Evangelistic Atheism? No Thanks.

I’m going to try to explain, as clearly as possible, why I react the way I do to the concept of evangelistic atheism. It’s been difficult, deciding exactly how to communicate this, because it involves wading through the muck and mire of my twenty-one years in fundamentalism. But it’s exactly because of my past that I feel ethically obligated to speak out about this approach to atheism.

Simply put: no. You don’t oppose culture war by adopting the religious right’s tactics.

Let me tell you what it’s like to grow up in a culture that prioritizes evangelism.

You’ve been told, from your earliest years, that you have a mission. If you don’t carry out this mission to the best of your abilities then you let your community down–and you let the world down, too, because you’ve allowed them to wallow in terrible ignorance. Reluctance to evangelize is framed as unethical behavior. You’re lucky because you’ve found the Truth! You’ve got good news, so why wouldn’t you share it?

Every social interaction becomes an opportunity for evangelism. It becomes impossible to simply get to know a person for who they are. You’re not permitted to appreciate the differences between their perspective and yours because ultimately, they’re a project. If you establish a relationship, it’s solely for the purpose of changing their mind.

It’s a stifling and dehumanizing process, this project of establishing cultural hegemony. As a child and later as a young adult, I despised this aspect of religious life. I’ve always been opinionated, and I’ve never hesitated to act on my convictions. But there’s something about evangelism specifically that has always troubled me.

I think it’s the implied arrogance. Evangelism is deeply rooted in cultural hierarchy. You can’t evangelize unless you’re convinced, despite your human frailty, that you’ve isolated and quantified the Truth. And by Truth, I mean a comprehensive worldview.

So I experience a visceral reaction when atheists promote evangelism, and this reaction is bolstered by my own research on the subject. I know the history of the missions movement. I know exactly how conducive the evangelistic spirit is to imperialism and therefore, I feel obligated to oppose it wherever I see it. This emphasis on rationality isn’t actually new; examine the history of colonialism and you’ll see this concept deployed in defence of imperialism time and time again. We’re making them better. They’re barbarians. They’re irrational and superstitious. They should be more like us.

Historically, of course, Christians made these statements in support of imperialism. But I am concerned when atheists adopt the same rhetoric because I don’t believe that it can be divorced from its close association with oppressive action.

I don’t want an atheist world. I want a cosmopolitan or pluralistic world. Based on my upbringing and my research, I’ve come to believe that pluralism is the best counter to oppression. That includes the oppression perpetuated by religious fundamentalists.

And what do we hate about religious fundamentalism? Intolerance. We despise its hatred for women, for sexual minorities, for the poor, for other religions, and for atheism, too. And we hate its arrogance. We steadfastly oppose its attempts to impose itself on everyone else–so why on earth would we adopt the same approach to atheism? Either we support freedom of thought, or we don’t.

Because I’m an atheist, I agree that it’s rational to disbelieve the existence of god. And because I’m an ex-fundamentalist, I agree that it’s important to criticize (and fight) religious fundamentalism.

But here’s the catch, atheists: atheism might be rational, but being one doesn’t mean that overall you’re a rational person. It means that you made one rational choice over the course of your lifetime. It doesn’t mean you’re an ethical person, either. So I find the idea that I’m supposed to spread atheism as a social good to be absurd. I do not want to exchange one oppressive cultural hierarchy for another, and that’s what evangelistic atheism asks me to do.

I hope that clarifies my position.

Post inspired by this article.
Theorists that influenced the views expressed in this post: Antonio Gramsci, Edward Said, Talal Asad, Kwame Appiah, Jurgen Habermas.

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5 thoughts on “Evangelistic Atheism? No Thanks.

  1. This really puts into words what I have thought about athiest evangelizing. I came from a ‘we’re better than you convert to be like us’ culture. I don’t want another.

  2. I also have a fundamentalist background, although mine occurred years ago and apart from my family and community of origin. I think I have some understanding of what you write about although I suspect that our experiences have substantial differences, too.

    I read the article that inspired your post and, based on the review of Boghossian’s book, I’ve come to the conclusion that many atheists don’t really understand religion as a personal, communal, historical, social, etc. etc. etc. human phenomenon. They just don’t. And some of them lapse into the very behavior and thinking patterns of the very people they criticize.

    OTH, what do you and/or others think of humanist or atheist groups that do, what I call, “outreach”. I do think there’s some truth to the Bible phrase of “hiding your light under a bushel” and all. I tend to favor at least some of it, but perhaps folks have different perspectives?

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