Arrogance, Intolerance and Violence AKA Evangelism

29 Jun

evangelismIs it ever ethical to attempt to persuade others to change their religion, worldview or other fundamental belief? This endeavor has received in the recent years increasing line of criticism. In January 2001 in South Asia, Dalai Lama has condemned Christian and Muslim practice of seeking converts, “Whether Hindu or Muslim or Christian, whoever tries to convert, it’s wrong, not good.” (Thiessen, 2011, p. 6).Richards, Svendsen and Bless aptly describe the sorts of pressures restricting the ability to engage in religious persuasion as “an increasing apathy of secular states towards the importance of religious freedom and the exclusion of religion from the public square; the preclusive dominance of established ideologies in other states; consolidations of power by authoritarian regimes; worries about the destabilizing influence of new or unfamiliar religious movements, religious extremism, or terrorism; a downgrading of religious freedom rights vis-á-vis these other human rights; the marginalization of minority religions; reactions against globalization or perceived neo-colonialism; burgeoning state and transnational regimes; expanding notions of privacy; and transforming modes of communication” (2011, p. 154). Martin E. Marty suggests that “[t]he proselytizer violates boundaries and disrupts traditions” (Ibid.). Novak explaining why Jews are resenting those who proselytize says that they come across as people who “feel no moral compunction in denigrating other faiths and their cultures for the sake of cajoling their adherents to cease being what they have been and change their identity to becoming what the missionaries are” (1999, p. 43). At last, many people perceive a connection between religious proselytizing and violence. Sociologists Grim and Finke found that “violent religious persecution is pervasive. Of 143 countries…, 86 percent (123 countries) have documented cases of people being physically abused or displaced from their homes because of …religious persecution” (Richards, Svendsen, Bless, 2011, p. 156).

Self-refutation. People prefer to think of themselves as autonomous, self-determining and independent thinkers who can make up their own mind (Foss, Griffin, 1995), while in reality the human condition is characterized by inter-dependence. Thiessen writes, “most (maybe even 95%) of the beliefs that we hold are a result of persuasion” (2011, p. 56) acquired from parents, teachers or academic and political trends. Johnstone concludes, a human being is, among other things, “a persuading and persuaded animal” (1981, p. 306). After presenting their critique of persuasion, Foss and Griffin are forced to admit they are in fact trying to persuade others by the very fact of having written their article (1995).

Kinnaman and Hawkins in their book “You Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving Church … and Rethinking Faith” list six main reasons for an increasing trend of young American evangelicals abandoning Christian faith. One of them is the exclusive position of having an absolute truth, Christian theology poses, resulting in other positions being wrong (2011). Other exclusivist religions also face the criticism of religious inclusivists who attempt to accommodate religious pluralism, suggesting differing religions represent various manifestations of the divine. This position is relativistic in nature as it dismisses principles of non-contradiction that represent for it a logical problem (Coward, 2000, p. 147-148). The tenets of religious pluralism at last fails to escape the very conclusion it set out to abolish, namely absolute truth and exclusivism. selfrefuationInclusivist is forced to say that the pluralist approach to the religions is the right way, and those who do not adopt it are wrong. “[Saying] there are many manifestations of the divine is still to adopt an exclusive position.” (Thiessen, 2011, p. 65). Thiessen goes a notch further and suggests that those who oppose proselytizing because of protecting pluralism “are really not liberals at all but closet totalitarians. Liberal fundamentalists,…and they are as dangerous as their religious counterparts.” (p. 128)

Arrogance. The assumption of proselytizers of having the truth is the motivation behind their efforts. Yet the same assumption is perceived as an arrogant attitude. Thiessen suggests that most human communication by its nature is arrogant to some degree. “I write a letter because I arrogantly believe that I have something to say to someone. I disagree with you, and argue my case. Again, this involves a degree of arrogance. Who am I to dare to defend my position against yours? … Both disagreement with another, and trying to persuade another, presume that I am right and that the other is mistaken or misguided. But, surely there is nothing wrong with this kind of arrogance” (2011, p. 60). For instance, during the debate concerning the shape of the earth, round-earthers have been perceived as clearly mistaken and arrogant given the wide spread acceptance of the beliefs in flat Earth. Even though “those holding to the round-earth theory may have been very humble men, doubting their own position from time to time, and only tentatively putting forth their theory” (Ibid., p. 61). Thus, the question of persuasion needs to be separated from attitudes of arrogance and humility.

Intolerance. Closely after arrogance, proselytizers are accused of being intolerant of the beliefs and value systems of other people. This objection rests on a misconception about the nature of tolerance. “The traditional modern notion of tolerance had to do fundamentally with persons, not with ideas…Today, unfortunately, tolerance has come to be associated primarily with ideas, not persons” (Ibid., p. 106). Traditionally, tolerance meant only to endure, to put up with something a person dislikes. It meant that respect for people was more important than fighting over disagreement about ideas, yet it did not mean that truth was not important. Today, such attitude is not perceived as good enough and a truly tolerant person is required to fully accept what is different. “The preferred substitute for tolerance today is mutual acceptance of each other’s ideas as equally valid” (Ibid., p. 107). In his reprisal, Thiessen quotes Newman, who condemns such attitude in the ranks of liberals, “Many liberal intellectuals are themselves intolerant men” as they are “irrationally hostile towards religious people in general” (Newman, 1982, p. 173) While traditional tolerance might seem half-hearted, it is in fact its strength. It creates space for dialogue and at the same time allows people to hold deep commitments to their understanding of religious truth. “Nothing more (and nothing less) should be demanded than tolerance.” (Thiessen, 2011, p. 110)

Inconsistency. Religious proselytizing is more often than not hastily marked as coercive for adopting persuasive coordinated programs of influence. The challenge is that there are other contexts where such influence is adopted to change attitudes and behaviors, yet those are considered as acceptable. Sales programs, recruitment programs or political campaings all include “planned influence procedures” (Singer, Addis, 1992, p. 171). Without defining the difference, this is a denigrating name-calling. Robbins specifies that, “a religion becomes a cult, proselytization becomes brainwashing; persuasion becomes propaganda; missionaries become subversive agents; retreats, monasteries, and convents become prisons; holy ritual becomes bizarre conduct; religious observance becomes aberrant behavior ; devotion and mediation become psychopathic trances” (1984, p. 244). In such contexts, love and care is disparaged as “love bombing“, while in rehabilitation and deprogramming centers it is seen as a desired “familial” atmosphere (Ibid.). Missionaries are criticized for adopting tactics used in selling, marketing, and advertising while using these techniques in business is exempt from criticism. (Stiebel 1982).

Etiquette vs. Ethicsmanners

I have argued that proselytizing, as an institution, is not intrinsically unethical. However, proselytizing can be arrogant, intolerant, coercive and ultimately unethical. On that account, Thiessen believes it is crucial to cautiously differentiate between ethical and unethical proselytizing, which he elaborates in his framework of 15 criteria for distinguishing ethical and unethical proselytizing (its summary can be found in the end of the article).

Given these ethical criteria are put to practice and ones proselytizing is humble, tolerant, respectful, transparent and caring, there still seems to be space for a felt discomfort linked with religious persuasion. People tend to perceive it as not “nice”, uncivil, irritating, and even offensive. There tends to be a sense of awkwardness and embarrassment surrounding cases of proselytizing (Thiessen, 2011). Kimball, in his book, “When Religion Becomes Evil” places missionary campaigns “somewhere on the spectrum between irritating and deeply offensive” (2002, p. 64). Nevertheless, all this does not make proselytizing immoral; “all this”, Thiessen writes, “has nothing to do with ethics, though it has everything to do with etiquette” (2011, p. 139). Western liberal culture developed an influential distinction between the public and private domain. Since religion is thought of as belonging to private domain, proselytizing is problematic for it occurs, by its nature, in the public square and thus crosses the boundaries of this distinction. In a word, nice people are expected to keep religion private (Ibid.). In a free society, an offense must not be based on eggshell sensitivity, even then “being offended is different from being harmed, and harm should be established objectively” (Richards et al., 2011). Thiessen also suggests that we have a responsibility to be “thick-skinned”, not taking quick offense by proselytizing. He concludes “perhaps what we should really be discussing here are ways to create a more positive cultural environment in our society where we would all become a little more comfortable with the phenomenon of religious proselytizing,…, as we [are with] commercial advertising” (Thiessen, 2011, p. 141).

An outspoken advocate of atheism, best-selling author and comedian Penn Jillette was once after his performance approached by a fan who handed to him a pocket Gideon Bible. While Jillette’s beliefs remained unshaken, he appreciated this individual’s care enough to later publicly share what happened, commenting it with the words, “I’ve always said that I don’t respect people who don’t proselytize. If you believe that there’s a heaven and a hell, and people could be going to hell or not getting eternal life, and you think that it’s not really worth telling them this because it would make it socially awkward…how much do you have to hate somebody to not proselytize? How much do you have to hate somebody to believe everlasting life is possible and not tell them that?” (Jillette, 2010). Jillette is an example of an atheist who welcomes and even encourages open discussion, debate and proselytizing on the issue of God’s existence. Is it possible that his attitude will become one day the norm?

written by Peter Makovini

Thiessens 15 Criteria Framework for Ethical Proselytizing

1.      Dignity criterion Proselytizing protects dignity and worth of the persons being proselytized.
2.      Care criterion Proselytizing is an expression of concern for the whole person and all of his needs – physical, social, economic, intellectual, emotional, and spiritual. To care only for the salvation of the souls of persons is unethical. It involves an objectification of a part of the person and, as such, violates that person’s dignity.
3.      Physical coercion criterion Proselytizing allows persons to make a genuinely free and uncoerced choice with regard to conversion.

4.      Psychological coercion criterion

Proselytizing avoids excessive psychological manipulation, such as (a) intense, repeated and extremely programmatic approaches to bringing about conversions, (b) exploiting of vulnerability of children, youth, vulnerable adults, and individuals facing personal crises, (c) excessive appeals to emotion and fear.
5.      Social coercion criterion Acknowledging that some degree of power and control is inescapable in proselytizing, excessive expressions of power and exploiting of power-imbalances when proselytizing is unethical.
6.      Inducement criterion Proselytizing accompanied by material enticement such as money, gifts, medical care, aid, education or privileges, is immoral. Else, the proselytizee must be given a clear sense that it is perfectly acceptable for him to accept help, and yet refuse any appeals to convert.
7.      Rationality criterion Proselytizing includes providing information and giving reasons for the proposed change of heart and mind. Proselytizing that attempts to sidestep human reason entirely is unethical.
8.      Truthfulness criterion Proselytizing is truthful and characterized by integrity. Hidden agendas, identities, lying, deception, and failure to speak the truth is unethical.
9.      Humility criterion Proselytizing is characterized by humility. It becomes unethical when it becomes arrogant, condescending, and dogmatic.
10.  Tolerance criterion Proselytizing treats persons holding beliefs differing from that of the proselytized with love and respect. While it does not preclude fair criticism, it treats them with respect, avoiding hostile attitudes or the use of insulting and abusive language against other religions and worldviews.
11.  Motivation criterion The primary motivation for ethical proselytizing is love for humanity. Proselytizing is other-centered and grows out of genuine concert for the other person’s well-being, and his or her assumed need to hear the truth as understood by the proselytizer. Ego-centric motives, like personal benefit, reward, reassurance, domination over another person, and personal satisfaction about growth of one’s own church is unethical.
12.  Identity criterion Proselytizing takes into account and shows respect for the communal identity of the proselytizee. Disregard for social attachments of an individual is unethical.
13.  Cultural sensitivity criterion Proselytizing is sensitive to the culture of a proselytizee. It values its uniqueness and attempts to retain what is good or neutral within each culture. Proselytizing that fails to distinguish between a particular cultural expression of a religion and the religious truths being conveyed is unethical. To impose a particular cultural expression of a religion on another culture is similarly unethical.
14.  Results criterion Results, success in persuasion, or church growth, should be seen as a by-product of proselytizing. A pre-occupation with results, success, or church growth is unethical.
15.  Golden Rule Proselytizing operates under the assumption that the other has the right to proselytize as well. To assume monopoly of the proselytizing enterprise is unethical.

Coward, H. (2000). Pluralism in the world religions: A short introduction. Oxford: Oneworld.
Foss, S. K., Griffin, C. I. (1995). Beyond persuasion: a proposal for an invitational rhetoric. Communication monographs 62(March): 2-18.
Jillete, P. [beinzee]. (2010, July 8). A Gift Of a Bible [Video file]. Retrieved from
Johnstone, H.W. (1981). Towards and ethics of rhetoric. Communication 6: 305-14.
Kimball, C. (2002). When religion becomes evil. New York: Harper San Francisco.
Kinnaman, D., & Hawkins, A. (2011). You Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving Church … and Rethinking Faith. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.
Newman, J. (1982). Foundations of religious tolerance. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
Novak, D. (1999). Proselytism in Judaism. In J. Witte and R. Martin (eds.), Sharing the book: Religious perspectives on the rights and wrongs of proselytism. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books: 17-44.
Richards, M. K., Svendsen A. L., Bless, R. O. (2011). Voluntary codes of conduct for religious persuasion: effective tools for balancing human rights and resolving conflicts? Religion and Human Rights 6 (2011) 151-183.
Richards, M. K., Svendsen A. L., Bless, R. O. (2011). Voluntary codes of conduct for religious persuasion: effective tools for balancing human rights and resolving conflicts? Religion and Human Rights 6 (2011) 151-183.
Singer, M. T., Addis, M. E. (1992). Cults, coercion and contumely. Cultic studies journal 9(2): 163-89).
Stiebel, A.S. (1982). The marketing of Jesus: An analysis of propaganda techniques utilized by Christian missionaries in their attempt to proselytize the American Jew. Hebrew Union College – Jewish institute of religion.
Thiessen, J. E. (2011). The ethics of evangelism: a philosophical defense of proselytizing and persuasion. Illinois, IVP Academic.



Posted by on June 29, 2015 in Ethics, Mission, Reasonable Faith


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2 responses to “Arrogance, Intolerance and Violence AKA Evangelism

  1. Daril Simões

    July 28, 2015 at 1:12 am

    Very good text! Thank you!
    I think the free will of the people must be respected!
    Common sense should always be used in evangelism. There are ways to decrease the resistance of those who dislike the Christian faith. For example, good witness and prayer. Also, I use good music to get closer to those people who do not want to visit a Christian church. The music goes where words are rejected.


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