I wrote a post for Canadian Atheist the other day about Jehovah’s Witnesses handing out literature, that focused on the fact that they seem to be hiding their true intentions at first approach. The thesis was that they must realize that their message is unwelcome or off-putting, and they must agree with that at least to some degree, which implies that they’re at least a little embarrassed about what they’re dealing.
I didn’t take this point any further on CA, but I had this amusing notion that as religion becomes more and more embarrassing in general (assuming the current general spread of reason continues), people like Jehovah’s Witnesses handing out magazines, pamphlets, or tracts will be less keen to engage in their business openly and out in public. They would, in effect, become more like drug dealers – skulking in the shadows, doing their business nervously, trying not to attract too much attention to themselves. I think most atheists would agree that that comparing proselytizers to drug dealers is already metaphorically sound, but consider what it would be like if it became literally true.
Instead of clean-cut folks walking around on the street in their incongruous Sunday best with their product out in the open – wearing name tags, even, in some cases – you would have tract pushers walking around in heavy coats with the stash hidden underneath, trying to appear as plain as possible. They would be looking around nervously to see if there is anyone around who would call them out and shame them, mocking them for their foolishness, while their shifty eyes scan the passersby for someone who looks vulnerable, or at least willing to take a pamphlet without a fuss. They would sidle up to their target and hiss in a low voice, “hey!” then open half their jacket to show the assortment of religious paraphernalia inside, give a quick look around, and add in a whisper, “how ’bout a little Jesus?” (More aggressive peddlers might be less like drug dealers and more like flashers, walking boldly up to strangers unsolicited and spreading their coat wide to let all their Jesus dangle out for the victim to see, whether they want to or not.)
Most decent citizens, of course, would merely make a noise of disgust, turn up their nose and walk away. Children would be taught to run straight to a trusted adult and inform them of the pusher – the adult might then storm over to give the pusher a well-deserved piece of their mind for attempting to manipulate a child without the parent’s knowledge or consent. The odd person might take a pamphlet to avoid confrontation, just to ball it up and toss it as soon as they’re out of sight. There might even be the rare person who enthusiastically accepts a Jesus fix.
The more I thought about this scenario, the more I wondered: Is it bad? Am I imagining a nightmare scenario? I’m sure religious people would think so, but that doesn’t make it true. Note that there is a key difference between real drug dealers and the hypothetical underground piety pushers I’m imagining: There is no suggestion or even implication that handing out religious literature should ever be illegal. What I am imagining is a world where it has merely become socially frowned upon – embarrassing and unpleasant, in the eyes of most people, but legal.
I’m sure some people would find catharsis in the idea of seeing proselytizers stigmatized and pushed underground, as comeuppance for the way religions have done the same to so many. Anyone who has ever been slut-shamed, called deviant for their harmless sexual preferences, or treated like a pariah merely for asking the wrong questions or asking to be treated with respect despite having a difference of opinion could probably entertain the fantasy with some relish. But that’s not what I’m after here.
Let’s be clear: Proselytizers are doing nothing legally or ethically wrong – they have every right to their beliefs, and they have every right to express them, share them, and try to get others to agree with them (so long as none of those things infringe on anyone else’s rights, of course). There is no doubt that unsolicited proselytizing is extremely disrespectful – especially unsolicited proselytizing that is done under false pretences, as discussed in the CA post – but “disrespectful” does not and should equal “illegal”. It’s a dickish thing to do, but merely being a dick should never be illegal.
But what I’m suggesting is not that proselytizing should be made illegal, rather that it should only become… embarrassing. Or impolite. Like farting in public. I am suggesting that walking up to someone and saying “excuse me, but you look like you need some Jesus” should become socially equivalent to walking up to someone and saying “excuse me”, then turning around and farting in their general direction. It’s something that will probably annoy the hell out of anyone you do it to, but it won’t get you arrested – just scowled at and told to “fuck off”, most of the time.
So it would not be some kind of dystopian nightmare for society at large to decide that street and door-to-door proselytizers are rude and unpleasant, and thus for the proselytizers to be driven to the same kind of behaviours associated with people doing business underground (ignoring the crime elements, of course).
I would like to leave you with one more fantasy world to consider.
Imagine a world where street and door-to-door proselytizing has been recognized as disrespectful and rude, and is treated as such, and where proselytizers – aware that what they are doing is frowned on – now skulk in the shadows, slink around hiding their true purpose, and only reveal their pamphlets with some measure of apology and embarrassment. Imagine that in this same world, marijuana has been fully legalized, and – figuring that a joint probably costs about as much as some of the literature proselytizers hand out (probably much, much less, really) – there are nicely dressed, polite people strolling around with armfuls of joints, cheerfully offering them freely to any adult who passes by, so that they can have a relaxing smoke when they get home.
Even if you’re not a pot-smoker yourself (I’m not really), ask yourself… which world would you prefer? Is that fantasy world really that crazy? Compared to the one we live in now – where we tolerate people who shamelessly walk right up to you while you’re going about your business and try to convince you that you’re deluded (often after misrepresenting themselves and their intentions), but jail people for a single joint (never mind walking around openly handing them out) – is the fantasy world really the crazy one?
Pushing Jesus by Indi in the Wired is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.