I posted this over at Writers on the Loose. I decided to cross-post it here to see what some of my friends think about my theories.
On a previous column, Zjabs left me the following comment:
Ingvi- Quite often you and I are on the same side of the issue. I find nothing in your column to disagree with. What I do find interesting is that your belief in the “wrong” thing (in the eyes of the Christians) is okay. No one has tried to convert you or tried to open your eyes to Christ, etc. But when I post a column about my lack of belief, I’ve been given the third degree. Which begs the question- have the people on this site mellowed, or is it more understandable to have one believe in something, even if it doesn’t match our own beliefs, then to have someone proclaim they don’t believe at all? Now there’s a column idea for you!
I thought it would be appropriate to take a moment to respond to his question. However, before I can do that, I think it important to examine the full context of the situations he’s referring to.
I think that first, it’s important to keep in mind that Zjab’s column about his lack of belief was in response to another column by Jen. In Jen’s column, she specifically asked people why others weren’t Christian. It only seems that Jen and others would respond to Zjab’s own response with further dialogue. In contrast, my columns have been mostly independent — or respond to other people’s columns in an almost tangential way. So there’s not quite the same flow of dialogue. In effect, I haven’t left quite the same opening for such “conversion attempts” (though to be honest, I think that labeling the comments left for Zjabs as such might be a bit of a stretch). So in essence, we’re probably comparing apples and oranges here.
However, if we step beyond these two scenarios involving Zjabs, myself, and the other members of WOTL, I am inclined to agree that the way many Christians approach people who don’t believe in any religion often differs from the way they approach those who follow a different religion. In fact, while there are small groups and individuals within Christianity that are focused on “reaching out” to people of other religions (one example of this in regards to the Pagan religions is Exwitch Ministries), it seems to me that most Christians are focused on convincing the atheists and the agnostics that they should become Christian. And I think that there are a number of closely related reasons for this.
I think that the most central reason for this is that in our country’s history, Christianity has had the luxury of being the only religion (or at least the only noticeable one) around. As such, Christians got used to thinking they’re the “only game in town,” the only religion, if you will. (And in fairness, I’ve run into several agnostics and atheists who seem to hold a similar view on some level.) Even the Jewish religion was seen as not being all that different, and trying to evangelize Jews just focused around convincing them that Jesus really was the Messiah. As such, Christian apologetics has only had to focus on convincing the unbeliever or skeptic of the validity of Christian doctrine. And to this day, the average Christian has access to plenty of material designed to woo the atheist, the agnostic, and any other kind of “unbeliever.”
However, now that Christians are finding themselves once again living in a pluralistic society, they are discovering that they are not as prepared to respond to someone who doesn’t just disbelieve, but actually believes something else. The same arguments that woo an atheist or agnostic are not as effective — assuming they’re effective at all — on a Hindu, a Buddhist, or a Pagan. And I think that because of this, a lot of Christians choose to focus on evangelizing those they already have the “tools” to evangelize.
As an aside, I will note that many who do try and convert people who follow a different religion tend to try to do so in a sort of “two-phase” process. In this process, they start by trying to demonstrate why the individual’s religion is wrong, doesn’t make sense, or is otherwise inferior. Once this first “phase” is done, they then resort to the same material they would use to evangelize someone who was an agnostic. To be honest, I haven’t found this approach all that impressive, and I suspect it’s only effective with “tentative believers” in other religions, anyway.
Another result of this history of Christianity being “the only game in town” for so long is that a natural friction or rivalry between the Christians and the atheists and agnostics has developed over time. I have watched several discussions between these two groups, and it has been the rare case where the discussion didn’t devolve into both sides trying to prove themselves to be right and other to be wrong. It also seems to me that far too many people on “both sides of the fence” prefer this conflict, and take efforts to keep the trend alive. The end result is that both Christians and atheists and agnostics seem to be conditioned to expect this rivalry to pop up, prepare for it, and as a result, generate a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts. In the rare cases where the old rivalry doesn’t rear its ugly head, I’ve noted that it’s usually due to the fact that key people on both sides of the discussion make concerted efforts to avoid it.
And finally, I do think that Zjabs is right in that people find any belief to be more comprehensible than a complete lack of beliefs. Christians may disagree with my polytheistic and magical views, but at least they can intellectually understand it. Trying to understand how someone can not believe in anything. To be perfectly honest, I have a bit of trouble in grasping that, myself. I can certainly understand not believing in any specific religion because of the lack of a compelling (to them, at least) reason to believe in them. I can even understand someone not believing in God or not being skeptical about the nature of such a God if God exists. But I do have trouble grasping the more hardcore atheists who are absolutely convinced there is no God.