Its that time of year where many of us with other religious perspectives are inundated with proselytizing…as such, I thought I’d bring back and update some thoughts about how to respond to these events.
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. And the often difficult task of keeping it civil.
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 (we’ll handle talking about it on purpose later). 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 and make a point to move on or excuse myself.
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. (this may be something worth repeating to yourself from time to time)
You can look a well-meaning Christian who is sharing the Gospel in a sincere way in the eye and say politely, ” Thank you for your concern, but there are many sacred texts and the Bible is just one of them. The words of Jesus make him a great teacher, and I respect him for that, but I do not need saving, I do not believe in hell, and I am not Christian. Your God said that if we don’t want to listen to his message, then to leave us alone, and that’s what I’m asking you to do.” ( Cite Matthew 10:14) Be friendly, firm and make eye contact…and stand your ground. This really does stop most of them dead in their tracks. It’s a great way to let everyone off the hook, because frankly most of them don’t like intruding in your affairs. Besides, there is this lovely little ‘out’ from the Book of Acts that allows everyone to save face: “If any household refuses to welcome you or listen to your message, shake its dust from your feet as you leave.” It was clear that the Gospel should not be forced upon an unwilling people.
This is a symbolic act that signifies that all responsibility for the stubborn persons has ended. After all, you gave them their chance, and if they didn’t listen, well…it’s not your problem now. This is an adaptation of an ancient Jewish custom: shake the dust of the Gentile from your feet, so you will not become unclean.
Personally, 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.” Or you can always pray them down (for those that are comfortable claiming the offensive):
I have turned the tables on particularly insistent missionaries who wanted to pray with me by offering to lead the prayer myself- which delights them right up to where they realize I wasn’t going to be manipulated. (Jesus, in fact, taught his followers to pray in a particular fashion for this very reason.) My favorite prayer begins something like, ” Creator God, who has given us the will to individual sight, to freely choose how each of us see you through different eyes, be here with us now…”It’s a nifty form of invocation which works every time because it’s subtle. Notice how I didn’t call on their God, yet didn’t deny them their right to call upon him? I went on to establish that every individual has the right to call upon the Divine as it is framed for them, then called upon the god of my own understanding. You can be assertive without being aggressive, and a bit of diplomacy goes a long way. It also makes it clear that you have a well-defined understanding of your own beliefs and are confident about expression them. Even those who “put on the whole armor of God” can be disarmed in this way, because every suit of armor has a few chinks in it.
~”Encountering Others/Defending Your Faith As A Pagan” by AmethJera at Broom With a View—I really recommend reading the rest
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. You do not have an obligation to anything except yourself. If you can’t articulate yourself well under pressure, don’t. You CAN refuse. Not everyone is a Debate Champ. In many cases, these people are strangers or persons seldom encountered. You have to power to engage or disengage in these conversations. Choosing NOT to is NOT a reflection on the conviction of your belief–its a reflection of your commitment to civility. Religion should never be an argument.
There are obviously cases where this is more difficult to enforce. With family, probably being the most obvious, and also at work or school. When you are a parent and this is something that your child is facing from friends or in the classroom, it takes on an additional dimension that can be difficult to work our way through (this is one of the reasons that I think it is absolutely important for parents to teach their children about their faith). But the answer here isn’t all that different than it is with a door knocker–just because they are your mom, your boss, your friend, your coworker, your whomever, doesn’t mean you owe them a justification of your personal beliefs. “I appreciate your interest and your concern, but I’m not interested discussing religion with you,” is still a valid answer.
There are some places where I am almost NEVER comfortable discussing religion–like the workplace. For one, in many states, you can get fired for *anything* and backstabbing coworkers or intolerant bosses have been known to use one’s religion against minority religionists. If you work in an environment where you suspect this, the best course of action may just be to keep your mouth shut or to nod and smile until you find another place of employment. But really, even in the most open minded of workplaces, bringing any religion into the workplace in a way that makes others uncomfortable is just unprofessional (unless the workplace is a church, etc)–“I’m sorry, but I don’t consider a discussion of religion to be appropriate/professional at work” is an acceptable substitution here. Yes, I have a (ever discreet, artistic looking) altar in my office, I meditate daily—but I do it with my door closed on my own time. Yes, I’ve talked about “what we are doing for Yule” and explained what Yule is, but only when asked directly. Yes, my coworkers know I’m Pagan, but I work in an environment with very strong workplace protections.
The problem of dealing with schools and teachers and classmates is similar to that of the workplace. I am very lucky that we live in a diverse urban environment (something that will change shortly)–bullying for any reason is highly discouraged and dealt with swiftly once the teacher is made aware of it. My children are unaccustomed to hiding their opinions and points of view, so they are completely honest about their family religion and traditions when the subject is brought up. But we’ve also made it clear to them that our perspective is one of many, and while it is the right one for us, it may not be the right one for others. We have had to deal with this once already, and I anticipate that it will come up again… While I remain firmly of the opinion that “religious literacy is a crucial piece of cultural literacy and failing to teach about the basic facts of religions is a failing of our society,” I can also respect and appreciate the school’s position that “religion is something you talk about at home, not with your classmates.”
Family though…that could be a book (actually we have a thread of out of the broom closet stories over at Pagan Forum–over the years I’ve heard and read dozens of ways this can go). If you aren’t out of the broom closet, I recommend NOT doing it at a major family get together, particularly during the holidays.** If you are out with family, there are a couple of ways these things can go–head in the sand denials, agree to disagree détente, grudging acceptance, whole hearted acceptance, or frequent and vocal put down. But even in the most open and accepting families, there’s always that one person that ruins it (or conversely, there’s often the one open and accepting person in the most condemning and conservative families). It is my personal opinion that taking the high road is something worthy of consideration. Allowing others in your family to do their collective religious thing while silently doing your own may suck, but it does not mean that yours somehow are less sincere…it means you have manners. Unless someone confronts you directly, let it go. And if they do confront you directly…the same advice still stands. “I appreciate your interest and your concern, but I’m not interested discussing religion with you right not–this isn’t the time or the place,” is all you need to say. Just because they are family, doesn’t mean you own them justification or explanation.***
Whether it comes from family, co-workers, classmates, or friends, proselytizing is something those of us in minority religions have to deal with. Yeah, it sucks. But its not a reason to feel cornered or defensive. You are not obligated to defend your faith. Indeed, true faith needs no defense… When someone seeks to use their religion as an excuse to bully you, walking away can be the best defense. They do not have the right or authority to compel you justify your beliefs. A discussion about your faith should only be on your terms.
*If you do want to have the conversation, I recommend preparedness and practice. This might be a bit helpful in framing your response.
**I think we’ll get into this as a topic on another day…
***This assumes that you are an independently living adult–while it should be the case, no matter who you are or in what situation you are in, we all know that pragmatically speaking, this is not always true.