When does sharing become proselytization?

I’ve been thinking about what makes proselytization inappropriate since I wrote this post.

I was at the Post Office (in the US) yesterday and a woman a couple of people ahead of me in line gave a Christian tract to the clerk after she finished her transaction.

“Would you like some Bible verses?” she asked him.

“Why yes,” he said, smiling, “Thank you very much.”

He looked at the tract and carried it around while he was putting her package into the hopper, and I sighed to myself. Then, before he took another customer, he walked up to the station of another clerk and laughed. He put the tract in the garbage and said, loudly enough for everyone in the room to hear, “Can you believe that woman asked me if I wanted some Bible verses?”

I was relieved, and I couldn’t help but let out a little snort. I don’t think anyone heard me.

I guess that’s the difference between religious folks and skeptics and atheists. As far as I know, there are no unbelievers giving out literature to strangers in public places (although I have been tempted to put anti-tracts on cars in church parking lots, I have never actually gone through with it).

It’s fine to share your beliefs with your friends or people who ask you about it, but to shove it into the public sphere and to try to pass out literature to strangers at a place of business – never mind a government place of business – is just so inappropriate. Why don’t people understand this?

Maybe we skeptics are in the minority because we are not bold enough about shoving our ideas in everyone else’s face. But I can’t help think that the end doesn’t justify the means and I don’t want to become what I hate to win a popularity contest. But if we don’t do something like this, will superstition win out over science in the public sphere? What causes sweeping changes in society like the Enlightenment or Christian revivals? Is there anything we can do to help increase science literacy and reduce woo without being annoying asses?

So that’s what’s on my mind. Have at it.


Donna Druchunas is a freelance technical writer and editor and a knitwear designer. When she's not working, she blogs, studies Lithuanian, reads science and sci-fi books, mouths off on atheist forums, and checks her email every three minutes. (She does that when she's working, too.) Although she loves to chat, she can't keep an IM program open or she'd never get anything else done.

Related Articles


  1. I constantly have to restrain myself from shouting my skeptic/atheist beliefs to the world, shake their heads and say “Why can’t you understand???” But then I remember that when people walk up to me and try to shove beliefs in my face, I waste no time in turning away, no matter what it is. I would have more time to listen to someone’s beliefs if they present them in a way that’s not pushing me to subscribe to their beliefs and that , heaven forbid, makes sense.

    I do however, like to take opportunities to show my support for these ideologies in my internet circles such as Facebook and MySpace with the hope of finding other like-minded people. I guess that’s still kosher. :)

    Greetings from Rotterdam!

    – Duke

  2. Sometimes I wonder if Skepchick writers have that menstrual cycle-alignment, only for thought processes. Um, anyway, what I mean is I was just thinking of that very same topic.

    Yesterday my coworkers and I were discussing The Secret, something that as you all already know gets me pretty riled up. But, I think it went rather well. It began with a talk about “making your own luck,” which transitioned to me talking about Wiseman’s luck studies. That sort of research tends to really interest just about anyone who is good and curious about human nature. Then, someone mentioned that it was “Kind of like the secret.” I replied, “Yes! Only, you know, based on actual reality.”

    I was thinking about it later, and I think answering in the affirmative with a joke was the way to go. Saying, “No, it’s nothing like that stupid piece of misguided BS” would have ended the conversation right there. Instead, we went on to talk about how The Secret is based on a central truth about your outlook on life influencing how your life turns out, but it goes too far when it is used to suggest that people can literally wish their lives better. I always tend to bring up kids with cancer in discussions like that, because it makes a striking point about how stupid and harmful that kind of philosophy can be.

    I was going to write a blog entry today about that incident, and about how to inform without preaching. I’ve found that the only people who enjoy being preached to are the choir, so very different approaches are needed when talking to people who don’t immediately identify as skeptics or critical thinkers.

  3. It does seem inappropriate to go handing out flyers. Personally, I just try to always be open about what I think. If some person approaches me on the street with religious material, I’ll even argue with them half the time.

    When I teach about intelligent deisign and science, I don’t say things that I don’t believe just because I’m worried that students will not like it and complain. There is a lot of worry about this sort of thing in academia, however. I’ve known people who, when it comes to talking about intelligent design in front of their students, will say that it’s “not science” and then throw in how science is consistent with belief in God for good measure, even though they really don’t think these things.

    Not being “invisible” is more important to me than the comfort I could gain or give others by simply not mentioning certain things or by saying only the politically correct things. Maybe it’s even more important than my job security, if it ever comes to that.

    Be firm, and say what you think when it’s relevant, is the only advice I can give.

  4. Well, with regards to ‘The Secret’ prostelyzation you just point them to this extract from ‘The Chaser’ ( a popular Australian comedy group).

  5. Writerdd:
    I am finally responding to one of your posts-I wanted to the other day, but haven’t taken part in online activity before-can you guess my age? I love the Skepchick site and regularly listen to Rebecca Watson on Skeptical Universe podcasts. All of you keep up the prostelyzation. I have always been a self-righteous asshole. It began when I was in Catholic grade school and I just wasn’t buying the whole religious thing and at times let the nuns and priests know that by pithy little questions that eventually found their way back to my parents who were appalled I would be so impertinent. One nun said, “Mr. Haffner, you always have to be right right.” Another admonished in much the same way when I asked one of my pithy questions. I will admit I was also a “wise guy”. Onward to today. At the two year state college I teach at, I have run into a dilema akin to your concerns. I am not a Sciece instructor, but am a natural born skeptic with a lot of interests who knows a little bit about everything and will research when necessary. I am a regular reader of the two Skeptic magazines. Our college just had a Poster display contest (the kind with three sections) and was sponsored by the Science Division. The topics were all Science related . When entering the area where the posters were displayed the first one you saw was very neat and extremely well done and eye-catching. I said to myself that that would definitely win the student award. The topic was FrankenFoods and upon reading the display it was apparent the maker had an extreme agenda-don’t allow genetically altered foods-out law them. The display was full of half truths-incomplete research and inflammatory conclusions(anti-sciens, psuedoscience). The conclusion of the author was to ban GA foods. The display won the 1st place student award and the 2nd place instructor award. I was shocked. I then looked at all the displays and noted about 8 others that had similiar problems. I photographed them just in case. The first place instructor chosen display had many grammatical errors in its text. I have also noted that the college has started a Reflexology program to compliment the Massage Therapy program. The ad for the program says that Reflexology can restore your health and pinpoint areas that need further therapy(many other untrue statements are made also). I have always been a supporter of our college and have served as faculty president twice during tough times and have never been afraid to “straighten” out faculty or administrators who are detrimental to the smooth operation of the college. However, I’ve spent many sleepless nights trying to decide what to do about the poster contest and the Reflexology program. Any suggestions? Sorry for the long initial response. Thanks for reading.

  6. I don’t think that believers like your post-office prophet care about anything so trivial as propriety. She may well see herself as the only thing standing between that postal worker and eternal damnation. So what if it’s inappropriate? If one is convinced that being mildly obnoxious might save a soul for all eternity, why wouldn’t one go out into the world with a bullhorn and a bag full of Chick tracts?

    As much as I hate – HATE – being preached at, in a strange way, I respect the active, public believers a teensy bit more. After all, their whole belief system is built around the idea that everyone who doesn’t agree with them is going to hell. While I agree that the belief itself is crazy and appalling, if that’s really what you believe, shouldn’t you feel obligated to try and help the folks who you see as damned?

    By contrast, the more passive, private believers still “know” that I’m going to be smoked and slow-roasted like a rack of short ribs for eternity. They just don’t care enough to try and help. I know it’s not going to happen, but they believe it is, and they’re comfortable letting me slather on the marinade.

    It’s a real ambivalent feeling. On the one hand, I loathe being harangued by believers of any flavor. On the other hand, I feel an extra measure of contempt for people of faith who can’t be bothered to protect their fellows from damnation. Cognitive dissonance abounds!

  7. Like Rebecca I use humor to keep the mood light, but I also like to use questions ie “What do you think about x idea?” I have found that when you engage people in this way they feel more involved than preached to.

  8. I was once running early Saturday morning at a local park when I heard a car driving slowly up behind me. I figured it was just driving by, but then it stopped, which truly freaked me out. Then some nicely-dressed women got out of the car and came over to me, and handed me religious tracts and an accompanying lecture. Yes, I got stopped by Jehovah’s Witnesses at 7AM while I was running in the park. Apparently they troll parks at that hour in order to find runners ripe for religious conversion.

    A couple of years later, another group came to my door (in another city, by the way) and tried to offer me the same pamphlet. I remembered it because it was all about the end of the world with a charming picture of a mushroom cloud on the cover. At least I was able to say truthfully I had already seen it.

    Like you, writerdd, I don’t really like the idea of pushing my own opinions on others, but at the same time I get irritated when others can’t show the same consideration, or at least be willing to listen to my opinions. Like Rebecca said, our approaches have to be more careful, which doesn’t seem fair, but it’s not a fair game.

    I’ll admit the idea of leaving anti-tracts made me chuckle, though.

  9. Hi ProfMike, thanks for the note! I can’t guess how old you are. Can you guess how old I am? :-)

    I don’t have any suggestions for you right off, but this is a topic that we skepchicks have been talking about in email lately so maybe we can get a post on this put together soon. I’m not affiliated with a university in any way, so perhaps others might have more experience to give you some ideas of what you can do.

    I also saw a post the other day on a similar topic on Science Blogs. I am pretty sure I won’t be able to find it again though. That site is just too busy to track down old posts!

  10. I agree that certain kinds of proselytizing are obnoxious and rude, but it sounds like the woman in the post office was both polite and well-intentioned. I’d take that any day over someone who tries to force their religion on me via legislation, or intimidate me into reading their tracts with passive-aggressive threats of eternal damnation. If someone is polite and friendly and wants to share what they believe is the ultimate truth of humanity, I say good for them; of course, I like to use such situations as jumping-off points for debates on religion to see how much they’ve thought about their faith (every time I’ve done so, it’s been with a two-person team of god-vendors: my experience is that one was always the more articulate and well-read, and this person I often have a hearty debate; the intellectually unremarkable sidekick usually smiles and nods while vainly trying to keep up with us), and others may not share this decidedly quirky hobby.

    And, of course, if polite and mild-mannered folks never tried to pitch their religion to me, I’d never have an opportunity to respond with snarky comments (“Are they the love-and-be-nice-to-people Bible verses, or the hate-and-kill-people Bible verses?”)

  11. I’m guilty of unsolicited informing of friends and coworkers about interesting astronomical events and star parties put on by my astronomy club.
    It’s a pretty innocuous introduction to science and (maybe) skepticism, but now I’m wondering if I’m on the same moral plane as the Jehovah’s Witnesses I slam the door on, or at least at the level of passing out invitations to a church bbq.

  12. I agree with Rebecca. Skeptical is rational and should be reasonable, and the better argument is usually made all the better by being respectful of the other person. Then again I have a “no soliciting” sign on my fornt door that I’m more than happy to point at when the JW’s and LDS knock on the door.

    As for handing out flyers and hand bills, in the US there is a long standing tradition of that practice for religious and political groups. I wouldn’t have a problem with a skeptical/rational flyer being passed around. Not sure if I’d participate as asking someone if they’ve heard of the ‘four skeptical laws’ would give me a massive PTSD induced brain hemorrhage.

  13. I think the writings of Robert Ingersoll should be left in all hotel and motel rooms alongside the bibles. Do you think they would be thrown away by religuous people in anger or treated with respect? I never did anything to the bibles I frequently found when on conferences and seminar trips.

  14. It sounds tome that the woman at the post office was very polite about it, and in my experince, people who ask that way don’t try to pressure you if you respond with “Thank you, no.”

    The world is full of horrible jerks trying to push their beliefs on others, but I don’t think this particular person falls into that camp – at least not in this particular instance. Of course, it is entirely possible she’s merely running the “More flies with honey” gambit here, and secretly wishes to scream fire and brimstone (as a person who grew up surrounded by Southern Baptists, I know how common that can be), but I think I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt.

    The real question is – could you live with yourself if you went door-to-door preaching atheism or handing out flyers in the street or any of those sorts of things? It sounds to me like you couldn’t. So don’t. There are people who can and who do. I’ve seen “religion kills” flyers being handed out to people leaving church. I’ve seen it almost start riots, but if it got even one person to question their beliefs, I’ll call it a good thing.

    You can only do what you feel you must and what you can do while retaining the ability to look into the mirror without hate. Just remember that it’s patently wrong and easily testable. You catch more flies with vinegar.

  15. I’m a bad person, but if I find flyers on my car, I throw them on the ground in the hopes that the person who left the flyer on my car will get in trouble for littering.

    Fortunately, people rarely leave tracts on my car or front door. And if they offer them to me face to face, I just say “no thank you.” I find intrusions extremely irritating. I’m always doing something with a purpose (even if that purpose is relaxing), and I don’t want anyone to bother me.

    I used to have a t-shirt that said DON’T BOTHER ME in giant neon-green letters but, alas, it finally fell apart.

  16. So, I forgot to say at the end of my last comment, I guess that’s why I don’t like to bother other people. You know, “do unto others” and all that….

  17. I want a shirt like that… It wouldn’t work, but I want it so I can just point instead of having to talk to people I don’t want to deal with.

    Of course, I’m an angry and antisocial person a lot of the time, so maybe that explains a few things.

  18. I tend to not say anything unless asked and then it’s on, if they open the door I’m going through it. But I try not to be rude about it. Currently I’m dealing with someone at work that believes the Vaccination causes autism b.s. Rather than just berate her as I would love to do I simply asked her if she was willing to take a look at the information proving that her view was incorrect she agreed so I gave her all the research she could possibly use to see that she’s wrong. The rest is up to her.

    Now if I could just get the Mormons that keep tracking me down and try to save me to understand the meaning of the following terms Athiest, not interested, leave me alone, was alreach excommunicated.

  19. Hey, blogging is an approach that can hardly go wrong. Any sort of writing, really.

    In my mind, I think of it the same way as politics. If in a certain situation it’s appropriate to discuss politics, it’s also appropriate to talk about religion, skepticism, or whatever. Of course, that just raises the question of when it’s appropriate to bring up politics.

  20. The thing that bothers me is that the clerk, who clearly was not interested in the handout, actually accepted it. If people would just reply with a firm “no”, or as I like to do when the Bible people come knocking at my door on Sunday, pull our an atheistic paper and ask them if they would want something to read, then maybe such folks would understand that what they do is annoying.

    As long as we let them, they’ll keep on doing it. So I suggest everybody print out an article by Dawkins, Hitchens or something like it and keep it handy to shove it in the face of the religious when they want to shove their garbage in our face.

  21. I think it really is the difference between them thinking that they are saving you from an eternity of suffering, and us thinking that we’re saving you from some woo and maybe financial damage. Considering how I feel about talking to strangers, it’d take a real sense of righteousness (or outrage) to get me to just bring up my beliefs to someone that I don’t know. I’ve only done a couple of times, due to people proselytizing at my school or on the street being complete dicks. I imagine other people feel this way too. It’s hard to just walk up to people you don’t know and get in their face about stuff.

    There are actually some JWs that camp out in the main cafeteria for CU, but they’re actually very, very nice. They just set up their table, lay out their books and tracts, put up an occasionally eye-rollingly lame “discussion question” and wait for people to come talk to them. Probably they realize that if they bothered the students walking by, they’d end up getting eaten alive. There was also a Muslim group a couple days ago that had a big sign that said, “I’ll answer your questions about Islam.” Stuff like that, I really appreciate.

    It’d be nice to see something like that for us. Visible but still polite. There actually is a campus freethought group, if I remember correctly, I just haven’t had time to try to hook up with them.

    Maybe getting in someone’s face with your beliefs wins converts, but it also really alienates a lot of people. Think about the reactions to JWs and Mormons thanks to the door-to-door things they do. Or there is a very negative feeling about Evangelical Christians amongst those that aren’t ECs, simply because they’re so obnoxious about their beliefs.

  22. “I throw them on the ground in the hopes that the person who left the flyer on my car will get in trouble for littering.”

    This I wish you wouldn’t do. (This I wish nobody would do).

    Garbage should be thrown into the garbage (or recycling or incinerator or whatever), not on the ground.

    If we’re all concerned about how prostelyzation appears, we should be just as concerned by how it appears when we litter, if not more so.

  23. In the years leading up to 2000 I used to collect millenial/eschatological literature and other religious nonsense because I think it is hilarious (e.g., Jack Chick comics). In 1998 my workstation was moved so that I was directly across from the only fax machine on the floor. Waiting for faxes to be transmitted or received, people would naturally turn to me and start chatting. This was really distracting, but it was hard to stop it, until I had a brilliant idea…I piled several religious tracts on the top of my monitor (I did say this was 1998, when monitors had significant depth). The next time someone started to talk to me, he noticed the booklets on my computer and quickly turned back to the fax machine.

    If you want to see a very funny turnabout, check out John Safran vs. God in general, but this video in particular:

  24. As a skeptic, I feel that I am a bit more humble than this person at the post office. I know I don’t have all the answers. I also realize that if someone wants my opinion, they’ll ask for it. At least the chap at the post office was nice about it. Would have been nice if the employee at the post office said he wasn’t interested; perhaps the theist would realize that not every is appreciate of their handouts (and ideas).

    My fiance and I live in an apartment complex, which can be havens for religious folks going door to door. In the past, we’ve discussed their topic with them rather than just shutting the door in their face. Perhaps being able to do this is a perk of being informed on the topic (as I’m sure most everyone here is) rather than being indifferent.

  25. I’ve been trying to make up a little pamphlet of my own pointing out reasons to disbelieve, to hand to anyone who starts pitching religion at me. I got 5 tracts one night (2 of which were ‘disguised’ as million-dollar bills. one had Regan’s face on it) at a local art gallery crawl. They got so bad around here that at the last art festival, the pamphlet-pushers were required to stay in a designated area away from most of the action.

    I’ve also considered printing out ‘Who Will be Eaten First’ in the interim.

  26. I’ve always subscribed to the view that you should believe what you want as long as you don’t try to convert people. There’s nothing wrong with getting people to think for themselves, but I’d probably draw the line at handing out flyers like a JW. All we can do is make the information freely and widely available for people to make up their own minds – and encourage freedom of thought and inquiry in schools.

  27. Ok, looks like I’m going to have to do some anti-chick tracts. Let’s see,what will the topics be? Maybe I’ll start with Catholocism in the 3rd world: a family (father is dead) overburdened w/children gives more than they can afford, etc, one of the kids grows up to work for an airline, goes on a trip w/co-workers to the vatican, looks around and realizes that all that gold was procured w/money given by people like his mom (this is a true story of one of my grandfather’s co-workers from I think Brazil).

    Then there would be the one of that 8 year old girl in Yemen. And how about an anti-vax one? How about instead of explicitly anti-religion,it will just be anti-nonreason?

    Hand them out at county fairs.

  28. whitebird, Chick tracts are already anti-Catholic, so you’ll have to go in a different direction if you want to be anti-Chick!

    My fingers cannot type “proselytization”… Oy.

  29. Just some notes of interest here:

    I used to work in a big-box-chain of bookstores here in Canada (Canadians know which one…it’s the BIG chain). I had to quit after nearly a year of being told to keep my critisism of new age and religious books to myself in order to make the sale. (I was hired on as an ‘expert’ in history and politics, so I should stick to those sections, I was told)

    I lost track of how many people insisted that their witches spell-books, astrology and angel therapy could really help me with my pain (I was walking with a cane, the result of a broken hip). I was handed various versions of various bibles with various passages just ‘for peace of mind’.

    But it was The Secret that REALLY got under my skin (after a day of seeing Sylvia Browne’s ugly-mug, my skin would already be pretty thin). I refused to ‘sell’ that book….that is to say that I would refuse to extoll its virtues, let people know that it was on Oprah, or forward good things that other customers had said about it….I wouldn’t even say that its one of our biggest sellers. The most I would do is direct people to the section where the book is (sadly, it’s in the already-lame Self-Help section).

    One woman in particular, told me she was going to buy three copies, as she already owned a copy for herself and was going to give them out as gifts (what a crappy birthday that must be!). She winked at me after finding them and said “It’s working, you know!”

    “No it isn’t, that’s just your own confirmation bias” I said as politely and salesman-y as I could.

    “Have you read it? How can you say that unless you’ve read it? You must not have read it seriously or you wouldn’t say that” was her indignant response as she trotted off towards the register.

    The next day I talked a woman out of buying a Kevin Trudeau book, and got in trouble for it.

    The day after that, I quit.

    (actually, I quite like this post. I’m going to expand on it and put it on my own blog)

  30. As I recall Chick loved the “Great Whore of Babylon” phrase to describe the Catholic church. I firmly believe Chick tract’s are tantamount to emotional abuse when given to pre-teens. Unless of course they use it roll one or personal hygiene.

    They are the right size for good shit or just plane shit.

  31. WriterDD
    Guessing a woman’s age is ,of course ,always dangerous-but I’ll guess yours at 40 which would be 23 years younger than me.

  32. Writerdd,

    You have been putting a lot of thought in to this topic.
    I do believe in the more flies with honey idea. Its easy to dismiss someone who is yelling and screaming as a fanatic, however if the person is polite and discusses the topic often times you can at least win their respect. If you are solicited by someone often times they are very set in their faith. Faith is an important word. Skepticism is based on logic, faith is based on belief in the absence of evidence. That said there is no amount of logic or fact that could cause someone who has faith to convert to skepticism. However, if you are polite and respectful you may put an idea in their head, and perhaps with time you can change their mind. I am a Christian, and realize it isn’t logical, but I don’t care…I believe what I believe and no one could ever convince me otherwise…
    I believe I mentioned this anecdote to writerdd before, but during the dover trials a supporter of ID stated that there is insufficient evidence to support evolution. A lawyer then began to stack journal articles in front of the supporter. You can imagine how many journal articles the lawyer was able to find. Despite this mountain of evidence the ID supporter still claimed the evidence was insufficient.

  33. I’ve attended workshops and conferences on evangelism, received tracts and was trained in handing them out, and I even remember actually giving out two Four Laws tracts. But the most aggressive proselytization I ever witnessed was when a group of my friends realized that one member of the group had never watched even one episode of Firefly. They swarmed that poor, young woman, raved about the series and proclaimed Whedon as their master, telling her that she, too, would become a true fan, if only she watched the show.

    I almost fell over, laughing. I was still a Christian at the time, and several of these friends had spoken loudly against Christian proselytization techniques in the past.

    I am not sure if atheism or anti-theism proselytization is the answer. I think a better option is education and support of things that encourage critical thinking. There are television shows and books where the premise is reasoning things out or finding out how things work or why things happen, or where the hero has to use logic and reason to solve the case or otherwise win the day. I think it is important to purchase DVDs of some of these shows and copies of some of these novels that make science and reason approachable- and often fun, in order to encourage people to make more such products.

  34. A buddy of mine thought wrote away to Chick claiming to be a poor Reverend wantin’ to spread the good word (TM). He got a box of every chick track made to that date.

    A few months later, he got a bill. He ignored it. :D

  35. I know about 5 hardcore people that give out the “Get Out of Jail Free” cards. When one person did it to some children selling cupcakes for Earthquake victims in South America (it was a junior church group and the kids were about 8-10 years old)…I did tell them that it made me uncomfortable.

    You can get those cards in huge amounts, and one person I know will order at least 200 for TAM, and gives them out to EVERYONE not connected with TAM.

    It’s funny, and not a tract, but hey, not being rude…such as the postal worker, is the way I handle things. I also think it’s fine to say “no thank you”. I think freedom of speech give people the right to give out tracts. And “get out of hell free” cards.

    It also gives me the right to say “no”.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Back to top button