I sat in on an attempted proselytism the other day. It was in the chapel at the jail. One of the young women had been pontificating about how she didn’t really believe in God, but she figured there was probably a higher power that was orchestrating things down here. Life was mostly about merging with the energy of the universe and nature and discovering how everything’s connected and all religions basically say the same thing and that it’s all about love and peace (she said this after introducing the word “perping” to my lexicon and talking about how sometimes it’s just so much fun!). She was, in other words, a well-tutored member of the burgeoning SBNR (spiritual but not religious) category of the post-Christian West.
At any rate, another young woman was quite concerned to correct her views on these matters. She wanted to talk to her about Jesus, about reading the bible more, about salvation, about freedom. There was a lot of talking past one another and generalizing assumptions and no small amount of squirming for those listening in. I generally agreed with the girl who wanted to talk about Jesus, but I, too, found the scene uncomfortable. No, don’t say it like that… Ah, that’s going to be a dead end… Maybe you should soften or modify that a bit? On and on it went. I suspect there are few pastors less comfortable with proselytism than I am.
I went home and opened Facebook later that day. I saw a pretty much unending stream of proselytism—everything from specific ways of understanding and advocating for indigenous justice to the moral urgency of embracing climate change to the evils of anti-vaxxers to the immorality of understanding sexuality and identity in the wrong ways to the perils of being the wrong kind of soccer parent to how my leadership style might be failing the church to the wearisome binary antagonisms that pass for political discourse. In each case, there were sinners being condemned and good news being offered. There was one right way to think and there was outer darkness for those who did not conform.
Perhaps proselytism shouldn’t make me so uncomfortable. Everyone else seems cool with it…
(I say all this partially tongue-in-cheek. The world of social media—and particularly those who go to war over ideas there—is, obviously, not exactly a representative sample.)
A few weeks ago, CBC’s Ideas ran an interview with Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith about his new book Atheist Overreach. Smith points out the irony of a cultural moment where some of the most stridently moralistic discourse often emerges from those who claim to be atheists. They certainly don’t have a monopoly on moralizing—this is well traveled terrain for right wing religious folks, too—but the often-atheistic progressive left trades in moral absolutes just as eagerly as those whose views they despise. Smith isn’t convinced that this works very well. The question isn’t, “Can atheists be moral?” (of course they can!) but are their moral convictions and their beliefs that these are not just their own private opinions but public truth coherent? Can anything like an “inherent human right” be produced by naturalistic philosophy? Can a moral imperative be read off of nature? Can an unencumbered “is” ever produce a binding “ought?”
At one point, Smith pointed out an interesting and very timely conundrum. Those who are often most keen to (quite rightly, in my view) criticize and protest against the strong-man politics of leaders like Donald Trump have the fewest (coherent) moral resources from which to draw in their protest. If one is an atheist, what consistent moral responses are there to someone who, in essence, says, “Who cares about your moral convictions? You can have your opinions, certainly, but I don’t have to share them. I happen to think it’s fine to make fun of disabled people and express casual disdain for immigrants and trample recklessly over norms of truth and decency at will. And I have the power, so bugger off, thank you very much.”
In other words, what happens when someone acts like Nietzsche (the most consistent of atheists, in my view) was right—that without God, it really does all reduce to power games? We can talk about inherent human rights and dignity, we can talk about the centrality of truth and the moral duty of civility, we can express our conviction that the vulnerable and the poor and the weak ought to receive special care and attention, rather than being scapegoated. We can and we do, in fact, do all of these things, across the spectrum from morally zealous atheism to morally zealous religious belief. And this is good and necessary. Pushing back against people like Trump with incoherent moral resources is certainly far preferable to not pushing back at all.
But we should at least be honest that absent a robust conception of an Absolute Truth to lend normative force to these convictions, we are mostly just parasitically (and selectively) feeding off of religious morality.
Early in her career, Flannery O’Connor wrote a story called “The Barber.” It is, among other things, a parable about moral and political discourse. The main character, Rayber, is a college professor and a liberal who finds himself in a barbershop full of racist conservatives in the deep south. He sits there and endures an endless stream of vitriol and stupidity and insecurities and fears masquerading as arguments. Inwardly he fumes. He tries to push back here and there, but his responses are halting and ineffective, easily overwhelmed by ignorant bravado.
The barber tells Rayber to come back in a week with his best arguments to see if he can convince him that all the “Mother Hubbards” are right. Rayber takes him up on it. For a week, he crafts his best arguments, he writes them down, he practices them on his wife. He comes back to the barber shop armed with reason and eloquence, braced to do his moral duty.
The barber has almost forgotten about the whole thing. Rayber has to jog his memory about their deal even to get a hearing. The barber and the other patrons laugh and agree to listen to his “speech.” Rayber protests that it’s not really a “speech” as much as an opportunity for dialogue, to “discuss things sanely.” The men just guffaw and tell him to get on with things. He offers his speech. It feels like less than he had hoped it would be. It’s met with mockery and laughter—“I’ll be the first to vote for Boy Blue tomorrow morning!” Rayber seethes, particularly when he looks at George, the “colored boy” who cleans the floor and the basins of the barber shop.
The story ends with Rayber punching the barber in the mouth and the barber staring uncomprehendingly at his enraged customer. I don’t know what you gotta get so excited about… I said it was a fine speech.
I turned over the last page of the story, grimly chuckled, and thought “Well, that’s a good analogy for about 90% of the moralizing proselytism we see on Facebook every day. We yell and and mock and fume and seethe, each one of us flogged on by our moral absolutes, wherever we derive them from and however coherently we do so. And then, we do the equivalent of punch each other in the mouth and stare bewilderedly at those who can’t or won’t see what seems so obvious to us.