Monday, February 04, 2008

Several years ago my father had bypass surgery. They planned on bypassing three arteries, but ended up doing four. During the surgery he had a cluster of strokes that left him in a coma for a about a month. After he woke up it was a long road to recovery. He was in rehab for about two months, but continued to have difficulties after he was released.

The change in him was overwhelming for me. He had been the strong patriarch of the family, but his illness left him unable to do even the easiest of things. He's a proud man and it was very difficult for him to have his family take care of him. My mother told me later on that when he was in a coma he believed he was in hell. I'm sure my father's faith was tested before, but never in this way. He didn't know what he had done in his life to warrant such punishment. He was shaken.

I was shaken too. My father has always seemed extremely sure of his convictions. It's the central part of everything he does. I was torn between wanting to encourage him to question his faith and wanting him to help him past his doubts and be happy again. Thinking of my father as an unbeliever was difficult for me. As a daughter I wanted him to be happy and his experience had put him in a deep depression. As a non-believer (I wasn't yet an atheist) I wanted to encourage him to question what he believed despite the fact it might make him more unhappy.

But what held me back the most is that I didn't want to proselytize. I didn't feel comfortable wading in on his personal struggle and encouraging him to take one path or another. Perhaps that was silly, but I wanted him to make his own decision without outside influence. And it was silly because I'm sure his pastor, friends, and other family members encouraged him in his faith. I may have been the only dissenting influence and I held back. If he would have asked me, I think I would have been honest with him about my own thoughts. But he never did and I regret that the conversation never occurred.

I feel like I let an opportunity pass and that I should have tried to talk to him. But maybe that conversation could still happen. I'm still struggling with atheism and proselytizing. I find it distasteful, and yet, I have no problem talking about my internal thoughts with people on the internet. Maybe the difference is between sharing and persuading?

In my posts I'm sharing my thoughts, not trying to convince anyone to take my point of view. But in a conversation with a person, I think I'd be more likely to try to persuade and change a point of view.

Do you think atheists should proselytize and where do you think the line is between being honest about your beliefs and stepping over the line into preaching to other people?

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15 comments: to “ Proselytizing

  • (((Billy)))
    Monday, February 4, 2008 at 7:32:00 AM CST  

    My sympathy. My father had a bypass done a few years ago and its only been in the past 6 months that he has returned to the person I remember.

    You state that: "I didn't feel comfortable wading in on his personal struggle and encouraging him to take one path or another."

    I say, bravo. That is (to me) a very brave and mature decision. For some (again, not all) theists (most notably the more conservative and evangelical sects of Christianity and Islam), an individuals weakest moment is the time to proselytize strongly. My personal belief is that this is because religious belief is, by definition, irrational. Blind faith is just that, blind. It requires a suspension of belief which is easiest during weaknes.

    Conversely, I view atheism (at least my version (I really can't speak for others)) as rational and reality based. It is best approached when one is in a fully conscious, mature, and lucid condition.

    I will freely discuss my non-belief with others. I (personally) do not proselytize. I do not hide my atheism, but I also do not push it on others. If an individual is in a conscious, mature and lucid state of mind, the discussion can be informative for both.

    Proselytizing, though, has always struck me as a form of brainwashing (okay, maybe not that strong, but I can't think of a better word). It is an attempt to force someone through threats (veiled or explicit) into changing that individuals world view. It is an attempt to force someone to believe something that is at some level irrational.

    Maybe I am not secure enough in my non-belief to try to de-convert others. Possible this is because I really never went through a de-conversion. Though I had many names for it, I think I have been an atheist for as long as I have been aware of the different ideas about god(s).

    In short, if someone is mentally with it, and is willing to talk about faith and belief (and the converse), I, personally, would go for it. If someone is in a physically or mentally weakened condition, I would provide support, but I can't see myself using that weakness to my advantage. It strikes me as unfair.

    I don't think you let the opportunity pass. If he regains mental and physical strength, bring up the subject of his doubts. Maybe ask about his doubts and try to open up a conversation. My approach would be converse, don't proselytize.

  • The Exterminator
    Monday, February 4, 2008 at 9:41:00 AM CST  

    As far as I'm concerned: no proselytizing ever. If an atheist came to my door with a copy of The God Delusion, I'd be just as pissed off as I am at the Jehovah's Witlesses.

    On the other hand: expressing your views so that others understand what you think is definitely important. First of all, atheists should be proud to make themselves known as such. Second, sometimes revealing that you're an atheist can stop religionists from trying to engage you in stupid god talk. Third, the knowledge that you're an atheist might give strength to a loved one or a friend who's a budding skeptic. Fourth, sometimes you feel that you just can't hold back any more.

    In your own particular case: I think you have to decide how much you want to share your thoughts on religion with your father. Obviously, it bothers you that you've held this part of yourself back from him. But you have for some reason -- maybe a good one. Ultimately, I guess if I were you I'd ask myself: "Is there something to be gained by my discussing religion with my father? If so, what is it?"

  • vjack
    Monday, February 4, 2008 at 11:22:00 AM CST  

    "Do you think atheists should proselytize and where do you think the line is between being honest about your beliefs and stepping over the line into preaching to other people?"

    That is an intriguing question. Doesn't much of it boil down to whether there is a difference between education and proselytizing? I do see atheists working to promote education in a general sense. I think that many of us would like to see fewer believers and more nonbelievers. But I do not see us knocking on doors to spread any sort of "good news."

  • Miss Welby
    Monday, February 4, 2008 at 12:59:00 PM CST  

    right, the answer is no.

    moving story, all my sympathy.

    there's an interesting thing from the Dalai Lama, who issues a statement every 10th March (on the occasion the the Chinese occupation of Tibet in 1949).

    he said a few years ago: "whatever religion you belong to, stick to it" (for it provides you with the tools to deal with difficulties in life in the way you grew up, that's what he meant).

    now, given that Buddhism is a phylosophy rather than a religion, and the Dalai Lama is probably the wisest man on the planet, isn't it extraordinary that instead of proselitising for his own "faith" or "sect" or "church" or "religion" or "phylosophy", he said instead "stick to the values you grew up with".

    incredible!, unbelievable!, unheard of! a real SPIRITUAL leader not interested in having more followers. that's why I consider him the wisest person on this planet.

    PS: btw, I'm not so wise. Billy and the Exterminator already know that I'm carrying out a campaign to recruit in my blogroll the finest American bloggers - I've given you a link, visit me and see if you like to reciprocate. ciao!

  • PhillyChief
    Monday, February 4, 2008 at 1:26:00 PM CST  

    Maybe the difference is between sharing and persuading?


    I find it very difficult to label one who believes in the supernatural as wise, let alone wisest on the planet, Miss Welby. Btw, I loved Marcus' show. ;)

  • EnoNomi
    Monday, February 4, 2008 at 2:21:00 PM CST  

    Maybe the difference is between sharing and persuading

    I believe that exactly. Alot of it has to do with situation and tone. Are you trying to convince the other person to believe as you do or are you merely letting the other person know what you believe and why. Is it a situation where the discussion naturally arose or is it forced, "speaking of the Super Bowl, do you know religion is just superstition?" I think it's important not to hide what we believe. But I wouldn't stand there telling the other person why their beliefs are stupid and uninformed, unless provoked of course.

  • Vistaluna
    Monday, February 4, 2008 at 7:37:00 PM CST  

    I agree with the others that it's better (and honestly more effective) to share rather than persuade. People are defensive to any perceived attack on their beliefs...especially people who are sure of their convictions as your father was.

    Your story is touching and sad. I'm sure this was a miserable time for your dad, and it says something exceptionally good about you that you really put a lot of thought into what to say, and still think about it to this day. The fact that you are an Atheist makes your compassion all the more honest.

    I know far too many rigid believers who turn a blind eye to all the bad things in the world because they make themselves believe that everything is "for the best".

    These can the LEAST comforting and LEAST useful people to be around when you are in a crisis situation.

    I can't speak for your dad, but sometimes people in awful situations need affirmation that their situation is indeed awful and unfair and that this is not part of any "plan" and neither is it their fault. I believe that helps to defuse despair and anger. a way...I don't think the question of faith was the most serious issue your dad was facing anyway. :)

  • Babs
    Monday, February 4, 2008 at 8:05:00 PM CST  

    I agree with the others regarding proselytizing. I don't want someone to shove their religion in my face, so I would feel hypocritical if I shoved my non-religion in theirs.

    I don't mind discussing the fact that I'm an atheist with people, but I'm not going to try to convince them that they should be one.

    I am sorry that you and your family had to go through such a difficult time. I agree with Ex on discussing religion with your father. (Just don't tell Ex I said that I agreed with him)

  • ordinary girl
    Tuesday, February 5, 2008 at 10:27:00 AM CST  

    Thanks everyone for the comments. You helped me confirm what I was thinking all along. My reltionships with my family are tricky and I'm still trying to define where I fit in now as an atheist.

    (((billy))), congrats on the new blog!

    miss welby, I'll definitely stop by. I need to do a blogroll update soon.

  • John Evo
    Tuesday, February 5, 2008 at 5:56:00 PM CST  

    OG, sorry about your dad. I lost mine when I was 7. I wish I had the opportunity to speak to him about these issues. Although "they tell me" he was a Methodist, my recollection was a man who never attended ANY religious events (though I'm sure he went to weddings - though he and my mother wedded in Vegas) and was pretty irreverent in every possible sense.

    My point is, you have an opportunity that I missed out on. It need not be you trying to push your views on him, but I think you'll both be happier with an honest relationship even if he TOTALLY sticks with his faith. He'll probably feel good that you shared your inner feelings with him. I know I would if my daughter came to me with something she knew I felt differently about.

  • Little Evella
    Tuesday, February 5, 2008 at 6:19:00 PM CST  

    He'll probably feel good that you shared your inner feelings with him. I know I would if my daughter came to me with something she knew I felt differently about.

    Hi, Daddy. I've decided to become a Scientologist. I think Tom Cruise makes more sense than anyone else who has ever lived in the whole wide world. I know you'll feel good that I shared my feelings with you.

  • PhillyChief
    Tuesday, February 5, 2008 at 6:41:00 PM CST  


  • Mamacita Chilena
    Wednesday, February 6, 2008 at 7:55:00 PM CST  

    First off, that sucks about your dad. Very sorry to hear that.

    Secondly, in my opinion you definitely did the right thing. If he asks how you feel on the subject, by all means give him an in depth explanation of your beliefs and why you believe as you do. But if somebody doesn't ask, I say just telling them isn't ok. I get mad when people do that to me. Which is why my Christian uncle facebook'd me and I rejected his invitation. He has made me so uncomfortable with the fact that in every conversation he starts preaching, I can no longer have a relationship with him. I hope you'd never reach that point in a relationship with your dad.

  • Doty
    Friday, February 8, 2008 at 1:06:00 PM CST  

    I have never had the horror of having a family member having to deal w. serious surgery. But, i myself had cancer 4 yrs ago and while i wasnt the most 'religious' person in the world before i now find myself more,... spiritual than i was before. I still cant find myself as a particular member of any religion (another topic that i could, and have, gone on about forever) but i am able to definably state that i am a believer in Something... This is in no small part due to some of the things that happened whilst sick.

    Im not sure that this can be of any real help but i do hope that this can provide some measure of hope.

    sincerest~ Doty

  • Lynet
    Monday, February 11, 2008 at 1:02:00 AM CST  

    I second what people say about sharing rather than persuading. But, also, I think the strongest thing that guides my way of interacting with those I disagree with is the knowledge of how difficult it is to change your viewpoint. I know sometimes people have to fall off the edge to change but I just can't bring myself to push people off. In the end, they have to have the courage to step off on their own -- and if they do, that's the time to offer a helping hand.


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