The Right to Proselytize

I have lived all of my life in what are considered Christian countries, South Africa and the United States. Growing up in South Africa, religion was a constant theme in everyday life. I was christened and baptised, to the best of my recollection in the Anglican Church. Like many children, I attended Sunday School, and on the odd occasion, church services, mostly for weddings, which we seldom attended.

My school years were marked, or perhaps marred by the imposed and obligatory religious instruction classes, during which most pupils did their homework or gossiped amongst each other, and seldom did anything resembling religious instruction.  School assemblies had compulsory recitations of the Lord’s Prayer, during which I mostly mumbled, stared at the floor, or out the window, depending on where I was standing, and wondered why on Earth we were forced to do this.

Military service similarly had religious services on Sundays. We were driven in army trucks to whatever denomination we belonged, and back to base. How often I actually attended, I cannot recall. There was nothing optional about these services. You were compelled to go whether you liked it or not. Even while serving, if serving is the name for what I did, in the Namibian desert, on the Angolan border, we had a pastor brought in, and we had no choice but to attend services.

I always found this sort of thing distasteful, a state imposed religious force-feeding that did little to endear me towards organised religion of any sort. My parents left my religious choices up to me – I could attend Sunday School if I so wished, or church services if that was my choice, but it was never compelled. We could discuss religion, or any alternative I wished to discuss.

The net result was a wide fascination with both the secular and the religious world. The enforced imposition of religion at school and in the military had only the effect of driving me to explore alternatives to traditional religious norms.

The one attribute of life both in South Africa and in the United States is the understanding that proselytizing is a right endowed by ones religious affiliation, typically of the Christian persuasion. In the United States, there are strong feelings about the First Amendment, which includes among other things, the right to free speech and the free practice of religion.

Many religious adherents believe that religious freedom gives them the right to proselytize, or preach to the people around them, regardless of those people’s beliefs or feelings. I cannot count the number of times people have stopped me on the street, often with a smile, so you feel under an obligation to respond, and either begun preaching the Gospel to me, or handing me some piece of literature about the Psalms, or the Gospel, or a copy of the New Testament.

In the first instance, these people have no idea what my beliefs are, or whether I am a member of some congregation or other. They cannot look at me and decide whether I am Jewish, or Muslim, Hindu or Catholic, Protestant or something else entirely. My response is invariably friendly, willing to listen to some request or other, such as, where is the local train station. Nothing is more likely to get my back up than someone preaching to me.

It is offensive in the extreme to impose ones religious beliefs on others, especially since I am more than a few decades old, and having lived in Christian countries my entire life, been exposed to more than my fair share of religious opportunity. If I had wanted to attend a church, I would have done so, had I done so, it would be under my own volition, my own decision, and not one based on what someone else advised.

I had this today, where some very pleasant young woman handed me some piece of literature on some aspect of the Christian Bible. In my normal fashion, I smiled and took it, and promptly threw it away. How many trees should we cut down to satisfy this desire to press religion on others?

This got me thinking, and I wondered what would happen if, every time someone did anything like this, I handed them a copy of “On the Origin of Species” by Charles Darwin, or “God is not Great” by Christopher Hitchens, or even “Atheism: The Case Against God” by George H. Smith. My bet is that the majority of people would be outraged, and I would probably become the target of hate speech of some kind.

The difference is, I would never do this to anyone, unless they showed a keen interest in books of this kind. To me it is just unimaginably impolite to try and “save” someone, especially someone who has spent a good part of his life reading great literature like Cervantes, Dickens, and Shakespeare, or some of the contemporary scientists like Dawkins and Hawking, Sagan and Ridley.

Religious belief, to me, ought to be private, something that provides comfort and succour in difficult times, not something with which one thumps ones chest. There is little worse than the person that shouts his piety to the heavens and tells all and sundry what a great believer they are. Is pride not one of the seven deadly sins?

I enjoy cathedrals and churches, mostly Catholic , but not exclusively. Greek Orthodox churches are similarly attractive, and many small churches are photographic bliss. The quiet calm inside a cathedral, along with the intricate stone work and multi-colored glazing in the windows lend an air of solemnity and ceremony surpassed in few other places.

I have a similar reverence for certain religious services, the pomp and ceremony of the Catholic eucharist, but reverence should not be taken for acquiescence. As much as I enjoy the melodic effervescence of the gospel choir or the majesty of a well-played pipe organ, the imposition of religious tenets cuts across my grain.

The freedom of religion, like the freedom of speech or the press, brings with it associated responsibilities. Adherents do not have the right to press religious tenets on others, without knowing and understanding their belief systems. Even when ones religion imposes an obligation to spread the word, respect for others should always be paramount.

Intruding on another’s spiritual or intellectual space without invitation is impolite. In my case, it does nothing to advance the cause promoted by the religious. On the contrary, it only alienates me the more. I am of an age that if I am interested in pursuing any particular religious belief system, I will do so , of my own volition, not because it is pressed on me.

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