Archive for the ‘Influence/Persuasion’ Category

The Sad Story of Two Religious Cults Guilty of Faith-Healing Homicide

November 7, 2018

Review of In the Name of God: The True Story of the Fight to Save Children from Faith-Healing Homicide, by Cameron Stauth (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2012)

The story told by Cameron Stauth is sadly an unfinished story. But Stauth has captured what is perhaps the climax of the story, some important legal victories in the state of Oregon, which will hopefully play a part in ending the tragedy of hundreds of children dying at the hands of their own parents because they don’t believe in modern medicine, but in the power of prayer to heal. Stauth is the author or co-author of twenty-five books, including several national and international best-sellers.

Part One of the book begins by tracing the origins of two churches that are highlighted in the book, the Christian Science Church, and the Followers of Christ Church, two churches that practice faith-healing which in many cases leads to children dying unnecessarily. This historical overview is unfortunately too brief and it tends to over-generalize with regard to fundamentalist Christian churches. The Great Awakening and the Second Great Awakening did much more than spawn bizarre and “ultra-secretive radical-fundamentalist” churches (p.2). The Awakenings also involved a revival of healthy religion.

The first and shorter part of the book deals with faith healing as practiced in the Christian Science Church. The Christian Science Church believes that disease is “a figment of the imagination, made real only by the belief” that it is real (p. 28). After all, it was Shakespeare who gave us this “postmodern” ditty: “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so,” as is quoted by Mary Baker Eddy in one of her books (p. 63). Part One of the book centers around Matthew Swan who was born on March 3, 1976, to academic parents who were members of the Christian Science Church. Sadly, Matthew died 16 months later, from bacterial meningitis, a condition that was in fact treatable. Matthew’s death affected his parents deeply, leading his mother, Rita Swan to lose interest in life as depression overwhelmed her (p. 40). But eventually she recovered, in part because she became aware that she was not alone in her grief. 1979 was the International Year of the Child and Rita discovered that children all over the world were suffering from any number of causes, including faith-healing abuse. So she dedicated her life to bringing the issues posed by Matthew’s death to public attention, writing The Last Strawberry, an eloquent reminiscence of Matthew’s life. The Matthew Project was transformed into a foundation called “Children’s Healthcare is a Legal Duty” (CHILD) (p.66). Rita is one of the heroes of this book – a testament to what one person with a strong commitment can do to bring about significant change in a democracy (p. 83).

How does one bring about change? Early on in her crusade, Rita knew what solving faith-healing abuse would require. “First, she needed to find a state with a weak shield law – or to successfully weaken one herself. Second, she needed a district attorney in that state who was willing to aggressively prosecute a prominent church, such as the Faith Tabernacle or the Followers of Christ. Third, that prosecutor needed to have a police force that had developed an inside source within the church: somebody who was trusted by the churchgoers, and willing to betray that trust” (p. 84).

All three conditions were eventually met in Clackamas County in Oregon, which was “the epicenter of faith-healing abuse in America,” and which also became the center for legal battles to overcome child abuse (p. 246). The third of Rita’s conditions for success was met in Patrick Robbins, the other hero of the book. Patrick was a member of The Followers Church, a church with a long history, having its origins in London England in the late 1600s. The Followers Church “had arrived in America almost three hundred years ago, had thrived throughout four Great Awakenings, and had nurtured the spirits of fifty generations” (p. 430). The Followers, together with the Church of the First Born, appeared to Rita Swan to be “the two most lethal churches in America … sharing harsh doctrines of medical avoidance, literal interpretation of the Bible, lifelong shunning of presumed sinners, and extreme fear of a brutally tortuous hell” (p. 249).

The bulk of the book tells the story of four cases of faith-healing abuse in Patrick’s church, and the legal battles surrounding these four cases. Patrick himself gradually loses faith in the church’s position on faith healing. He is very much aware what becoming an inside informant might cost him: “I’ll lose everything. My wife. My family. My job. My friends. I may even go to hell,” he says to the author during an initial interview with which the book begins (p. 1). In the end, however, Patrick is partially successful in changing the beliefs of his church, though the greater victory is no doubt the inroads he made in ending the tragedy of faith-healing abuse in America.

Of course, these aren’t the only churches that believe in faith-healing. In a groundbreaking study co-authored by Rita Swan and Rhode Island pediatrician Seth Asser, and published in the journal Pediatrics, the authors document 172 faith-healing deaths of children in America between 1975 and 1995. These included babies who in some cases were literally tortured to death. These deaths were associated with 23 different sects in 34 states. The study was designed conservatively to ensure its credibility, and Rita was sure it represented only the tip of the iceberg (p. 83). Some of the stories are difficult to read. How can parents be so cruel, so irrational, so subject to group-think, to sacrifice their own children in the name of church doctrine that is plainly silly?

One answer that comes up repeatedly in the book is that these people had been brainwashed. “There are so many deeply entrenched thought patterns that the ex-Christian Scientist has to unlearn,” says Rita Swan, when describing the difficulty she faced in extricating herself from the church (p. 64). “For 150 years, those patterns had been programmed into the brains of Christian Scientists with virtually no allowance for freedom of thought. Mary Baker Eddy had refused to allow preaching or teaching by anyone but herself, insisting that her adherents read forty-five minutes of specific passages from her book and the Bible each day, with a repetition of the same material by Readers at church every Sunday” (p. 64). Here we see some of the essential ingredients of brainwashing – a charismatic and controlling leader who does not allow subordinates to think for themselves. What is also significant here is that it is adults who are being brainwashed, not just children. Hence, the telling worry of Patrick about the Followers’ children, “who were almost as brainwashed as the adults” (p. 144). Of course, the parents in the Followers church kept insisting that their children were not brainwashed (pp. 224, 227). But then if the parents are themselves brainwashed, they are not in a very good position to assess whether their children are being brainwashed.

A few other dimensions of brainwashing come to the fore in Patrick’s exchanges with his wife, Theresa, after the birth of their son. Patrick tries to engage in a rational conversation with Theresa about the possibility of taking their baby to a doctor if he should get sick, “but she just rattled off slogans” (p. 219). “Like all of the Followers, she’d been brainwashed since childhood, and even now it was reinforced almost every day – not in a cruel way, which he could discredit – but through limitless acts of kindness from people in the church. The crazy thing was, the Followers were good people, all of them victims of brainwashing themselves” (p. 219). Indeed, most of the Followers really didn’t know much about their religion, as Rita Swan observed later (p. 260). Their religiosity consisted of mindless repetition and had little room for understanding and creative thought.

Patrick’s reflections highlight one other important feature of brainwashing in the Followers church. It wasn’t done in a cruel way, but through acts of kindness. We see here also that brainwashing doesn’t only involve manipulation of the brain, as is sometimes assumed. Nor does indoctrination have to do primarily with the beliefs a person holds, as is so often maintained in the literature on indoctrination.(i) Brainwashing and indoctrination involve the whole person. And even acts of kindness can be a means of indoctrination and brainwashing.

A final dimension of brainwashing is highlighted in this book, and that is the demand for certainty. In a moving husband-wife conversation just after Theresa has announced for the first time that a break-up of their marriage is possible, Patrick tries to help Theresa think rationally and critically about their faith, but she simply cannot. Instead, she accuses Patrick of betrayal – “You didn’t hold fast” (p. 267). Patrick’s sister, who had left the Followers church much earlier, but returned after retirement to support Patrick, sums up a healthy intellectual and religious life: “As you get wiser … you see how mysterious life really is. Only the young and dumb … indulged in certainty” (p. 370). There is some truth to this assessment. The quest for certainty is dangerous.

Reading this book made me ask a few other questions about brainwashing and indoctrination that I had not really thought about before, despite my having written quite extensively on the subject. Is there perhaps a deeper problem underlying the phenomenon of brainwashing? Is brainwashing practiced and made possible because of a moral flaw within human nature? I do not want to pursue these questions here, but I do want to juxtapose the phenomenon of brainwashing with a review of what this book says about human nature.

In reading this book, I found myself overwhelmed with the perversity of human nature. And this despite the fact that this theme is not highlighted by the author. Indeed, to his credit, Stauth goes out of his way to be as generous as possible in describing the parents who sacrifice their children in the interests of their religious beliefs. Again and again we are reminded that these people were essentially good people. As already noted, Patrick describes the Followers as “good people” (p. 219). That is why it was so hard to get them convicted in court. One defense attorney would describe the Followers as “the most honest and endearing people I’ve met in a long time” (p. 261). But while reading this book, I had increasing difficulty in seeing the actors in this drama as good, honest, and endearing people.

Are parents who refuse to give their children necessary and easily obtainable medical treatment good people? Are parents who beat their children, to the point of killing them, in order to drive the devil out of them, good people (p. 173)? Are church members who use “bodily force to push people to hold fast,” good people (p.381)? I have difficulty characterizing as good people who openly tell lies in court under oath (pp. 93, 223).

Stauth does underscore the hypocrisy of the Followers of Christ. For example, parents would go to see a doctor when they themselves needed medical help, but they refused to do the same for their children (pp. 257, 329). Some of the Followers did take their children to doctors secretly, all the while espousing faithfulness to church doctrine and practice (p. 218). Again, I have to ask whether hypocritical people are good people?

Lest we think that moral perversity is only a characteristic of people belonging to churches such as the Followers, let me go on to highlight some moral defects of so-called “normal people,” people of the establishment, people who supposedly have not been brainwashed. Take for example the medical doctor, Dr. Janice Ophoven, called in as a witness by the defense in two of the important court cases described in this book (pp. 274-77, 343-46). Dr. Ophoven is America’s premier expert witness for the defense of child abuse, testifying at about seventy trials each year (p. 274). Ophoven’s fee is $400 per hour, plus expenses, often including travel time (p.276). The question I am forced to ask is, how can an intelligent doctor specialize in the defending parents who needlessly allow their children to suffer and die? Is this not also morally perverse? Has she too been brainwashed?

Then there are the politicians who facilitated faith-healing child abuse. Richard Nixon engineered passage of the state and federal religious-shield laws that gave faith healing the same essential legal status as medical treatment, and allowed Christian Science hospitals to bill Medicare at the same rate as medical hospitals (p. 35). Nixon’s mandates were endorsed by Ted Kennedy, chairman of the Subcommittee on health, who needed the money and votes of the Christian Science church members in his home state of Massachusetts where Mrs. Eddy had founded and headquartered the church (p. 36). George W. Bush took Nixon’s Southern Strategy to new lows, pandering to religious fundamentalism because it was politically expedient (p. 194). Again I ask are these politicians, and the many other governors who were guilty of the same kind of political expediency, good people? And, have they also been brainwashed?

Finally, what about the broader Christian church? Should they not be exercising some form of discipline on churches that are obviously doing what is terribly wrong and quite contrary to orthodox Christian doctrine? Stauth, in his conclusion, hints at this problem when describing Rita Swan, who in her crusade against the crime of faith-healing abuse, experienced much personal abuse herself “from fundamentalists, lobbyists, legislators, decade after decade, with barely a penny of help from a vast American religious community that should have revered her” (p. 435-6). Is the broader Christian church too morally perverse and brainwashed?

The story overall is a very sad story. But surprisingly, it ends on a positive note and offers a message of hope. There is of course the final victory in a series of court cases in Clackamas County in October of 2011. This victory will hopefully begin to change the trajectory of laws in America in a direction that will end the religious shield laws that protect children from parents who blindly believe in faith healing. There are scenes of Rita Swan, and Patrick Robbins, and the detectives and attorneys in Clackamas County, celebrating their modest victories. But perhaps the most positive and hope-inducing part of this story has to do with individuals who were transformed. There is of course Patrick and his sister Emma, who grew up within the narrow and distorted influence of the Follower’s church, yet somehow managed to free themselves from this background, despite the pressures to conform. Brainwashing doesn’t always succeed! Then there is the miracle of Patrick and his sister learning to forgive their family and their church (see esp. p. 317). And finally there is the Followers’ church in Clackamas County where a growing number of members begin to doubt the Church and study the Bible for themselves (p. 371). Towards the end of the book Patrick and Ella put on a picnic for their like-minded friends in the church, and Patrick gives an inspiring reinterpretation of the Christian story that includes grace and compassion and freedom (pp. 385-7). Healing and healthy religion is possible!(ii)

This book deserves to be widely read. It provides an in-depth look at a phenomenon that should be of special interest to church leaders and cult specialists. Researchers should be forewarned that there are no footnotes. Indeed, at times I could not help but ask whether the author was indulging in too much editorial license, especially when describing the feelings and motivations of some of the key actors in this drama. Stauth also has a tendency to sensationalize. For example, he has this to say about the courtroom scene: “The single most horrifying element of a criminal courtroom is that most of the people in it are having fun, making money, feeling important, and thinking about their plans” (p. 423). This is a huge generalization, but is it grounded in fact. Having said that, it is very apparent that this book is based on extensive research, and is in the main factual. It is a sad story, but one that needs to be told, and I commend Stauth for telling the story so well.

(i)See my Teaching for Commitment: Liberal Education, Indoctrination, and Christian Nurture. Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press. 1993. (see especially pp. 234, 295n12).

(ii) Elsewhere I have argued for “committed openness” as characterizing healthy religion. See for example my “Religious Education and Committed Openness,” in Inspiring Faith: Studies in Religious Education, ed. by Marius Felderhof, Penny Thompson, and David Torevell. Hampshire, England: Ashgate Publishing. 2007. pp. 35-46.

(This review was published in the International Journal of Cultic Studies, Vol. 5, 2014, pp.70-4)


Preaching to Convert: Evangelical Outreach and Performance Activism in a Secular Age – a review

June 26, 2016

Review of
Preaching to Convert: Evangelical Outreach and Performance Activism in a Secular Age,
by John Fletcher
Ann Arbor, MI: The University of Michigan Press, 2013.

The Christian church in North America today, including the evangelical church, is rather embarrassed about doing evangelism. In part this is due to fact that the history of the Christian church is littered with obviously immoral approaches to evangelism, from which we want to distance ourselves. But, as John Fletcher points out in the conclusion to his book, perhaps there is a more telling and current reason for our embarrassment about evangelism. We have accommodated to contemporary liberal pluralism, and thus do our utmost to be “pleasingly tolerant, faithful-but-non-fanatic” (p. 309), as per the portrait found in American Grace by Robert Putnam and David Campbell (2010). “Indeed, so great is the desire to ‘leave everybody else alone,’ so painful the self-inflicted wounds of awkward/offensive/presumptive evangelism, that most self-identified evangelicals rarely evangelize at all, at least not with any frequency” (p. 305). And yet, as Fletcher reminds us, evangelicals should engage in outreach. That is part of what it means to be an evangelical, as Fletcher points out in an early chapter, which provides a helpful analysis of what it means to be an evangelical (Ch. 2). Indeed, Fletcher frequently expresses his admiration for evangelical evangelism, even though he is an outsider.

This raises the question as to why a Professor of Theatre at Louisiana State University, and “a liberal, gay, ex-Southern Baptist, United Methodist” (p. 5), would write a careful analysis of evangelical approaches to evangelism. Fletcher interprets evangelism as a kind of theatrical performance, an “activist performance,” which he uses as an umbrella word to describe a host of other popular and scholarly terms that each touch on some aspect of the kind of performance that he studies – political theater, theater for social change, street theater, people’s theater, community-engaged theatre, theatre of the oppressed, or applied theatre/drama (Ch. 1, p. 18). I found trying to understand evangelism from this perspective to be not only refreshing but also illuminating in that it serves to highlight aspects of evangelism that are easily missed by those immersed in the evangelical mindset.

Fletcher also dares to suggest that progressive left activists have something to learn from evangelicals and their approaches to evangelism (pp. 311-13). Evangelicals are committed to inviting others to a better way, a better worldview, and they engage in evangelism because they believe that their message is in the other’s best interests. Evangelicals, while respecting the deep convictions of others, are willing to challenge them with their own convictions. Some evangelistic approaches also stress the need to understand their target audiences. Worldview assumptions need to be understood to be challenged. “Evangelicalism’s conversionist orientation – imperfectly realized as it may be – offers a reminder that democratically minded activism must always include an element of attraction and empathy with the enemy” (p. 312). Fletcher concludes Chapter 2 with this generous comment: “In a time of cynicism and diminished hopes, in a time of partisan polarization, in a time of desperation and apathy, I am envious of evangelicals’ faith in activism” (p. 45).

The bulk of Preaching to Convert is devoted to a careful analysis of various approaches to evangelism as practiced by evangelicals, who are described by Fletcher as “a heterogeneous collection of communities and individuals who unit in constantly seeking out, innovating, defining, theorizing, criticizing, reacting to, refining, combining, experimenting with, discarding, and realizing this ever-expanding, ever-deepening repertoire of techniques for changing the hearts, minds, and souls of those around them” (p. 309). Chapter 3 examines personal evangelism as proclamation – the “soul-winning” tradition of door-to-door evangelism, the “Four Spiritual Laws” presentation innovated by Bill Bright and the Campus Crusade for Christ, and the stop-strangers-on-the-street dialogic evangelism promoted by Ray Comfort in his “Way of the Master.”

In Chapter 4, Fletcher examines a number of evangelicals who have become critical of interpersonal evangelism that limits itself to proclamation. Indeed, multiple congregations across the United States have taken up the “Confessions of a Sinful Church” strategy, where they publicly apologize for “ugly evangelism” (pp. 124-8). Instead of confrontational approaches to evangelism, some evangelicals advocate approaches that involve friendship, careful listening, countering anti-Christian presuppositions, and apologetics. Chapter 4 takes up Jim Henderson’s “Ordinary Attempts,” Greg Koukl’s conversational apologetics, and Greg Stier’s “ideavirus” approach. Each of these approaches draw from the work of Francis Schaeffer who counseled evangelists to spend time trying to understand the worldviews of non-Christians before they tried to persuade them of Christian Truth.

In the third section of the book Fletcher studies two large-scale, more traditionally “theatrical” evangelical performance forms. Chapter 5 focuses on the community/church-based staging of “hell houses” and judgement houses” as a way of reaching the unconverted. Chapter 6 examines the Creation Museum, a multi-million-dollar combination of science museum and discovery-fun-center based around a strictly young-earth creationist viewpoint. Often considered to be exemplars of evangelical backwardness and anti-intellectualism, Fletcher suggests they are best understood as community based productions that accomplish vital work for the producing communities in terms of reinforcing their beliefs, even as they strive to reach the unconverted.

Chapter 7 examines the way in which mega-churches have used seeker-sensitive worship services to attract new members. The chapter begins with an intriguing question raised in a video produced by Richard Reising’s company, Artistry Labs: “What if Starbucks Marketed like the Church? A Parable” (p. 221). Chapter 8 is somewhat of an odd fit for this book, and Fletcher concedes this point to some extent. The focus of Chapter 8 is on organizations like Exodus International, which are dedicated to helping homosexuals find healing. Here the focus is not on changing someone else, but on individual conversion. In this chapter Fletcher analyzes the controversies surrounding the effectiveness of gay cures, and the resulting spectrum of positions on LGBT people within evangelicalism.

I found Fletcher’s survey of each of these evangelical performances to be thorough and often insightful, uncovering the assumptions underlying each approach and doing some good comparative analysis. Indeed, his careful analysis belies his status as an outsider. This is in part due to his background as “a preacher’s kid in the Southern Baptist Church” and his knowing “from firsthand experience what it is to evangelize” (pp. 12-13). Fletcher is also not afraid to use the works of evangelical scholarship, though he is careful to note and account for interpretive slants that might exist. Interestingly, he draws attention to a “comparable warping in many ostensibly ‘neutral’ works on religion, works that can sometimes dwell more on the author’s distance from faith than on the beliefs and believers being studied” (p. 12). This is very definitely not a weakness of Fletcher’s own analysis. Though he engages in criticism, I found his criticisms to be on the whole fair, and meeting his aim of “critical generosity” (p. 36). At times he quite deliberately defends evangelicals and evangelistic methods against unfair criticisms. It is only in his chapter on homosexuality that his language occasionally becomes a little strident.

I would highly recommend this book for anyone wanting a good overview of evangelical practices of outreach. Though a book of scholarship, it is very readable, and further, fascinating for anyone interested in evangelical approaches to evangelism.

A Philosopher Examines Jonathan Haidt

February 23, 2016

The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, by Jonathan Haidt.  New York, NY: Vintage Books, 2013. 500 pages, Paperback

The title of Jonathan Haidt’s book is well chosen. This is a book that touches on ethical reasoning, political analysis, and religious faith. There is, however, an ambiguity in the main title. The “righteous mind” can refer either to a mind that thinks about that which is right, or it can refer to a self-righteous or dogmatic mind. Haidt intends both meanings. The overall thrust of this book is to explain how and why liberals and conservatives are so divided about politics and religion, and also how this divide can be overcome. What is missing from title of this book is that it is written from the perspective of evolutionary social psychology.

As a philosopher, I found Part I of this book most intriguing – “Intuitions Come First, Strategic Reasoning Second.” Haidt is here challenging much of the history of philosophy that presumes that we are fundamentally rational creatures. For example, Plato assumed that reason ought to control the passions. This kind of thinking was reinforced during the Enlightenment which postulated a universal and objective reason. According to Haidt, we are not as rational as we think we are. We are governed more by intuition and instinct than by reason. Here we must be careful not to see intuition and instinct as inferior to reason. Both are “cognitive” according to Haidt. There are two kinds of cognition, intuition and reasoning. Intuition refers to the hundreds of rapid, effortless decisions and moral judgments that we all make every day (p.53). Many of these are automatic. Only some of them surface as full-blown emotional responses.

Haidt provides a useful illustration to help us understand these two kinds of cognition. He first used this analogy his earlier book, The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom (Basic Books, 2006). Try to imagine a rider on a huge elephant. The rider symbolizes the rational part of human nature, our controlled processes, including “reasoning-why.” The large and lumbering elephant stands for the automatic processes of human nature, including emotion, intuition and all forms of “seeing-that” (p. 53). For Haidt, it is our automatic processes that run the human mind, just as they have been running animal minds for 500 million years (p. 53).

The rider can do several useful things. It can see further into the future and can therefore help the elephant make better decisions. More importantly, the rider acts as the spokesman for the elephant, even though it doesn’t necessarily know what the elephant is really thinking. “The rider is skilled at fabricating post hoc explanations for whatever the elephant has just done, and it is good at finding reasons to justify whatever the elephant wants to do next” (p.54). In evolutionary terms, once human beings developed language and began to communicate with each other, “it became extremely valuable for elephants to carry around on their backs a full-time public relations firm” (p. 54). So, the rider serves the elephant. Reason is the servant of intuition. “Conscious reasoning functions like a press secretary who automatically justifies any position taken by the president” (p.106).

I think Haidt has got it right. We are not as rational as we think we are. We approach many new situations or new ideas with our minds already made up. This has huge implications for how we think about education, or how we think about influencing or persuading others, a subject that I have been preoccupied with for much of my career. We need to pay much more attention to the way in which our thinking is shaped by non-rational influences – social media, movies, culture, propaganda. We seldom change our minds because of rational persuasion. As Haidt puts it, “if you want to change people’s minds, you’ve got to talk to their elephants” (p. 57). At a personal level, we influence people more by displaying warmth and empathy than by rational argument.

Haidt’s analysis is also helpful in understanding churches. Every church has a distinctive culture that is simply a given. It is this pervasive church culture that determines not only the atmosphere of the church but also the decisions it makes. Decisions are largely made automatically in light of the culture of the church. It is very hard to challenge the culture of the church and the decisions that come out of such a culture. Rational persuasion is really of little value. Here again, one needs to learn how to talk to the large and lumbering elephant. Contrary positions need to be expressed with gentleness, and love, and prayer, and with lots of patience. Maybe over time, over a long period of time, one might bring about a small shift in church culture.

Our moral judgments too are not fundamentally rational in nature, according to Haidt. Here he draws on eighteenth century philosopher, David Hume, who argues that morality is grounded in the emotions, though Haidt prefers to talk about social intuition rather than individual emotions. Emotions are only one type of intuition. Here again, the bulk of our moral judgments are intuitive, automatic, and elephant-like. Moral reasoning comes mainly after the initial intuitive moral judgments have already been made, and has the purpose of rationalizing our intuitions, and communicating them to others, particularly in terms of enhancing our reputation. Haidt comes very close to talking about moral intuitions as innate (pp. 153, 178, 325). Here his evolutionary theory gets in the way. As a Christian, I maintain that God has implanted in us certain moral intuitions, so that we instinctively know that some things are right or wrong (cf. Romans 2:14-15). Of course Haidt can’t admit this because he doesn’t believe in God. Further, he deals with morality at a descriptive level, and tries very hard to avoid prescription.

In Part II Haidt goes on to critique the dominant moral theories of a very small subset of the human population – Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic Western societies (forming the acronym WEIRD). WEIRD societies favor the values of utilitarianism and justice. Haidt argues that there is more to morality than harm and fairness, the values favored by liberals. Other important values include care, loyalty, authority, sanctity and liberty. These are values that tend to be emphasized by conservatives. Chapter 7 attempts to justify these values as part of an evolutionary process – adaptations for human flourishing. The value of care evolved in response to the adaptive challenge of caring for vulnerable children. The value of fairness evolved in response to the adaptive challenge of reaping the rewards of cooperation without getting exploited. The value of loyalty evolved in response to the adaptive challenge of forming and maintaining coalitions. The value of authority evolved in response to the adaptive challenge of forging relationships that will benefit us within social hierarchies. The value of sanctity evolved in response to the adaptive challenge of facing threats of various kinds, and has the effect of binding groups together. The value of liberty evolved in response to the adaptive challenge of resisting bullies and tyrants.

Part III involves an extended treatment of the groupish tendencies of human nature. Evolutionary theory has more recently accepted the notion that natural selection can work at multiple levels, and can include both individuals and groups. Religion plays a key role in creating community, an essential component for human survival. Contrary to the current crusading atheists, Dawkins, Dennett, and Hitchens, Haidt is quite sympathetic with religion.

The book ends with a final look at the increasing polarity between liberals and conservatives, arguing that in part these polarities are genetically based. “People whose genes gave them brains that get a special pleasure from novelty, variety, and diversity, while simultaneously being less sensitive to signs of threat are predisposed (but not predestined) to become liberals. They tend to develop certain ‘characteristic adaptations’ and ‘life narratives’ that make them resonate – unconsciously and intuitively – with the grand narratives told by political movements on the left” (p. 365). People whose genes have given them brains with the opposite settings are predisposed, for the same reasons, to resonate with grand narratives of the right. What to do about this polarity? Haidt pleads with both sides to listen and learn from each other. In fact the two sides compliment each other. A healthy society needs both liberals and conservatives. But he especially urges liberals to recognize that conservatives are better at creating and preserving moral and social capital that are essential to any society. “Moral communities are fragile things, hard to build and easy to destroy” (p.342). I admire Haidt, a former liberal, for having the courage to say this. I also appreciated his observation that liberals tend to be more dogmatic and narrow-minded than conservatives. So true, but all too often denied by liberals!

I conclude with some comments about the evolutionary perspective from which this book is written. As a Christian I am not entirely hostile to evolutionary theory. I am quite willing to go where the evidence leads me. I believe scientific evidence and biblical revelation point to a position of theistic evolution. Haidt, though more sympathetic to religion than most atheists, in the end interprets religion from an evolutionary perspective. Religion gives expression to our social nature (ch. 11), and captures the sacred (higher than I) dimension of our value system (pp. 173-4). At times Haidt is very careful to provide empirical support for his evolutionary theory. But especially when dealing with religion as a means of creating community, his analysis becomes increasingly speculative. It seems his evolutionary framework drives his interpretation, with or without empirical evidence.

This book provides a good example of how scientific theory relates to empirical evidence. Ultimately, theory needs to be grounded in the empirical. But we can never approach the empirical without some theoretical framework. Hence, the hermeneutical circle. How do we get out of this circle? First, by admitting that there is a problem. Further, a good scientist will always be open to having his/her interpretive framework challenged by empirical data that don’t quite fit the interpretative framework. The danger for a scientist who adopts an evolutionary theory, is that he interprets empirical data from the perspective of his assumed evolutionary perspective, and then lets nothing change his interpretive framework.

Let me give one example. Haidt is very careful to ground his interpretation of moral cognition as intuition in examples. So far, so good. Intuitions are then interpreted as adaptations of the human animal that have evolved over time, and that then become entrenched as automatic moral responses to certain situations. Again, this conclusion seems to be grounded in evidence. But there is a bit of an interpretive leap of faith here. As a Christian I interpret these moral intuitions as innate, as instincts that God has implanted into human nature. This interpretation is surely as plausible as an evolutionary interpretation. Indeed, as I have already pointed out, Haidt at times flirts with the notion of innateness. All that is needed to convert his interpretative theory into a Christian theory is to add the notion of God. Of course, I need to provide some additional evidence for preferring my interpretative framework, but that would take us far beyond the scope of this paper. Haidt clearly doesn’t want to adopt my Christian interpretive framework, because he is so thoroughly committed to his evolutionary interpretive framework. What would change Haidt’s mind? As we have already seen, rational argument will not be of much help. But perhaps the rider might look into the distant future, and entertain alternate scenarios, and this might eventually nudge the elephant closer to a genuinely religious interpretative framework.

Let me say a bit more about Haidt’s approach to morality. I find his position with regard to the nature of morality rather confusing. As an evolutionary social psychologist he is operating primarily at a descriptive level. His six foundational moral matrixes are descriptions of the values that people in fact do appeal to. As already noted, liberals tend to focus on liberty and equality. While conservatives have a broader moral matrix that includes loyalty, authority, and the sacred as importance values. But, as is the tendency of social scientists, Haidt doesn’t limit himself to description. He flirts with prescription. For example, Haidt argues (at least implicitly) that we ought to think in terms of all six moral foundations. He argues that liberals, especially, ought to be more open to conservative values. He decries the ideological divide between liberals and conservatives. The book concludes: “We’re all stuck here for a while, so let’s try to work it out” (p. 371). Yes indeed, but this comes very close to being a prescriptive conclusion. Haidt is saying that we ought to get along. Here again I believe Haidt needs to draw on Christian insights to overcome his confusion with regard to the descriptive/prescriptive divide. In the Christian canon of Scripture, God clearly issues prescriptions, the best example of which are the giving of the 10 commandments. But these commandments are not given arbitrarily. They are in fact given to us for our own good (Deut 6:3, 18). They work. If you want a healthy society, follow God’s laws. Or to draw on Haidt’s evolutionary perspective, God created man and society so that they have evolved in such a way that following the six moral matrixes will in fact lead to a healthy, well functioning society.

And what about the issue of moral relativism. Haidt is in fact very confusing here. At times he quite specifically adopts a relativistic stance (p.368). At other times, he quite specifically says he is not a relativist (pp.132-3). He wants to say that his six pillars of moral values are in fact the right way to make decisions. He comes very close to saying that these are objective moral values that all human beings should adopt. He correctly suggests that while these values are objective and universal, the way they are applied to different cultures will in fact be different (p.31). Here again I agree. There is some truth to situational relativism. But let’s not be so hesitant to admit that there are some core values that are built into nature that all people everywhere ought to follow. Again, I prefer a Christian interpretive framework which maintains that God created the world in such a way that the following of certain norms will in fact lead to flourishing societies.

As a philosopher, I often have difficulties appreciating books written by social scientists. As a Christian I also frequently have problems with overly dogmatic assertions of evolutionary scientists. I did not encounter these problems in reading Jonathan Haidt. Despite its confusions, this book deserves to be read.

The Ethics of Evangelism and Integral Mission

November 2, 2014

(This essay grew out of two presentations I made at the 5th. Global Triennial Consultation of the Micah Network, Thun, Switzerland, Sept. 10-14, 2012. A French version of this essay has been published in a book growing out of this conference: “Éthique de l’évangélisation et Mission intégrale”, in Le cri des chrétiens du Sud, Pour une Bonne Nouvelle incarnée dans des actes, Éditions « Je sème », sl, Dossier vivre n°34, 2013, p.83-103)

Western cultures have been shaped by the Enlightenment and its central liberal values of reason, autonomy, and tolerance. The Enlightenment made peace with “irrational” religion by relegating it to the private sphere. It is this inheritance that explains why evangelism is today viewed with a lot of suspicion. Christians engaging in evangelism are daring to enter the public arena and are further declaring the gospel to be public truth. I address this tension in my recent book, The Ethics of Evangelism: A Philosophical Defence of Ethical Proselytizing and Persuasion (Thiessen 2011).(1) This essay is meant to provide a brief summary of my book, after which I will address the relation between evangelism and integral mission. I will then deal with the ethics of integral mission.

I had three basic objectives in mind when I wrote the book – to defend evangelism against a variety of objections, to defend evangelism more generally, and to develop criteria to distinguish between ethical and unethical forms of evangelism. The book was written with two readerships in mind – skeptics opposed to religion and religious activity, and religious adherents, especially evangelical Christians, who are very much committed to evangelism. Writing for these two very different readerships is a challenge, particularly with regard to using language that will be understood by both. In the next section I treat two aspects of that challenge.

Evangelism and Ethics
First, what word should be used to identify the central focus of my book – “evangelism” or “proselytizing”? Christians prefer to talk about evangelism, the meaning of which can vary from “evangelism is social action,” to evangelism is “announcing the gospel to non-Christians with a view to faith and conversion.” Another word that is sometimes used as a synonym for evangelism is “proselytizing.” The dictionary definition of “proselytism” refers only to conversion from one opinion, creed or party to another. My use of the term “proselytizing” throughout the book was based on the conviction that this term was more familiar to my “secular” readership. However, in Christian circles proselytism has come to be associated with “evangelistic malpractice,” or the use of coercive techniques to achieve conversion.(2) In ecumenical circles ‘proselytism’ has also come to mean “sheep-stealing.” In this paper, I will for clarity’s sake, use only the word, “evangelism,” treating this as a neutral term from an ethical point of view, and then acknowledging that evangelism can be done either in an ethical or an unethical manner.

I have already suggested that “evangelism” also has a range of meanings. In my book – and in this essay – evangelism will be understood in its narrower sense as giving verbal witness to the gospel with a view to conversion. Another term sometimes used by Christians as a synonym of evangelism is “proclamation.” This word too can be used to refer both to verbal proclamation, and to living out the Lordship of Jesus Christ in everything that Christians do, including relief, rehabilitation, development, working for justice, and environmental care. (I will use the term “social action” as an abbreviation for the broader collective meaning of proclamation.) This paper begins with a focus on the narrower meaning of proclamation or evangelism, and I will later deal with these notions within the context of social action.

The second challenge I faced in writing for two very different readerships, involves the question, what ethical framework would I use to deal with the ethics of evangelism? Obviously, for us as Christians, ethics or the definition of right and wrong are rooted in God and in God’s word, especially God’s revelation in Jesus Christ.(3) In a way, nothing more needs to be said about providing an ethical framework for Christians. But, when talking with others who don’t share our faith, I believe it is important to try to find an ethical framework that we as Christians share with unbelievers. Why do I believe in the possibility of some common ground between believers and unbelievers when it comes to ethics? First, because of my faith in God as Creator of all that exists. God created laws – both physical laws and ethical norms. So a careful and open-minded study of nature will lead to a discovery of these laws. This has led various theologians to stress the notion of natural law as accessible to both believers and unbelievers. Secondly, God also created human nature, and so we find Paul arguing that Gentiles who don’t have the law nevertheless have the requirements of the law written in their hearts (Rom 2:14). I believe we are all born with a moral compass, which can be distorted, but never entirely silenced. Thirdly, I appeal to the dignity and care of persons as foundational to ethics, and as again providing a common ethical framework for both believers and unbelievers.

It was Immanuel Kant, in the eighteenth century, who gave us the modern and secular version of an ethical theory based on the dignity of persons. Kant repeatedly appeals to the absolute worth of human beings who are rational and free. This leads him to argue that we should always treat human beings as ends in themselves, never simply as a means to an end. Historically, this emphasis on the dignity of human beings has led to an ethics formulated in terms of rights and duties. Some feminist writers have reminded us of the limitations of rights-based ethics. I therefore believe a better approach to ethics is to combine an emphasis on the dignity and worth of persons with an emphasis on love and care for persons.

As Christians we can provide a theological foundation for this appeal to the dignity and care of persons. The most fundamental reason for respecting the dignity of the human being is that each person is created in the image of God. We are also called to love our neighbor, and so care for persons is also foundational to ethics. My hope is that all (or at least most) people will accept the dignity and care of persons as foundational to ethics. This gives rise to two foundational principles for dealing with the ethics of evangelism.

Dignity criterion
Ethical evangelism is always done in such a way as to protect the dignity and worth of the person or persons being evangelized. Evangelism becomes unethical when it reduces the potential convert to the status of an object or a pawn in the evangelism program of any church or Christian organization.

Care criterion
Ethical evangelism must always be an expression of concern for the whole person and all of his or her needs – physical, social, economic, intellectual, emotional, and spiritual. To care only for the salvation of the souls of persons is unethical. It involves an objectification of a part of the person and as such violates that person’s dignity.

Objections to Evangelism
There are many today, including some scholars, who would condemn most or even all evangelism as immoral. Objections to evangelism can be divided roughly into two categories.(4) First, some of the objections are empirical in nature. For example, it is argued that efforts at evangelism have harmful consequences for individuals and for society as a whole. Some critics argue that evangelism leads to resentment, hatred, disunity in society, and even holy wars. Sadly, there is some truth to these empirically-based objections. But, we need to be fair. All too often, claims about the harmful consequences of evangelism involve sweeping generalizations with little or no concern about concrete evidence. Critics also tend to load the dice by talking about fanatic, irrational or aggressive evangelists. And what about the counter-evidence – the countless individuals who have received relief from guilt after responding to evangelists’ proclamation of the message of forgiveness in Jesus Christ? Then there are the religious revivals that have led to significant moral improvement in societies.

The second and more common kind of objection to evangelism is conceptual in nature. It is often argued that there are certain characteristics of evangelism that make it immoral by its very nature. Some critics feel that persuasion is in itself immoral. Others focus more specifically on religious persuasion and argue that this is immoral because of the uncertainty or irrationality of religious claims. Still others maintain that evangelism is arrogant and intolerant. Some critics question the motivation behind evangelism. Then of course there is the charge that evangelism is coercive by its very nature. I argue that each of these objections against evangelism is unsound, based on problematic assumptions and questionable definitions, as I illustrate below with respect to coercion. Blanket condemnations of all evangelism, or claims that evangelism is inherently unethical, are simply unwarranted. This does not at all mean that these charges are never appropriate. The history of the Christian church is littered with evangelistic malpractice, including the use of coercive techniques or force to achieve conversion. This calls for repentance. At the same time, we can and should defend ourselves against criticisms to the effect that ethical evangelism is impossible.

A Positive Defence of Evangelism
As Christians we are called to proclaim the gospel and make disciples of all nations. The gospel is good news. To evangelize is therefore a good thing. But how does one defend evangelism to unbelievers? I argue that persuasion, including religious persuasion is an essential part of the human makeup.(5) Much of our conversation involves persuasion, and our efforts to persuade cover a wide variety of issues, including religion. Persuading others about our convictions is an essential part of our own dignity. Trying to persuade other persons of the error of their ways is also a way to honor others. Indifference is in the end an insult to others. John Stuart Mill, in his classic defense of liberty, argues that proselytizing is a healthy phenomenon, because it encourages controversy and discussion on “subjects which are large and important enough to kindle enthusiasm,” and which therefore enable even ordinary persons to rise “to something of the dignity of thinking beings” (Mill 1978, 33).

My defense of evangelism is not meant to rule out the possibility of there being unethical methods of evangelism. We can neither approve of evangelism generally nor condemn it outright, as is sadly all too often done. Instead, we need to pay more attention to developing criteria to distinguish between ethical and unethical evangelism. In my book I devote two chapters to analyzing and defending fifteen criteria to define ethical evangelism.(6)

Criteria to Distinguish between Ethical and Unethical Evangelism
I have already considered the first two criteria, dignity and care, in my treatment of the foundation of ethics. One important dimension of treating people with dignity involves respecting their freedom to make choices. Four of my criteria have to do with coercion, which is a frequently made charge against evangelism and proselytizing. While I believe that some evangelistic approaches are coercive and hence immoral, I believe the charge of coercion is not as easy to substantiate as is often assumed. Of course, if one starts with the assumption that all human actions are determined, it follows that all evangelistic efforts are coercive and hence immoral. But this begs the question. Besides, a deterministic worldview precludes moral evaluation. I prefer to talk about degrees of human freedom, and hence degrees of human responsibility. But as soon as one admits to degrees of human freedom, it becomes more difficult to define what is coercive. Indeed, the problem of vagueness pervades charges made against cult recruitment. This does not mean that the charge of coercion can never be made. I argue that it is better to deal with cases of suspected coercive evangelism on a case-by-case analysis. However, I believe some broader types of coercive evangelism can be identified.

It is helpful here to distinguish between four categories of coercion – physical, psychological, social, and inducements to convert. These four categories lead to four criteria to distinguish between ethical and unethical evangelism. The latter two categories are more closely related to the interface between evangelism and Christian aid/development and so I will treat these later. Physical coercion is the easier criterion to define. Some vagueness is unavoidable in defining the other criteria, although in each case there are extremes that should be seen as obviously morally offensive.

Physical coercion criterion
The freedom to make choices is central to the dignity of persons. Ethical evangelism will therefore allow persons to make a genuinely free and uncoerced choice with regard to conversion. Evangelism involving the use of physical force or threats is unethical.

Psychological coercion criterion
Stated as a general principle, ethical evangelism avoids psychological manipulation. There are various ways in which evangelism can be psychologically manipulative. (a) Christians engaged in evangelism should avoid intense, repeated and extremely programmatic approaches to bringing about conversions. (b) Care must be taken to avoid exploiting vulnerability. This becomes especially important when dealing with children, young people, vulnerable adults, and individuals facing personal crises. (c) Excessive appeals to emotion and fear must also be avoided.

Another set of criteria has to do with epistemic concerns, such as rationality, truth, and the way in which we present our claims to truth.

Rationality criterion
Evangelism involves persuasion to convert. Ethical persuasion includes the providing of information in order to make such a decision. It also includes giving reasons for the proposed change of heart and mind. Evangelism that attempts to sidestep human reason entirely is unethical.

Truthfulness criterion
Ethical evangelism is truthful. It seeks to tell the truth about Christianity. It is truthful also with regard to what it says about other religions. Integrity characterizes the ethical evangelist. Evangelism accompanied by hidden agendas, hidden identities, lying, deception, and failure to speak the truth should be condemned as unethical.

Humility criterion
Ethical evangelism is characterized by humility. Evangelism becomes unethical when it becomes arrogant, condescending, and dogmatic in the claims being made.

Sadly, Christians are not always exemplary in displaying the epistemic virtues of rationality and humility. They forget that they “only know in part” when evangelizing (I Cor. 13:12). Sometimes they are also not honest about their evangelistic intent. For example, Perry Glanzer has documented the story of a failure to be entirely truthful in a major missionary/educational endeavor prompted by an invitation by the Russian Ministry of Education in the early 1990’s, when evangelicals from America were invited to come and instruct Russian public school teachers on how to teach Christian ethics. In the main, the 1,500 people recruited to help train teachers in Russia were not educators, and had not been trained to teach Christian ethics, but were in fact missionaries intent on using this opportunity to evangelize and plant churches, leading Glanzer to conclude that the enterprise was “ethically problematic” (Glanzer 2002, p. 196).

A criterion that deserves to stand on its own has to do with motivation. Of course it is difficult to assess someone else’s motivation so perhaps the application of this criterion is best left for self-assessment.

Motivation criterion
The primary motivation for ethical evangelism is love for God and love for humanity. Ethical evangelism grows out of genuine concern for the other person’s well-being, and his or her assumed need to hear the truth as understood by the evangelist. With unethical evangelism, on the other hand, ego-centric motives such as personal benefit and reward, personal reassurance resulting from being able to convert another person to one’s own position, personal domination over another person, and personal satisfaction about growth of one’s own church, become dominant.

Another stand-alone criterion having to do with identity is fairly self-explanatory.

Identity criterion
Ethical evangelism will take into account and show some respect for the communal identity of the person being evangelized. Evangelism which completely disregards the dignity of the individual as rooted in his or her social (or religious) attachments is immoral.

The following two criteria try to capture what is right about the liberal virtues of tolerance and pluralism. It is important here to note how these criteria differ from traditional understandings of tolerance and pluralism. I am quite deliberately distancing myself from notions of tolerance and pluralism that assume a relativistic understanding of truth. Tolerance has to do with putting up with something that you don’t like. To preclude all criticism of beliefs is in fact to be intolerant. What is important is to respect persons even though one disagrees with the beliefs they hold. And one must also protect the right of others to share their beliefs even though one disagrees with them.

Tolerance criterion
Ethical evangelism treats persons holding beliefs differing from that of the evangelist with love and respect. While it does not preclude fair criticism of other religious or irreligious beliefs, it treats the same with respect, and avoids hostile attitudes or the use of insulting and abusive language against other religions and worldviews.

Golden Rule
Ethical evangelism operates under the assumption that others have the right to share their faith as well. It is immoral to assume or to work towards a monopoly of the evangelism enterprise.

I conclude my analysis of criteria to distinguish between ethical and unethical evangelism with a criterion that is particularly important given the passion for evangelism among evangelicals.

Results criterion
Results, success in persuasion, or church growth, while welcomed, should not be seen as
primary goals in evangelism. A pre-occupation with results, success, or church growth, when evangelizing, is unethical.

Evangelism and Integral Mission
There has been some discussion among Micah Network members about the relation between evangelism (understood as preaching/proclaiming the good news) and Christian aid/relief/development and working for justice (or social action). The oft-quoted definition of ‘integral mission” from the 2001 “Micah Network Declaration on Integral Mission” suggests that there is a close link between evangelism and social action.

It is not simply that evangelism and social involvement are to be done alongside each other. Rather in integral mission our proclamation has social consequences as we call people to love and repentance in all areas of life. And our social involvement has evangelistic consequences as we bear witness to the transforming grace of Jesus Christ.(7)

But does this mean that Christian social action and verbal proclamation of the gospel, always occur “at the same time?” Some members of the Micah Network have argued that this is a misinterpretation of integral mission, and have called for further nuancing of the declaration so as to avoid such misinterpretation.(8) There would seem to be some confusion with regard to the relation between evangelism and social action. Further, there are repeated demands by governments and government agencies that evangelism and social involvement be separated. In fact faith-based non-governmental development organizations (FBNGDOs) have accommodated such a separation by calling on workers in the field to abstain from explicit evangelism.

Clearly, it is possible to distinguish between aid/relief/development and verbal evangelism/proclamation, both at a conceptual and at a practical level. At the same time, each must be seen as a legitimate expression of the mission of God. Jesus called his disciples both to preach the good news and to heal the sick (Luke 9 & 10). Paul in his description of the “cosmic Christ” talks both about “reconciling” to himself “all things,” and about reconciling individuals to Jesus Christ (Col. 1:19, 22). As followers of Jesus Christ, we are therefore bound to say that in some sense, the ideal is that Christians and the church are engaged in both social action and evangelism. While each penetrates the other, yet in their core meaning, they can be distinguished, and thus there is a need to ensure that overall and in the long run, the church maintains a balance between these two aspects of Christian mission.

Sometimes circumstances are such that we as Christians will find ourselves preoccupied with social action. This should be seen as a perfectly legitimate expression of the mission of the church. We boldly engage in this somewhat one-sided approach to Christian mission because Christ calls the church to be involved in feeding the hungry, and overcoming poverty and exploitation. We also realize that even while we are engaged primarily in social action, our work cannot help but further the cause of evangelism, because the two can’t be entirely separated. Recipients of our aid will realize (over time) that we are doing this for the sake of Christ. Indeed, when asked why we are engaged in the same we will be honest in explaining our motivation. The truthfulness criterion considered above also applies to Christian aid and development.

At the same time, we must allow for the possibility that we as Christians will sometimes find ourselves focusing primarily on evangelism or verbal proclamation, because this too is an expression of obedience to God and the imitation of Jesus Christ. Again we realize that even while we are engaged primarily in verbal proclamation of the gospel, we will still be calling people to love and repentance in all areas of life, and thus our verbal proclamation will have social consequences.

Christian aid workers therefore need to acknowledge the legitimacy of those Christians who are engaged primarily in evangelism, and Christians committed to evangelism need to acknowledge the legitimacy of those Christians who are engaged primarily in social action. At the same time, both groups will recognize that it is impossible to entirely separate aid from evangelism. Hence, the notion of integral mission. I want to move on now to consider some unique dimensions of the ethics of evangelism within the context of relief and development.

Ethics of Integral Mission
Steve Bradbury, in a recent chapter on “The Micah Mandate,” suggests that The Micah Declaration lacks any acknowledgement of the sensitivities and ethics of evangelism in contexts of human vulnerability and dependence. He suggests that this may be due to the brevity of the declaration, or perhaps because of its original purpose and intended audience. He then identifies a problem that needs to be addressed.

All development and humanitarian programs necessarily involve transactions between people of greater or lesser dependence on the one side, and those who are the conduit for essential resources or services on the other. Within the context of these transactional relationships there is an inevitable imbalance of power, regardless of how much care is exercised and regardless of the humility or otherwise of the development or aid workers.(9)

So how does one address this imbalance of power? One of my criteria relating to coercion attempts to answer this question.

Social coercion criterion
While acknowledging that some degree of power and control is inescapable in evangelism (and Christian aid and development), excessive expressions of power, or the exploiting of power-imbalances when evangelising is unethical.

Clearly there is again some vagueness in this criterion. This is simply unavoidable. What can be done to overcome excessive levels of power-imbalance? I concur with Bradbury that FBNGDOs should be working in partnerships with local churches.(10)

Closely related to the problem of power-imbalance is the problem of exploiting vulnerability when engaged in Christian relief and development. Humanitarian aid cannot but create some psychological pressure and inducement to convert. Indeed, any Christian kindness, even ordinary friendship, has this “problem.” But is there really a problem here? We are human beings influenced by all kinds of factors, and it is impossible to isolate completely one aspect of our nature from another. Humanitarian aid provided by Christians (or atheists), will create some psychological pressure and inducement to convert to Christianity (or atheism). A degree of psychological pressure or inducement to convert is inescapable in humanitarian efforts. I think it is therefore important for Christian aid agencies and workers to admit this. Again, we need to be truthful about what we are doing. At the same time, there comes a point where it is clear that the inducements to convert are carried to an extreme. My next criterion of ethical evangelism identifies the extreme and then goes on to respond to less obvious cases of inducements to convert.

Inducement criterion
Evangelism accompanied by material enticement such as money, gifts, or privileges, is unethical. In situations where providing medical care, humanitarian aid, or education is in some way linked with evangelism, the greater the need, the more sensitive the person(s) engaged in social aid/development must be to the danger of exploiting that need, and thus inducing to convert. In situations where physical needs are overwhelming, evangelism should be kept entirely separate from the activity of responding to these physical needs. A further requirement is a high standard of transparency. Persons engaged in social aid/development must make it clear that they are not trading medical or humanitarian aid for conversion. There is no quid pro quo. The person being evangelized must therefore be given a clear sense that it is perfectly acceptable for him or her to accept aid, or medical help, and yet refuse any persuasive appeals to convert.

Here is an example of what I consider to be unethical integral mission. Christian groups who combined relief efforts and evangelism in response to the tsunami disaster in Asia in December of 2004 came under severe criticism in the media. I believe this criticism was justified. To evangelize in the context of extreme physical needs is simply inappropriate. It involves an exploitation of extreme vulnerability and therefore is unethical (Thiessen 2011, p. 167).

I conclude with a few comments on the Micah Network Statement on “Proselytism.”(11) While I am largely in agreement with this Statement, I do have some problems with its “unequivocal” affirmation of the Code of Conduct for the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and NGO’s in Disaster Relief, which says that “aid will not be used to further a particular political or religious standpoint” (Section #3). I believe a qualification needs to be made here. The giving of aid cannot help but make the recipient sympathetic to the religious or political standpoint of the aid-giver. The real issue therefore is one of exploiting aid in order to bring about political or religious conversion. The additional sentences of the relevant part of the Code of Conduct being referred to spells this out: “Humanitarian aid will be given according to the need of individuals, families and communities. Notwithstanding the right of Non Governmental Humanitarian Agencies to espouse particular political or religious opinions, we affirm that assistance will not be dependent on the adherence of the recipients to those opinions. We will not tie the promise, delivery or distribution of assistance to embracing or acceptance of a particular political or religious creed.” This I can heartily endorse.

There is a final problem in the ethics of integral mission that deserves some comment. I have argued that if we look at the work of Christians and the church in terms of the big picture, and over the long haul, we should be involved in both evangelism and social activity. I have also acknowledged that there will be circumstances that might limit our engagement in evangelism. For example, FBNGDOs sometimes face government constraints and even prohibitions with regard to evangelism. How should Christians respond to such regulations and restrictions?

I agree with the Micah Network Statement on “Proselytism” that it is not possible to dissociate what we are as Christians from what we do. Therefore, in seeking official entry to serve the needy in countries that restrict Christian activity, Christians should be very open about their Christian identity and motivation. At the same time, while foreign agencies should be careful to be transparent in their official relationship with any government, it should be recognized that it is often difficult for local organizations to operate in the same way.

I also believe that it is possible for Christians to accept the restrictions placed upon them by certain governments that prohibit them from taking the initiative in sharing their faith with those they are serving. Steve Bradbury makes a useful distinction between “programmatic” evangelism and the informal sharing of deeply held “spiritual” beliefs, a distinction that has been used as a guide by TEAR Australia.(12) I would also argue that governments have no authority to stop Christians from truthfully explaining their faith when asked to do so. If someone asks Christian aid workers why they are serving, then they should be able to say that it is out of obedience to Jesus Christ and in response to his love. If government regulations of a country are such that they do not allow Christians to explain their faith when asked why they are engaging in aid and development, then I seriously question whether FBNGDOs should be engaging in aid and development in this country.

Ethical evangelism is possible. So is ethical integral mission. May we as Christians be faithful to our Lord’s calling to both evangelism and social action.(13) May we also be committed to doing both in an ethical manner.

Bradbury, Steve. (2012). “The Micah Mandate: An Evangelical View.” In Mission and Development: God’s Work or Good Works, ed. Matthew Clarke, 103-122. London & New York: Continuum.

Glanzer, P. (2002). The Quest for Russia’s Soul: Evangelicals and Moral Education in Post-Communist Russia. Waco, TX: Baylor University Press.

Mill, J.S. (1978/1859). On Liberty. Indianapolis: Hackett.

Thiessen, E. J. (2011). The Ethics of Evangelism: A Philosophical Defense of Proselytizing and Persuasion. Milton Keynes, U.K., Paternoster; and Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic.
(1) In doing the research for my book, I discovered that little had been written about the ethics of evangelism. Since the publication of my book, the World Evangelical Alliance, the World Council of Churches, and the Vatican’s Pontifical Council on Inter-religious Dialogue released a major statement on the ethics of evangelism entitled, “Christian Witness in a Multi-Religious World: Recommendations for Conduct.” (accessed April 6, 2013)
(2) See for example, (accessed April 5, 2013.
(3) The ethics of evangelism is in fact specifically addressed in the New Testament. Jesus decisively rejected the use of all types of coercion in establishing his kingdom when he was tempted at the beginning of his public ministry (Matt. 4:1-11). He instructed his disciples to respect the freedom of individuals to reject the gospel message they preached (Luke 9:5). Paul too advocated sincerity of motive and truthfulness when spreading the good news (II Cor. 2:17; 4:1-2).
(4) In my book I devote three chapters to defending evangelism or proselytising against about a dozen objections (Thiessen 2011, chs. 3, 4, 5).
(5) This more positive defense of evangelism is found in Chapter 6 of my book (Thiessen, 2011).
(6) See Chapters 7 & 8 of my book (Thiessen, 2011). These criteria are summarized in Appendix #1 of my book (pp. 234-7). In this article I am offering a slightly revised version of these criteria, and am substituting “evangelism” for “proselytising” which were treated as synonyms in my book. I am well aware of the limitations of defining ethics in terms of principles, but I believe the attempt to do so still has some merit.
(7) (accessed April 6, 2013)
(8) See for example, Steve Bradbury (2012, pp.112-13).
(9) Bradbury (2012, p.113).
(10) Bradbury (2012, p.118) See also (accessed April 5, 2013)
(11) See footnote #2 for details.
(12) Bradbury (2012, pp. 117-18).
(13) I want to thank Daniel Hillion and an anonymous reader for their helpful comments on an earlier draft of this paper.

Some Stories about Religious Upbringing and the Costs of Freedom

September 5, 2014

Review of
Religious Upbringing and the Costs of Freedom: Personal and Philosophical Essays.
Edited by Peter Caws & Stefani Jones, The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2010.

Many years ago Oxford philosopher, Richard Hare, suggested “that many of the dark places in ethics might be illuminated if philosophers would address themselves to considering the question, ‘How should I bring up my children?'” Religious Upbringing and the Costs of Freedom represents an interesting and unique attempt to address this question. Eleven philosophers share stories of their religious upbringing, and then reflect on this and draw some moral lessons. Each of the philosophers was brought up religiously, though in varying degrees of narrowness and strictness – Anglican, Baptist, Catholic, Mormon, Mennonite, and Muslim. Each of them also broke free, in one way or another, from the religious upbringing that was “imposed” on them as children.

Some of the stories are sad. A few of the contributors describe actually being beaten by their parents as they showed signs of growing apostasy (pp. 72, 201). The co-editors of this volume, one growing up in a family which belonged to the Exclusive Brethren, a nineteenth-century offshoot of the Church of England” (p. 214), and the other as a Mormon in Provo, Utah, each highlight the withholding of love and affection as a means of discouraging their growing skepticism about the religion into which they were nurtured (pp. 207, 210, 234). The path to freedom for many of the contributors to this volume was a long and painful process. A few of the stories in this anthology describe less severe religious upbringings, with less painful journeys to greater freedom. The journey of Glen Pettigrove, for example, “was not a sudden, acrimonious rejection of religion or even of Christianity,” but rather a gradual shift from a fundamentalist Wesleyan and Baptist upbringing, to a more liberal Presbyterianism (135-6). This shift was hardly noticed by most of those who were responsible for his upbringing, and when noticed, was met with a loving and supportive response. Interestingly, Pettigrove’s contribution to this anthology is the only one that gives “a qualified defense” of religious indoctrination (p. 136).

Nearly all of the essays use the term “religious indoctrination” to describe their upbringing. But what does this term mean? Sometimes indoctrination is described simply as the passing on of religious beliefs from parent to child, or from one generation to the next (p. 217). The editors consider such “limited indoctrination” as not necessarily posing a moral problem (p.4). But most of the essays consider any sort of indoctrination, however mild, to be morally blameworthy (cf. Hirst, p. 174). Tasia Persson even equates indoctrination with brainwashing (Ch. 6, p. 112). Another odd usage of the term is introduced by Irfan Khawaja, brought up as a Muslim, who talks about “self-indoctrination” (Ch. 2, pp. 27, 32).

Clearly there is some confusion surrounding the meaning of religious indoctrination, as the editors themselves admit in their introduction (p.3). It is unfortunate that nearly all of the writers completely ignore the extensive literature on the concept of indoctrination that has emerged over the years in the philosophy of education. (see, for example, my Teaching for Commitment: Liberal Education, Indoctrination, and Christian Nurture. Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press. Co-published by Gracewing, Leominster, U.K.) 1993.) Only Glen Pettigrove’s essay draws on this literature, and in my opinion this essay gives the most insightful analysis of the meaning and moral assessment of indoctrination.

Though not always entirely consistent, several writers astutely point to a fundamental problem with viewing all indoctrination as morally blameworthy. Children are by their very nature dependant, vulnerable, and impressionable. Stefani Jones, draws on Simone de Beauvior, and her use of the term “impinging” to describe the influence of parents on children who are dependent and vulnerable (208). Such “parental impinging” is not only inevitable, but also “absolutely necessary” for a child’s healthy development towards maturity, according to Jones. Indeed, as various philosophers of education have argued, children need to grow up in a secure and stable primary culture in order to develop into autonomous individuals. And, as is conceded by Raymond Bradley, despite his objections to growing up in a fundamentalist Christian environment, it nonetheless “gave me something tough to chew on, something to cut my teeth on intellectually (p.50). So maybe a narrow religious upbringing is an asset rather than a liability. Initiation into a primary culture is not itself a rational process, as Pettigrove argues, drawing on Wittgenstein, Gadamer and Mead, and this does not make such initiation morally problematic (p. 143). Growth towards rational autonomy is necessarily parasitic on children first being initiated into particular language-games and traditions typically given to them by their parents. It is therefore wrongheaded to characterize such initiation as morally problematic, or to label it indoctrination, understood in a pejorative sense.

But we still need to distinguish between justified and unjustified ‘impinging’ in parent-child relationships. Jones goes on to argue that “the degree to which parental impinging is justifiable is directly correlated to whether or not the impinging is aimed towards opening future possibilities for children or shutting them off” (208; cf. Hirst pp.169-75). I would only add that this is a gradual process and that it must also include the gradual enabling of children to critically evaluate their past upbringing, and the increasing release of parental control so that children can exercise their growing autonomy. On this account, religious indoctrination, understood as a pejorative term, involves the failure of parents and their religious community to combine the initiation of their children into a religious tradition with encouraging and facilitating the growth of their children towards autonomy. Clearly, on this account, the sad stories referred to earlier are indeed cases of religious indoctrination, understood in its pejorative sense.

Another confusion in these essays concerns the status of children with regard to autonomy. Tasia Persson, for example, describes even the child as having a right to autonomy, or as reaching, at some point, a “minimal rational capacity” (pp. 121, 127; cf. 149, 209). But, children are simply not adults. Nor do they suddenly achieve a minimal level of autonomy. Children grow towards autonomy. Interestingly, Persson gets beyond the either-or characterization of childrens’ autonomy in her conclusion when she asks whether it is possible for evangelical parents to fulfill their obligations to nurture their children in the faith and at the same time to respect their autonomy. She answers this question in the affirmative, reminding evangelicals that in a biblical worldview, choice for God is intended to be a free one. Hence evangelical parents “would do well to ensure that their children are given the chance to make autonomous choices by allowing them to develop the capacity for rational decision-making” (p. 131). Here you have a developmental approach to autonomy, which makes it possible to parents to give their children a religious upbringing and at the same time to gradually free them to make up their own minds about the faith into which they were nurtured. On this account, some of the critiques of the religious upbringing the authors received are unjustified, or at least softened

Such a combination of nurturing faith and nurturing autonomy at the same time is indeed possible, and is perhaps more achievable than most of the contributors to the book under review acknowledge. This collection of essays would have been stronger if it would have included a few more stories that would have illustrated this possibility. In the Introduction, the editors claim that they selected “a good representation of the variety of personal experiences, philosophical analyses, and religious orientations we encountered” (p.3). I believe a few stories of religiously committed philosophers who retained the faith into which they were nurtured should have been included in this anthology. Occasionally I felt the contributors to this volume were a little too preoccupied with giving vent to all their objections to the religion within which they were brought up (e.g. Bradley, Ch.3). Several writers also hint at another question that could have received more attention (Overall p.22; Dupont, p.93; Enns, p. 184): Is growing up in a skeptical home or a liberal university environment indoctrinatory? Nevertheless, this volume is a valuable contribution to answering the question, “How should we bring up our children?” and should be of interest to philosophers and practitioners of education, teachers in religious education, ethicists, and scholars in the religious studies.

(A condensed version of this review was first published in Studies in Religion, June, 2013, 42:262-4)


February 2, 2014

To accuse someone of indoctrination is generally considered to be a serious accusation, especially in educational circles.  In fact, for most educators today, indoctrination is considered to be the very antithesis of what our schools are all about – educating in accordance with principles of rationality, freedom, and respect for individuals.

Religious instruction is particularly singled out as falling prey to the sin of indoctrination.  Not only the church, but church-related schools and colleges are often criticized because they are indoctrinate.  Christian parents are also frequently charged with indoctrination because they seek to bring up their children in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.

How can those of us who are concerned about Christian nurture and education reply to the charge of indoctrination?  I want to suggest three possible responses.

There is first of all a problem in understanding what is meant by the term “indoctrination”.  Educational philosophers are particular concerned about clarifying the meanings of words, and much has been written about the concept of indoctrination in the last few decades.  But, as yet there is far from general agreement as to the exact meaning of “indoctrination”.  This disagreement is significant in that it indicates that the concept of indoctrination used by critics is itself vague and incoherent.

Thus, in defending oneself against the charge of indoctrination, one strategy is to ask the person making the charge to define the term “indoctrination”.  One will invariably uncover much confusion and many inconsistencies.  None of the critics of Christian education, to my knowledge, have as yet come up with a clear and defensible definition of this term.  The charge of indoctrination is therefore really vacuous.

When critics accuse Christians of indoctrinating, they are really only giving vent to their feelings of disapproval.  They are doing no more than shouting “Boo.”  Rational defense against such expressions of emotion is not only futile but unnecessary.

One of the major problems in defining indoctrination is that most, if not all proposed examples of indoctrinative teaching methods turn out to be unavoidable.  Thus another way in which to respond to the charge of indoctrination is to ask for specific examples of what are considered to be indoctrinative teaching methods.  One can then show that these very same methods also arise in what are generally considered to be acceptable educational endeavours.

For example, Christian parents are often criticized for imposing a specific religious tradition on their children.  The problem with this charge is that imposition is unavoidable in teaching children anything.  Parents, teachers, or society at large necessarily determine which traditions children are initiated into.  It is simply unfair to single out religion as uniquely susceptible to this supposed “problem.”

The final response has to do with the frequently made assumption that indoctrination is necessarily limited to doctrines or ideologies.  It is further assumed that such doctrines or ideologies are only found in religion, and that indoctrination is therefore impossible in accepted areas of knowledge such as history or science.

Against this it can be argued first of all that there are no good reasons to limit indoctrination to doctrines.  But, even if this connection is allowed, it can be shown that doctrines, however defined, are found in all areas of knowledge.  Thus, indoctrination can also occur in all areas of knowledge.

Therefore another way to defend oneself against the charge of religious indoctrination is to ask the person making the charge what he/she considers to be a characteristic of doctrines.  Then show how this characteristic is also found in history or science.

For example, the late British philosopher Antony Flew described doctrines as beliefs which are “either false or not known to be true.”  However, a study of the history of science shows that there have been and still are many beliefs held by scientists which have been shown to be false.  Science also rests on basic presuppositions like the uniformity of nature or the principle of causality that are simply assumed to be true and hence are not really known to be true.  Thus, indoctrination can also occur in science,  given Flew’s definition of doctrines.

There are some, in fact, who argue that indoctrination is very common in science.  Malcolm Muggeridge, for example, wrote:  “The dogmatism of science has become a new orthodoxy disseminated by the Media and a State educational system with a thoroughness and subtlety far exceeding anything of the kind achieved by the Inquisition.”

Of course many would reject Muggeridge’s put-down of science.  But it can be shown that science shares many, if not most of the supposedly negative features that lead some to call religious beliefs “doctrines”.  If therefore these “negative” features do not lead us to make the charge of indoctrination in the teaching of science, then I would suggest that we should also not use these same features to make the charge of indoctrination in the area of religious instruction.

This does not at all entail that indoctrination never occurs with respect to Christian nurture.  I do not want to dismiss entirely the charges of indoctrination made by critics against Christian education in homes and schools and colleges.  But what is needed first of all is a philosophically defensible and consistent concept of indoctrination.  Elsewhere I have argued that indoctrination should be defined as the curtailment of a person’s growth towards normal rational autonomy (Teaching for Commitment:  Liberal Education, Indoctrination & Christian Nurture (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1993).  The aim of all education, including Christian education, is to help children to grow towards intellectual maturity, and that includes helping them to become independent, rational, and critical thinkers.  There are limits to our being independent and rational, and hence my qualification of rational autonomy with the word “normal”.

There is research showing that initiating children into a primary culture is a key to helping children to grow towards normal rational autonomy.  So it is a mistake to think that parents who initiate their children into a particular Christian tradition are indoctrinating their children. As I have already argued, initiating into a particular and primary culture is inescapable.  It is only if parents or Christian schools fail, at the same time, to encourage children to become independent, rational, and critical thinkers (each qualified with “normal”) that they can legitimately be charged with indoctrination.  Sadly, that doesn’t always happens.  But I would suggest that it happens much less often than critics assume.

(This blog is a revised version of an article that first appeared in “A Christian Mind” column, in the Mennonite Brethren Herald, July 16, 1982)



Universities, Freedom, and Tolerance

July 3, 2012

Christian organizations are having a difficult time on some of our university campuses these days, and I believe it will only get worse.

It would be very different if our universities were genuinely liberal institutions that acknowledged the fact of pluralism, and that tried somehow to accommodate the deep differences of beliefs held by individuals and groups of individuals.  Such accommodation is at the heart of liberalism, and should also be characteristic of a liberal education that is supposedly offered at our universities.

Instead, some of our universities are increasingly becoming institutions that will not tolerate any deviation from the religion of secularism. By “secularism” I mean an ideology that will not brook any practice or promulgation of God in the public square, an ideology that pushes traditional religious belief and practice into the private sphere where it can supposedly do little “harm.” Sadly, universities committed to secularism are increasingly becoming bastions of illiberalism and intolerance.

As I am writing this blog, the LGBTQ community at the University of Waterloo is planning a protest against a speaker at a prestigious annual Pascal Lectureship Series at the university. Dr. Charles Rice, professor at Notre Dame University, a legal scholar, and a devout Catholic, will be speaking on natural law. What the protesters find so objectionable is his referring to homosexual behavior as a “moral disorder.”  There have been several recent incidents at Canadian universities where events had to be cancelled because of angry student protests against the invited speaker.  And of course there is an epidemic of growing regulations against Christian groups on campuses and the outright banning of Christian organizations at some American universities.

Our universities should be places where individuals and groups (including professors) should be free to promote and defend their ideas.  We have something to learn from John Stuart Mill’s classic defense of the freedom of thought and expression, including the propagation of religious beliefs (evangelism), in his On Liberty. The freedom to propagate beliefs is of benefit to humankind, says Mill, because without it, human beings may be deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth. To silence the evangelist because he or she may be in error is to make the very questionable assumption of infallibility, according to Mill. Even if false beliefs are being propagated, society still benefits because the propagation of error stimulates thought and discussion, without which individuals and society as a whole are in danger of falling into “the deep slumber of a decided opinion.”  Indeed!

Of course, there are unethical ways to propagate beliefs – a topic that Mill only hints at.  Unfortunately, there are many today who believe that the propagation of beliefs, especially religious beliefs is, by its very nature, immoral.  I believe such a wholesale condemnation of the propagation of beliefs, or persuasion, or evangelism is fundamentally mistaken, as I have argued elsewhere (See The Ethics of Evangelism, Paternoster & IVP Academic, 2011).   Instead, we should pay more attention to distinguishing between ethical and unethical ways of propagating beliefs or evangelism.

Universities should be places where the propagation of beliefs, however weird and wonderful, is encouraged.  Universities should also welcome a variety of groups and organizations on campus, including LGBTQ, and Christians (in all their variety), and even New Religious Movements.  May we be roused from our “deep slumber” before it is too late.

(This blog first appeared on the InterVarsity website, April 25, 2012,

The Offensiveness of Religious Persuasion and Evangelism

June 18, 2012

The topic of evangelism made national headlines in Canada recently.[i]  It all started with a Grade 12 student in Nova Scotia wearing a T-shirt in school boldly emblazoned with the words, “Life is wasted without Jesus.”   William Swinimer continued to wear his yellow T-shirt after the vice-principal at his school asked him not to do so because some students had complained that they found the message offensive.  William’s refusal to obey led to a series of in-school suspensions and finally a five-day at-home suspension.  The normally shy 19-year-old refused to comply even if it might mean permanent suspension and the loss of the rest of the academic year and his chance of graduating.  “I believe this is worth standing up for – it’s not just standing up for religious rights, it’s standing up for my rights as a Canadian citizen; for freedom of speech, freedom of religion.”

The regional school board initially supported the actions of the school administration, with Superintendent Nancy Pynch-Worthylake maintaining that repeated defiance of school authorities was justified grounds for suspending William Swinimer.  The school board issued a statement clarifying that “students may choose to wear clothing that embraces their beliefs.  However, it is expected that students will not wear clothing with messages that may offend others’ beliefs, race, religion, culture or lifestyle.”

The nationwide debate ignited by this incident is most revealing.  It can be interpreted as involving a conflict of rights.  This is how Superintendent Nancy Pynch-Worthylake described the problem: “We absolutely support students’ rights to express their beliefs, but we absolutely support students’ rights to not have their own beliefs unreasonably criticized.”  But does a T-shirt with the message, “Life is wasted without Jesus,” involve unreasonable criticism of other people’s beliefs?  Indeed, is it even fair to suggest that this message involves criticism of the beliefs of others?  The vice-principal of the school even went so far as to suggest that the message on the T-shirt spewed “hate talk.”  The absurdity of this assessment doesn’t even deserve comment.  I’m not even sure Swinimer’s message involves criticism of the beliefs of others.  The students at the school were divided on this question, with some saying that the T-shirt message was simply expressing the personal beliefs of William Swinimer – “I believe that life is wasted without Jesus.”   Indeed Swinimer is quoted as saying, “I don’t do it to be disrespectful or to put down anyone else’s beliefs.”  Clearly Nancy Pynch-Worthylake and some other students didn’t interpret the message this way.  But, maybe they are the problem.  Maybe they need to develop thicker skins.  Surely if someone tells me that they believe life is not worth living without Pepsi, I shouldn’t take offense because I do not like Pepsi.  People are also not entirely consistent in the way in which they take offense, as Swinimer himself pointed out.  He wondered why his T-shirt became so controversial when he had seen other students around the school wearing T-shirts with slogans like “Hail Satan.”  Is it Christians who are being picked on?

Let’s for the sake of argument assume that there is at least an implicit criticism of other beliefs in the message of William Swinimer’s T-shirt.  Indeed, I believe that any evaluative statement entails an implicit judgment on contrary statements.  We are now left with the claim of the school board that students have the right not to have their own beliefs “unreasonably” criticized.  But, what is so unreasonable about the implicit criticism of other beliefs by making a simple statement like, “Life is wasted without Jesus”?  I suspect that what lies behind this judgment is a hidden assumption that all religious statements are unreasonable, and hence all implicit criticisms of other beliefs are similarly unreasonable.  But this is in itself a rather unreasonable position to hold, resting on a host of assumptions that need to be and can be critiqued.  We need a more generous definition of what it means to be reasonable.  Here the late John Rawls has something to teach us with his notion of “burdens of judgment,” introduced to help us to cope with the deep differences of belief within a society.  Rawls maintained that we need to give each other the benefit of the doubt with regard to the reasonableness of our differing beliefs.  We need a spirit of generosity allowing that reasonable persons may affirm differing reasonable doctrines.   Both those who believe that life is wasted without Jesus, and those who don’t, need to see each other as reasonable persons who can give reasons for their implicit and explicit criticisms of beliefs contrary to their own.

Emma Teitel brings to the fore another reason for considering William Swinimer’s T-shirt offensive.[ii]  He is not being “discreet” but “rude.”   Religious beliefs are “far too precious to flaunt” and should be kept private, according to Teitel.  Another on-line critic uses more colorful language: “Bloody Jesus freaks…they just can’t keep it to themselves! They just have to be IN YOUR FACE!”  Ah yes, if only we could keep religion restricted to the closets of private homes, or, if we must, to mosques, churches, and synagogues.  What is rather strange here is that we don’t demand this of other similar sorts of value declarations.  We seem to have no problem with the flaunting of commercial messages in the form of advertising.  Billboards and T.V. ads are very much IN YOUR FACE!  Why single out religion as something that needs to be kept private?  It seems a little unfair.  And there are some real problems with the private/public distinction appealed to by Teitel and other liberals who so desperately want to keep religion out of the public sphere. It is very difficult to keep anything completely private.  No, I don’t think Teitel really believes that religious beliefs are too precious to flaunt.  She simply disagrees with religious beliefs and she dares to flaunt her own anti-religious sentiments in a national weekly magazine. How rude!  How indiscreet!

But there is more to Teitel’s tirade against the T-shirt episode. “There is a great difference between cherishing a belief and wielding it like a weapon,” Teitel argues.  Now this is really quite serious.  Teitel goes on to multiply analogies, one of which involves the inappropriateness of pulling out a revolver at the dinner table if your guests are pro-gun control.  Another on-line critic was a little less dramatic: “The problem, for me, with religious people is that they get so righteous and full of themselves that they think they have a duty to impose their beliefs.”  Ah yes, the old skeptical sawhorse of coercion applied to evangelism.  But surely we have stretched the notion of coercion beyond recognition if we apply it to a message written on a T-shirt of a normally shy teenager.  Other students are perfectly free to simply ignore the message.  They can even look away.  Or they could choose to tell William that they disagree with his message.  And to talk about a message on a T-shirt as a kind of weaponry borders on the absurd, unless of course one is drawing on the insights of French postmodernist Michel Foucault who interprets all truth claims as “fruits of a poisoned tree of power relations.”  But if so, then this also applies to Teitel and her company of critics.  The weapon analogy is ultimately self-refuting.  So perhaps we should tone down the rhetoric.

So what was all the fuss about?  Given the weakness and even the absurdity of the arguments used against William Swinimer, it is not surprising that the school administration and the board, after consulting with a human rights activist, backed away from their controversial decision.  However, they tried to save face by scheduling some follow-up “open dialogue” on how students can express their beliefs “in a complex multicultural school environment.”  Sadly, William’s father did not let his son participate in this dialogue.

The reader might also be wondering whether this incident deserves the attention that I have given it.  I believe this case is significant because it illustrates some deeply held suspicions in our society against all forms of Christian evangelism or proselytizing.  These suspicions also surface in the academy.  Take for example, Canadian philosopher, Jay Newman, in his important study entitled, Foundations of Religious Tolerance:  “We usually do not like the people who come to convert us.  We often find them arrogant, ignorant, hypocritical, meddlesome…. [M]any forms of missionary activity and overassertive ‘witnessing’ accompany, foreshadow, and promote more radical forms of religious harassment.  There is something essentially intolerant about the missionary, the proselytizer.”[iii]  Newman concludes: “Most religious proselytizing tends to promote resentment.  Resentment promotes intolerance, which in turn promotes barbarism.”[iv]   I have argued elsewhere that these arguments are not as strong as is generally assumed.[v]  We are all indebted to William Swinimer for his bold demonstration of ethical evangelism.

(This blog is an expanded version of a blog which first appeared on, June 8, 2012)

[i] I am drawing on the following accounts of this case:  Bev Ware, “Nova Scotia school to debate religious T-shirt controversy,” Globe and Mail, May 4, 2012;  Sarah Boesveld, “Suspended Nova Scotia student defiantly wears T-shirt with pro-Jesus message,” National Post, May 4, 2012;  and Megan O’Toole, “N.S. school backs off from ban of student’s T-shirt with pro-Jesus message,” National Post, May 5, 2012.

[ii] Emma Teitel, “A Tiring Tempest in a T-shirt,” Maclean’s Magazine, May 21, 2012, p. 12.

[iii] Jay Newman, 1982. Foundations of Religious Tolerance. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, pp. 88-9.

[iv] Ibid, p.110.

[v] See Elmer John Thiessen, The Ethics of Evangelism:  A Philosophical Defense of Ethical Proselytizing and Persuasion.  Paternoster and IVP Academic, 2011.

God in the Classroom: a Review Article

December 22, 2011

God in the Classroom:  The Controversial Issue of Religion in Canada’s Schools

Lois Sweet

Toronto:  McClelland & Stewart Inc., 1997, ISBN 0-7710-8319-X

pp.xv + 272,  $29.99

This is an important book which is bound to prompt much fruitful dialogue on the relation between religion and schooling in Canada.  The author, a journalist by profession, won an Atkinson fellowship in 1995-6, which gave her the opportunity to travel across the country (and to Europe) in order to gain first hand experience as to how religion is handled in our schools.  As well she was able to discuss the matter with a wide variety of Canadians of many beliefs and backgrounds.  The publication of this book was preceded with a five-part series in the Toronto Star as well as a two-part documentary on CBC-TV’s “The National Magazine.”  Both drew a huge response, a sign that Canadians are hungry for more discussion of this issue.

Sweet admits that she would never have dreamed that she would write a book like this a decade ago (p.9).  She describes herself as a secularist, but one who has come to recognize the significance of the religious experience (pp.213, 11).  Her book is prompted by a concern about our society which has somehow lost sight of the spiritual dimension to life (p.6).  And religion is denied and/or ignored in our schools (p. 239).  Sweet describes her son, now at university, discovering for the first time that Western civilization was based on religion.  “Nothing in his previous thirteen years of study had given him an inkling of that” (p.213).  A tragedy, indeed, and somewhat odd, given that schooling in Canada evolved from a decidedly Christian bias, as Sweet explores in Chapter 2.

It is this neglect of religion in our state-maintained public schools that has prompted a growing number of religious groups to set up their own schools – there are about 1,200 religiously-based schools that belong to the Federation of Independent Schools in Canada (pp. 6, 27).  Clearly the formation of religious schools is one way to address the problem of the neglect of religion in education, which is the overriding concern of the book.  But a major thrust of the book is to reject this option.  What Sweet proposes instead is a serious overhaul of our public school system.  Her central thesis is that given the pluralism that now characterizes Canada, we need, somehow, to accommodate religion in our public (common) schools.

Sweet defends her two-pronged thesis by drawing on the anecdotal experience of students, teachers, parents and educators.  The many stories are fascinating and at times moving.  This book will therefore appeal to a lay-readership.  But I would hope that academics will still read the book, even though there is little here by way of drawing on theoretical treatments of the problem.  Even when referring to experts in the field such as John Hull and Will Kymlicka, preference is given to comments made while interviewing them in person.  And there are no footnotes.

What reasons lie behind Sweet’s rejection of religious schooling as a way to bring religion back into education?  Chapters 4 & 5 record her impressions from visits to a number of religious schools (Sikh, Jewish, Islamic, Catholic, Protestant and evangelical).  A primary concern is that such schools are socially divisive and foster intolerance (ch.1).  Sweet also worries about the indoctrination that occurs in religious schools.  She is also very concerned about the lack respect for children’s and teacher’s rights in such schools (ch.9).   “[P]arents don’t have the ultimate authority over their children,” according to Sweet, “there is a need for the State to act in the interests of children” (p.178).

Sweet is further concerned that these religious schools will destroy our state-maintained system of public schools. Indeed, she also rejects the separate school system, i.e. Roman Catholic schools which are fully funded in several Canadian provinces (pp. 48, 103, 108f, 122f, 248, 252).  The ideal for Sweet is one, and only one system of state-maintained public schools.  But this will require a radical overhaul of the secular orientation that now pervades these public schools. We need somehow to bring religion back into the classroom.  If this is done, Sweet maintains, many religiously moderate parents would be much less motivated to put their children into independent religious schools (p.239)

However, according to Sweet, reintroducing religion into the classroom cannot involve the initiation of children into a particular religious dogma – an approach that was in fact rejected as unconstitutional in a 1988 Elgin County court case (pp. 13, 33).  Instead of indoctrination, we need multi-faith education about religion, along the lines of a 1994 memo from Ontario Ministry of Education (pp. 218ff.).  Sweet also recommends that a certain limited number of holy days of each Canada’s recognized religious groups be recognized through school closings where numbers warrent, using them as points of discussion (ch.10).

And above all, schools must take seriously the cultivation of religious literacy (pp. 10, 228, 239).  We need to acknowledge religious difference, and actually educate children about those differences in the classroom.  Here Sweet draws on comments made by John Hull in an interview in which he describes the approach of religious education in Great Britain (pp.224-8).

The journalistic approach taken in this book has its dangers.  While every effort is made to be fair, and the generalizations made are most often accurate, biases do emerge.  For example, much is made of the supposed denial of rights of children in religious schools in a chapter which begins with an emotively laden description of a spanking of a first-grader at an Alberta school (ch.9).   But, to link this episode with ritual genital mutilation, and to suggest that such physical abuse is responsible for violent criminal behavior in later life is simply absurd (p.170).  Contrary to Sweet, children at religious schools are generally loved for and cared for, and are viewed as having all the basic rights that she so much prizes.  Clearly there are different understandings of what is required to bring up children to be moral citizens, and we must be careful not discount the approach taken by religious schools, when, by her own admission, a major concern of many parents is precisely the failure of our public schools in this area (pp. 6, 64, 98).

A fundamental weakness arises from Sweet’s reliance on a traditional distinction between indoctrination and education.  She admits there is controversy regarding proper definitions of these terms (pp.149f), but unfortunately she rather dogmatically trots out the usual mantras concerning what these terms means. Indoctrination involves narrow initiation into a particular religious tradition.  Genuine education, by contrast, involves tolerance of dissent, autonomous thinking and behaving, and the celebration of diversity (pp.102, 159).  But, Sweet is forced to admit that the graduates from religious schools which she interviewed have become confident, critical and open citizens, who actively contribute to society at large.  The basic problem with her analysis is that she fails to do justice to the fact that nurture into a particular tradition is a necessary foundation for growth toward autonomy.  Narrowness necessarily precedes openness (see my Teaching for Commitment, Gracewing & McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1993).

Interestingly, Sweet implicitly acknowledges this point in other contexts.  She is very sensitive to “the politics of recognition,” which Charles Taylor sees as the key to living in a multicultural society (p.14).  She tells a moving story of a Jewish mother who clearly identifies the seeming paradox – the more she helps her daughter to understand who she is, the better she will be able to live with others (pp.110f).  She is quite frank in acknowledging that we might have something to learn from the structure of schooling in the Netherlands where over 80% of all the schools are publicly funded religious schools (ch. 7; p.128).  Here it seems that recognizing differences has facilitated healthy integration as well as tolerance.

Sweet is also very cognizant of recent developments in epistemology.  She acknowledges that neutrality is impossible (p.7).  She realizes that there is an element of faith in every area of human study (p.212).  She approvingly refers to Postman’s End of Education in which he argues that schools have to serve some god – some story or narrative that provides a sense of meaning, continuity and purpose to life (p.150).  A secular system of education is still a value system that competes with those that are religious (p. 113).

But, these epistemological considerations as well as her sympathies with the politics of recognition support a system of educational pluralism.  However, as we have seen, Sweet is strongly opposed to religiously based schools.  And this makes the overall thrust of the book somewhat puzzling, because much of her analysis would seem to point in the direction of religious schools as a way of accommodating the interplay between religion and education

Even in the final chapter she gives us a glowing account of a unique Logos Alternative Program in Edmonton, Alberta, where five Christian schools operate under the public school umbrella.  But Sweet speaks favourably of this approach only because these schools are part of the public system of education and are housed in existing public schools which allows the children to interact with other children in the regular public program (pp.241-4).  In the end, she is still worried about their promoting “a limited kind of one-sided learning” (p.244).

What Sweet fails to realize is that the multi-religious approach to cultivating an appreciation for religion is not without its own problems.  Knowledge of other religious traditions does not in and of itself foster tolerance.  And she fails to face up to the fact that public (common) schools cannot ever make up for, or overcome, the lack of religious literacy and the religious intolerance that is fostered in the home.  The multi-faith approach to religious literacy, I would suggest is yet another expression of Enlightenment faith in universal reason. It rests on the assumption that it is possible to get an understanding of religion generally without becoming committed to a particular religion.  It allows us to participate in “the religious quest” while keeping religion at a distance (p. 8).  But this will hardly do justice to the concern of many religious adherents who value the importance of particular religious commitments.  And it is a fundamental error to associate all particular religious commitments with excessive sectarianism (pp. 17, 36, 165).

In the end, it would seem that Sweet is still captive to a secular faith-story which makes it impossible for her to go where the wind of her argument really carries her. And while she worries about the indoctrination that occurs in our public schools when religion is systematically avoided (pp. 211ff., 222), she fails to worry enough about the liberal educational tyranny that is still inherent in her multi-faith approach to religious education, and which she wants to impose on all citizens via a monolithic state-maintained system of education.

This is a preprint of an article in  the Journal of Beliefs & Values, Vol. 19, #2, Oct. 1998, pp. 251-4. [copyright Taylor & Francis]; the article in  the Journal of Beliefs & Values  is available online at:

Ethics of Evangelism or Proselytizing

December 15, 2011


This blog is about my recently published book, The Ethics of Evangelism: A Philosophical Defence of Proselytizing and Persuasion, published by Paternoster Press, in the U.K., and by IVP Academic, in the U.S.A. in 2011.

Why did I write this book?

Well, asking a philosopher why he wrote a book is a little bit like asking a mountain climber why he climbed Mount Everest.  Mount Everest is there to be climbed!  That is the way I felt about writing a book on the ethics of evangelism or proselytizing.  Indeed, I discovered that very little had been written on this topic heretofore.  So, I wanted to be the first to write a comprehensive treatment of the ethics of evangelism or religious persuasion.  What little had been written on this topic was in the main very critical of any efforts at evangelism or proselytizing.  When reading these objections against evangelism, I was disturbed by the fact that these attacks were often unfair and outright wrongheaded.  So again, I felt a need to answer these objections in the public domain by writing a book on the subject.  In part, my writing this book also grew out of my embarrassment as to what religious adherents sometimes do in the name of evangelism. Writing this book was a way of helping me to clarify this embarrassment.  I discovered that sometimes there is something immoral going on when religious adherents do evangelism.  I also discovered that Christians, and more specifically evangelical Christians, who are very much committed to evangelism, tend to skirt the subject of the ethics of what they are doing.  Indeed, one nearly gets the impression that for some evangelicals, evangelism is considered to be so imperative that the end justifies the means. Someone needed to show how terribly wrong-headed this kind of thinking is.  So I answered the call! Throughout my writing, I have been very concerned to bridge the divide that often exists between religious believers and those who are skeptical of religion.  I therefore wanted to write a book on evangelism/proselytizing that would at the same time be addressed to these two very different readerships.  Skeptics needed to hear a defense of evangelism or proselytizing, and religious believers needed to be told that not just anything is acceptable in trying to bring about conversions.

For the table of contents and endorsements of the book, see the IVP website:

For a recent review of the book, see one by A. Morgan as found on the Amazon books website:

The book can be purchased online from:  (in Canada, order from )