What do you do when you are handed a religious tract?

So I was eating lunch at Whole Foods and happily proof reading a paper on my ipad.  A man came over to me and said that since I was reading that (the ipad), he wanted to give me this (a seasonal/holly-berry thing that looked to be religion in disguise).  I really didn’t want to discuss anything just then, so I just said thank you, sort of smiled, and went back to work.

I’m not happy about that reaction, though I’m not sure quite why.  I think I left him somewhat deceived, since he might well have thought I was grateful.  Reflecting on this, I realized I don’t have a response I like for these not infrequent occasions.  I definitely don’t want to get in a discussion.

I’m now thinking that perhaps I should say something like, “Thank you, but no thank you.   I think you should keep it and give it to someone who would be much more interested in it than I am.”  And just refusing to explain.

Of course, we do have readers who are religious and who may find these encounters unproblematic.  But also any of us might find them presumptuous and intrusive, whether we’re religious or not.  I’m sure there are many other readings.  BUT WHAT DO YOU DO??

87 thoughts on “What do you do when you are handed a religious tract?

  1. You could just say, ‘I know your heart is in the right place, but I find this presumptuous and intrusive’. You might not add, ‘I don’t bother you while you’re eating and working to talk about [insert mereology, the internalism/externalism debate, satisficing consequentialism, problems having to do with deviant causal chains etc.], but if you keep it up, I might find where you live and start doing just that!’ (Alternatively–you could say, ‘I have this tract already, do you have the one that explains why God allows genocide?’)

  2. I really think that just about the only thing that can be done is a polite “no thanks” and a refusal of whatever they’re offering. If they’re insistent, then take it and place it in the recycle bin. My sense is that no matter what you say or do, you’ll neither encourage or discourage folks from continuing the activity. I think most of the people who hand out these tracts do it out of a sense of duty that is stronger than what the recipients say or think about it. The same is probably true of people who ask for money in urban areas, though it’s more a sense of necessity than duty.

    Just be glad you aren’t a smoker (if, in fact, you aren’t). Smokers have to loiter outside by the very nature of the activity and the laws surrounding it. They get way more of this stuff than folks sitting indoors.

  3. What does religion in disguise look like?

    In a sense, isn’t it the very nature of courtesy to leave people somewhat deceived? (Or, in some cases I suppose, leaving them in a position where they can pretend to be deceived, and you can pretend they’re not pretending).

    On the other hand, your proposed alternative can hardly be said to be particularly *dis*courteous, so if you feel better about that one for whatever reason, why not go with it next time.

    That said, I’m not understanding why you’re unhappy with the response you actually gave. I might think differently if the fellow were giving you something somewhat valuable and costly to him, rather than just a knick-knack that you happen to have no use for. In the case at hand, though, the possible good of the knick-knack finding its way into more appreciative hands is probably outweighed by the good of cheaply making the other person slightly happier and the good of the opportunity to practice being a cheerful receiver. Of course, that’s easier to say when you’re not actually on the spot!

    On a larger note, while it hardly seems blameworthy for someone to approach a fellow human being in a public place to offer a benign and trifling gesture, it’s been the case as long as there have been human beings, that we sometimes find even trifling interactions with our fellows to be presumptuous and intrusive – or tedious, or insolent, &c. I guess courtesy serves the good purpose, when we observe it, of keeping us from interacting with one another as harshly as we’re disposed to think they deserve (else, as Hamlet said, “who should ‘scape whipping?”).

  4. I take daily walks in an area where these encounters are relatively common. I just smile and say “no, but thank you.” I keep my hands at my sides, or on my book, and leave them holding the pamphlet.

    I’m afraid that if you mention your lack of interest, you may open the door to discussion of your “real” or “eternal” interests! The less said, the better, in these encounters.

    I do find these encounters annoying when they interrupt my reading, but not a problem when I’m walking or looking out the window over coffee. But my answer is always the same.

  5. You might mention something about not wanting to create unnecessary waste, so the person should give the pamphlet to someone else who will actually read it. This may be especially helpful when you are reading on your iPad since it saves paper. It’s worked for me while reading on my kindle on the train.

  6. Or you could just say, “Go away.” I find proselytizing deeply offensive, all the more so when I am clearly engaged in my own activity. It’s rather rude of someone to interrupt me when I am busy with my own concerns, to press her or his concerns on me. To hell with being polite when they have been so rude.

    I don’t like telemarketing calls either. It’s the same sort of activity.

  7. I don’t go around suggesting to people in a supermarket that they not buy junk food for their children or to young women that they not marry the guy whom they are with, since anyone as possessive as that guy is is likely to beat them after they wed or to people in a bookstore that they buy something worth reading instead of the dreck about astrology that they are about to purchase.

    So even if religious tracts are “for my own good” according to those who push them, I
    expect my right to go to hell to be respected.

    After all, it’s as hard to imagine that someone has never heard that Jesus Saves as it is that someone has never heard that smoking is not good for your health or that French fries contain cholesterol.

    Thus, the guy pushing the religious stuff is telling me something I already know and he should know that I already know it and that for some perverse reason, I choose to ignore the fact that Jesus Loves Me.

    When religious pushers approach me, I say “no thanks” very curtly. If they insist or persist, I can be so nasty that they will regret having met me.

  8. I’m a priest and I get handed religious pamphlets while I’m wearing clericals. My goal in those encounters is not to get sucked into a “whose way is better” discussion and be polite. Sometimes I wind up with the pamphlet, sometimes I don’t. All the pamphlets wind up in the garbage.

  9. I think CW’s “no but thanks” and Anne’s proposed reaction for next time are good ones: polite, firm, and as honest as need be. I always use Emkas’ strategy, though (explaining that I don’t want to create waste)–I suppose that is my way of sneaking in a little proselytizing myself about environmental conscientiousness (or depression-era-style compulsive anti-wastefulness, depending on your point of view).

    I wonder whether Deborah and S. Wallerstein would be equally offended if the proffered tract were, say, about an upcoming meeting for progressives to discuss the OWS movement, or perhaps one of those great graphics about income inequality produced by US Uncut. I suspect that what is offensive is not proselytizing per se, but the particular belief being promulgated. I’m a little chary about making arguments based on the idea that a pamphlet offer itself is rude; similar arguments have been made that the occupations “repress” local citizens’ “rights” to use Zucotti park, for example. Protest movements are by their nature disruptive; unfortunately, these evangelicals perceive themselves to be in their own protest movement, and within their worldview, as Matt Drabek notes, they are doing something that is a moral duty.

    Lastly, I just want to register my appreciation for Anne’s sensitive conscience; I recall her last Whole Foods centered anecdote about the black mother and child who weren’t participating in the (at the moment, at least) all-white gingerbread-house-making outside. In that instance, perhaps there was too little information to draw a conclusion, e.g., perhaps the child had been making gingerbread houses already or was planning to join in after lunch. But if a kind white female philosopher struck up a conversation with the pair, it might at least have done something to puncture any expectation of white racism that might have existed–and maybe put in a good plug for philosophy to boot. So I guess I am a little more on the interventionist side myself.

  10. V. Brandt:

    I dislike being proselytized, even by causes that I consider to be worthy. If I were reading a book or working in a Notebook, that someone interrumpted me with a leaflet for the OWS (actually, I don’t live in the U.S.) movement would irritate me. I know how to find information that I’m interested in all by myself in internet.

    I’ve co-managed two political campaigns. We handed out pamphlets, yes, but we never interrumpted anyone, not to my knowledge. It’s better, in my opinion, to set up a stand and let prospective voters approach you. Interrumpting someone who does not approach you is more likely to turn off an indecisive voter than to win a vote, I suspect.

    Finally, ecology dictates that we not waste paper handing out leaflets that most people throw in the trash.

  11. I’m also a bit mystified as to why this is offensive or intrusive. If the person just plops down and starts talking to you, that’s one thing. But offering you a pamphlet is pretty minor stuff – and kind of thing it seems we ought to put up with in a free society. Is it rude to be handed a PETA pamphlet when walking down the street? Doesn’t seem to be.

    The intentions also seem relevant. If, as in the case of evangelical Christianity, the person is concerned as to the future location of your eternal soul, it seems we ought to be grateful for his concern (if genuine). It’s about (at least what he takes to be) a very serious matter. Not quite dreck-reading or Pringle’s consumption.

    In such situations, I usually just say thanks, or to the “Have you heard the good news?”, I say “Yes”, without getting into my beliefs on the matter. Depending on my mood or what doing at the time, I will invite the person to sit down and talk it over. Given that the person seems to care deeply about it, and given the nature our profession, I feel a tinge of obligation to suggest why his beliefs may be in error.

  12. I agree with ajkreider that, if there is time, I tend to feel my own ethical/social obligation to try to engage, in the hopes that some point in the future an accumulation of observations and experiences might help the penny drop a bit sooner.

    S.W: thank you for explaining your personal stance; I can sympathize. (I just tend to feel invaded by a slightly different category of intrusions, namely, noisy ones: gun a motor cycle engine while I’m walking along the street and I get _really_ annoyed.) So proselytizing can be offensive to some people on its own, regardless of content. I’m still curious how you would answer the complaint of those who object to the occupations, on the grounds that _their_ rights (to eat lunch on a given bench, say, or to not have their view of trees obscured by protest signs) are being infringed.

    I see the wisdom and civility of letting people approach a table to seek their own information, as you did for your political campaigns. The approaches are presumably open-minded, if not already like-minded, and are less likely to suck up precious time and effort in contentious squabbles. But I think this rights-based/laissez-faire stance raises a larger question: in a society like ours (modern Western capitalist with internet saturation) how do we expose individual citizens to material from outside the echo chambers we all tend to inhabit? There have been a number of studies that conclude people tend to seek out information that confirms their beliefs; it’s been said that the reason Hitler was so successful is that about 80% of the content of his speeches confirmed what his audiences already believed. Is there no place, outside a university classroom, for exposing people to views and information they would neither normally encounter nor seek out?

    Please understand that I do not like religious proselytizing, and indeed most pamphleteers are not presenting any viewpoint I am interested in (there must be something about the method that appeals to a distinct segment of the population). But I have, on occasion, sitting in a nearby park in NYC with my dog, been approached by someone with information that I did value, e.g., about a community meeting having to do with changes proposed to the park. I would not have sought out such information because it would not have occurred to me to do so.


  13. There do seem to be a number of different types of people who do this. In Texas, unfortunately, there seems to be association between the more flamboyantly religious and bigotry, along with tendencies to vote for rather stupid men for high office. Further turning one off are people like the preacher, Joel Orstein, whom you might want to hear once. He’s in the long tradition of maintaining that if you really love annd honor God, you’ll do very well financially. He also is always smiling. But then he’s got a mega church in what used to be the sports arena the Houston Rockets played in. I think he’s getting a tv reality show.

    It often seems to me that the people who give these things to me are not among Orstein’s winners, and so I am hesitant to be too negative, but in this state they may also be carrying a gun. I am not too worried about getting gunned down in whole foods, but I do think it’s possible some of the people could be dangerous in other contexts.

    VB, thanks for your comment. You’ll perhaps know that I took the other whole foods post down. The question was so ill-defined that the discussion seemed to swirl about unproductively. But I might have been wrong there.

  14. Yes, I tend to take such approaches by pamphleteers as opportunities to reflect on the virtues. In giving any kind of polite response, I see myself as doing more than the person deserves. In some ways, to say “Thank you” is to give an unearned gift of pleasantry, conflict-avoidance, or recognition-respect that the other does not merit. (Having reflected more than necessary on such intrusive provisions of pamphlets, I am content with my conclusion that most of them do not respect me or care about my well-being nearly as much as they fancy themselves for being good-news-spreaders.) So my generosity to them is not a proportionate response to what is often their self-indulgent rudeness to me.

    I’m fine with this, however. I give many people things they don’t deserve. Likely many people do so for me every day, especially when I get a name wrong or say some dumb, blundering Americanism that I am not even aware of. I suspect I give more than I get. Aristotle might suggest that this is for the best, that virtue is not about expecting what’s going around to come around. (I think many commenters are right that the good-newsies are sometimes just flat-out wrong, so I am not really disagreeing with much here.)

  15. V. Brandt:

    I detest noises myself.

    As to the occupations, I don’t live in the U.S. and I’m not informed on the exact details, so I’ll give some general observations about protest movements.

    Any protest movement has to consider who they are trying to reach.

    For example, a group of strikers outside a factory aren’t trying to convince the factory owner, but to make his life difficult, to shut the factory down. They may not be interested in informing the general public at all.

    A group of civil rights demonstrators who sat down in a lunch-counter in a racist town were probably not trying to change the hearts and minds of the local racists, but to reach television viewers and newspaper readers thousands of miles away and to embarass the U.S. government and power elite, who in a situation of cold war did not want U.S. racism to be exposed to the world.

    Lots of protest movements are staged for the TV cameras, so that the local residents are bothered is not a key factor: they are collateral damage, so to speak.

    That is, I may stage a noisy demonstration which bothers and lowers the quality of life of a small group of people who live nearby in the name of a greater good, say, changing the relations of power which govern society.

    Of course, all protest movements have to calculate the possibility of a backlash, that they will bother or inconvenience enough people or scandalize enough TV viewers that far from being convinced or moved, people will turn against the movement.

    Finally, there is another protest situation: the masses in the street to show or make known their power. Examples, the demonstrations which led to the fall of the Berlin Wall, of the Sha of Iran, of the Tsar in Russia, of Mubarak in Egypt. In this case, we are not trying to convince: we are a force or a counter-power. If the troops don’t fire on us, we will overthrow the powers that be, we will make business as usual impossible.

    As to your questions about how one changes the basal opinions of others, it’s long hard work. It’s like psychotherapy: you have to work on the resistances, on the unconscious biases, on the unconscious values, on what people’s real beliefs are, on their sense of identiy. That takes patience and even a certain love for the other.

  16. I’m intrigued by the fact that several people have referred to the idea of being “interrupted” by others in public.

    With regard to public places, we used to think of interruption (and taught our children so) as applying chiefly to people who were already engaged in conversation, not just doing any thing (since presumably everyone in public is in the middle of doing *something*, even if it’s just thinking or getting to where they’re going). Nowadays, especially with the advent of i-Pads/Pods/Phones, people are increasingly carving out little “private” spaces in public, doing things that were formerly done in more private or dedicated spaces, like a place of business or a music hall or a home . Sometimes I look down the line of people waiting for a bus or train and it seems every single person is in his or her own world, reading an electronic device, sending a text message, or swaying subtly to some unheard melody flowing through a telltale little wire to their ear.

    I suspect that this phenomenon this has actually made people (or some people) more likely to regard the mere act of accosting someone in public as being an intrusion, which is kind of a shame. There’s a reason why we still refer to a park or a pavement as a public “forum”. Any ancient Roman knew you don’t go to the forum with the attitude that people “interrupting” you and your concerns by approaching you with their concerns is per se intrusive (though obviously it can be done uncivilly). Just because you are subjectively projecting your office, or your study, or a concert-hall, or what have you, into the forum (by working on your iPad, listening to your iPod, or whatnot) doesn’t mean you’re not still at the forum, of course; that’s just an illusion.

    I used to wonder why people I’d run across with so little sufferance for the society of strangers were out in public. I’ve come round to thinking that, for many of them, it’s partly because on some level, in their “bubbles”, they really didn’t think they were.

  17. This does not seem to be one of those times, however, Nemo. What the OP described was not an occasion for having little sufferance for strangers; after all, she wasn’t tossing her food every which way, or loudly yelling, herself. She went somewhere to eat, and to read while eating, hardly a new thing to do in a commercial space. But conducting oneself in a quiet way through a market or a lunch counter does not mean that one’s eating and reading are fair game for what is, indeed, interruption.

    I say all this with a great deal of sympathy for your general view, which is that as individuals are increasingly preoccupied with self-absorbing entertainments, they seem decreasingly skilled at basic public interaction. But there is nothing about conveying oneself through public spaces that actually requires one’s interactivity beyond minimal decency, especially when one is eating and reading. I suspect the example of the iPad may have complicated your reception of the anecdote, but here, I’m just guessing.

  18. Anne talks about different people who do this. I live in the Southeast. I find the person who is genuinely interested in my salvation much less of a bother than the loud lunch-time prayers I sometimes hear coming from nearby tables at local restaurants. This loud, showy sort of piety seems designed to draw exactly the sort of self-congratulatory attention that Kate is worried about. And I share her sentiments about that sort of thing. But the guy who honestly cares for my soul…. Frankly, I’m not too worried about it’s condition, but at least the guy cares.

    Nemo’s thoughts on the public have got me thinking too. I was reading in a local food place the other day. A family sat near me and their kids started to run around. The parents tried to shush them, but I told them not to worry about it. When I need to read in peace, I read at home or in my office. If I’m reading out in public, I don’t mind noise. This was a family sort of place, so I had no reason to expect it to be kid-free. This is not the same thing, however, as someone deliberately interrupting my reading. If I’ve got my nose in my book, I want to be left alone. But if I’m doing that in public, the noise is my problem, not theirs. But I see Nemo’s point. I’ll have to think a little more on this.

  19. Nemo:

    But here I am talking to you.

    You are my part of my public.

    My public no longer includes the person whom I am sitting next to.

    You and I integrate the same polis, although I have no idea what you look like or where you live.

    When I’m typing in my notebook, I’m connecting to the polis, albeit a virtual polis.

  20. @pbk, you make a fair point. I think you’re right about the iPad detail. I’m not sure what you were getting at about not tossing food or yelling; what I meant by sufferance for the *society* of strangers was acceptance of their personal social interactions with you (not merely observing them like they were animals at a wildlife park, which I sometimes tend to do, and not simply behaving civilly in their presence which may be more what you thought I meant; it wasn’t clear to me). I certainly wouldn’t disagree that there is anything new about going to eat and read at the forum, or that it is incumbent on anyone to have more interactivity in public than a minimum level required by courtesy. But that chiefly concerns the *response*; I’m now talking about whether simply being accosted as such, in the way the OP described for example, can properly be regarded as intrusive. Being accosted by other people seems to me one of the natural incidents of choosing to be at the forum – which, again, does not mean it must be appreciated, but does mean, I think, that it can’t be intrusive simply in itself, without more. If we take that to be another way of saying that a person quietly eating or reading by themselves in public *is* “fair game” for (civil) interruption, then I suppose you and I disagree there. The more I reflect on the meaning of the word “intrude”, the less intelligible it seems in this particular context.

    @s. wallerstein, you’re right in some sense of course. Though it says something about the rise of this form of interaction at the expense of others that we can describe it without a second thought as “here we are talking to each other” – when of course we are neither “here” nor talking. What we are engaging in at this moment is more a sophisticated form of graffiti (which the Romans also had in their forum, but I daresay they never imagined it would substitute for the social interactions that took place there).

  21. I always keep extra copies of Baggini’s “A Very Short Introduction to Atheism” and numerous copies of Sam Harris’s “An Atheist Manifesto” as well as his “Letter to a Christian Nation” in my house and in my briefcase. When I am offered a pamphlet of some sort (this typically happens very often in my neck of the woods), I offer the pamphleteer one of the books or the article. Typically, the person is quite surprised and, more often than not, does not wish to engage further. If they attempt to engage me I suggest that they read the book, then I return to what I am doing and they leave.

  22. There is a big difference between someone who is proselytizing in an attempt to convert you to their religion (usually some form of Christianity) and someone who is handing out a pamphlet on almost any other topic. The former cannot be separated from the long history of forcible conversions, cultural destructions, genocide, etc., all in the name of God and saving souls. So yes, I am far more offended and angered by any such attempts — about as angered as if someone handed me a KKK pamphlet. Attempted conversions are not innocuous.

    As for what I do — I usually ignore the person. I might say a cold “no thanks.” I am often tempted to throw it in the trash in front of them, but I’ve never actually done that, in part because it’s wasteful and in part because I find it difficult to be that activiely rude.

  23. ‘He’s in the long tradition of maintaining that if you really love annd honor God, you’ll do very well financially. He also is always smiling.

    ‘ I think he’s getting a tv reality show.’

    Can I just say how much I was amused by the near juxtaposition of these sentences.

  24. I think there is something very important going on here as well, though not necessarily for the author of this piece: presented in an aggressive or in a lovable way. The message (or love, salvation, etc) they bring might actually exclude the receiver. It definitely excludes me. So I normally say something like: “I really appreciate your concern, but you do not want to give this to me, because you do not believe I will ever reach heaven. I am a lesbian, and you do/your God does not like lesbians.” But well, you sort of have to be a lesbian to say that.

    But my point is that I do *not* mind being interrupted in public. As an activist I have done (and do) so myself often enough. It is also not the attempts to conversion that motivate my response. I want to make clear that in that interaction I am, normally, harmed: i think that very often it is a violent message. I will make explicit that the ‘messager’ excludes me and do not accept this message, i.e. this exclusion. And I am not willing to receive that message, so I give it back.

  25. Nomen, yes, that is a very important sort of harm that has been overlooked in this thread. Thank you for bringing it up.

    Perhaps you might now recognize that even if conversion is not a harm for you, it is a harm to those whose ancesters were persecuted or killed in the name of such conversions.

  26. I will sometimes say “I’m Catholic” even though I’m not. Apparently, Catholics are difficult to convert. It has been a successful deflective mechanism, especially at the door when some groups come knocking. Otherwise, I just say “no thank you.”

  27. @justanotherfemalephilosopher, I can’t figure out on what basis an attempt to encourage a non-forcible conversion cannot be separated from the “long history of forcible conversions” (whatever you conceive that history to be), or indeed from other things that may have been carried out purportedly (whether sincere otherwise) in the name of religion. Cannot be separated in what sense? – since there would seem to be some logically obvious senses in which they *can* be distinguished. Moreover, it’s not clear why this should be true of religion and not of any other kind of idea.

    @nomen nescio, how do you know that the message you won’t receive definitely excludes you? Doesn’t the originator of a message determine the scope and intended audience of the message? Is your standard response when people approach you with a message really to tell *them* what they do or don’t believe, or what their God does or doesn’t like?

  28. I’m religious and have no sympathy for this kind of proselytizing.

    First, it represents an intrusion. I don’t care whether people are pushing tracts, begging or just trying to open a friendly conversation: I don’t want that contact. In public when someone tries to beg me or open up a conversation, I pretend I don’t notice them or that I’m deaf. Some of the time I have earphones plugged in even when I’m not actually listening to anything in order to avoid contact. I just want to be private in public and don’t want to have to interact with strangers: it isn’t that I value what I’m doing in my bubble, whether reading, playing with my iPhone, etc; I don’t want interact and so I pretend to be occupied in order to avoid it.

    Secondly, these proselytizers and the tracts they push are an embarrassment that discredits religion. They invariably promote evangelical garbage Christianity—white trash religion. They give people the idea that this stinking shit is what Christianity is all about, and reflect adversely on me as a Christian.

  29. “At” Nemo: (Do you like to be talked at? I don’t. Yeah, it’s Twitter-speak. As though that were an excuse).

    “Cannot be separated” means that when someone tries to convert someone, they are engaging in an act that has a lot of baggage with it, and you can’t just strip that baggage away because you don’t think about it. Let me make an analogy. If someone paints a swastika on a door, that act might not itself seem like an act of violence. After all, it’s just painting. But it invokes everything that swastika stands for. Note that this is true even if the person who paints the swastika doesn’t fully understand the meaning behind it or intend any violence. The history is tied to the symbol, and everyone who knows that symbol and that history recognizes that, *especially* those whose families were subject to genocide. In the same way, when someone proselytizes their religion, the history of all the forcible conversions, cultural destructions, genocide, etc. go along with the act, even if the proselytizer doesn’t know about that history or doesn’t intend any harm. Those of us who do know that history are thus outraged by that action, or should be.

  30. Justanotherfemalephilosopher, by that reasoning I think we would be led to conclude that the act of encouraging someone to embrace a political viewpoint is an act that has a lot of baggage with it, because the the history of all the times political views were forced on people, the cultural destructions, the genocides, etc. carried out in the name of some or other political ideology or its imputed conception of the greater good, goes along with that act. Thus, those of us who know that history should be outraged at anyone trying to encourage us to come round to a different political viewpoint.

    Moreover, since the outrageousness of forced conversions arises precisely from the fact that they were not brought about in the kind of way the pamphleteer is attempting, it doesn’t seem to make much sense to invoke the former as a pretext for outrage at the latter.

    The swastika analogy seems shaky. I’m not fully clear on the correspondences one is supposed to draw. In that analogy, is Nazism supposed to be a stand-in for religion?

  31. No, the analogy is not between the views, Nazism to religion. The analogy is between certain types of actions with historical baggage: proselytizing of Christianity to painting a swastika. I’m not aware of any such baggage associated with encouraging someone to embrace a political viewpoint, or at least not any baggage of the same magnitude. That’s not to say that I am crazy about being approached with political messages either, even those I agree with. Our farmers’ market is rife with such approaches; I avoid them as best I can.

  32. About “baggage”—

    (1) Think about all the baggage carried by notions of ethnicity and “authenticity”: Herder’s romantic notions of the spirit of the Folk, Nazism, racism…That is serious baggage, yet we are continually bombarded with exhortations to promote ethnic and racial self-identification and authenticity, to deplore “passing” and assimilation, etc. It sets my teeth on edge but I recognize that the multiculturalism business—from “ethnic studies” to getting one’s genes done is harmless sentimentality even if it does carry all that racist baggage. Of course multiculturalism is acceptable in polite society whereas Christianity is now a class marker.

    (2) Why should we care about “baggage?” Oooo, this that or the other thing reminds you of something nasty. And you feel all tramatized. Well suck it up. At my kid’s college, a group that put on a Halloween party got into trouble for including a noose amongst the skulls, skeletons and other scary stuff. Why? Because it carried BAGGAGE—suggested the lynching of blacks in the South back in the early 20th Century. Even though no one realized it. Give me a break: this is bs. And skirmishes about these silly pseudo-symbolic issues play into the hands of conservatives who want to claim that minorities don’t have any real problems—not ongoing discrimination, not implicit bias, not economic disadvantage: they’re just upset about the décor at fraternity Halloween parties.

    (3) I’m sick of the anti-religious and, in particular, anti-Christian sentiment in Academia and, in particular, in our profession.

  33. Justanotherfemalephilosopher, if I correctly understood why you think there is negative baggage associated with religion, or more specifically with peaceable attempts to get people to willingly embrace a religious idea or ideology, it is essentially this: historically, great suffering has resulted when people have been forced to profess religious beliefs unwillingly, and cultural destructions and genocides have been carried out by people who justified them by reference to religious ideas, doctrines and goals.

    While that statement (after the colon above) is undeniably true, if you change “religion” and “religious” to “politics” and “political” in that statement, the statement is also true, so if I’ve correctly summarized the basis for the “baggage”, I don’t see how to avoid the conclusion that politics, or indeed the category of non-religious ideas generally, have just as much baggage as the category of religion or religious ideas. In fact, probably baggage of a greater magnitude, especially when we consider that some notorious abuses which their perpetrators cloaked in religious justification were really carried out for political or even base personal ends.

    What this suggests to me is that there is nothing special in this respect about religious, political or any other general category of ideas, but rather that the real baggage is humanity’s capacity for inhumanity and its willingness at least on occasion to rationalize its own worst instincts, including by reference to transcendent ideals (whether secular or religious) – regardless of how perverse that rationalization may be.

  34. It is true that all ideas have “baggage”.

    Any talk of socialism could remind some people of Stalin.

    George Bush 2 talked a lot about democracy and human rights, so we’d have to cross them off our list because of their baggage.

    Hitler was a vegetarian and a big believer in animal rights.

    Just about any term that refers to values has been misused or abused by someone some time in history. The number of crmes committed in the name of “love” exceeds the statistic for burnings by the Spanish Inquisition.

  35. S. Wallerstein, how true that is. In fact, since modern scholarship would lead us to believe that the Spanish Inquisition took 3 or 4 thousand lives or so over a couple of centuries, more people are probably killed every year in the name of “love” than were ever killed in autos-da-fe. Unfortunately, this sort of thing is obviously not completely behind us (leaving aside whether the SI should be viewed as essentially a political or a religious phenomenon); murderers in the name of religion managed, in a single slaughter on 9/11, to take a number of lives roughly comparable to the Si in its whole existence. But as you say, there’s hardly a significant belief, secular or religious, that doesn’t carry such “baggage”. it would be paralysing not to be able to distinguish the baggage from the ideas, and there’s no reasoned basis for singling out religious proselytising as such.

  36. I thought I was pretty darn clear that I was *not* talking about religion or politics or any *ideas*, but rather that I was talking about *actions*.

  37. Justanotherfemalephilosopher, sure, but on what basis are you distinguishing the action you think has baggage (handing out a religious pamphlet promoting a religious viewpoint) from actions you think doesn’t carry the same baggage (for example, handing out a secular pamphlet promoting a political viewpoint)?

  38. I’m really surprised at the sentiment. Sure, it’s annoying, but I don’t see anything wrong with initiating a conversation with someone in a public space, or handing out pamphlets. If I’m in a talking mood, I’ll talk with the person. If I’m not, I won’t. If the tract looks hilarious, I read it until I get bored. If it looks boring, I put it in one of my colleagues’ mailboxes. Most of these people have their heart in the right place; they really think they’re helping to save our souls for eternity. And some of them are too socially awkward to talk about it, so they have to resort to printed literature. Even after reading all these comments, I just don’t see why that’s so bad.

  39. hm, in the given situation i will say “NO, thank you” and continue doing what i was doing (no small-talk “why”. no discussion. indeed no contact that i do not wish to have.)
    dito e.g. walking down-town and s.o. trying to stop me by … (asking for donations, handing out papers etc.)

    (no, i was not “born this way”. in the past years i have been actively trying/struggling to re-program myself in the sense/concept of “active consent” in almost any given situation that concerns “my life” i.e. “healthy/boundaries are healthy”)

  40. @Angelika. Interesting. I was born this way. I tried to reprogram myself to be a normal friendly person–to smile, chat, be friendly. I was trying to get ordained and that’s what they wanted: a normal, friendly, people-oriented person. When I finally gave up after 7 years I was so stressed out that letting go was like shaking out a cramp. I realized what an agony it was. For an entire semester I could hardly bear teaching because of the acting job involved–smiling, chatting, being friendly to students. I’d let go and just felt like I never wanted to do the acting job again. After a few months I was ok–I can handle just enough acting to do the teaching job. But I will never, never do any more.

    And this is, I believe, a feminist issue. We are continually pushed to be “people persons,” to interact, be friendly, say we “want to work with people”–to be “caring” and interested in people. I spent a good deal of my life trying, trying, trying, trying to re-program myself, or at least to fake it convincingly, and I failed, was endlessly ashamed–feeling I was “sick,” abnormal, mentally ill. I am never going to to that again.

  41. Nemo, ok, let’s look at just one sort of proselytizing in more detail. Think about the Christian missionaries who went to other cultures to convert the “natives.” Surely they went with what they thought were good intentions — to “save souls,” to “civilize,” to “improve,” etc. But what happened, time and time again, was that cultures, languages, and ways of life were destroyed, often along with the self-esteem of the inhabitants. On the surface, this might just seem like unintentional bad consequences from a good intent.

    However, I think the supposedly good intent needs to be re-examined. The certainty of belief that would lead a missionary to do something like is sheer hubris. The belief that one is most certainly right and that others are wrong and need to be saved and changed is insulting and demeaning. I believe that anyone who proselytizes makes the same dangerous and offensive assumptions, and that they fail to recognize their kinship with what the missionaries did (or that they think the missionaries were doing the right thing!) is appalling.

    Now, you might say that if someone approaches an educated academic living in the U.S. (e.g., me), the same damage isn’t likely to occur, and you would be right. (Of course, not everyone is in that sort of position where they are confident enough to brush off such approaches, but I will set that aside). However, I do live in a culture where by default everyone is assumed to be Christian. This used to be largely implicit in people’s comments, but many in the Republican party have now made it explicit — the U.S. is a Christian country, founded on Christian values. So, to me, a proselytizer is one more person telling me that I am wrong and different, and that I need to change. That’s innocuous? That is well-intentioned? Hardly.

    Let me be clear. There is nothing what I have said above that is anti-Christian. Rather, it’s anti-proselytizing. It just happens that all of the proselytizers I experience are Christians. Perhaps other religions do it, too, and if so, it would be equally problematic.

    I do not think that you can tell anything like this story with people who seek to spread their political views. The certainty that one is right and others are horribly wrong, the desire to so fully change beliefs that are fundamental to one’s self-conception and being — no, I do not think those who pass out political pamphlets rise to that level, nor is there the history of harm to point to.

  42. Justanotherfemalephilosopher,

    What you say about Christian missionaries is undoubtedly true to some extent (though I’ve never read any studies of the effects of missionary presence on native self-esteem). However, I think you’re pinning consequences on the missionaries that were largely the result of non-missionary activity (colonization, displacement, military invasion, etc.); actions of the political powers and their agendas, not of missionaries.

    Indeed, there’s a strong argument that Christian missionaries often exercised a *mitigating* influence on these negative outcomes. For example, where missionaries were present they often were responsible for preserving languages (by learning them, translating books into them, and introducing literacy) that otherwise would have been lost as a result of colonization. It also was very commonly the case that missionaries became advocates for native populations against secular forces. And we must also bear in mind for the sake of accuracy that the eradication, replacement or transformation of a cultural practice is not, per se, a bad thing (it would be hard to think of the eradication of human sacrifice, infanticide, or suttee in those terms, for example). It would seem that religious proselytisation by Christian missionaries was no less pernicious, and probably a great deal less pernicious than non-specifically religious impositions of culture, government, and ideology by empires and other political forces throughout history.

    Though part of me wants to assent to your general proposition that “the belief that one is most certainly right and that others are wrong and need to be saved and changed is insulting and demeaning”, another part of my mind is stumbling over some fundamental difficulties that poses. Is there an epistemic duty not to hold a belief that is perceived as insulting and demeaning? What if the belief has warrant? What if it is (at least other than coincidentally) true? Is it still insulting and demeaning? If so, is it better to hold the belief or not? And does any of this matter if, per Plantiga and others, there are no epistemic duties because no one has control over what s/he believes?

    Most of the rest of your critique of the “missionary mentality” seems to move in the direction of the proposition that there are circumstances under which, if one believes to be true something with implications for human welfare, one should nevertheless refrain from acting as though it were true. This seems to me to be potentially a more dangerous assumption than any made by pamphleteers or missionaries.

    Moving to your last point, I think that the history of harm (the “baggage” you referred to) attached to the spread and imposition of not-specifically-religious ideologies (political, or what have you) is not only at least as extensive but also furnishes plenty of recent examples; s. wallerstein mentioned Soviet socialism a couple of comments above.

  43. Nemo,

    Effect of missionary presence on self-esteem: See Native Americans.

    On your view, it seems as though missionaries brought their superior ethics and practices to the indigenous peoples, thus improving their lives. And that their beliefs in an unobservable, all-powerful entity and an afterlife were epistemically justified, thus *compelling* them to share this life-saving and after-life-saving knowledge with others.

    Or perhaps I’ve stated that a bit more strongly than you would. However, if you believe anything remotely close to what I’ve said (and it seems to me that you do), then I think we have nothing further to discuss. You and I exist in entirely different worlds.

  44. Justanotherfemalephilosopher,

    I think this risks getting us off the point made by others and me that there does not seem to be any historical or other external basis for considering the ideological and other impositions, cultural destructions, genocides and so forth carried out in the name of religion to have resulted in more “baggage” than those carried out under other ideological or philosophical pretexts. You did not really address that except to (re-)state that you disagree with it. Nor did you actually take up any of the statements I made about missionaries, for example, to show that the statements were wrong. With regard to missionaries, I pointed out t$hat you might have been imputing to missionaries harms that more likely arose chiefly from colonization and military invasion for secular purposes, but you didn’t take that up either. So I am left somewhat in the dark as to why you think what you think.

    At the risk of keeping us off this central “baggage” question – because I don’t believe it depends on what one thinks of the warrant for religion or on the merits of particular ethical systems, etc. – I would ask the following, just to shed light on your comment:

    -Is it your position that no comparative judgments of the merits of different ethical views or cultural practices may be made, such that the supplanting of one by another is possibly preferable in a given case? Put another way, do you reject the idea that any ethics and practices disseminated by missionaries were preferable because you think it is categorically impossible that they were, or because it is simply contingently untrue in this historical case?
    -(Just to clarify.) It is your view that religious beliefs (not just of missionaries of course, but their co-religionists and others as well) are held by all of them without warrant or justification?
    -Do they have applicable epistemic duties, and if so, what?
    -Under what circumstances is it acceptable to act as though one’s belief is true?

  45. You can argue about which doctrines or programs carry more baggage, but I don’t see the relevance of “baggage” at all.

    Wagner was a proto-Nazi, responsible for a good deal of the racist mythology of the Third Reich. But we don’t boycott his music because of that baggage. Frege was an anti-Semite too and Russell treated women badly but I’m not giving up on logic. Heidigger was a Nazi collaborator but we should despise his work on independent grounds—not because of that “baggage.”

    I didn’t take part in the Crusades, the Inquisition or the Trial of Gallileo; I don’t support the anti-gay, anti-abortion, anti-sex, anti-science program of the Religious Right. But you’re telling me that Christianity, my religion, is unacceptable because of that “baggage” it carries. So how is this different from telling a Jew that they count as having killed Christ, even though they weren’t there in 1st Century Jerusalem, because of the baggage that their religion, or their ethnicity, carries?

  46. Fascinating, S.W. I am reminded of that 80’s film (haven’t seen it in a long time) The Mission, which was about Jesuit Reductions among the Guarani people, though I never knew so much about them until reading those Wikipedia articles you linked.

  47. Harriet B., I think we agree there about baggage. My point was more that if you start comparing “baggage” in the broad and tenuous sense that I thought it was being used, you quickly come to the conclusion that it is so ubiquitous that it can’t really function as a relevant consideration. Thus my comment way back in #28 that not only *can* you separate actions and ideas from such “baggage”, but that you ought to separate them. That particular kind of baggage does not lead to any useful assessments about the things to which it is purportedly attached.

  48. HB, but you already said that you didn’t proselytize. As I have said repeatedly (to no avail), my argument is against proselytizing, not against what people believe and practice. I have no objection to people’s personal beliefs and practices.

  49. I did not say that I didn’t proselytize–I said I detest Evangelicals. I most certainly do proselytize to the best of my ability, and support proselytization, for the right kind of religion. Namely mine.

  50. HB, thank you for the clarification. I would still say that I have not claimed that “Christianity… is unacceptable,” unless you think that proselytization is an essential part of Christianity (a point on which many Christians would disagree, I think).

  51. Justanotherfemalephilosopher, i think the reasons your emphasis on separating beliefs/practices from proselytising has been unavailing are twofold.

    First, you are treating the subset of religious proselytising differently from other kinds of proselytising (anyone who tries to advocate or promote a viewpoint or cause with the goal of bringing people’s opinion around to it is proselytising). You indicated said that you find the act of handing out a religious pamphlet to be different from the act of handing out a non-religious pamphlet (even though you may not particularly like either act). Yet there does not appear to be any reasoned basis for that generally different treatment *that is not content-based*. This tends to undermine your assurances both that you are taking issue with actions rather than ideas, and that you are not, at the end of the day, objecting to anyone’s religious beliefs.

    Second, the distinction between beliefs/practices and proselytising is a problematic one to draw. For one thing, proselytising is a practice, and religious proselytising is a religious practice. For Christians, whose religious founder was, unsurprisingly, a proselytiser par excellence and who directed his followers to follow that example, it’s also a fairly central belief (in Christianity it’s known as the “Great Commission” of Jesus, Wikipedia informs me). And for another thing, there are many beliefs (most of them non-religious, I’d say) whose nature is such that it’s just not feasible to separate them from proselytising, in many cases because the active promotion of the belief is at least an ethical corollary of the belief itself. For example, the proposition that the building is on fire can be considered in a passive, detached and abstract way, but ordinarily constituted people cannot do that for very long once they believe it (rightly or not) to be true.

  52. I sure as hell do think that proselytization is an essential part of Christianity–there’s something in the Bible about going out and making disciples of all nations. More generally I believe that if I’ve got the truth about some matter I’m obliged to persuade others. E.g. in teaching logic I work as hard as I can to persuade students of the superiority of Modus Ponens to Affirming the Consequent.

  53. HB, I still think that many Christians do not accept that aspect of their religion; as in all relgions, beliefs and practices do vary quite a bit. In any case, do you think your belief in Christianity has equal grounds as your belief in the superiority of Modus Ponens to Affirming the Consequent?

  54. Of course not. Like all metaphysics religious believe is highly speculative and I sure as hell wouldn’t bet on it. But even so I promote this view because I want to promote the interests of the institutional church. I want to live in a world where Christianity is social acceptable so I want to recruit. And I want the Church to be around and solvent to maintain buildings and do liturgy.

  55. HB, thank you, that helps me understand, so perhaps you won’t mind a further question. What do *you* mean by proselytize? (i.e., in what manner do you proselytize?) My personal experience with proselytization is limited to the following: people stopping me on the street or in shopping malls with literature and conversation, etc.; people coming to my door with literature and conversation; preachers on campus yelling things. All of these have been situations where some person who is completely unknown to me is trying to tell me that my beliefs are mistaken (which *they* seem to claim to know for certain), that I am going to go to hell, etc. I get the sense that you don’t do any of this, so perhaps you can tell me what it is that you do do — because if all you mean is that you have conversations with people that you know or at least poeple who have expressed an interest, wherein you try to describe the value you find in your religion in order that they might find value in it too — I agree that there is nothing objectionable about that.

  56. I certainly have gone door to door with literature trying to sell people on going to my church; and I’ve passed out literature at street festivals and farmer’s markets. I also go precinct walking for the Democratic Party, going door to door with literature in support of local candidates. Do you have any problems with that?

    I suspect it’s not the sales procedure but the product you find objectionable.

  57. As I said above, I don’t really like any of it, and if people promoting a cause I agree with did so in a way similar to those who have proselytized me, I would object to it as well. For example, from time to time there will be someone on campus with a clipboard collecting signatures, saying, “Do you have a minute to help save the environment?” I consider this to be emotional blackmail, and I find it outrageous, even though I am probably sympathetic to whatever environmental cause they are trying to get signatures about.

  58. It’s the sales procedure, not the product that I object to.

    I suppose that there’s is always someone whom I would not mind my reading being interrupted by: hello, I’m Hannah Arendt and I’d like to discuss the banality of evil with you.

    However, interruptions tend to be much much more banal.

    I dislike being interrupted by people who are supporting the candidate whom I will vote for: I’ve heard all the arguments already and in any case, my reasons for voting are generally not the reasons outlined in the standard arguments.

    And it’s not the product, because some of the very few interesting conversations that I’ve had with strangers have been with people whose product I have no interest in, with whom I have nothing in common. For instance, a fascinating conversation with a Jesuit, a seat-partner in a plane trip, over 30 years ago about the relation between sainthood and failure.

    Nothing could be more tedious than listening to someone go over the arguments for a position that one has been in agreement with for years and years: that’s almost enough for me to take the opposite stance.

    Actually, often one has little in common with those with whom one shares a position in common and has some unthought-of coincidences with those with whom one apparently has no positions in common.

  59. Justanotherfemalephilosopher, in your comment #22 you said that you found there to be a “big difference” for you between someone handing out a religious pamphlet and someone handing out a pamphlet on almost any other topic, and that you were “far more offended and angered” by the former action than by the latter.

    HB and I subsequently expressed some difficulty in seeing how that distinction was or could be grounded in anything more than an objection to the underlying beliefs in question, and thus thus we were sceptical about your insistence that your outrage was not a function of hostility to religion ideas but was directed, in a content-neutral or idea-neutral way, merely at “actions”.

    Now in comment #60, you seem to be retreating from your former statement by downplaying what you previously described as the “big difference” in the feelings you experience with regard to religious versus non-religious proselytisation. Can you clarify what’s going on?

  60. I’m sorry, Nemo. You keep asking me questions, but I said earlier that my discussion with you was over, given that it seems headed in a fruitless direction. Since you seem to have missed that part, I am repeating it.

  61. Justanotherfemalephilosopher, you didn’t indicate that your discussion with me; you indicated that it was fruitless for us to argue over matters that come down to fundamental disagreement on a couple of different things including the epistemic warrant for religious beliefs, if such a fundamental disagreement exists (at least that’s what I took you to mean, since no other interpretation seemed to make sense).

    But that’s not the case here; and I am asking you questions most or all of the answers to which don’t depend on our views regarding the epistemic warrant for religious beliefs or historical assessments of missionaries, whatever those views might be. How can your unwillingness to engage questions like that be based on a perception of differences of views about matters technically irrelevant to the answers? Moreover, since you are continuing to discuss with people (for example, HB, who actually *is* a Christian proselytiser) who *do* probably meet your definition of “existing in a different world” from you, one assumes that the reason given is not the real reason of your reluctance to engage questions coming from me.

    If you prefer not to answer the questions, or prefer not to share the reason *why* you don’t want to answer them, that’s up to you of course. You needn’t insist on a bogus reason.

  62. Sorry, first part of the first sentence above should read “didn’t indicate that your discussion with me was over” (I left out the words “was over”).

  63. Nemo, Justanotherfemalephilosopher has indicated a clear preference not to continue this exchange with you. I understand you are diligently attending to what it is you interpret her to be saying, but please take her stated preference in the spirit in which it seems to be intended, rather than continuing to press for further justification. She does not seem to expect a productive end to sharing her justifications with you on this topic, in this thread, at this time.

    Also, she didn’t insist on a bogus reason. We will never know all the reasons that people stop interacting on a thread, so there’s no need to insist that she’s insisting on the one. Let’s all move on here, people.

  64. Profbigk, I agree that we will never know all the reasons that people stop interacting on a thread. Your point is well taken. I’d still submit that it is still often possible to make a reasonable strong induction of when a proffered reason is not among the actual reasons – that’s what I meant by “bogus” – not by mind-reading, of course, but chiefly by considering the extent to which it would account even subjectively for the observed behaviour for which it is offered as an explanation. But I won’t query further the reason for jafp’s reticence (I really only inquired about the reason the once, I think). Though naturally that would not exclude formulating (now rhetorical) questions prompted by the substance of her comments.

  65. Agreed, and thanks, Nemo. Although I’ve been mighty preoccupied lately, I also got the sense that I might share some of jafp’s intuitions on this. So if you find yourself formulating questions prompted by her comments, I can aim to answer them. (I’d say I WILL answer them, but alas, life seems to continue somewhat disruptive.) They wouldn’t be her views, just mine. But perhaps I could participate in teasing out possible arguments.

  66. @Harriet Baber/41 – you may if you wish label it a feminist issue of course. and yes insofar as soc. female socialisation is concerned.
    as i tried to express, for me it is in the context of the situation as described by annejjacobson. (yes, i have e.g. lived/worked in the usa and am familiar with “whole foods”)
    actually, on a 2nd thought/my re-envisioning, that person imho was not even supposed to interrupt her activity/state-of-being at all when i envision the situation she describes.
    hence my wording about “healthy/boundaries are healthy”. whoever disrespects this imho fails at “human interaction 101” – no matter what the hand-out or soliciting is about.

  67. Actually, now that I think of it, I have an article “In Defense of Proselytizing” at http://home.sandiego.edu/~baber/research/defenseofproselytizing.pdf This is the abstract:

    In Defense of Proselytizing
    Religious Studies 36 (2000)
    In Ethics in the Sanctuary, Margaret Battin argues that traditional evangelism, directed to promoting religious belief, practice, and affiliation, that is proselytizing, is morally questionable to the extent that it involves unwarranted paternalism in the interests of securing other-worldly benefits for potential converts. I argue that Christian evangelism is justified in order to make the this-worldly benefits of religious belief and practice available to everyone, to bring about an increase in religious affiliation for the purpose of providing a more supportive social environment for Christians, and to promote the survival of the institutional Church, which benefits Christians and non-Christians alike by maintaining church property, providing access to church buildings and doing liturgy visibly and publicly for the sake of all people.

  68. PBK, thank you, you should not feel obliged to do so but your input is always beneficial and appreciated.

    Harriet, that is a well-argued paper. I think is useful to try and preserve in these discussions the generic, not-specifically-religious sense of “proselytise” (though I understand that, philologically, “proselyte” is originally traceable to a religious context) because it helps keep in sight what non-religious and religious viewpoint advocacy have in common. That, in turn, bring into focus what chiefly distinguishes them, which in a general way comes down to the underlying viewpoints. One of the things I think this aids in revealing, if present, is dissimulated or implicit viewpoint discrimination in attitudes toward religious proselytisation. What do you think? Also, for purposes of analysing whether certain kinds of evangelisation are “morally suspect”, as you discuss in your paper, what relevance do you (since you are Christian) assign to the example of Jesus and the so-called Great Commission in the context of that moral question? Of course that will be germane in the context of other religions, but I thought it would be interesting to hear after reading your paper.

  69. I’m not sure what you mean by “viewpoint discrimination.” I do however think that there is hostility to religious belief, and to Christianity in particular, that is a result of discrimination. It’s all about prestige—packaged in moralistic language. Religion is uncool, associated with low-prestige groups: the elderly and above all, the lower classes. Religion is now a class marker. Christianity in particular is unacceptable in polite society, that is, amongst upper middle class “knowledge workers.”

    In the US at least the public face of religion is evangelical Christianity—white trash religion. Christianity is now inextricably linked to a despised demographic—those fat, blue-collar, rednecks who eat at McDonalds, shop at Walmart, and vote Republican. About the only online discussions where you get the level of self-righteous contempt I’ve seen in discussions of religion are in discussions of obesity, with endless blaming and fat-shaming. Like anti-Christian sentiment, fat-shaming is rooted in class prejudice because fat, like religious commitment, is also a class marker. And about the only thing more uncool than being religious is being fat.

    The bottom line is that the young, slim, fit, educated, urban-coastal secular elite despise the uncool, fat, religious, working class. And expressing anti-religious sentiments or loudly proclaiming your atheism is a way of asserting your membership in that elite.

    Oh, bosh, I’m just venting. And this entry is so old that no one will see it. I’m sick of being attacked, patronized, and despised because I’m a religious believer.

  70. Actually, H.B., that’s the most perceptive genealogy of the New Atheism that I’ve seen.

    It makes a lot of sense.

  71. Harriet, brava. This outcome appears have been anticipated (Jn 15:18-21, Mt 5:11-12, Mt 10:22), not without some encouragement.

  72. By the way, Harriet, by “viewpoint discrimination” earlier, I meant simply, a conscious or unconscious value judgment about the underlying viewpoint/message/idea, (even if someone maintains that s/he is considering solely the actions of, say, a pamphleteer and is not discriminating on the basis of the content of the message or the viewpoint of the messenger).

  73. H.B,

    For my part, no thanks are necessary. I found your comments to be a quite perceptive insight into the New Atheism.

    I’ve always sensed that there is something behind the New Atheism, that it is not “just”
    a protest movement against the evils of religion.

    Of course, there is always something behind everything, but sometimes there seems to more behind something than in it, so to speak.

    For example, there are probably is something behind the civil rights movement, but the civil rights movement makes sense in itself and explains itself. The anger of the protest is proportional to the wrong suffered.

    New Atheism, unlike the civil rights movement or gay liberation, does not explain itself. Why such anger against all religion, against liberal religion, even against agnostics and wimpy atheists like myself?

    The idea of an identity movement, based on class snobbism, especially when that class identity is fragile or threatened (very few are sure of their class identity in contemporary society, especially among middle knowledge workers) makes a lot of sense.

  74. The class thing has deep roots in the US. Read H. L. Mencken’s reportage of the Scopes Monkey Trial—his endless ridicule of the “rubes,” “yahoos” and “ignoramuses” of Dayton, Tennessee. Or Sinclair Lewis’s apotheosis of American Evangelicalism in Elmer Gantry. This is early 20th century but the theme is the same: religion identified with the anti-intellectual, entrepreneurial Evangelical Christianity that grew out of 19th century revivals, the folk religion of the benighted yokels, ridiculed by the self-conscious East Coast literati.

    By the late 20th century this got sucked into Culture Wars. Consider Texas governor Perry’s attack on what he calls “Obama’s war against religion.” The Right exploits the resentment of the working class, directs it against the “liberal media,” against professors, journalists and politicians, who they claim will take away their Bibles, guns and Big Macs.

    Of course they have a legitimate cause for resentment because of the outrageous economic inequality and lack of social mobility. But Republican operatives have managed to convince them that the problem isn’t the cut-throat capitalist system that keeps them poor, insecure and in hock to Pay Day Loans, but (what Spiro Agnew called) “effete snobs.” And the ongoing New Atheist program just plays into their hands.

  75. And at the same time the new atheism foments “class” solidarity among knowledge workers.

    I put “class” between quotation marks because the knowledge workers don’t form a class. Some of them earn less than skilled members of the traditional working class and their job security is often nil.

    Thus, focusing on the contradiction between religion and atheism keeps those exploited by the system (a category which includes both the traditional working class and lots of knowledge workers) at war with one another.

  76. HB,

    I don’t doubt that you have accurately identified a few people’s negative views of religion and religious people. However, I think what you describe is an extremely small segment of the population. Most of the US population identifies itself as religious, in survey after survey. There are very few actual atheists. Furthermore, I resent your implication that those of us participating in this thread have hostility towards religion for the classist reasons you state. I will admit to having negative views of religion in general and Christianity in particular, but my reasons stem from my experiences having grown up a Jew in this very Christian country, i.e., the U.S. I did not grow up in some sort of “young, slim, fit, educated, urban-coastal secular elite” world, and I don’t live in that world today either. I grew up in a mostly Catholic neighborhood. It was made very clear to me, every day of my life, that I was different. I was told I was going to hell. I was told that my beliefs were mistaken and wrong. That was, of course, when it wasn’t simply assumed that I was Christian, because everyone is, right? I was forced to celebrate Christmas and Easter at public school. And of course, in the US, businesses, schools, and even the government recognize Christian holidays, but no other holidays. TV, media — all focus on Christianity, with only token “interest” stories on other religions (and almost never on atheism — a verboten topic). Now we have many Republicans saying that what has always been implicit — that the US is a Christian country — now needs to be made explicit. That is, they want Christian values written into government laws and policies. US presidents and candidates have to bend over backwards to assure everyone of their religious credentials. So, I find your characterization of Christianity as a maligned minority laughable. For anyone who lives outside of some academic or other sort of bubble (e.g., some only live and work with those of the same ethnicity) it is obvious that Christian beliefs and practices are not only dominant, but are oppressively so. And (to go back to the original topic) Christian proselytizing is more of the same. That is, more of the same message I have heard every single day of my life, but especially this time of the year.

  77. Small segment of the population perhaps but that’s the bubble we live in—according to a PhilPapers survey atheism is one of the few issues about which philosophers agree: only 14% admit to being theists–presumably a smaller percent to being Christians. And it’s an expanding bubble: amongst Americans 18-30 approx 25% are “nones”—individuals who say they “have no religion.” And approx. 85% say that they’re “more spiritual than religious.” I follow the literature pretty closely. Religious participation is collapsing.

    And I didn’t imply that people who posted on this thread were hostile to religion for classist reasons. Maybe some are and some aren’t—it’s common and all over the place. But I have to say—look a the opening paragraph of the original post: “So I was eating lunch at Whole Foods and happily proof reading a paper on my iPad.” Whole Foods? iPad? Proof-reading a paper? Challenge: how many status symbols can you pack into one sentence? Tell me that that isn’t signaling “I’m a cool upper middle class knowledge worker.” And the question posted is how we cool, smart upper middle class people should respond to the Those People when they invade our Whole Foods sanctuary to pass out religious propaganda.

    I grew up in a mostly working class white ethnic Catholic neighborhood too—in Paterson, NJ: check it out. But I never remember anyone telling me that I was going to hell and I grew up in the 1950s and 1960s. Moreover, in my public school you could get cheap points by professing atheism: make any cheap, anti-religious remark in an English or history paper and the teacher would note in the margin—“now you’re really THINKING!” I got a very clear message, very early on that atheism was “intellectual.” Atheists may be in the minority, but they’re a high-prestige minority.

    I have no sympathy for evangelical Christianity or the conservative “values” that evangelicals promote. I certainly don’t want these puritanical, sexist, restrictive, thoroughly despicable “values” written into law, and I deplore the fact that politicians kow-tow to evangelicals. But these views are not dominant amongst academics or amongst educated professionals generally—the world in which I, and I suspect most readers of this blog, now live. This is true even in the US and, a fortiori true in the UK.

  78. Okay, Harriet, will do: That isn’t signalling “I’m a cool upper middle class knowledge worker.” Many consumers buy iThings and eat Whole Foods stuffs. Also, I have never, ever known annejjacobson to describe herself as cool.

    I think the original post has long since been answered. These last entries certainly contribute the advancement of points of view, but I get the sense that further entries would reiterate them more than advance them further. So unless someone has information other than how very much they disagree with points of view that are not going to be coming together, let’s move along.

  79. I thought that independent of inappropriate remarks about Anne Jacobson, a very fruitful discussion of issues about social class was in process.

    What could be more relevant to the concerns of social justice that animate this blog than to discuss how social class and power are represented and perceived?

  80. s.wallerstein, what’s relevant to the blog’s animating concerns is not always relevant to a post. Would you like me to put up a new post on how social class and power are represented and perceived? (And in the profession of Anglophone philosophy?, or in America?, although the latter makes me wince a little to write, I find these conversations usually devolve into personal anecdotes because “America” tends to be difficult to say one thing about without giving in to extremely simplistic depiction.)

    I have been meaning to return to my blog post of a few years ago, because coincidentally, lately several people in unconnected settings have reminded me of it: https://feministphilosophers.wordpress.com/2008/06/17/youre-like-school-in-summertime-no-class/

  81. Profbigk:

    If I read you correctly, you’re saying that we’re almost always talking about class or our class is talking about us through us even when we’re not talking about class.

    If that is your point or one of your points, I agree.

  82. Sure, many consumers buy iPads and eat Whole Foods stuffs. But if anyone believes that that fact is unconnected with (much less suggests the absence of) the signals about class and social affiliation/status that Harriet mentions, and with receptivity to and retransmission of such signals, then I think there are some folks (themselves “cool upper middle class knowledge workers”) in the Apple and Whole Foods marketing and brand management departments who would not only vigorously disagree, but would probably take umbrage at the dismissal of the fruits of all their hard work at impressing upon the conscious or unconscious mind of consumers the association of their products with cool upper middle class knowledge workers.

    I love that expression by the way Harriet, and will henceforth use it on any relevant occasion I can.

    Re moving along, was there someplace else the conversation needed to be, or is it just blocking the sidewalk for other conversations that are trying to get by? :)

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