It happens to nearly everyone, Pagan or not, though Pagans (as well as atheists, humanists, and some other religious minorities) seem to have a more visible target painted on their backs.
Sometimes its the knock on your door by well-meaning bicycle riding young men in white shirts and black pants or perhaps it’s the grandmotherly looking woman that sits next to you on a crowded bus. Sometimes its anonymous…as blatant and undirected as a shouting angry man on the corner with a sign proclaiming that everything you are is an anathema or it might insidious but targeted–a child sent your way to parrot everything they’ve been told by their parents and their church in an attempt to gain approval. But then there are the times when its personal. It comes from your doctor, or your coworker, or your child’s teacher, or a therapist. At best, you were taken by surprise and off-guard, at worst, you were cornered, vulnerable, and under attack. All too often you just don’t know how to respond, of even if you should.
It is a simple fact that a few religions believe in proselytizing, particularly certain Christian denominations. It is also a simple (though annoying) fact that most of these people believe that they are doing you a favor (and doing themselves a favor) by informing you of their faith and its benefits (and often how they feel your beliefs are inferior). Therefore, the idea that (at least any time soon) we are ever going to convince (those) Christians to stop the oh-so annoying practice of proselytizing, is naught by folly. This leaves us with the generally unpleasant (but sometimes not) task of figuring out what our response should be.
A while back, I wrote a list of “Interfaith Etiquette Guidelines” of which #6 states “If you are in a mutual discussion of beliefs, don’t use your theological opinion as a tool for condemnation or insult.” If only everyone followed them, and if only proselytizing was about mutually discussing beliefs. But, of course, its not…and they don’t.
Based on my own experience, proselytizers come in a couple different varieties. Sometimes they are honestly nice and courteous people that think they are doing you a favor. Assuming that your goal is to not engage them in conversation, these folks can generally be handled with good manners. Something along the lines of, “I appreciate your interest and your concern, but I’m not interested discussing religion with you,” often works quite well in turning the conversation elsewhere. An occasional response to this might be “Well, I’ll just pray for you then” or something…when polite and well meaning folks say that, I usually say thank you, I don’t care who they are praying to or how, if it is sincere, cool (if its not sincere, well-meaning, and polite, I generally tell them with hostility “I’ll be praying for you too”). If your goal isn’t to avoid a discussion (maybe its a family member, or a child’s teacher, or co-worker, etc), I recommend following guidelines #4-11, and this might be helpful too.
Unfortunately, many proselytizers aren’t honestly nice and courteous people (although they still might be well-meaning, rather than malicious). A discussion with them isn’t often a “discussion” so much as them attempting to mentally and spiritually (and sometimes physically) bludgeon their victim with their religion as the weapon of choice. These people are not someone wanting to learn and share their faith with you in an equal exchange of information and ideas, or even to have a constructively critical comparison of religious beliefs. These people want to bully you for your spirituality, either as a justification of their own faith, or to fill in the chinks of doubt in their fortress of dogma, or because it gets their spiritual rocks off. Either way, YOU DO NOT OWE SOMEONE LIKE THIS ANYTHING.
Let me say that again so that it sinks in: These people are not someone wanting to learn and share their faith with you in an equal exchange of information and ideas, or even to have a constructively critical comparison of religious beliefs. These people want to bully you for your spirituality, either as a justification of their own faith, or to fill in the chinks of doubt in their fortress of dogma, or because it gets their spiritual rocks off. Either way, YOU DO NOT OWE SOMEONE LIKE THIS ANYTHING.
When I meet these people, I remind myself that I don’t owe someone like this my time, I don’t owe them my conversation, and I certainly don’t owe them justification of my faith. And neither do you. My advice here is to simply say, “I’m sorry, but my religion is none of your business.” To be perfectly honest, with people like this, I don’t even bother to tell them I’m Pagan, or to engage with them other than saying, “Thank you for your concern. I will keep that in mind, but right now, I have other matters to tend to.”
When it comes to proselytization, you are the one that controls this conversation (and not the proselytizer), and if it isn’t happening on mutually respectful terms with your explicit consent, you don’t have to have it. I see so many Pagans that say that they didn’t know what to do or say in this sort of situation…that they got in an argument and got stuck, or felt hassled and harassed and couldn’t think of a response, or that they felt that they had an obligation to defend their beliefs. But you CAN refuse. You have to power to engage or disengage in these conversations, and if you aren’t prepared or comfortable, you don’t have to have them!
Sometimes remembering that is hard. Sometimes, remembering that I don’t have to engage with the guy that comes up to me in the parking lot of the grocery story (true story) is hard. Especially when its threatening, practically assault, and pushing all my rape victim fight-or-flight vibes and my momma bear/inviting my extreme ire vibes)–I have kids, and I’m busy, I don’t appreciate someone cornering me against my open car door and preach-yelling at me with my two small children in the back seat because I have a “Coexist” bumper-sticker right next to my “American Women Veterans: Not every GI is a Joe” sticker and the Darwin fish emblem (did you know that their Jesus hates evolution, other faiths AND women that dress up as men and serve their country? *rolls eyes*). Actually, I believe my exact words were “if you don’t move your ignorant ass, I’m going to drive over it” after nearly slamming his fingers in my car door. It probably wasn’t the best example of fostering ecumenical relations, but under the circumstances, I’m not entirely dismayed at my lapse in temper.
But…sometimes we falter. We might forget that we don’t owe them justification of our beliefs in the heat of anger, or stress, or surprise. Or maybe we decide that we DO want to have the conversation, even though we aren’t sure of the person’s motives or behavior. Hey, it happens–sometimes I will talk to missionaries…but only on my terms. Enough people slam the door in their faces, that I think some hospitality probably goes a long way to fostering interfaith interactions (and Delphic Maxim #42 says “Have respect for supplicants”). To borrow a bit of Jefferson, it neither pricks my pocket nor breaks my leg to let the Mormon boys in their suits on bikes or the nice JW ladies in their big hats in the summer have some lemonade and give me a brochure. And, when we have a conversation in good faith, it acts to show them that we are people just like them..and, its a reminder (usually) that they people just like us, with out the specter of some scary caricature standing between us. Generally speaking, it ends up quite well.
And then sometimes it doesn’t…there are many proselytizers that can’t handle a truly interfaith conversation (in all fairness, there are also plenty of Pagans, atheists, persons of other religions, and other Christians that can’t either). Some can’t understand and/or abide the idea that someone else’s faith could possibly be just as valid as their own (these folks often think that the practitioners of other faiths are “misguided” or “mislead”). Some proselytizers that react badly do so because their very identity is threatened by someone questioning the authority of their faith. Other proselytizers feel vindicated–any sort of challenge may be seen as “temptation” or as justification that their ideas and ideals are under attack. In these sort of conversations, people can get mean and ugly. When this happens, walk away. Don’t lower yourself to their standard of behavior.
But somewhere between the conversation that goes wonderfully and the conversation that goes horribly, we should make room for conversations that are neither (or both?) (f anyone has these mastered, let me in on the secret!).