How many of your friends and coworkers are regular church attenders? What are their religious beliefs?
When I ask myself this question, I find it really hard to come up with any solid answers. No one I know (outside of social media of course) ever talks about their religious beliefs and practices. Even in my days as a Christian, I generally only heard other people talk about religion when they were actually in church.
There seem to be few people indeed who actively seek conversation about religion with non-church friends and coworkers, and these people tend to be zealous evangelicals (which is not surprising giving the meaning of the word). Among these folks are those who will stand on street corners to preach, but these are a rarer breed still.
Why is that? Why don’t most believers feel comfortable bringing up what, for most of them, is one of the most important parts of their lives? After all, people seem quite comfortable talking about other things of personal import like children and spouses.
A clue can be found in the Qur’an, of all places. On several occasions, the prophet talks about how unbelievers consider him and his message to be insane. That’s the feeling I get when I see street preachers: they seem just a little too obsessed with what they’re doing – it doesn’t seem healthy.
But that’s not the whole story. If someone got up on their soap box and started talking about global warming, or political freedom, or some other secular issue, I don’t think most passersby would be particularly fazed. Part of what makes people particularly uncomfortable with street preaching – and proselytizing in general – is that the content of the material is just plain weird. Proselytizers aren’t talking about tangible things that we all have experience with. They’re talking about what sounds like a fantasy world of gods and demons and miracles, and they seem really sincere about it.
The interesting thing about this is that most Christians are perfectly aware of how strange their beliefs and practices are. They know that it’s weird to stand there with their eyes closed, talking aloud to an invisible person. They know that it’s weird to talk to other people about having a personal relationship with a man who died 2000 years ago.
And that, of course, is what church is for: in church, believers feel safe doing all these weird things because everyone around them is doing them too (there’s a great blog post on this topic at Triangulations blog, by the way).
The big question that must be asked then, is why our culture has this widespread view that religious belief and practices are a little weird. If Christianity, for instance, were true, and Jesus really was alive, and God really existed, then surely these facts would be obvious to everyone (even nonbelievers)? And if they were obvious, then surely talking about Jesus and God would seem no weirder than talking about the traffic or the weather?
Now, there certainly are some weird things in nature, like quantum mechanics, but no one feels uncomfortable when these are discussed in public. Why not? It’s because people know that quantum mechanics is real: they know that despite its weirdness, quantum mechanics has nonetheless been proven in the laboratory. They also know that quantum mechanics is about real, everyday objects whose existence it is almost impossible to question.
The same cannot be said about any particular religious belief. There is no consensus among the world’s population about which beliefs are true and which are not, and no religious belief is obviously true in the way that the existence of matter is obviously true. And this means that the discussion of any given belief in a pluralist setting will, if approached dogmatically, with no doubts or caveats, come across as a little too confident, and a little too far fetched for most people’s comfort.
So, I guess this post can be taken two ways. Either as a not-so-subtle suggestion that religious belief is weird (and that believers know it), or as a guide to the evangelist: don’t introduce your beliefs all at once, because people will look at you funny. Ease them into it.