Converting, proselytizing, Witnessing . . .
My personal spiritual practice does not call for the conversion of other people to my experience of the divine. While this is not the case for a small minority of my co-religionists, for the most part my faith encourages people to find their own path and truth.
Proselytizing sometimes strikes me as the spiritual version of what the kink/BDSM community calls "involving bystanders in your scene," but I try to be sympathetic towards those who are called to or required by the dictates of their religion to engage in these public exhibitions of their faith.
That said, many of you have likely encountered Witnesses who are challenging or belligerent; I know I have. My forbearance only lasts as long as they restrict themselves to telling me how their faith brings them joy. My patience ends where their intolerance begins, and I do not allow aspersions against my sexuality or own faith.
As arrogant as I personally find the idea that someone else has appointing themselves guardian of my soul, I try to remember that a great many Witnesses truly are acting out of a sense of love and caring for their fellows.
I bring this all up because in the last several years I have noticed what one might call a new Witnessing tradition develop, particularly in LGBT community.
I'm certain it is born out of the exact same caring for one's fellow people, and perhaps the same desire to save others from being led astray. I know these folk might not be thrilled by the comparison to Witnessing traditions practiced by people with radically different belief systems, but there are some inescapable parallels.
I am of course, talking about what one might consider to be the "proselytizing" segment of the atheist community.
Now, there are several important points I want to make abundantly clear:
- In my experience, only a small percentage of the atheist demographic engages in what could be considered "witnessing" or "proselytizing" behavior. Regardless of your perspective on the nature of the universe, simply discussing your worldview, or even respectfully critiquing someone else's, is not inherently an aggressive act.
- I am well aware that the atheist community in the United States faces serious persecution throughout many areas of life.
- People who identify as atheist have been some of the most stalwart supporters of the LGBT community's struggle for equality.
- For many atheists, the journey out of the religion/indoctrination of their birth is incredibly difficult, and often follows a similar trajectory to the journey out of the closet for LGBT people, up to and including the loss of family and community support.
- The path out of religion can be a deeply fulfilling and healing one for many people, particularly for people who are part of the queer/LGBT community.
All that said, like any other convert, be it into or out of (a) faith, political party, dietary model, or any other significant part of our lives, atheists often feel it important to share their values and beliefs with people who may or may not be receptive. The parallels between religious and atheist "Witnesses" for lack of a better word, can be striking:
- The desire to help someone see "truth" or "save" them from a life built on lies
- Concern for others' emotional and sometimes physical wellbeing
- A belief that if more people thought/felt like they do the world would be a better place
- The belief that people will come around to the rightness of their perspective if presented with it properly
- An unshakable conviction that theirs is the One True/Right Way to think or believe
- Disdain and pity for those of us who aren't as "enlightened"
Reluctance to socialize or associate with those who think or believe differently is also not uncommon, but I don't know that I'd consider that to be proselytizing behavior. I do appreciate that people often prefer to socialize and engage with people they have a shared value system with.
Directly and indirectly, I've been called some pretty unpleasant things by people within the LGBT community over the last few years because I am a queer person of faith. Additionally, a number of people I've encountered have been open about choosing not to associate with me purely on the basis of my not sharing the atheist worldview.
What the particular dictates of my faith say about queer/LGBT people, or any other topic for that matter, is considered irrelevant. It's one of several reasons I don't as a rule discuss my religious beliefs as part of my writing on The Bilerico Project (which I should clarify is a personal decision and not directed by the editorial staff).
I am not here to say that anyone needs to stop advocating for their perspective. A tenant of my personal faith is that faith is personal. There are those for whom atheism, or Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, Judaism, or any other system of belief for that matter, is the right path in life. Just as there are those for whom it isn't.
Diversity has long been been a guiding principle for queer/LGBT people and the struggle for our rights. Embracing diversity should mean embracing a broad spectrum of beliefs, political views (save perhaps for those that contribute to our oppression), racial and ethnic backgrounds, experiences of gender, sexuality, identity, and much more.
The LGBT community has achieved amazing gains in civil rights, visibility, and societal acceptance in the past twenty years. Many of those gains happened against an intransigent coalition of faith-based groups. But many of them happened in no small part to the direct and vocal support of a diverse range of groups that are also faith oriented.
This post in no way should be construed as saying that we have any obligation to respect or abide by the beliefs of people who use their faith as a tool for our oppression.
However, the reality is that there are many queer/LGBT people and allies who derive value from their spiritual beliefs, and who use that faith as a tool to benefit us all. As a community we spend a great deal of time and energy asking society to see us as individuals and take us on our own merits rather than be painted with a broad brush of intolerance. We shouldn't allow beliefs and positions within our community to have the same effect.