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.