Why I Think Proselytism is Wrong

I was so happy to see this outside the psychology department.

The whole controversy on our campus surrounding Cru and their “I Agree with Markwell” campaign has gotten me thinking about proselytism. (Proselytism, in case you don’t know, is just a fancy word for trying to convert people to another religion.)

In my view, proselytism is wrong.

I have two foundations for this view. One of them is my knowledge of psychology. Research in social psychology has confirmed, over and over again, that people are much more susceptible to peer pressure and manipulation than we’d like to believe. (For the sake of time and space, I’m not going to list studies here because I’m assuming most people have taken Psych 101 and have learned about them. But if you’re curious, ask, and I’ll send you a dozen.)

The success of dubious religious ventures like witch hunts and cults suggests that adding a spiritual element makes peer pressure even more potent. If people can be persuaded to do even such ridiculous and terrible things, how hard will it be to persuade them to take a pamphlet, give out their email address, come to church, donate money, gradually abandon the beliefs they’d had before?

This is especially harmful when it comes to non-Christians, who are a minority in the U.S. (and, in fact, in many other places). In many ways, it’s difficult enough as is to maintain your own beliefs and practices when the entire surrounding culture immerses you in another belief system. If you don’t believe me, talk to a Jewish kid at Christmastime. I still remember how indignant I felt when other kids got a big present from each of their extended family members and I got just one.

But in all seriousness, science typically shows that people are very suggestible. Proselytizing groups may claim that the only people who convert are people who really, genuinely, truly want to be Christians, I’m not so sure that you can always tell the difference between really, genuinely, truly wanting something, and being subtly manipulated into wanting that thing. And while I concede that Northwestern’s Cru chapter represents only the mildest, most harmless form of proselytism, I oppose any action that implies that you, the proselytizer, know better than everyone else.

Which brings me right to my next point. The second foundation for my opposition to proselytism is my moral code. I believe that, with a few exceptions, we have no right to try to alter the beliefs of others. I place religion on the same plane as several other areas of human experience, such as sexuality–things that are personal and that have no impact on anyone but ourselves. For instance, would you ever attempt to convince someone to have sex the way you have sex? I would hope not. So why would you attempt to convince them to believe the things you believe?

I obviously don’t think that all forms of persuasion are wrong. Arguing about politics is valuable and important because political decisions affect all of us. Influencing people’s purchasing decisions via marketing is necessary for our economy to work. If done sensitively, talking to someone who seems to be making a harmful decision about their career, relationships, etc. could be very helpful.

But ultimately, a person’s inner life belongs to them alone, and most people value that inner life and resent attempts to intrude upon it. I think intruding upon it is wrong.

Now, as a disclaimer, I’m not saying that mine is the best moral code in the world and that everyone should adopt it and that people who do not adopt it are Bad. If I thought that, it would make me no better than the Markwell people.

But I do think that we’d have less conflict in our society if people lived by a code such as this one, and it works for me because it helps me feel like I’m treating others with respect.

Is this moral code completely incompatible with evangelical Christianity? Yes. Christians and others who proselytize genuinely believe that others need to be saved/brought to Jesus/what have you, or else they’ll go to hell. However, it’s important to note that this brand of Christianity is incompatible with all other belief systems, including most Christian ones. In this brand of Christianity, only two types of people exist in the world: good Christians and people who haven’t been converted yet.

And before anyone goes all First Amendment on me, note that I would never suggest that proselytism should be illegal. After all, it’s a form of free speech. Laws have nothing to do with my argument.

After all, not everything that’s legal is right. It’s perfectly legal to spread rumors, use the n-word, and cheat on your partner. And yet these are things that we almost universally agree are wrong. Why? Because they hurt others.

Proselytism may not hurt in the same way that getting cheated on does, but it hurts in a more insidious way. It erodes minority traditions and belief systems and destroys trust between different religious groups.

For instance, if you ask Northwestern students whether or not they’d be willing to engage with Cru in any way, many of them will now tell you no. It’s not hard to figure out why: Cru members made their condescension and disrespect for others’ faith blatant when they expressed their wish to convert us all to Christianity. (In fact, this whole episode inspired me to join Northwestern’s chapter of the Secular Student Alliance. Apparently I’m not the only one.)

The various forms of backlash that “I Agree with Markwell” has inspired, much of which has taken on a deeply anti-Christian tone, only proves my point. While I obviously don’t condone insulting people or their religious beliefs and wish that people would be more civil, I’m not surprised that so many Northwestern students are so annoyed and angry at Cru. After all, they basically told us that we’re going to hell. Their proselytism has, in a way, torn this campus apart.

I don’t think that my moral code is one that will ever be adopted by our majority-Christian society. But I do think that the world would be a better place if people learned to leave each other alone. You may disagree.

We’re Not Lost: An Open Letter to Campus Crusade for Christ

Northwestern’s chapter of Campus Crusade for Christ, an evangelical Christian organization otherwise known as Cru, has an edgy new campaign.

It’s called “I Agree with Markwell” and consists of the following: students wearing bright orange shirts that say “I Agree with Markwell,” covering the campus with chalk writing and posters that say “I Agree with Markwell,” and making videos in which they explain why they agree with Markwell.

Who’s Markwell? He’s a senior here at Northwestern who was asked by Cru to be the face, so to speak, of this campaign. His first name is Matthew.

The purpose of the campaign is ostensibly to convince people that, like Markwell, they too can have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. And the way to do this is by placing this quizzical phrase all over campus so that people will be compelled to look it up and find out what it’s all about.

Once they find themselves on the campaign’s website, they’ll learn a bit more about Markwell’s beliefs:

I believe in God. Not just any god, but the God who loves us more than we can imagine. I believe all people are sinful, messed up, jacked up, broken, whatever you want to call it. We intentionally rebel against God and choose to do our own thing, separating us from God and leading us toward death.

Well then.

As someone who vacillates between Judaism and agnosticism, I can say that this is definitively against my beliefs and I find it disempowering, depressing, and completely contrary to what I believe human nature to be.

However, that’s just my belief, and both Markwell and I are entitled to our own beliefs. And if that were all there was to it, I wouldn’t be writing this blog post right now.

The reason I am writing this blog post is because our campus magazine interviewed Markwell about this campaign. Here’s what he had to say:

When I see people here at Northwestern who don’t believe in God, I see them as lost, and that’s not probably how they would identify themselves. But from this side looking out, the best thing I can do to care for people is to show them why I believe what I believe. If anybody were to step into our shoes — step into my shoes — and see the people at Northwestern the way that I see them, then I think that the most loving thing you could do in that scenario is tell them about this opportunity to know the God of the Universe.

So, to rephrase: Markwell sees it as his loving duty to help us all find our way to Christ, because otherwise we’re “lost.”

Now, nothing I’m saying here is meant to apply to most Christians, because I’m hoping that most of them don’t see us non-Christians this way. But those Christians who do insist on proselytizing in such intrusive and condescending ways need to realize that, not only are they completely failing at being decent human beings, but they’re also pushing away the very people they’re trying to reach out to.

Cru is pretty well-known for their invasive tactics. As soon as I posted about this on Facebook, several Christian friends pointed out that they disagree with Cru. One said:

I remember last year they were handing out surveys and if you filled it out they gave you Play-Doh. And being a naive freshman, I was like “Yay! Play-Doh!” Little did I know they would use the information I gave them to show up at my door unannounced and harass me. While I was slightly creeped out, I actually kind of liked what they had to say and I was exploring my religious beliefs so I agreed to go out to coffee with this girl and talk some more. But after I did that she just kept calling me and texting me and emailing me and I tried to be polite by just telling her I was busy but she wouldn’t take the hint. If they really want to spread their message, this is not the way to do it. And they need to accept that not everyone is going to share their beliefs and that that’s okay.

Cru also realizes that people wouldn’t actually check out this campaign if they knew off the bat that it was about Christianity. From the NBN article:

The Christian faith is pretty well-known…[s]o if people just see a bunch of people wearing shirts that say ‘I Agree with Jesus’ then we probably won’t get as many conversations as ‘I Agree with Markwell’ and ‘Who is Markwell and why do you agree with him?’

Does anyone know why that is? It’s because people tend to already know whether they’re interested in Christianity or not. So tricking them into going to this website to learn more about it seems a bit disingenuous to me.

Supporters of the Markwell campaign attest that it’s their right to express their beliefs, just as I’m expressing mine right now. They say that their belief that we’re “lost” is equivalent to our belief that we’re not.

But it’s not the same at all. Because our beliefs about not being lost concern only us, whereas Markwell’s beliefs about us being lost concern someone else. Someone else who may want absolutely nothing to do with Jesus.

These supporters also pull out the argument that we’re just getting offended because they’re expressing those beliefs, which they have the right to do. But this campaign isn’t offensive to us because it’s religious. It’s offensive to us because it’s telling us that we don’t have the capability to choose our own beliefs, for ourselves. It’s offensive because it refuses to acknowledge that not everyone must believe in Jesus.

It’s telling that the organization sponsoring this campaign has the word “crusade” in its name. (Granted, it’s tried to rebrand itself as “Cru” to escape that.) I’m not suggesting that Cru is in any way equivalent to the actual Crusades, but I don’t think the use of that word was arbitrary. I think it says something about how much–or rather, how little–the members of this organization understand the fact different people choose different beliefs for a reason.

And no, that reason is not because we’re “rebelling against God.”

I don’t agree with Markwell. We’re not lost. We’re not “sinful, messed up, jacked up, broken” either. We just don’t believe in Jesus Christ. Can Markwell please get over that?

Edit 4/18: Here is a response to this post from a Cru member, and here is a post from an awesome friend of mine.

My opinion is not a personal insult to you.

[Snark Warning]

It never ceases to amaze me how the act of expressing an opinion opens you up to the most outlandish assumptions about your personality.

Good girls, I know, don’t blog. Or at least, they don’t blog about anything substantial, and they definitely don’t do it using their real names.

Blogging about your personal life is okay, although then you’ll get derided for making your diary public. Posting photos of your friends, family, pets, and outfits, posting recipes and craft projects, posting favorite song lyrics–all of that is okay, if irrelevant.

But when you start blogging about Issues–those things you aren’t supposed to discuss at a dinner party or with your boss–that’s when things get dicey.

A few weeks ago I interviewed for a position on the executive board of the sexual health peer education group I’m involved with on campus. I’ve been involved with it since my freshman year, and now I was interviewing for a position that would put me in charge of, among other things, doing outreach to sororities on campus.

At the interview, they asked me about my blog. Specifically, they mentioned that I’ve expressed the fact that I dislike the Greek system, and wanted to know, wouldn’t that affect my ability to do this job?

Honestly, I was completely flummoxed by this question. Because I disagree with the Greek system, I’m incapable of interacting with sorority women? Because I disagree with the Greek system, I’m unwilling to present educational programs at sorority houses? Because I disagree with the Greek system, I don’t care about sexual assault in the Greek community and don’t want to start an initiative to help prevent it?

I must’ve produced an acceptable response because I got the position. But the experience made me realize how naive I’d been, in a way. I thought that people would take my writing for what it is–ideological positions for which I (usually) provide sound reasoning. I didn’t realize that they would take it and extrapolate from it beliefs and character traits that I do not have.

Disliking the Greek system doesn’t affect my ability to create an outreach program for sororities. It doesn’t affect my ability to empathize with individual women who happen to be sorority members. It doesn’t affect my ability to do anything. It’s just an opinion. Not a personal attack on anyone. An opinion.

The only thing it could possibly affect is other people’s opinions of me. Other people may read about my opinions and take them personally. They may assume that I don’t like them–personally. They may assume that I’m a callous person.

But these are their problems, not mine. If they’ve never learned not to make assumptions about others, I’m not taking responsibility for that. And I’m not going to stop writing, or “tone it down,” for the sake of someone else’s comfort.

I love writing, and I specifically love writing about Issues. It’s my way of leaving my mark on the world, and, hopefully, of leaving the world a better place than I found it.

Other people find other ways of doing this. They volunteer, play music, do scientific research, start businesses, make art, get into politics, whatever. I write.

My greatest fear right now–aside from perhaps that I won’t get into graduate school and will end up living in a cardboard box, or that I’ll never get married and will end up living in that cardboard box alone–is that I’ll have to stop writing when I start my Career.

Why would I have to stop writing?

Because of other people’s unfounded assumptions about what my writing says about my character.

Because in the culture we’ve created, you can get fired from your day job for what you write on your blog, using your internet connection, in your home, on your time.

Because good girls are sweet and sensitive, and never express opinions that might offend someone.

Because people haven’t learned that others’ opinions are not personal attacks on them.

A Handy List of Ludicrous Anti-Abortion Legislation

For your reference. I’ll try to update this as needed. Read the linked articles for more information about these bills and why they are so harmful.

  • Oklahoma State Bill 1433–defines a fertilized egg as a “person” and seeks to extend human rights to said “persons”; conflicts with Roe v. Wade.
  • Georgia House Bill 954–bans all abortions after 20 weeks, even in cases of rape and incest, unless the woman’s life or health was threatened (this last exception was only added later); also conflicts with Roe v. Wade; this is the bill that a George state rep defended by comparing women to lifestock.
  • Mississippi House Bill 1390–would close the state’s last remaining abortion clinic on a technicality to “prevent back-room abortions.”
  • Arizona House Bill 2036–bans all abortions after 20 weeks because, according to lawmakers, that’s when fetuses begin to feel pain (which is false); conflicts with Roe v. Wade; defines fetal age as beginning at fertilization–up to two weeks before a woman’s last period, which is how fetal age is usually calculated. So really, it’s after 18 weeks, not after 20 weeks like the other dumb bills.
  • Mississippi Senate Bill 2771would make all abortions performed after a fetal heartbeat can be detected illegal; doctors who perform such abortions could serve up to 30 years in prison. Women seeking abortions would be forced to undergo an invasive transvaginal ultrasound to check for a heartbeat, which can be detected just 6 weeks after gestation.
  • Alabama Senate Bill 12–would have mandated all women seeking abortions, even victims of rape and incest, to undergo a transvaginal ultrasound and view the image. Why? To help “a mother to understand that a live baby is inside her body.”
  • Virginia House Bill 62–slashes state funding for low-income women who are pregnant with complications and need abortions.
  • Arizona Senate Bill 1359–allows doctors to withhold information from pregnant women that may cause them to seek an abortion (such as fetal abnormalities) by shielding them from potential lawsuits.
  • Kansas House Bill 2598–same as above, plus a bunch of other restrictions for good measure.
  • H.R. 2299–would prevent women under 18 from crossing state lines to get an abortion without their parents’ consent.
  • Tennessee House Bill 3808–would create an online list of the names and addresses of all abortion doctors. Not insignificant given the recent bombing of a Planned Parenthood clinic in Wisconsin.

One note–I’ve chosen not to attempt to find updated information on how these bills did in HRs and Senates, first of all because that would take all of my time, and second because that’s not the point. Some of these bills passed, some of them are still being deliberated. Point is, none of them should’ve made it onto the floor to begin with.

Another note–I stopped writing this post not because I was unable to find any more bills, but because I just got tired and sad from looking at them.

A Sacrifice They’re Willing to Make: Mississippi’s War on Abortion

The last remaining abortion clinic in Mississippi is perilously close to shutting down thanks to a new proposed law, Mississippi House Bill 1390. The law would require that all doctors performing abortions be board-certified in obstetrics and gynecology (reasonable), and that they also have admitting privileges at a local hospital (not so reasonable).

The reason that’s not so reasonable is because Jackson, Mississippi, home of the besieged abortion clinic, has two hospitals with Christian affiliations, and any hospital can refuse to grant admitting privileges to a physician for any ol’ reason, such as that said physician is a godless heathen who wants to help women murder their unborn fetuses babies.

To make it even better, the law would give the clinic’s physicians (all of whom are board-certified OB/GYNs but only one of whom has admitting privileges) less than two months to acquire them. As Evan McMurry writes at PoliticOlogy, “This is part of the pro-life’s recent death-by-a-thousand cuts tactic: if they can’t overturn Roe v Wade outright, they’ll make accessing and performing abortions so onerous that the practice will be effectively impossible.”

But of course, as it usually is with these laws, things get even more ridiculous. From the HuffPo article:

The State Senate voted to pass the bill Wednesday, but it was held for further debate on Thursday, when lawmakers had an odd exchange over the bill on the Senate floor. Sen. Kenny Wayne Jones (D-Canton) asked Sen. Dean Kirby (R-Pearl), who chairs the Senate Public Health Committee, whether ending abortions in the state would force women to resort to dangerous, back-alley abortions.

“That’s what we’re trying to stop here, the coat-hanger abortions,” Kirby replied, in reference to the abortions provided at the clinic in Jackson. “The purpose of this bill is to stop back-room abortions.”

Okay, first of all. No reputable doctor performs abortions with a coat hanger. In fact, I’m just going to go out on a limb and amend my statement to say, No doctor performs abortions with a coat hanger.

All of the physicians in question are board-certified in obstetrics and gynecology–a certification that I’m pretty sure Senator Dean Kirby does not have.

Incidentally, you know when dangerous abortions do actually happen? When abortion is made illegal. Research invariably shows this. (I know, I know, Republicans don’t believe in science anyway, but it was worth a shot.)

The truth is that making something illegal, especially if that thing is considered absolutely necessary by many people, does not mean it won’t happen anymore. It just means that it’ll happen out of sight, and therefore without regulation. This is why countries that are more progressive than ours are starting to experiment with drug decriminalization, but that’s a whole other topic.

Drug policy is a different ballgame because, while there are many psychological and societal factors that may lead people to become addicted to drugs, most of us can agree that nobody needs illegal drugs in order to have a decent life. Abortion is another matter, however. Unless conservative lawmakers are willing to provide comprehensive sex education and low-cost (or free) birth control (not to mention end sexual assault), there may not be a way to eliminate the need for abortion. For instance, from a comment on the HuffPo article I linked to:

I live in Mississippi. Yesterday I taught classes in the poorest part of the Delta to pregnant or parenting teens on parenting skills. I would much rather teach classes to teens about safe, effective birth control. The state won’t let me. It doesn’t matter how many facts or statistics I roll out…nobody listens. I am frustrated beyond belief.

So that’s what we’ve got.

Anyway, because politicians in states like Mississippi refuse to provide the resources to prevent abortion from becoming necessary, they must face the fact that women are going to get them whether they’re legal or not. But they don’t face this fact.

In the quote from Senator Kirby, which I provided above, he states that his purpose in making abortion unattainable in Mississippi is to prevent women from having dangerous abortions. So basically, his argument is this: we’re going to restrict women’s access to a safe, standard medical procedure in order to prevent them from obtaining the potentially dangerous, unregulated version of that procedure, despite the fact that restricting the safe thing actually leads to an increase in the use of the dangerous thing.

Kirby’s reasoning makes such a mockery of logic and common sense that I had to read the original quote several times before I understood it.

Mississippi’s Republican governor, Phil Bryant, had this to say about the proposed law: “This legislation is an important step in strengthening abortion regulations and protecting the health and safety of women. As governor, I will continue to work to make Mississippi abortion-free.”

Wait a minute. First he wants to merely “strengthen” abortion regulations. But then he says he wants to “make Mississippi abortion-free.” That should convince anyone who wasn’t already convinced that this law has absolutely nothing to do with making sure that abortions are performed safely. Rather, it has everything to do with making Mississippi “abortion-free.”

That’s right, he didn’t even try to pretend this was about women’s safety.

In my opinion, the fact that criminalizing abortion leads to dangerous back-alley abortions is the strongest argument for keeping abortion legal. It’s the strongest argument because it doesn’t lean on emotion or ideology. We can argue left and right about when life begins and when fetuses feel pain and whether or not women have the right to choose what to do with their bodies (hint: yes), but we cannot argue with the preponderance of evidence that shows that criminalizing abortion does not prevent abortion. It merely makes it dangerous.

Pro-lifers’ continued refusal to accept this argument says one or both of these things about them:

1. They are unwilling or incapable of accepting and understanding basic facts about economics and decision-making. That is, despite all the evidence showing the negative consequences of the criminalization of abortion, these politicians (and voters) continue to believe that banning abortion would plunge us all into Fun Happy No-Killing-Babies Land.

2. They understand these facts, but just don’t care. This is undoubtedly the worse alternative, because it means that the pain, injury, and even potential death that will come to women who try to obtain illegal abortions are, to borrow from Shrek‘s Lord Farquad, a sacrifice that Republicans are willing to make.

So, ignorance or malice? Take your pick.