Thursday, August 30, 2012

The Ethics of Proselytizing

I was walking up Broadway last week when I passed by this flyer taped to a lamppost:

The words mean: "The Burning Hell: Lost souls tortured and burned for eternity! 20,000 degrees! [Celsius, presumably.] And not a drop of water."

Curious, and also intent on ridding the city of the flyer, I peeled it off the pole. Inside, it contained dire warnings: "one day, when you're in Hell, you won't be bothered by Christians giving you flyers." "You'll be screaming and begging for a drop of water to wet your dry tongue! But it will be too late." The flyer concludes by imploring the reader to abandon his life of sin and place his trust in Jesus in order to escape damnation.

The flyer, as a note on the back explained, was published by the Fellowship Tract League, an organization based in Lebanon, Ohio that publishes proselytizing flyers worldwide. "Since the ministry began in 1978," the website boasts, "our Lord has allowed us to print and ship over 4 billion Gospel tracts into more than 200 countries." The organization prints dozens of different flyers in every conceivable language. You can see the English ones here. My personal favorite: a flyer, helpfully set in large type, with a happy elderly couple on the front and the warning that "contrary to popular opinion, not all good people go to heaven...If your goodness could save you, Jesus would have died in vain." Sorry, Cephalus.

My first reaction to this kind of fear-mongering is revulsion. What if a young Jewish child saw one of the flyers? I can imagine myself reading this at age 7 and suffering serious trauma. For the sake of non-Christians, it might make sense for the city to prohibit graphic flyers like this for a similar reason that it prohibits prurient pornography from being publicly displayed.

Meanwhile, though, the Fellowship Tract League is asking: what if a young Jewish child burned in Hell for eternity? In the mind of these evangelizers, everyone who does not accept Jesus as his personal savior is doomed to suffer indescribable torment.

Actually, given their belief, it would be reprehensible for the Fellowship Tract League not to evangelize. Under most deontological ethical systems, if I saw someone on the verge of being trampled by an enraged moose, it would be immoral not to try to help, even if I were hallucinating and the moose were entirely in my imagination. Likewise, we should evaluate the morality of proselytizers on the grounds of what they believe, not what we do. We're free, though, to do our best to convince them that their religious convictions are wrong.

So the only way to make a case against this kind of evangelism is on factual and theological grounds. I need to argue that Hell doesn't exist, or that it's possible to escape it without Jesus's help. Thus, for the government to prohibit posting flyers like that, it would have to take a theological position against them, which might be a violation of the Establishment Clause. (If anyone knows anything about the legal history of this, say so in the comments.) And an individual who wants to argue against proselytizing needs to explain why he thinks that the Christians he's arguing against are wrong.

I, for one, will let my atheist friends argue that point.


themerelyreal said...

My friend, you belabor too much the needs and trials of deontologists. What of others?

For a Rawlsian, for example, everyone must be given leave to post such materials, for one cannot know what one's beliefs will be, and a pluralistic society must allow for differing conceptions of the good and the nonviolent promotion thereof. I have many sympathies to this view.

On the other hand, we could all just come to accept utilitarianism and regard harm as bad without dithering about what category of harm it is or fretting about the implications of its origin.

Both potentially fruitful atheistic views.

Jonathan Katz said...

Great post! I'm personally more in line with the Rawlsian view though - moral views are tricky in that one could argue (although with Christian theology that I am sure the FTL would consider *highly* heretical) that the FTL is reprehensible in violating the precepts and teachings of Christ re: G-d and respect to Him, as well as Christians who would argue that the specific interpretation of Jesus promoted does not line up with the flyer.
(Although as a good Jewish boy, I'm not sure if it is my role to argue Christological arguments right now)

Re: legal history:

Some democratic governments discourage - but do not ban - such materials as causing social tensions. A few countries with religious freedom do forbid it period even for the majority religion (Greece). I know that in some countries it is considered extremely rude, but not forbidden (Singapore).

Re: legal history in the US, American law permits organizations to permit or forbid such materials as problematic or tension-inducing - for example, on the subway, it would be considered within the MTA's jurisdiction to remove such fliers. (It does not.) Most offices and schools do not permit proselytizing, and I'm almost certain that it is forbidden within government agencies. IIRC it does not fall under the Establishment Clause.