I don’t want to convert you

OK, that is partially a lie. I do want to convert some of your ideas into other ideas. Heck we all do that.  But I don’t want to convert you away from how you identify yourself.

One reason it is hard to have a true friendship with many Christians is because, in the end, many have a strong desire to convert us non-believers into Christians.  They look for moments to discuss the gospel, to witness to us, to see if the Holy Spirit is moving in our lives.  Worse, they look for every misfortune in our lives to be God’s mysterious way to speak to us and bring us into his fold.  Such a relationship can barely be called a “friendship” — well, unless you really believe that disbelief results in eternal damnation and torture.  But since I don’t, I don’t want those sorts of friendships.  Fortunately, many Christians don’t act or think that way and thus there are several Christians I call “friend”.

Likewise many Christians feel uncomfortable about how I approach them as an Atheist — they feel I am condescending and trying to convert them.  I have thought about this issue and can honestly state that I don’t necessarily want them to stop being a Christian.   This is because, unlike many Atheists, I believe there are all sorts of Christians and with some types I have no disagreements in any meaningful way.  See my post on “My Favorite Kind of Christian“.

Though many Christian friends and I just stay clear from religious conversations,  with others, when we do debate, I try to make it clear that I am not trying to argue them out of Christianity.   Sure,  I may be trying to argue them away from some positions within their version of Christianity — but not necessarily out of Christianity in general.   This may sound pejorative and self-righteous but it is far better to consider your friend mistaken than to consider them damned for eternity for their beliefs.  And besides, I am not really trying to take them outside of their identity —  I feel they can remain Christian and be a fantastic person.  And further, I try to only have this dialogue when we mutually agree to engage.  I am not looking for moments throughout our relationship to sneak in my atheist agenda.

So, I can honestly say I am not trying to convert people out of Christianity but into a better version of Christianity.  If they feel there is only one version of Christianity (theirs!), then I can see why they feel I am trying to talk them out of Christianity.  But they would be mistaken.

I think Christians should considered approaching Atheists in a similar way — focusing on how to make them an Atheist with better belief sets without trying to get them to believe in a god.  I think such evangelism is potentially healthy.  I think such dialogue is useful and can help improve the lives of both friends simultaneously.  Such an evangelism does not look to convert but to effect deep pre-doctrinal ways of thinking.

31 Comments

Filed under Philosophy & Religion

31 responses to “I don’t want to convert you

  1. Nice post! I had a comment in mind to leave as I read through the post but decided not to when I saw you included it with your last paragraph, “I think Christians should considered approaching Atheists in a similar way…” Ultimately that kind of dialog respects the other person in a way that “evangelism” (atheist or theist) does not.

  2. I love this line: “I think Christians should considered approaching Atheists in a similar way — focusing on how to make them an Atheist with better belief sets without trying to get them to believe in a god.”

    I’ve met a friend–not a Christian, but a sampler of several different religions–who got me to rethink my engagement with religion. The strict religiosity of my upbringing did not suit me, but I found the brand of strict secularism peddled by many atheists to be ultimately unsatisfying as well. I’m happier now that I’m learning to embrace the beauty in the deeper psychic truths found in religions, without believing any of it completely, literally or uncritically.

  3. bataille9

    An obvious problem with this is that most of us don’t consider the abstract words we use merely convenient classification tools to manage our personal dispositions. If you propose to change someone’s stance on the afterlife (or the hell-bound status of us delightfully godless folk) it would seem to them that the whole thing will come tumbling down like a house of cards.

    This is why there seems to be an asymmetry between atheists and most theists in that atheists have more flexibility to isolate components. Theists (wrongly) believe that their set of beliefs is a system that entirely stands or falls together. And so it would take a certain type of Christian to even be able to genuinely take on the challenge of approaching atheists in effort of making them better people (“Better atheists?!”) When I have been approached by Christians, seldom am I even really asked what I think about this or that belief – unless it is an obvious bait and switch tactic. Rather, I am presented with this abstraction called “Jesus” and told what it is and that I ought to take it (or him or whatever) into my “heart” – another abstraction.

  4. 100% agreed. having friendships just to convert is awful. i am an evangelist yet i’m not colonial. we all want people to see and understand our point of view… and my point is simply to understand myself and be a better Luke. i hope in our conversations Sabio is a better Sabio for it. no conversion required.

    the more i think about it, i make a piss-poor christian. i mean, you don’t have to stop being an atheist.. you don’t have to become me before we can talk… yikes! what the hell am i thinking?! 🙂

    great post man. happy to have found your blog.

  5. Even when I was a Christian I never practiced overt or even covert proselytizing. I always thought God was big enough that if he wanted something to happen to influence someone, that it would happen without me getting in the way.

  6. @ bataille

    Good points. Sometimes the first conversation that needs to take place with a believer is about the varieties of types of Christians. If they are condemning of all the other types of Christians, most likely any conversation with an atheist will be a total waste of time.

    But if that hurdle is passed, probably it is best not to go right into if there is a god or not. There are lots of conversations to have before that. Probably even the divinity of Jesus probably needs to be left untouched. But other areas like nature of scripture and internal experiences may be possible.

    But you are right, some people look at their beliefs as a whole package. If so, possibly that is a good place to begin. There is an art to dialogue, and I certainly am no master.

  7. @ Luke, Leah, Mike and ATTR — glad you enjoyed. Luke is a very liberal Christian and Leah, Mike and ATTR are apparently apostate atheist agnostics ! 🙂

  8. Shawn Wamsley

    Relationships are always a messy business, always. Why enter into them with people who are only trying to get something out of it? I’ll tell you plainly, I find “evangelistic atheists” to be quite repugnant, but not nearly as off-putting as fundamentalist Christians.

    Perhaps ironically, I bet I have had more fundamentalist Christians try to convert me to their way of thinking than many atheists have. I can spot “crazy Christian” street evangelists from a mile away and I know I have slyly winked at many about-to-be targets as I diverted down a side street. :0)

  9. @ Shawn
    I personally have never seen an evangelical atheist even once. Where have you seen them. I don’t count the web because that is a place for ideas.
    And the only time I talk about religion with Christians is when they bring it up first. (or to people who have argued with me in the past and basically made it clear to me that they thought I was lost and that my actions are immoral by the very nature of being an atheist)– I am sure you know the type.
    Your side-street diversion made me smile. I have visited many Christian sites where dogma dogs prowl lookin’ for non-fundies like yourself.

  10. Temaskian

    It boils down to whether the Christian adopts a very strict doctrine of hell or not. If he does, it’s very difficult for him to genuinely be your ‘friend’ when he’s simultaneously imagining you landing in hellfire for eternity if he does not get the message across.

    Most, or all, Christians who comment on your blog, are most probably not in the above category.

  11. @ Temaskian — I totally agree. I am fortunate to have Christian friends here. They help make me a better person, more important than being a better debtor. Do you enjoy them here?

    @ Mike — I was thinking about your reply. You spoke it as if it is good to think the Christian god is all-powerful and in control instead of leaving more free-will to believers — to leave his mission to humans. (Did I say that clearly?)

  12. Tim Smith

    Reasoning along the lines of such reconciliation among thinkers seems to be what Aristotle meant by Eudemonia, which broadly defined simply means human flourishing. This can bring about happiness but is is a reasoned happiness, a byproduct of good intent and well suited as a goal to replace the walls of separation we erect between and among each other. To oppose human flourishing is counterintuitive but, as you have pointed out, we do seem to engage in it. Great post, food for thought.

  13. So, I can honestly say I am not trying to convert people out of Christianity but into a better version of Christianity. If they feel there is only one version of Christianity (theirs!), then I can see why they feel I am trying to talk them out of Christianity. But they would be mistaken.

    Things Sabio knows:

    1. That people who think their version of Christianity is the right one (the only one, the best one) are wrong.

    2. Which version of Christianity is best (i.e. better than yours).

  14. CRL

    Even trying to change some of your Christian friends’ beliefs, or trying to “make them a better Christian” is a form of evangelism (and mildly condescending) in my book. Many Christians perceive our attempts to change their beliefs, even minor ones, as attempts to drag them down a slippery slope into atheism. While I’ve nothing against a good debate, by mutual agreement, the best way (in my opinion) is to go in, not expecting or attempting to change anyone’s opinion, but to debate for the pure enjoyment of debating, and of acquiring a better understanding of their (and our own!) beliefs.

  15. @ Laughing Boy

    I am afraid you misquote me. Here is what I know:

    1. That people who think their version of Christianity is the ONLY one.
    2. Which versionS of Christianity I PREFER.

    Please skim over your notes from Journalistic Ethics 101 again. Smile !

  16. CRL — I largely agree.

    But here are a few rubs.

    (a) With friends with kids, the religion stuff comes up not infrequently. Kids are very honest. So the stuff has to be brought out in the open.

    (b) I only have time for so many friends, I don’t have time for superficial friendships with people praying that their god cause me suffering so that I may come to know Jesus.

    Aside from those caveats, in casual, non-deep, relationships, I can keep it superficial and non-challenging.

  17. Sabio, I said my thinking, when I was still a Christian, was that God could influence people to change. I believed 100% in free will. When it came to proselytizing of any sort, I felt it was more important to love and serve people than to worry about their eternal souls. Like the old Christian camp song went “They will know we are Christians by our love”.

  18. societyvs

    Great post! I am not a big fan of the conversion tactics of most of Christianity…I mean if it so good – people will notice and respect you regardless if you say something or nothing.

  19. CRL

    Sabio: I didn’t, in any way, mean to say that religion should be completely off the table in friendly discussion. I debate and discuss religion all the time! All I meant to say was that, in a debate, you shouldn’t (or, at any rate, I don’t) try to change the other person’s beliefs.

  20. @ CRL : I don’t get your distinction. Isn’t “debate” all about trying to show your position as more reasonable than the opponent’s (for lack of a better word). And don’t we expect change of beliefs if, over time, another position continually proves more reasonable?

    @ Mike & Society
    It is precisely that I saw non-Christians being very loving that made me realize that being loving was not a unique fruit of Christianity. As I probed further I found no unique fruit. Yet, uniqueness is what all the Christians I knew preached.

  21. CRL

    Sabio: I suppose I am having trouble articulating my distinction. I guess I am trying to change their beliefs, just as I am willing to change mine, should sufficient evidence arise, but changing their beliefs is not my goal nor reason for entering into discussion, and I do not expect it to happen. In the end, I do not hugely care what my friends believe.

  22. @ CRL
    I kind of agree.
    I just HUGELY don’t want friends to think I will burn in hell when I die and that my life now is a sad failure. Ian (above) just got told that today by a Christian. Many Christians tell their kids, “shhhh, don’t tell Sabio and his family that they are going to hell.” I CARE if they belief that — I will try to change that belief or cut the friendship. Many Christians hope for disaster to hit our lives so that we turn to their god. Their scriptures tell them this is the way their god works.

    Temaskian (above) was right — “damnation”, “inferior life” and such beliefs are incompatible with a real relationship, yet along friendship.

  23. Temaskian

    Sabio,

    “Do you enjoy them here?”

    To be honest, I only read them when have the time, and am prepared to be careful. It’s so easy to get emotional when you interact with people holding an opposite belief. So it’s not really enjoyable, but more of tiring.

    Having said that, the above comment only applies to certain categories of Christians. For the super-liberal ones, I’m sure I enjoy listening to their interpretation and breakdown of Scriptures, which used to be a hobby of mine too.

  24. Temaskian

    @Sabio,

    [Temaskian (above) was right — “damnation”, “inferior life” and such beliefs are incompatible with a real relationship, yet along friendship.]

    You’ve hit it right on the nose. That’s what impedes me from having any relationship with my ex-church mates. If I disclose everything, I will immediately be put into a lower caste, as it were. Not attending church is bad enough.

    Attending my church – Caste 1
    Attending another church – Caste 2
    Not attending church – Caste 3
    Not Christian – !!!

  25. CRL

    Sabio: I don’t run across too much of that out here. Perhaps the Christians are scared into submission by their minority status.

    Temaskian: And “not christian” can be further broken down into fellow believers (caste 5?) and atheists (case not deserving of a number!)

  26. Temaskian

    CRL: Actually, now that I start thinking about it, there is an almost infinite no. of castes in the church world.

  27. @ CRL
    Where do you live (approximately, if you are feeling secretive). Could you go to my friends tab and see if there is any info you can supplement.
    I think indeed majority-minority changes the picture. My town is vast majority Christian and we have a few very vocal evangelical churches.

  28. pete

    Interesting post Sabio.Humans have trouble reading each others minds,so discussing matters is just become a factor of life.

    Often in times gone past conversion to faiths was very often seen as a very important issue,and so that discussion then often seemed a lot like what we called evangelism.

    These days often atleast some deconversion of fundamentalist type faiths, is thought by some people to be a very important issue and a good idea, and so when they discuss it can seem like some evangelism of the opposite nature is happening.

    Its a bit like we wouldn’t bother to print newspapers,if we could read each others minds and didnt have reason to need to discuss matters.

  29. “It is precisely that I saw non-Christians being very loving that made me realize that being loving was not a unique fruit of Christianity.”

    Oh, me too! “Fruit” can be produced by Christians, non-Christians, and people pretending to be Christians.

  30. CRL

    @ Sabio: San Francisco. Christians are the majority in the city, but my school is, at a wild guess, around 35% agnostic/nonreligious, 25% atheist, 10% Jewish, and 30% Christian, and less than a third of the Christians could be called fundamentalist in any way.

    @Mike: Fruit abounds in all places!

  31. Shawn Wamsley

    @Sabio,

    You wrote:

    “I personally have never seen an evangelical atheist even once. Where have you seen them. I don’t count the web because that is a place for ideas.”

    Agreed. You can find anything on the internets. :0)

    I may run in fundamentally younger circles than you do (do you spend much time around 18-25 year-olds?), which means that I run into young atheists testing their Nietzschean mettle all the time. So, I run into them at universities, mostly – sometimes downtown or in pubs.

    “And the only time I talk about religion with Christians is when they bring it up first. (or to people who have argued with me in the past and basically made it clear to me that they thought I was lost and that my actions are immoral by the very nature of being an atheist)– I am sure you know the type.”

    I do, which is funny – because I would classify all human actions the same way (Christian or no), I don’t believe in pure moral altruism. Although, I will have to say by way of my vocation, etc. people usually have religion in mind when they are talking to me, so I don’t think I would be part of a fair “control group.”

    “Your side-street diversion made me smile. I have visited many Christian sites where dogma dogs prowl lookin’ for non-fundies like yourself.”

    We get some of those at Theophiliacs sometimes (James goes looking for them on their sites, because he is a glutton for punishment, literally). We just had one threaten to resurrect the Church Fathers “Wesley, Augustine, and Luther” (yes, that’s a quote, he thinks Wesley and Luther were Church Fathers) in order to demonstrate we’re all idiots. I gave up after that.

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