Proselytism and “The Deep Slumber of a Decided Opinion”
I just sent off a review of Elmer Thiessens’s The Ethics of Evangelism and find myself with proselytizing on the brain. Despite the fact that I was largely persuaded by Thiessen’s argument that ethical proselytizing is not only possible but, in a qualified sense, obligatory, I’m still a bit suspicious of the word “proselytize.” I don’t quite know why. Perhaps I don’t like the way it is often used or the images it conjures up of eager missionaries eager to add another convert to their checklist. Perhaps the word has somehow picked up the connotation of objectifying and people and treating them as means rather than ends (to borrow Kantian language). Perhaps I just don’t like the way the word sounds. I don’t know.
I probably also don’t like the word because I was never very interested in or good at it—at least as I understood the term. For me, it was an inescapably confrontative, obnoxious, and self-righteous activity that I wanted no part of. I hated going to churchy events and coming away feeling guilty that I hadn’t “shared my faith” with anyone that week. I had precisely zero desire to manipulate conversations with friends in order to bring Jesus into the picture. I didn’t really want to convert anyone, truth be told. I probably wasn’t sure or confident enough in what I believed to want to share it, and I certainly didn’t need the perceived weight of failing to do my religious duty piled on to what was, perhaps, a rather wobbly worldview-in-formation.
However justified or unjustified my apprehensions and insecurities around the term might be, I appreciated Thiessen’s book for, among other things, challenging my gut-level reaction against the word “proselytism.” I like it that he roots the practice of proselytism in the dignity of human beings and in their unquenchable thirst for and pursuit of truth. To attempt to persuade our neighbours of anything is to pay them the compliment of considering them worth “converting.” It is to participate in the basic reality that as human beings we are social creatures whose beliefs and practices are negotiated together. It is also to assume that our neighbours are free, rational, and moral creatures, who are capable of understanding and embracing what we are convinced is true, good, and beautiful (even if it turns out that we are mistaken about this) and that we, in turn, have the same capacities and obligations to be open to their conceptions of the same. It is to be convinced that the shared pursuit of what is true is good for us as a collective whole.
This is well illustrated, I think, in a passage from Thiessen’s book which borrows from the thought of John Stuart Mill:
The institution of proselytizing is of benefit to humankind, says Mill, because without such proselytizing, human beings may be deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth. To silence the proselytizer because he or she may be in error is to make the very questionable assumption of infallibility, according to Mill. Even if the proselytizer is propagating false beliefs, society as a whole still has much to gain by allowing such propagation, because the propagation of error stimulates thought and discussion, without which individuals and society as a whole are in danger of falling into “the deep slumber of a decided opinion.”
Society as a whole has something to gain by allowing proselytism! Imagine that…
Whatever we may think of the word “proselytism” and the benefits it may or may not entail, we simply can’t avoid the practice of persuasion. Whether in advertising or politics or conversation at the coffee shop or the medium of blogging (!), we are often either trying persuade others or are ourselves the objects of others’ attempts at persuasion. We are all proselytizers, in a sense, no matter how uncomfortable we may be with the term.