I get questions quite often wondering in some sense or another if I have traded in one religion for another, if dismissal of unfounded beliefs is not itself a type of religion. Russell Blackford addresses this in his book “50 Great Myths About Atheism.” It’s important enough to Blackford to take it on in the very first part; “Myth 1: Atheism is Just Another Type of Religion.” I highly recommend this book for anyone who wants to understand or address atheism or atheists at all in any capacity. At the very least it will help elevate the quality of the discussion, often out of a miasma of ignorance.
I think one big reason this question comes up is that many folks have a really hard time thinking about life with no religious context or principles and accepting the fact that a rich, full, moral, meaningful life is possible outside of religion altogether. Although I don’t know the motivation here, one variation of this question came to me recently:
“[…] friend of mine said he interviewed you for a podcast.. we discussed things.. our theology has changed and discussing you and yours…. do you feel you have just changed evangelism for evangelism? Like you were really all for God and tryign [sic] to convince people.. and now not for a god and trying to convince people.. did anything really change.. not trying to make you think or anything.. it’s just what I see as someone from outside your circle.. maybe it’s dif.. but what do you think?”
I always assume there’s some reasonable basis for asking these kinds of questions but words have meaning and often have multiple meanings and definitions. One meaning or definition often gets confused with another in religious discussions with words like “faith,” and “theory,” especially when it serves the aims of certain kinds of believers. Consulting any dictionary on the word “evangelism” will similarly yield a number of definitions. This one at the Oxford Dictionary gives two, one religious and the other non-religious:
1 The spreading of the Christian gospel by public preaching or personal witness.
1.1 Zealous advocacy or support of a particular cause.
This might be enough on its own to show that the two are quite different. Of course one might also conclude that maybe I am an evangelist after all! I am certainly zealous about certain ideas, passionate about my life, mystery and my role in the universe, truth and the ways we best discover, learn and know the truth, the human experience, love, human rights and the well-being of all sentient creatures, minimizing harm wherever and whenever possible. I do zealously advocate for all these things. If that’s what the question is asking, then yes, by the second definition I admittedly practice evangelism.
Whether that was the point of asking or not, I think it misses some important distinctions. It’s not just the transfer of one kind of religious evangelism for another. There are plenty of non-religious examples of evangelism. In business school and in my music industry classes we talk about product evangelists, and in the case of music, fan clubs, street teams and the like. These are the people who drive grassroots marketing efforts because they are passionate about their cause, often willing to work for free, even at their own expense. As Guy Kawasaki explains it:
“Evangelism means convincing people to believe in your product or ideas as much as you do, by using fervor, zeal, guts, and cunning to mobilize your customers and staff into becoming as passionate about a cause as you are.”
When we talk about religious evangelism, there are different criteria including specific beliefs. Now, like much of the rest of religious or theological beliefs and concepts, there is no authoritative body to tell us what exactly Evangelicalism is, but looking at a number of sources we can arrive at some consensus.
The National Association of Evangelicals for example, defines evangelicals as people who “agree strongly” with four beliefs: The Bible is the ultimate authority governing their lives; Christians should try to spread their faith to others; Christ is the only path to eternal salvation; and “Jesus Christ’s death on the cross is the only sacrifice that could remove the penalty of my sin.”
Drawing from a number of sources, Newsmax suggests five criteria, four of which mirror those of the NAE, but they also add a finding from the Pew Reseach Center that, “most, though not all, evangelicals believe there will be a rapture in the end times where the church will be ‘caught up with Christ before the Great Tribulation, leaving nonbelievers behind to suffer on Earth.’”
So as the writer asks, did anything really change for me? It certainly did! It’s pretty clear that we are talking about two qualitatively very different things here including the content, even if there is some common ground in the passion and advocacy of beliefs. I’ve written many times that religion often attempts to co-opt as much of the human experience as it can for its own narrative and purposes. All religions do this. I think it’s pretty easy to show rather that the fullness of the human condition and all of its constructs precede religion and are not at all dependent on it, including passion about our lives, the wonder and mystery of our world and universe, the things and people we love, and our advocacy on their behalf. In my world, evangelism is dead. Long live evangelism.