Monday, December 24, 2012


Personally, I like proselytization. I'm very much in the Penn Jillette school of atheists as far as that goes. If you sincerely believe I will suffer for all eternity if you don't convince me to put my trust in Jesus, you're kind of a dick if you don't at least make the attempt.[1]

That being said, as someone who has been handed religious literature from strangers on the street several times over the past few weeks, allow me to offer some free advice on the etiquette of proselytizing to nonbelievers. I don't mean to sound as if I am the height of politeness and good manners, but perhaps some words from someone who is at the receiving end of proselytization on a regular basis might help you, dear proselytizers, to avoid unpleasant and awkward experiences in the future.

First off, and please don't take this the wrong way, the confidence of many proselytizers borders on an arrogance which is very off-putting. This is not to say that confidence is itself a problem, but that people are more receptive to a bit of humility. Think of how interested you are in talking to hard atheists who seem 100% certain of their positions - or, if you're a political person, how much you want to discuss politics with someone who has never in their lives doubted the justice and perfection of their ideology. It's fine to be comfortable and confident in your position, but to give off vibes that you are divinely chosen to spread the Word ... well, it can make people ill-at-ease.

Second, and this ties in with the above point, if at any point you're telling the people you're distributing literature to that they are wrong to not believe or to have doubts or be unsure, take a step back and ask yourself if that's a helpful position to take. Personally, and your mileage may vary, I find statements of that nature simply set up unnecessary confrontation. Many of the people you proselytize to are already annoyed at what you're doing, and often are more than happy to interpret your statements in the most demeaning way possible. Don't give them that opportunity. Be as respectful as possible.

Third, and this might be just a pet peeve of mine, I encourage you to rephrase the do-you-know-where-you're-going-after-you-die line so many proselytizers seem so fond of using. I prefer "I'm just concerned about your eternal soul" - it sounds nicer and it doesn't expect an answer from us. If we question why you're handing us a strange pamphlet, just mention that you'd like us to read it and maybe reflect on it a bit. Again, if you're trying to do something nice for us, try to avoid confrontation as much as possible.

Finally, let us leave and go about our business when we're ready to do so. Generally people are not out and about because they'd like to enjoy a pleasant stroll downtown. On the last two occasions where people handed me religious literature, I had to get back to work from my break. Particularly that many people are uncomfortable talking to strangers about sensitive topics, giving us a way to leave politely - while still imparting your message - is important.[2]

None of this is to say that we will take what you have to say seriously - unless you come up with some empirical evidence for putting my trust in a higher power, forgive me for being a bit skeptical that you not only know such a power exists but know how said power wants us to live. But it will mean that we're significantly less irritated as we go about our day, and more well-disposed to listening to your arguments if it strikes our fancy.

A quick note regarding political proselytization: Don't. (At least, not with strangers in the street.) You're not out to save our souls; you aren't doing us a favour; you're wanting us to do a favour for you. Your motivations might still be pure: Perhaps you feel we're being unfairly regulated or that people's civil rights are being trampled or that we're destroying the environment or whatever, and you'd like us to Do Something, or at least sign a petition. But, frankly, I can't help but be annoyed by you. If for whatever reason you are possessed to spread the Word about the evils of fracking or whatever issue floats your boat, please just silently hand me some literature while I walk past.

[1] Of course, you're also committing a huge social faux pas by proselytizing, so many people will think you're a dick anyway. Bit of a catch-22.

[2] It's also why I prefer being given literature to  being given a small speech. It gives me the opportunity to read up about it at my leisure, which is both more convenient for me but also avoids as much confrontation as possible.


  1. One very notable thinker took those proselytizers surprisingly seriously. After the death of his friend Einstein, Kurt Gödel became a recluse and hardly spoke to anybody. But it seems this towering intellectual figure was not above arguing with religious fundamentalists (Jehovah's Witnesses, I think). When he died, copies of their Biblical commentaries were found amongst his books and papers – with Gödel's annotations in the margin.

  2. I welcome and support proselytizing in general, as long as it is not rude. This includes proselytizing by Atheists. There are many nations in the world that ban it, and these places reveal themselves to be brutal backwards places to do so.

  3. I am very curious as to your aversion to political proselytization. A lot of causes/petition drives are only really possible in a public venue and often it is difficult to reach enough signatures by going door to door.

    What would your thoughts be on an effective way to politically proselytize.

    1. Forgive me for taking so long to respond, but recently I've been thinking harder into the issue.

      I intend to write more about political prosetylization in a future post, but my short suggestion would be for political proselytizers to have some small doubt of the truth and rightness of their position. This might not apply to certain fundamental positions - general opposition to fascism, for example - but for most causes having some skepticism of your own position helps avoid confrontation.

      If someone collecting signatures or donations on a street corner does not allow for the possibility that their cause might be unnecessary, misguided, or even wrong, they risk getting into pointless confrontation with the people they are trying to convince.

  4. Well, that was a fun read! I may have lost a friend because I couldn't say to him that I embraced his Atheism. Not that it didn't seem like 99+% a rational concept, but at 100% it becomes another religious belief. At least to me.

    That's why I label myself (sometimes) as a Secular Christian, meaning, that as religions go I like what Jesus and the New Testament have to say. One nice thing about being 'secular' is that you can choose which religion portrays God in a way that you can appreciate.