On Proselytizing

A recurring discussion in our democratic world is the role of religion in society. The issue is divisive and applied to all manner of tangential issues–immigration and abortion are the first that come to mind.

Historically, Christianity was the dominant religion. By the numbers, it still is, though at one point there was a sizeable Jewish minority and there are growing Islamic and atheist communities. The percentages have changed with immigration and secularization, which is the process by which a growing number of Americans who were raised in a religious tradition leave it behind as adults.

Theoretically, none of this matters. The First Amendment ought to make the United States a nation in which all religions can be practiced freely, as well as a nation which does not endorse one religion over another (or, perhaps, any religion at all). But historical oppression of Jews, Catholics, Evangelicals, and Muslims by a majority has illustrated the fragility of the First Amendment in the face of the mob. I say a “mob,” because the United States is not meant to be governed by ‘majority rule,’ it is a country which purports to protect minorities–whether they be racial, religious, intellectual, sex, or sexual orientation–from the tyranny of the majority.

But of course it matters. Research in psychiatry and psychology has noted that humans, as social creatures, respond most positively when they are a part of something larger than themselves–little wonder, then, that religion is so dominant a perspective in our lives. I use the word “religion,” but I mean any articulated belief system (and yes, a rationalist perspective advancing the supremacy of science is an example of an articulated belief system, and may be described in this manner as a religion). After all, we can understand and have complete faith in the efficacy of gravity (it has literally never been disproven, as far as humanity knows) without knowing the why; postulating that the why is irrelevant–or, for that matter, speculating on the why at all–is literally an act or statement of faith. In any case, what matters to a discussion on these belief systems is the uncomfortable fact that each of us tends to have beliefs that we regard as truth, such as: that Christ died for our sins; that there is one God and Jews are His chosen people; that good people are rewarded in heaven, and bad ones condemned to hell; that God is the ‘opiate of the masses’ and humanity is steadily progressing toward a socialist communal lifestyle of rational equality; or even that there is no God at all, and He was invented as a panacea for the terrible greatness and apparent unpredictability of our world, and that we have developed so far as to understand that, and may eventually understand all things. Such beliefs are examples, of course. They are probably facile and archetypal. I don’t pretend to speak for any person, though I suspect that some kind of core belief lies at the bottom of every human’s value system.

From the standpoint of meaning, there is no connection between recognizing the importance of belief in human cognition and self-regard, and the truth or fiction of the beliefs themselves. I am a Catholic, and I believe Jesus Christ was a real person who was also really God, who suffered a horrible death made worse by my sins, and who in doing so redeemed humanity. That belief has informed my entire perspective on the world, and mostly unconsciously–I bet it’s engrained upon my soul in ways I will never, ever comprehend (even after a lifetime of reflection). It is almost certainly the primary source of my values and therefore of my interaction with the world. So, from a psychological standpoint I actually need that belief, because without it there is no foundation for my perspective. I need that belief the way a Jew, a rational humanist, a principled atheist, or really anyone else needs their own core beliefs.  Yet the need for such a belief does not–cannot–imply that such beliefs are either true or false. Just because something is necessary does not mean it is manufactured. Truth or falsehood is another matter entirely, and one for the theologians and philosophers.

Truth and falsehood are also very touchy subjects. I know many an atheist who would brindle at the very suggestion that his or her rational world-view is in fact a sort of faith (religion) with its own doctrine and structure. By making that faith-based critique, I am quite literally attacking the foundation of his/her self, the place of his/her most deeply held beliefs. It’s important to remember that. When encountering a news story about a legal decision favoring a religious group, or perhaps an email or social media anecdote about one person getting the better of another, or even lamenting or lauding a decision regarding Christmas Nativity scenes or the phrase “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, most people will react strongly because the perceived ‘victory’ or ‘defeat’ is either very self-affirming or very threatening.

On that note, I’ll remind my fellow Christians that “proselytize” is a negatively connoted word, implying that the proselytizer is representing or practicing their beliefs in a way that intrudes upon the victim. Comments like “God is watching!” and “God would be so happy!” on a story, picture, or other piece of internet media are proselytizing comments. They actually condemn (though indirectly) those who don’t share the commenter’s particular perspective. In the New Testament, Jesus pretty explicitly forbids condemnation, as does the Apostle Paul. I think the Christian community (and the world) would be much better served with comments like “I disagree with…” or “I think this is wonderful…,” mostly because such comments establish a perspective based on values, and therefore acknowledge the dignity of other people’s values, without intruding upon them.

Traditional Catholics may point out that one of the seven Corporal Acts of Mercy is to ‘admonish the sinner.’ I agree, though I would add that admonishing the sinner does not excuse one from respecting their essential dignity as a free, rational human being, and would beg to recall Jesus’ own comment about the mite in one’s neighbor’s eye with respect to the beam in one’s own. Besides, disagreeing with someone out of conviction does not condemnation of their world-view. And for those who find value in the act of asserting themselves (the “I won’t apologize if someone else is offended!” set), then I would reiterate Jesus’ call to Charity and turning the other cheek, and remind that causing offense, even if it’s unwarranted, is a sure way to cause further division.

Finally, I’ll say that no-one should have to tiptoe around their beliefs. I certainly don’t. But if the First Amendment’s promise is to come true in our society regarding religion, then we all need to practice our own belief system–rational or faith-based (or both)–with courtesy and respect for others. A good first step for this is to stop proselytizing and to engage others’ values instead of their beliefs, and by extension their essential personhood.