The Sin of Persuasion

Re­lated to Your Ra­tion­al­ity is My Business

Among re­li­gious be­liev­ers in the de­vel­oped world, there is some­thing of a hi­er­ar­chy in terms of so­cial tol­er­abil­ity. Near the top are the liberal, non­judg­men­tal, fre­quently non­de­nom­i­na­tional be­liev­ers, of whom it is highly un­pop­u­lar to ex­press dis­ap­proval. At the bot­tom you find peo­ple who picket funer­als or bomb abor­tion clinics, the sort with whom even most vo­cally de­vout in­di­vi­d­u­als are quick to deny as­so­ci­a­tion.

Slightly above these, but still very close to the bot­tom of the heap, are pros­ely­tiz­ers and door to door evan­ge­lists. They may not be hate­ful about their be­liefs, in­deed many find that their lo­cal Je­ho­vah’s Wit­nesses are ex­cep­tion­ally nice peo­ple, but they’re sim­ply so an­noy­ing. How can they go around press­ing their be­liefs on oth­ers and judg­ing peo­ple that way?

I have never known an­other per­son to crit­i­cize evan­ge­lists for not try­ing hard enough to change oth­ers’ be­liefs.

And yet, when you think about it, these peo­ple are deal­ing with be­liefs of tremen­dous scale. If the im­por­tance of sav­ing a sin­gle hu­man life is worth so much more than our petty dis­com­forts with defy­ing so­cial con­ven­tion or our own cog­ni­tive bi­ases, how much greater must be the weight of sav­ing an im­mor­tal soul from an eter­nity of hell? Shouldn’t they be do­ing ev­ery­thing in their power to change the minds of oth­ers, if that’s what it takes to save them? Surely if there is a fault in their ac­tions, it’s that they’re do­ing too lit­tle given the weight their be­liefs should im­pose on them.

But even if you be­lieve you be­lieve this is a mat­ter of eter­nity, of uni­mag­in­able de­grees of util­ity, if you haven’t in­ter­nal­ized that be­lief, then it sure is an­noy­ing to be pestered about the state of your im­mor­tal soul.

This is by no means ex­clu­sive to re­li­gion. Prosely­tiz­ing ve­g­ans, for in­stance, oc­cupy a similar po­si­tion on the scale of so­cially ac­cept­able dietary po­si­tions. You might be­lieve that non­hu­man an­i­mals pos­sess sig­nifi­cant moral worth, and by rais­ing them in op­pres­sive con­di­tions only to slaugh­ter them en masse, hu­mans are com­mit­ting an enor­mous moral atroc­ity, but may heaven for­give you if you try to con­vince other peo­ple of this so that they can do their part in re­vers­ing the situ­a­tion. Far more com­mon are ve­g­ans who are adamantly non-con­dem­na­tory. They may ab­stain from us­ing any sort of an­i­mal prod­ucts on strictly moral grounds, but, they will defen­sively as­sert, they’re not go­ing to crit­i­cize any­one else for do­ing oth­er­wise. In­di­vi­d­u­als like this are an ob­ject ex­am­ple that the dis­ap­proval of evan­ge­lism does not sim­ply come down to dis­taste for the prin­ci­ples be­ing preached.

So why the taboo on try­ing to change oth­ers’ be­liefs? Well, as a hu­man uni­ver­sal, it’s hard to change our minds. Hav­ing our be­liefs con­fronted tends to make us anx­ious. It might feel nice to see some­one strike a blow against the hated en­emy, but it’s safer and more com­fortable to not have a war waged on your doorstep. And so, prob­a­bly out of a shared de­sire not to have our own be­liefs con­fronted, we’ve de­vel­oped a set of so­cial norms where in­di­vi­d­u­als have an ex­pec­ta­tion of be­ing en­ti­tled to their own dis­tinct fac­tual be­liefs about the uni­verse.

Of course, the very name of this blog de­rives from the con­vic­tion that that sort of think­ing is not cor­rect. But it’s worth won­der­ing, when we con­sider a so­ciety which up­holds a free mar­ket of ideas which com­pete on their rel­a­tive strength, whether we’ve taken ad­e­quate pre­cau­tions against the sheer an­noy­ing­ness of a so­ciety where the taboo on ac­tu­ally try­ing to con­vince oth­ers of one’s be­liefs has been lifted.