because political decisions affect all of us. Influencing people’s purchasing decisions via marketing is necessary for our economy to work. If done sensitively, talking to someone who seems to be making a harmful decision about their career, relationships, etc. could be very helpful.

But ultimately, a person’s inner life belongs to them alone, and most people value that inner life and resent attempts to intrude upon it. I think intruding upon it is wrong.

Now, as a disclaimer, I’m not saying that mine is the best moral code in the world and that everyone should adopt it and that people who do not adopt it are Bad. If I thought that, it would make me no better than the Markwell people.

But I do think that we’d have less conflict in our society if people lived by a code such as this one, and it works for me because it helps me feel like I’m treating others with respect.

Is this moral code completely incompatible with evangelical Christianity? Yes. Christians and others who proselytize genuinely believe that others need to be saved/brought to Jesus/what have you, or else they’ll go to hell. However, it’s important to note that this brand of Christianity is incompatible with all other belief systems, including most Christian ones. In this brand of Christianity, only two types of people exist in the world: good Christians and people who haven’t been converted yet.

And before anyone goes all First Amendment on me, note that I would never suggest that proselytism should be illegal. After all, it’s a form of free speech. Laws have nothing to do with my argument.

After all, not everything that’s legal is right. It’s perfectly legal to spread rumors, use the n-word, and cheat on your partner. And yet these are things that we almost universally agree are wrong. Why? Because they hurt others.

Proselytism may not hurt in the same way that getting cheated on does, but it hurts in a more insidious way. It erodes minority traditions and belief systems and destroys trust between different religious groups.

For instance, if you ask Northwestern students whether or not they’d be willing to engage with Cru in any way, many of them will now tell you no. It’s not hard to figure out why: Cru members made their condescension and disrespect for others’ faith blatant when they expressed their wish to convert us all to Christianity. (In fact, this whole episode inspired me to join Northwestern’s chapter of the Secular Student Alliance. Apparently I’m not the only one.)

The various forms of backlash that “I Agree with Markwell” has inspired, much of which has taken on a deeply anti-Christian tone, only proves my point. While I obviously don’t condone insulting people or their religious beliefs and wish that people would be more civil, I’m not surprised that so many Northwestern students are so annoyed and angry at Cru. After all, they basically told us that we’re going to hell. Their proselytism has, in a way, torn this campus apart.

I don’t think that my moral code is one that will ever be adopted by our majority-Christian society. But I do think that the world would be a better place if people learned to leave each other alone. You may disagree.

Why I Think Proselytism is Wrong

6 thoughts on “Why I Think Proselytism is Wrong

  1. 3

    First I would just like to say that I just read your post about the greek system and loved it. I think that your argument is almost a perfect distillation of my thoughts on that subject.

    Second, I have lived in Alabama my entire life and am now a freshman at one of the major universities in Alabama. My parents (thankfully) did not attempt to force any religious beliefs on me. They told me that no matter what I believed they would love me and that I had plenty of time to figure out what I believed.

    I began to question my Christian friends about their beliefs in middle school and I was immediately warned about the imminent dangers of hellfire. There was no room for questions. At all. Period. This bothered me greatly. All of my carefully thought out questions were answered with “because the Bible says so”. I now understand that my friends could not help it. They had been told from the moment they exited the womb that Jesus is the way and even *thinking* otherwise was a ticket straight to hell. An overwhelming majority of the people that went to my school attended church regularly and more than half of those attended Sunday school or Wednesday night Bible study every week. Their beliefs were determined before they took a step on Earth. I think many of your Cru members might have grown up this way (minus the converts).

    Basically, I grew up in an environment where I was told (or it was explicitly implied to me) that I was wrong about all the big questions and that I would end up burning in eternal hellfire. As a result, I became extremely bitter and gave up trying to talk to people about religion. This was the best thing I could have done. I now realize that it is almost impossible to change a person’s religious beliefs based on logic. Faith is inherently illogical. I find that the best way to convince a religious person that your lifestyle holds value is to be a polite, upstanding, moral person. I often fail at this, but I am trying. So I guess I disagree with your belief that: “…with a few exceptions, we have no right to try to alter the beliefs of others.” We do have a right to do this, but it is unseemly to do so in the confrontational way that Cru and other proselytizing organizations often do. Often times these methods do not even work. This can be seen in the backlash you have described in this post. I hold that we have the right to change the beliefs of others, but we must do so by being good examples of our belief systems.

    As Thomas Jefferson once said: “I never told my own religion nor scrutinized that of another. I never attempted to make a convert, nor wished to change another’s creed….For it is in our lives, and not from our words, that our religion must be judged.”

  2. 4

    I really hope that I understood your argument correctly. I have only just started reading your blog. If I haven’t then you can just ignore me.

    I too agree that proselytism is wrong, but for different reasons. Proselytism is wrong (in a moral sense) because religion is wrong (is a factual sense). I see nothing morally wrong with trying to alter the beliefs of others provided that we can back up our position with facts. Consider some normal person who believes Carbon can form 5 bonds. It is not immoral to tell them than carbon can have only 4 bonds max and try to correct their beliefs. Another less strictly factual example would be if I tried to convince someone that their favorite football team sucked. I could site the fact that their team constantly lost and that no other team wanted those players on their team. Again nothing wrong with trying convincing someone of something. Not sure which example will ring true so here is a third example. Homeopathy is the belief that water is magic and can cure just about anything. Some people have this belief and like religion it is not justified, and even more relevantly homeopathy usually does not even do any damage to anyone but the believer. Making people believe water is magic is immoral because it is untrue and can hurt the believer. Showing people that homeopathy is incorrect is not immoral even if it means shattering a deeply sincerely held belief, which for many people it is.

    “For instance, would you ever attempt to convince someone to have sex the way you have sex? I would hope not.”

    Well maybe I would. What if I really enjoyed bondage sex and tried to convince a close friend that it was lots of fun and that they should try it? I see nothing wrong with that.

    Of course there is a time and a place for disagreeing with people and showing them they are wrong. I am not advocating constant disagreement with someone who is wrong.

    The thing that first made me notice something wrong with your reasoning is that it would put convincing people there is no god on the same level as convincing people there is a different god on the same moral level.

    Basically what I am trying to say that a better moral code would be not to categorically dismiss convincing other people that their beliefs are untrue as immoral. I prefer to think that convincing someone of something different is only immoral if it will bring needless harm and/or if you have to lie to do it. And if course it is wrong if you are trying to convince someone of something that is not true. That is why proselytism is wrong; because religion is wrong. It is wrong immoral and you can convince people proselytism is wrong even if they sincerely believe their religion is true. Because every argument ever made for any religion is based off lies, half-truths and intellectual fallacies.

    Hope this comment makes sense and is not too long. Basically the point is that there is nothing morally wrong of convincing someone of the truth. And again, I do recognize there is a time and a place for it.

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