As an atheist who publicly criticizes religion in it’s various forms it’s not uncommon for me to end up in a debate or conversation with a Christian. Often these conversations include, at some point, a claim that they want to be friends. I generally do not trust such requests and either refuse or ignore them, which usually results in them claiming I’m not treating them fairly.
I’m often told that the reason I won’t be their friend is because I’m bigoted against Christians, or that I’m trying to disengage because I know that their arguments are better than mine, but the truth is much more simple, I don’t trust that their request for friendship is genuine.
To understand why I feel this way you have to go back to the long ago days of 1997. I had just started college and I joined a campus ministry called Student Mobilization. I was active in this group through the five years I attended college. I believed that those who died without trusting Jesus as their savior would spend eternity in hell, and I spent a significant amount of time either trying to convert people or thinking about how to better convert people. I really can’t stress how much focus was spent on missions and evangelism.
The last two years of college the person in charge of the ministry championed an idea called “process evangelism.” Plenty of debate had existed in these groups over two different approaches to evangelizing, cold turkey, or instant evangelism and a sort of relationship evangelism based around forming long term friendships. Those who were in the instant came argued that this allowed us to go out and share with as many people as possible, and those who argued for a more relationship focus said that each individual attempt had a better chance of conversion because you could tailor your evangelism to the person. “Process” attempted to combine both tactics, rather than forming long term relationships the goal was to form short term friendship in order to find out of the person was “receptive to the gospel.” If they weren’t then you would drop them and move on. People argued this allowed you to evangelize many people like cold turkey, but still get to know people just enough to attempt to tailor your approach.
It should be clear from all of this that people actively involved in trying to convert people spend a lot of time figuring out how to best work at converting other people. Now there isn’t anything inherently wrong with trying to convince other people that they are wrong about something nor is there anything necessarily wrong with discussing the best ways of doing that convincing, atheists like myself do both of these things. However, I do think that certain tactics, including the ones used by many evangelicals, while potentially effective are fundamentally immoral. This brings me to many of the problems I have with many evangelists.
First, and most obviously, their tactics are dishonest. When you look at something like process evangelism it should be clear that the people using such tactics are essentially pretending to be friends in order to gain personal knowledge to use to manipulate their target. They may excuse this behavior in their own mind by claiming it’s for the greater good (saving the target from hell) but it doesn’t change the nature of the behavior, and I think it’s fundamentally unethical to try to change another persons mind with anything other than reasoned discourse. Of course not all of the evangelists out there would actually name what they are doing so openly, even among their own such a blatant admission is often controversial. However, while many would say, and even truly believe, that they want genuine friendship with unbelievers the fact is that many often use knowledge gained through that “friendship” to manipulate people into believing.
The second thing that bugs me is that friendships ought to develop organically but I often feel as if evangelists are trying to force friendship. Take an example of a conversation I had on my blog a few years ago in which this was said by a commenter.
I don’t know if you know much about me but I am good friends with a few prominent local atheists. We get along fine, all the while going back and forth.
I see it is much more difficult with you, Dylan. Why? Name-calling, swearing, and anger flow readily from your keyboard. It doesn’t have to be this way! We can disagree in a cordial manner. This doesn’t mean we ignore our differences or that we automatically watch cartoons together, but isn’t there a better way?
If you follow the conversation you will see that what he refers to as anger was frustration at having him demand I answer his questions and justify everything I believed while actively refusing to reply to my own questions or concerns, but the manipulation is pretty clear. Since he gets along fine with other atheists it must be my fault. Statements like this make me feel as if the speaker is trying to manipulate me into being their friend, by suggesting that if I do anything else I’m a bad person. I can’t think of a single friendship I’ve ever had that started with either one of us saying “hey let’s be friends” yet I find it a very common sentiment in these discussions. If you act like I’m obligated to be your friend, or that there is something wrong with me when I rebuff an offer of friendship then I’m less likely than ever to want to be your friend because I think of such tactics as bullying.
Another thing that often bars me from being friends is that many evangelists think they know me better than I know myself. When I debate with Christians and other theists I may disagree with them, quite strongly in some cases, but I generally try to assume that their accounting of their beliefs and the reasons they hold those beliefs are genuine, this is often not the case with those on the other side. Now this isn’t entirely their fault, the bible has multiple passages in it which claim that those who do not believe in the biblical god are in some sort of denial.
19 since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. 20 For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse. 21 For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Romans :19-21
The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God. They are corrupt, they have done abominable works, there is none that doeth good. Psalm 14:1
These and many other passages are used to argue that if you don’t believe in the Christian god you are lying to yourself. If they take me, and other atheists, at their word when we account for our beliefs they would have to deny the inerrancy of the bible which they refuse to do, so they claim that the bible is accurate which means they must conclude we are either lying or extremely deluded. I’m not likely to form a friendship with someone who thinks this way about me, but, even worse, it often makes it difficult to debate in good faith on any subject relating to their religious beliefs, though I do try.
Now I’ll clarify as bit here, none of this is to say that I cannot or that I am not ever friends with any Christians. Though, like most people, most of my closest friends tend to share my religious and/or political leanings, I’m more than willing to befriend people who disagree with me on any number of things, indeed refusing to be friends with people who disagree with me would be both impossible and at odds with my desire to approach all ideas with skepticism. However, there is a difference between a naturally developed friendship between people who then sometimes debate subjects on which they disagree, and a person who shows up with the express purpose of converting me (which is not really the same as a debate between two equals) who then proceeds to think that I owe them friendship. Even then if I were to find out that one of those friends actually held such thoughts about me I would likely pull away from them.
The problems for me are clear, evangelists are largely not interested in genuine debate or friendship. They are pretending to care about those things in order to convert me, and are willing to engage in unethical tactics like the pretense of friendship and emotional manipulation to make that conversion happen. On top of that they tend to believe some pretty terrible things about, not only atheists like myself, but anyone who doesn’t share their religious beliefs, including many Christians who hold more liberal or moderate views about their religion. I know all of this so well because, for many years, I was one of these evangelicals. I’m happy to debate with them, I’ll even do it civilly so far as I’m able to do so, but I’m not interested in being friends, unless they clearly distance themselves from this kind of behavior, but as common as these views are among evangelicals I won’t hold my breath.