Proselytism: So simple, even some atheists get it!



These days, it seems proselytism (2) is such a touchy subject. I often hear skeptics and atheists complaining about religious people trying to convince others of their beliefs. But, is it really proselytism that is the problem, or is it the sharing of your religion (often called evangelism in Christianity) that is their concern? If we give it a moments thought – which most apparently do not – it is easy to see that it is the latter. This ‘must see’ video by atheist Penn (Penn Jillette) of “Penn & Teller” shows very clearly that it isn’t proselytism in general that should be of concern. It should actually be expected!

Environmentalists, or even those who have a smidgen of concern for the environment, have no problem proselytizing about how and why we should protect the environment. Doctors have no problem proselytizing about ways we should eat and exercise to keep our bodies healthy. Tech-geeks have no problem proselytizing about which computer they believe is the better one.

I include that last example because it is probably a bit closer to what many today think about debating which religion is superior or correct (though computers are probably at least considered a more important topic to discuss). It is complex topic, therefore many don’t understand computers well enough to determine which might be better. Many think the debate is silly and that: a computer is a computer.

Worse still, a lot of people would consider it a closer analogy to religion if I had said it is like proselytizing about the clear superiority of chocolate ice cream over strawberry. They would say, that’s silly! That one is just a matter of taste! The general ignorance of religion today is so high that it is common to view religion as a matter of taste, often expressed as, “whatever works for you.”

Penn, refreshingly, understands religion well enough to get the importance of it. If you saw a truck bearing down on someone, friend or not, you’d have to hate them quite a lot, and forgo your duty to your fellow human to not let them know, if not push them out of the way! So many people can’t seem to understand this point. They criticize Christians for sharing their faith.(3) The response should be: how could a caring person NOT share their faith, especially the Christian?

The reason seems to be that people either don’t see it as important enough to be bothered with. Or, they believe it to be false information. This is like the  reaction a Green Peace advocate would likely get at the grocery store parking lot in a heavily Republican area. Some believe that trying to save the environment is pointless or detrimental (or at least have a problem with the way some environmental organizations are going about it), so they react negatively. Yet, that environmentalist knows better (or at least believes it to be the case) and takes the initiative to try and convince others of their view. Whether you agree or not, you would have to at least acknowledge their efforts are noble given their beliefs.

Now, of course, there is concern over someone being wrong in what they are proselytizing about. Sometimes that can even be dangerous. For example, people get in trouble for yelling fire in a crowded theatre if there is not a fire. People probably should get in trouble for trying to sell some medical solution which is proven to be ineffective, or worse, harmful. Yet I have seldom come across someone who is opposed to Christians proselytizing who is clear about this being the reason. Even less common is someone who opposes Christian proselytizing because they view it as harmful and can back up that assertion in a reasonable manner. It seems much more knee-jerk in my experience.

There can be inappropriate ways to proselytize. A great example might be that group of religious nuts protesting at the funerals of LGBT people.(4)  While the environment is worth being concerned about (5), some environmentalists have tried to share this message in ways which seem to defeat their purposes. I also have to wonder about some of the street preaching I run across, though some are convinced about doing so. There are certainly some gray areas about how to proselytize effectively and respectfully.

What is not gray though, is the hypocritical nature of most Christians, who on one hand say the Gospel message is the most important thing in the world, yet on the other, seldom share it with anyone, even their closest relationships.(6) Penn is absolutely right on this one! If you know something of critical importance to others, how could you NOT try to convince others of it? He is the type of atheist I wish I ran across more often. He has obviously thought through his position seriously, unlike so many today.


1. OK, before I get too many emails. . . yes, my title was a cheap play off of the Geico ‘caveman’ commercials. And NO, I am NOT trying to imply atheists are cavemen or unintelligent, etc. However, in my experience, a majority of atheists and skeptics I have encountered DO complain about the proselytizing nature of religion, especially Christianity.

2. “Proselytizing is the act of attempting to convert people to another opinion and, particularly, another religion.” from this Wikipedia article.

3. Or, is it a problem with the understanding of faith? See our articles on that subject ONE, TWO.

4. No matter how you feel about their base position being correct, I’m sorry, that is simply inappropriate, and ironically, quite un-Christian.

5. For a Christian following the Bible, it has to be important. It is part of the most basic mandate given to humanity in Genesis 1:26-28. We’re supposed to multiply (properly raise families) and ‘garden’ or care for the earth. Note that the same Hebrew word translated as ‘ruling’ or ‘having dominion over’ is used for God’s ruling over us and the universe.

6. Yes, nearly every Christian is a hypocrite on this point to some extent, as am I.

Image credit: Caveman by Imamon (cc, some rights reserved)

This article was first published at Copyright © 2012 All rights reserved.



DISCLAIMER: Blog entries made by individual authors reflect the views of the author and not necessarily the view of other CAA authors, or the official position of the group at large.
About Steve Wilkinson

Steve loves getting people excited about Christian apologetics (case-making); seeing the beauty and rationality of Christianity and the Christian worldview. He is a husband, father, and long-time tech geek. Steve is director/educator at and also a designer/consultant at cgWerks. He holds a MA in Theology (Interdisciplinary - Christianity, Church & Culture) from Regent College in Vancouver, B.C. Canada. You can follow Steve on Twitter @TilledSoil, connect with him/ on Facebook, or catch up with him/ on Google+.

  • Daniel

    And yet religious people tend to be shocked when atheists like me fire back at them. “How dare you criticize someone’s religion? It’s a very personal matter after all! Who are you to say their religion is a lie?”

    • Steve Wilkinson

      Hi Daniel,
      I think there are militant atheists (like Dawkins), and reasoned atheists, as well as more pluralistic ones, just like there are those categories of religious people as well.

      It is important in a diverse society to show tolerance towards others, so I commend you for that. However, be careful not to slip too far towards a view that it doesn’t matter, as Penn points out.

      So, I’d say it isn’t just a personal matter, and that some religions are lies, at least in part (they certainly all can’t be true). I think we can be critical, but maybe shouldn’t criticize, depending on what you mean by that.

      • Daniel

        “I think we can be critical, but maybe shouldn’t criticize.” What does that mean? Do you mean that we should think critically but just keep quiet about it?
        Religion is an idea and not essential to a person’s identity. I used to be an evangelical Christian, and now I’m not. It was a decision I made.
        I tend not to criticize people personally for being religious (with the exception of some religious leaders who tend to hoodwink people). But it’s more a case of telling people they are being bamboozled.

        • Steve Wilkinson

          No, not that we should keep quite about it, but more in our attitude and demeanor. Think critically, don’t put up with relativism, push back… but do so with grace and in love. So, I guess I agree with your closing statement, if that is really where a careful examination has taken you. If religions are false, it isn’t helpful to people to just leave them in ignorance about it. However, the opposite is true also, that if a particular religion is true, it’s probably the most important thing they could be convinced of, and the most costly for those with false ideas about it. It literally becomes unkind NOT to tell them (as unpopular as that idea is in our current culture).

          • Daniel

            I was brainwashed into Christianity from a very early age. Organized religion is very deliberate about grabbing impressionable children with propaganda.

            • Steve Wilkinson

              And secular worldviews aren’t? Someone is going to ‘brainwash’ them, the question is who. I’d rather it be the best and most accurate worldview.

              • Daniel

                No they aren’t. You see using evidence as opposed to catchy little songs.
                And if you think Christianity is the best and most accurate worldview then I’d like a sample of whatever you’re smoking. One side says the light we see from stars that are millions of light years away means that the universe is at least that old since we couldn’t otherwise see the light (and we know how quickly light travels). The other side says donkeys talk and men get swallowed up and stay inside giant fish for a few days and live to tell about it.

                According to Answers in Genesis, “the Bible is literally true and all science must conform to it.” But that’s a completely irrational way to look at the world. Shouldn’t we conform our beliefs to the scientific evidence instead of the other way around? If you try and do science with the a priori assumption that you already know the answers and there are certain types of evidence that you just won’t allow yourself to accept then what’s the point of scientific inquiry?

                • Steve Wilkinson

                  Daniel, I’m a Christian apologist…. do don’t you think I might just agree with you about using evidence as opposed to catchy little songs? And, you seriously think only one side uses catchy little songs, kids cartoons, school, entertainment, etc. to promote worldview? (Maybe I should have some of what YOU’RE smoking, but I like to keep my head clear.)

                  Christians can also believe that the light we see from millions of light years away means the universe is at least that old. But, we also believe, that yes, there is more to reality than our abilities are able to fully measure and put into test-tubes. If God can create the universe, and Jesus can raise from dead, then He can probably perform a miracle allowing a donkey to talk, or the human to understand the donkey, and keep a dude alive in a giant fish for three days, don’t you think?

                  re: “According to Answers in Genesis…”

                  Yea, I don’t agree with Answers in Genesis. Of course if the Bible is true, science will correspond with it. Making science conform to poor Biblical interpretation, however, is just silly.

                  We should conform our believes to the scientific evidence, only IF we’ve properly evaluated and interpreted that evidence. For example, we’re only recently starting to make corrections in biology because we got the whole idea of ‘Junk DNA’ wrong because of an atheistic worldview, rather than a theistic one. If science had paid attention to the ID folks, they’d have corrected this a number of years ago. (Yet, a number of leading biologists are still hanging on to the concept, saying it has to be junk, because otherwise it might undermine their paradigm.)

                  Having presuppositions isn’t what is dangerous…. it’s not realizing you do that is tragic.

                  • Daniel

                    “For example, we’re only recently starting to make corrections in biology because we got the whole idea of ‘Junk DNA’ wrong because of an atheistic worldview, rather than a theistic one. If science had paid attention to the ID folks, they’d have corrected this a number of years ago. (Yet, a number of leading biologists are still hanging on to the concept, saying it has to be junk, because otherwise it might undermine their paradigm.)”

                    Clearly you have nary a clue about how the scientific method works if this is what you think. Basically your argument here is, “God don’t make no junk” so any notion that there are some things in biology, physics, etc. without a purpose MUST be wrong.

                    We didn’t get ‘junk DNA’ wrong because of an atheistic worldview. We got it wrong because we didn’t have enough data to understand that this DNA really was useful. Do you know how we figured out we were wrong? It wasn’t “paying attention to the ID folks,” it was doing more science.

                    Science is a self-correcting enterprise. We understand that sometimes we get things wrong…we are humans, and we have limited information. And there was no revolt in the scientific community when someone found a purpose for what was believed to be ‘junk DNA.’ Instead, the response was, “Oh, I guess we learned something new. Great!”

                    That’s the beauty of the scientific method, as opposed to relying on religious texts. The scientific method is never so certain in its conclusions that it can’t be swayed by new information. But religion has those faults. Look at all the backlash from religious folks against the scientific discoveries of evolution and an old earth because these discoveries contradicted their worldview.

                    Remember, atheism is usually the result of science; science is not the result of atheism.