Sunday, July 12, 2009

Imposing your religion on others

It is sometimes said that religious believers attempt to impose their religious views on others, and that this is bad. What does this mean? How are they "imposing" their beliefs? With guns, knives, or weapons of mass destruction? Where is this coercion going on?

Even with Jehovah's Witness "door knocking," I don't see the coercion. I really don't.


unkle e said...

In the USA you have freedom of speech guaranteed in the constitution. I recall a few years ago an evangelistic Messianic Jew winning a court case to allow him to hand out leaflets at an airport after the authorities stopped him, based on the constitution.

The same freedom allows all sorts of advertising, publication of R-rated material, etc, not to mention the criticism and mocking of religious belief. None of this is "imposed" because you don't have to look, watch, or listen.

It seems to me to be a healthy law to have, and we should all accept the good with the bad (as we each see it).

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PersonalFailure said...

I will go at it a little differently. I deliberately keep in my speech phrases like "thank god" and "god bless" so as to make my coworkers think I am Christian.

I've been fired for being an atheist. To me, that's coercion. Believe, or at least pretend to believe, or lose you job.

dvd said...

Well, it might be "coercive" if you scare people with "hell." The thought of endless torment and the fear of loosing everything can be used to manipulate people.

Anonymous said...

Honestly, there is no coercion. To present one's case (or argument) for, or against, the belief in GOD, or the "path" towards GOD is not coercion. The individual who listens is free to accept or reject what has been stated.


Blue Devil Knight said...

If you don't believe X you will burn in a fiery torment for eternity.

You might see why that comes off as coercive.

It makes 'Gimme your lunch money or I will punch you in the face' look like a motherly hug by comparison.

On the other hand what are these Christians supposed to do, pretend they don't believe this, or stop in their attempts to witness? They believe in a very bazaar (to me) thing, that if you don't have belief X, then you are doomed to eternal damnation. It is frankly hard to describe how strange this seems, almost funny especially when coupled with the claim that it is a perfectly benevolent being that this belief gains license from!

So, I think it is the "fire and brimstone" Christians, the types that send their kids to the Hell haunted houses and such, that come off as coercive. I think 'coercion' isn't quite the right word, but it is in the right ballpark.

On the other hand, there are many Christians (often Catholics in my experience, or more liberal Protestants) that are much more inviting in the picture of Christianity they paint, more emphasis on the "love they neighbor" and "turn the other cheek" type of stuff than the "gnashing of teeth" stuff. For some reason, these Christians tend to be more humble, thoughtful, and reflective than the fire and brimstone folks, who (with some exceptions I'm sure) tend to be extremely confident in their position, and have the least patience, respect, and understanding of those that think differently.

Blue Devil Knight said...

I said 'bazaar' but I meant 'bizarre.' That's almost as bad as saying 'Don't loose the game.'

Joshua said...

Well, when someone has made it abundantly clear that they are not interested in hearing about Jesus, and wide-eyed relatives and co-workers continue to Hector them mercilessly with some memorized pick-up lines from a pamphlet, they tend to feel that it is "coercive", even if that is not the most precise term. It's a lot like the old SNL skit about the "The Continental", a lecherous old man who hits on every female who comes near his hotel, and continues to press his lusty advances oblivious to their disgust, revulsion, and outright rejection.

I myself am proud to be a Christian, but I feel that these tactics can often verge on coercion or ham-handed date-rape. It's as if modern evangelicals ignore the line about "cast not your pearls before swine", and have set out to create an Amway-like multilevel marketing scheme to put "sinners prayer lipstick" on as many pigs as possible, by any means possible. Instead of "he who has ears, let him hear", today we have "he who has no ears, let me plead, cajole and emotionally manipulate until he conforms to my mental image of what a hearing person would say."

FWIW, I have the same hesitance about using "reason" to coerce Christianity; especially when simultaneously pleading against Bulverism, as if Christianity itself is not an ad-hominem proposition at the core:

Anonymous said...

I agree. I'm all for atheists and agnostics going door to door to explain why Christianity is false or otherwise unreasonable. It certainly is not a case of imposing beliefs on others. They should also be able to have organizations that are tax-exempt for doing so.

Mike Darus said...

By posing the question, it may have been appropriate for you to try to define "impose." It is to vague of a word to evaluate the ethics. Your description of coercion illustrates the wide spectrum of possible actions involved.

In the political arena, values of one group are "imposed" on others by enacting laws that control everyone. Ironically, this is what democratic republics are supposed to do. In the current culture war, the losing side complains either of "legislating morality" or "abandoning the values that made America great."

PersonalFailure illustrates some of the danger of evangelistic coercion in the workplace. Yet this is often the place where we have the closest relationships that would support the discussion.

In rational debate, "imposing" may mean a teacher abusing her intellectual or pedagogical advantage over a student. It may mean that some feel manipulated by someone with superior argumentative skills. This may be a piece of what is behind Joshua's comment about reason. There is a definite move away from using argument to evangelize. It's value is doubted by those who evangelize and generally rejected by those on whom it is tried.

Another challenge is that those seeking to evangelize often believe that the rights of free speech and free exercise of religion give them the right to use any means. It limits the ability for real discussion about what limits there should be on manipulation, possibly fraudulent representations, abuse of positions of influence, and even purchasing loyalty through gifts.

It would get real interesting if the Better Business Bureau or the Federal Trade Commission had to investigate religious or philosophical truth claims

Mike Darus said...


I think you should go for it. There is nothing keeping an atheist group from setting up a 401 (c)3, builiding a place to meet, collecting donations for the cause, organizing a door to door visitation team. While you are at it, you should build some hospitals, orphanages, homeless shelters, food banks, the list goes on. You have a lot of groud to make up. The theists are way ahead.

Joshua said...

@Mike, @Anon: It already happens. I get this frequently from colleagues who have been raised atheist in atheist countries. They are not the slightest bit bashful about accusing me of "brainwashing" and "endangering" my children by teaching them Christianity. They cannot be bothered to spend 3 minutes trying to understand what I actually believe, or why their own position is hopelessly bankrupt, but that doesn't stop them from attempting to protect my children from any angle they can.

It doesn't help that their only other exposure to "Christians" is the wide-eyed, ham-handed date-rape variety of pamphleteers.

Anonymous said...

Then there is the situation of some children. Imposing is not quite the word i would use, but a particular child I know, now a young woman, has little choice but to believe what is, to me, a narrow and biased view of truth about Christ, the bible and the world.

The parents are intelligent, and decent, and i say nothing to them, but dislike intensely the way they have provided words and books on almost every aspect of living and relationship from just the one point of view/belief.

The young woman is well armed indeed against the supposed snares of the world. I would say , unable to think any differently.

I imagine this situation is not uncommon, and wonder how much it is justified to so influence belief.
Rather depends on ones own beliefs i imagine.

Dave said...

The charge of "attempting to impose one's religious views on others" is a purely political claim. That is, the problem, from the point of view of the imposer and the imposee, concerns the development of political power, primarily the development of a political majority. It has nothing to do with religion, salvation, or the so-called intellectual freedom of the atheist.

If a Christian simply cannot live with the thought that the world is impure and full of sinful people, he may strive to get a consensus from the people around him that Christianity is a superior moral system. The personal salvation of the other people is irrelevant to him, and so their annoyance is irrelevant; what is important to him is that they all agree that they live in a Christian nation and that the laws must reflect absolute moral purity.

Likewise, an atheist dreaming of a perfectly rational society may be quite disturbed to hear someone contradict him. If everyone is not in agreement, of course, then the perfect rational society will never come about; thus the merest whisper of dissonance, a claim that what is "rational" may not be good, screams of coercion.

Both of these types of people cannot deal with the reality of a created world in which people are free to choose the good and to sin, so they seek a political solution for their discomfort.

Anonymous said...

I don't think that's quite it. I think the annoyance is that Christian proselytizers typically use non-rational means for conversion (appeal to fear, emotional appeals, etc.), and that the attempt to generate a majority opinion in this way is contrary to the democratic ideals of rational persuasion. The whole point of rational discussion and the free and open exchange of ideas is to discern the truth. This seems to presuppose that the truth will come out through reason, as reasonableness is a reliable (enough) guide to truth. But if the means of generating a majority opinion are non-rational, then this subverts the pursuit of truth, and thus subverts the aims of a free and democratic society.

Mike Darus said...

I am a little surprised at the naiveté that only rational means of persuasion are appropriate. The reality is that the majority of people are not convince by rational arguments. They see logic as mere word games. They are persuaded by appeals to emotion wrapped in stories with characters that provide ad-hominum proofs of what is right and true. We call these movies, dramas and commercials.

Anonymous said...

Hi Mike,

Your argument is a straightforward case of the is/ought fallacy.

Dave said...

"I think the annoyance is that Christian proselytizers typically use non-rational means for conversion (appeal to fear, emotional appeals, etc.), and that the attempt to generate a majority opinion in this way is contrary to the democratic ideals of rational persuasion."

Again, I see a certain confusion of conversion and political manipulation. To the political animal, everyone is an object for manipulation; this has nothing to do with salvation.

I would also suggest that non-rational means for conversion to "atheist" causes are extremely common. On that account, perhaps atheists should claim nonprofit status.

Basically, any attempt to generate a majority opinion is contrary to the ideal of rational persuasion. The foundation of democracy is the principle that a crowd of people is smarter than any thinking individual. Any policy following this principle may well be more politically viable, but it is by no means more rational.

Victor Reppert said...

How many people try to sell a car using purely rational persuasion? Are car manufacturers and salesmen imposing their cars on people (Well, some of them are pretty pushy. Still, they don't violate my rights, do they?)

There are plenty of nonrational motives that people on both sides of the debate appeal to. In the largely secular philosophy departments I went to, you could hear five instances of peer pressure and intellectual snobbery for every one serious argument against belief.

Victor Reppert said...

Anon: I'd be curious as to how you think Mike committed the is/ought fallacy.

Anonymous said...

Sure. He reasoned that since people in fact are often persuaded by non-rational factors, that therefore, non-rational factors are appropriate means of persuasion.

By the way: you, Victor, just commited the two wrongs fallacy.

Victor Reppert said...

But this is supposed to be a criticism directed specifically at Christian proselytizers, rather than a besetting sin of the society at large. Why single out Christian proselytizers for criticism on this matter when there is all manner of rhetoric flying in all directions.

I think Mike was challenging you to provide some reasons for why we ought to aim to appeal to one another only on rational bases. Why is it wrong to do that? Is this an objectively binding moral obligation that is being broken? What is it and why does it obtain. We have had democracies for years, and I have seen little attempt on any side to adhere to this.

Victor Reppert said...

If I were to say "You have a moral obligation to stop eating meat" wouldn't I owe it to you to at least try to provide some support for the claim? Don't you have the burden of proof if you argue that non-rational persuasion of any kind is morally impermissible?

Dave said...

I think M. Anon already answered that, Victor.

If everyone would use only rational appeals, then the majority would discern the truth, of course.

Surely M. Anon can cite numerous historical examples to support this point.

Joshua said...

If everyone would use only rational appeals, then the majority would discern the truth, of course.

This is utter nonsense. Pure wishful thinking and fantasy contradicted by every bit of evidence from reality.

And note that I am not arguing in favor of irrational arguments. Just pointing out that you have nothing other than self-delusion to support the idea that people will discern truth when presented with rational arguments.

Anonymous said...

I'm not making a moral claim at all. Rather, I'm making a claim about the practical interests of citizens who endorse a free, open, democratic society. We're in the realm of hypothetical, and not categorical, imperatives. And my point is that, for those who seek our individual and collective welfare, and who believe the founding fathers were basically right about how to do this, then the rational bet is on adopting a policy of the free and open exchange of ideas. I suppose one can adopt views that are contrary to the ideals of the founding fathers, but that's not my audience. My audience will accept the antecedent of the relevant conditionals of deliberation here.

In any case, I suppose there are a number of ways to support the moral claim you've attributed to me. for example, one could appeal to: utilitarian considerations of (roughly) the greatest good for the greatest number; kantian considerations of intrinsic value, autonomy, and the respect for persons; virtue-ethical principles of what the virtuous person would do in trying to persuade their fellow citizens; contractualist considerations, etc., etc.

Anonymous said...


I asserted nothing of the sort, of course. I just said that reason is a reliable (enough) guide to truth. It's not perfect -- not even close. But it's the best we've got. What's your alternative? Rhetoric? Yeah, that's a lot better....

Dave said...

"for those who seek our individual and collective welfare, and who believe the founding fathers were basically right about how to do this, then the rational bet is on adopting a policy of the free and open exchange of ideas"

And that is why atheists need to be free from having to hear religious claims, so that they can have an open exchange of non-religious ideas. How very rational and enlightened!

Mike Darus said...

How can you have the free an open exchange of ideas when you want to be "free from" some ideas? This "free from" idea is a blatant adulteration of the word "free." It makes it synonymous with the repression if not censorship of some ideas. It means that certain ideas will be silenced so that you may be "free from" them. This is not the freedom that our patriots have sacrificed for.

Joshua said...

I asserted nothing of the sort, of course. I just said that reason is a reliable (enough) guide to truth. It's not perfect -- not even close. But it's the best we've got. What's your alternative? Rhetoric? Yeah, that's a lot better....

With all due respect, you actually did assert that people can be led to the truth via reason, and you continue to assert as much.

If one tautologically defines truth to consist wholly of reason, you would be right. But that's an absurdly impoverished view of truth. Truth is never irrational, and must conform to reason, but reason alone is not truth, and is not our guide to truth.

Reason can be used to sow seeds of doubt in another person's conception of truth, and reason can be used to test and strengthen our own conception of truth. We can also seek out people who believe the same as us, and congratulate one another on being more rational that "those irrational fools who don't believe the same as us." Reason can be used in all these ways.

But reason is never sufficient to persuade someone of the truth. It simply never happens. Never ever. Such a claim is patently irrational.

And the fact that you would assert a false dichotomy between reason and rhetoric shows that you have little understanding for either, and for truth. Do we really need to go into the things that are necessary for a good understanding of truth? Experience, empathy, imagination, memory, revelation, humility?

Anonymous said...

The issue under discussion isn't whether religious ideas ought to be discussed; the issue is the means of persuasion used when discussing a particular topic. There's no conflict between the discussion of religious topics and the free and open exchange of ideas via rational persuasion. By all means, let religious topics be discussed in the public square -- that's perfectly compatible with democratic ideals. But there are better and worse ways to do this in terms of individual and collective interest. At least prima facie, rational persuasion is the best way to do this. That's my claim, anyway.

Anonymous said...


I suppose I wasn't construing reason as narrowly as you've attributed to me; I accept the standard sources of basic justification (perception, memory, introspection, rational insight (say, of analytic and synthetic a priori propositions), testimony, and whatever can be properly deductively, inductively, and abductively inferred from them) accepted my most epistemologists. I also accept that intellectual virtues of the sort you mention (e.g., humility) as truth-conducive. If you refer to my previous remarks (July 14, 2009 11:41 AM), you'll see the context of what I was contrasting reason with:

I think the annoyance is that Christian proselytizers typically use non-rational means for conversion (appeal to fear, emotional appeals, etc.), and that the attempt to generate a majority opinion in this way is contrary to the democratic ideals of rational persuasion.

Dave said...

M. Anon:

I believe Victor initially set the terms of debate differently than you have. He wants to know how it is that religious claims can be broadly criticized as coercive.

The typical atheist claim against religion is that it is inherently coercive whenever it is discussed, and therefore should be abolished.

But you counter this by saying that religious ideas are not inherently coercive and are perfectly compatible with democratic ideals. Apparently, you only object to them when they appeal to irrational impulses, which is not a technique unique to religion. I don't really see what stake you have in the original question.

However, to the extent that irrational appeals are coercive, they undermine the idealism of democratic society, which presupposes rational actors making up the majority of the electorate.

So, apparently the problem for you is not religion, but human nature. This bodes ill for the future of democracy.

Dave said...


It's irony, dude.

Blue Devil Knight said...

Dave said:
"The typical atheist claim against religion is that it is inherently coercive whenever it is discussed, and therefore should be abolished. "

That claim may exist from some atheist, but it is far from typical. Many atheists I know love to discuss religion. said...

Sorry, Victor. Atheists are apparently in favor of religious people expressing their views openly.

Where do you get this idea that some of them feel imposed upon? Where is the coercion? The child abuse? The persecution?

Anonymous said...

Here's why religion is imposing. When I'm trying to do something, or make a point, some peole say that it offends them, they can even take me to court over the issue. And, no matter how much you'ed like to think there is a separation between church and state, there isn't... American laws are based from religious morals. So, even the law is imposing.
Another reason its imposing is when it binds me from doing what I wish to do. I can't walk in a church and play the piano, but I certainly can anywhere else. I can't even ask where the bathroom is because the snobby people at the church take one look at the holes in my pants and snarl in disgust.
In fact, here's another reason! I am sick and tired of people trying to shove this stuff down my throat when they preach to me! I am a pianist, I write music, lots of it, I'm only seventeen. I have people who want me to play at churches, but they tell me I cant play my own compositions. I have to play religious ones! I have people tell me to incorporate god into my music! NO! Its not gods music! God didnt give me talent! I worked my ass off since I was 5 to earn my talent! Music is my personal space, and religion is invading that. Thats why its imposing!!!