On Evangelism

Posted in Atheism, Blogosphere, Religion, Responses, Skepticism on  | 6 minutes | 8 Comments →

I was in the blogosphere this morning and came across a question:

"Is it okay for atheists to try to change people's minds? To try to convince people that their religion is mistaken, and that they should de-convert and become atheists instead? And is there any difference between that and religious evangelicalism?"

To begin, I'd respond by saying atheists are fundamentally incapable of any form of evangelism. This is because the word itself is inextricably intertwined with positive affirmations of faith. Now this is not to say that atheists can't or don't undertake similar methods as evangelists in getting their points across. Nonetheless, the question the author asks is valid.

A standard theist complaint against atheists is to question their understanding of theological terminology, and I think the post and thread here provide good grounds. For example, one (presumably atheist) commenter said of the adjective evangelical that,

"It seems to me that unless you are going door-to-door or are in another person's face about it, then you are not being evangelical. Even Dawkins doesn't strike me that way because no one forces you to read his books and he is invited to speak to give his views."

I don't know whether anyone is forced to read Dawkins or not, and I'll agree that he is usually invited to give his views, but just what does it mean to be evangelical? By the definition set forth in the above comment, pushy Girl Scout cookie sales folk could reasonably be construed as evangelical. They are certainly door-to-door, and they certainly retain the potential to be in one's face.

In an ID red herring, another commenter said,

"Evangelism is not wrong be it religious, atheistic, or anything else. We evangelise our views every day, in our kids, when we vote based on what we think is right, whenever we express any opinion or any argument not based on a double-blind peer-reviewed scientific study. So let the religious poeple evangelise, and the atheists can evangelise too – in the end, may the best arguments win."

Although I see and agree with these commenter's general points, people are clearly arguing without respect for sound definitions, and towards clarity, we need some working definitions to intelligibly guide our discussion.

The Greek evangelion means 'good news' or 'gospel' and is the source of modern derivatives. Of the adjective evangelical, Wheaton College adds, "…modern usage usually connotes the religious movements and denominations which sprung forth from a series of revivals that swept the North Atlantic Anglo-American world in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries." Wikipedia defines 'evangelical' more loosely but still theist as a theological perspective that identifies with the gospel.

Under these definitions, no version of atheism can be reasonably construed as evangelical, and people commonly misuse the term to denote any promoter or system of belief which attempts to persuade. So, if I were to answer the author's last question honestly and technically correct, I would say there is a big difference between what she calls 'religious evangelicalism' and what she is doing on her own blog. A huge difference! However, words and language tend to evolve from their original meanings, and enough people misuse the word that many dictionaries list the looser definition.

Atheism may or may not be reasonably construable as evangelical, but depending on the context under which it is done, atheist blogging is nearly always construable as proselytizing. Although generally with religious connotation, a proselytizer need not be theist, and all active, blogging atheists who put forth their views from motives of deconversion or planting seeds of doubt are proselytizers. Same goes for publishing, producing, exhibiting and conversational atheists, too. To attempt to change someone's religion is proselytizing, no matter who does it.

At any rate, it seemed most of the discussion in the comment thread was over matters of ethics and degree. Most atheist commenters felt that proselytizing is acceptable when done acceptably, and most also felt atheists to be generally responsible in this regard, while believers, of course, are not. But I say show me a rude, in-your-face Christian that pushes poorly-thought out beliefs onto others, and I'll just as quickly show you an atheist who does the same. Atheists publish factual atrocities, concoct goofy little tropes and promote offensive propaganda too, and when atheist tracts and inferences are as prevalent as their Jack Chick and TBN counterparts, believers might begin to get a feel for the atheist's plight.

What I really wonder is how individual atheists feel with accusations of proselytizing, and how many even consider the question. It's obvious the author of the post in question did, and overall, the author questions her own belief system – a trait both admirable and required in any intellectually honest person. In response to her asking if it's okay to try to change people's minds, or to attempt to deconvert them, I would say most certainly so. She has that right, as does anyone else protected by the Constitution. And I'll add that it's intellectually healthy for people to ethically proselytize and tactfully debate, further noting that anyone who feels strong convictions eventually succumbs to the tendency to express them, especially if they feel they might have something to offer friends and loved ones.

However, under certain conditions, proselytizing can also be unethical, rude and even dangerous, for example, when any proponent misinforms or intentionally misleads their audience. This is as likely to occur in atheist circles as any other. It's fine to argue that a position is mistaken, but extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. To label all religious belief as mistaken in a thousand-some-odd word blog post is, IMO, a clear breach of ethics and responsible writing.

The only other thing that irked me about the post was the polarity of the comment thread. Many times over, atheists are referred to as 'we' and of course the believers as 'them.' Such is the foundation of nationalism, bigotry and war. Ignorance, delusion and refusal to look at the facts are universal human tendencies, and atheists do themselves great disservice in pretending these qualities to be intrinsically theist.


  1. Jon S


    I disagree that atheists are fundamentally incapable of any form of evangelism. You argue that the word is inextricably intertwined with positive affirmations of faith, and I agree with that point, which is precisely why atheists are capable of evangelism. Atheism is a faith and religion. Many people don’t necessarily accept that atheism is a form of religion, but if we examine atheism we’ll see that it is. Most of the atheists I encounter won’t admit it, but you can find some that will.
    I pulled out my dictionary and it defines religion as: 1 Commitment or devotion to religious faith or observance. 2 A personal set or institutionalized system of religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices. 3 Scrupulous conformity. 4 A cause, principle, or system of beliefs held to with ardor and faith.
    Each one of these fits the bill of atheism. Those who claim to be atheists are committed and devoted to their faith, and they pursue their beliefs with zeal. If you pay attention you can see they do have a system of religious attitudes, beliefs and practices that they hold to with ardor and faith. Faith is important to any religion, and atheism requires faith. They certainly can’t prove they’re right anymore than anyone of any other religion can prove their religion is right. They can’t prove that God doesn’t exist, but they believe it anyway; therefore it’s a belief system, just like any other religion. In the end it all comes down to faith. Atheism also answers religious questions, such as where do we come from, who are we, what’s our purpose, and what happens to us after we die? These are the types of beliefs they wish to communicate, or ‘evangelize’. It’s also not unusual to find a secular or atheist group at religious conferences. There are atheist churches and camps designed to spread their gospel message, which is another form of evangelism. They even have their own ordained ministers.
    Now I do understand your point that you believe the term evangelism is commonly misused to denote any promoter or system of belief which attempts to persuade. But you also pointed out the Greek meaning “good news”, or “gospel”. So I would argue that the term is not being misused when it comes to atheism. They routinely shout and proclaim what they perceive to be their good news… there is no god and we can do as we please (or whatever belief they wish to espouse).
    I could be wrong, but it seems that you believe that in order to evangelize you have to believe in a god. But that is not the case. Anyone can evangelize (spreading the good news of ones faith), including atheists. To deny this is only playing into the hands of atheists that would like the world to believe they’re non-religious.

  2. cl


    Well, I was still trying to get to your last two comments when I saw this one. Really, I don’t know what to say. I understand your point – that many atheists pursue and express their beliefs with a religious fervor. And I understand that depending on which dictionary we read, we can make certain instances of atheism fit the bill. But under the definitions you give, I could say skateboarding is a legitimate religion!
    Myself, I stick to the meanings of words. One cannot technically evangelize if they don’t believe in God or the gospel. One can advocate atheism in a manner similar to the evangelist, but this is not evangelizing. And “atheism is a religion” is not a blanket statement I’m willing to make. Nor does the Supreme Court or 9th Circuit typically make such statements. For example, Ben Kalka. I side with the traditional view of religion as expressive of humanity’s relationship to a creator or God. Regardless, some people are taking strides to make atheism more like an official ‘religion,’ for example NTCOF.
    And I really don’t think atheists can be fairly called religious. Yes, everyone has beliefs that guide their life, but that doesn’t make them religious.

  3. Jon S


    Chris, you make the point that under the definitions I gave, skateboarding is a legitimate religion.
    Well, sure, it certainly could be. Christianity makes it clear that anything that is more important than God is a god, and therefore could be considered a religion, in that broad sense. God says that we should have no other gods before him (Exodus 20:3). So as Christians we need to be careful that we don’t make something more important than God, whether it’s our spouse, children, job, sports, things, entertainment, our own intellect etc.
    You say that one cannot technically evangelize if they don’t believe in God or the gospel. Well, can someone who believes in reincarnation evangelize? Or what if they believe we are all gods? Or what if they believe aliens are coming to redeem us? Then, according to your definition, they can’t really evangelize, right? Well of course they can. Believing in God is not a prerequisite for evangelizing… never has been and never will be.
    You’re right that the supreme court doesn’t recognize atheism as a religion. Thankfully we don’t rely on the supreme court for our salvation or our religious understanding. That said, I’d argue that the supreme court should consider atheism a religion. That would really throw a monkey wrench in the non-existent ‘separation of church and state’ clause in the constitution!
    You conclude that you really don’t think atheists can be fairly called religious. But I continue to argue that they are religious. Being religious does not necessarily require a belief in a god of any kind. Being religious only requires a philosophy or understanding about the meaning of life, who we are, where we came from. All the requirements of religion can be found in atheism if you’re willing to examine it closely enough.

  4. cl


    You say believing in God is not or never has been a prerequisite for evangelizing. Well, only if you stick to what the word was intended for and derived from. If you or others want to invent and use your own usage, that’s fine. Which is why I stick with the meanings of words. In a literal sense, you cannot evangelize without a pro-gospel stance. So, yes, you can say that atheists ‘evangelize’ but to do so is simply to engage in loose use of language.
    And all the requirements of religion can be found in anything.

  5. Jon S


    Ok, so if atheists are doing the same thing as someone who believes in God or a gospel message (spreading their worldview), and one is called evangelizing, what would you call the other? Promoting their belief? Sharing the gospel of Darwin? Telling others their version of the good news. Sure sounds like evangelism to me. If it quacks like a duck…

  6. dx2


    The gospel of Darwin?
    Many great scientific minds had (& still have) contemplations of a greater power at hand in the creation of the universe.
    Darwin & Einstein, both, mention “God” (yes, the capitol “G” God, not an abstract god) in their writings. Strangely this is text/passages which atheists tend to acknowledge the least.
    Hmmm, Why is that?
    From my understanding of Darwin, he was a scientist and not a missionary (the term most historically relative evangelist in his day).
    Was the mission statement of the Beagle to convert people’s minds? Wasn’t he seeking answers to his own questions? Don’t most evangelists attempt to scare people into changing their minds?
    If it quacks like a duck, maybe it will bark like a dog and make you breakfast in 3 million years?
    Just a bit of a little leap there for you.

  7. kas


    no body knows for certain, so be quiet, everybody.

  8. cl


    @ JonS,
    sorry it took so long to get back. You said,

    “…if atheists are doing the same thing as someone who believes in God or a gospel message (spreading their worldview), and one is called evangelizing, what would you call the other?”

    Continuing along the ‘literal meanings of words’ trip, I’d say atheists are capable of proselytizing, but not evangelism.
    I’ll also point out that Paul once took a certain church to issue for petty controversies over the meanings of words.

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