Wednesday, December 29, 2004


I've been thinking about evangelical Christianity -- and particularly about deathbed evangelism. You know the sort of thing I'm talking about: a longtime athiest is dying in the hospital, and a Christian relative comes in at the last minute to try to bring salvation. My gut reaction is what I take to be the pretty standard liberal line; in the words of my friend Mandy:
Dude, I'd be PISSED if I were dying and some self-rightous idiot tried to convert me on my deathbed. If I had wanted to believe in something, I would have done it during my life and not tried to cheaply redeem myself at the last possible second. Someone tried to do this to my stepfather, an atheist, as he lay in a coma during his last days, and when I heard about it I felt violated for him because I knew he couldn't do anything to stop the person, which he would have if he hadn't been busy dying. It's like raping someone with religion.
Mandy says she'd be pissed off if someone hoisted religion on her on the deathbed. I'd feel the same way. But when I try to consider the Christian's point of view, I start to think that's not the relevant consideration. We liberals need to be careful about over-generalizing the principle that we shouldn't force our worldview onto others. *Sometimes*, it's appropriate to force things like moral beliefs onto others. For instance, we should *not* be tolerant of people who like to rape children. If a man likes to rape children, he should be stopped. Liberals will often try to explain away the significance of this obvious fact by claiming that we're doing something other than using our own moral beliefs to decide policy, and being intolerant of alternative worldviews -- but that's just what we're doing. And of course, in this case, that is exactly the right thing to do, because the moral beliefs in question are the right ones to have. How does this relate? Well, consider the point of view of the author of the deathbed evangelizer (or indeed, someone who evangelizes in other circumstances). She believes that when people die, they either spend eternity in torture in hell, or in bliss in heaven. And she also believes that the presense or absense of one particular action -- repenting and accepting Jesus -- in life is what determines which way we go. To me, this belief seems difficult to justify, but I recognize that lots of smart people believe things like this. I don't get it at all, but I'll set that aside. Given that a person has this belief, the type of rabid evangelism that so many of us view as an affront starts to look a lot less inappropriate. To see this, suppose that the belief is true; that evangelical Christianity correctly explains what happens after we die. I'm laying in the hospital, terminally ill, with days or hours left to live. Some relative comes in and trys one last time to convert me to Christianity. Since I'm not already a Christian, presumably, I do not believe in heaven, hell, salvation, etc. Since we're supposing that that IS the way the world works, that means that I'm just wrong about what happens post-death. So here comes the Christian relative, trying to save me -- and yeah, I'm annoyed. I tell her, you're not respecting my rational autonomy! You're not valuing me as an agent who makes his own decisions! I've lived my whole life as an athiest, and I have the right to die as an athiest! But it seems like none of this matters. If Christianity *is* correct, then once I'm dead, if I'm in hell, I'm going to be desperately wishing I'd listened. And if I'm in heaven, I'm going to be very, very grateful for the last-minute saving. I'd remember how upset I'd been at the time, but I'd realize that he was, in fact, acting out of love, and with my best interests at heart. If pestering me on my deathbed is the only way to send me to heaven instead of to hell, then by all means, pester me on my deathbed. And I think something like this argument will even go through on the assumption that evangelical Christianity is *false*. Suppose I walk down the street and see what appears to be a person lying on the street, covered in blood, writhing in agony. I ought to stop and help him. I should administer first aid if I know how, and I should call for help. Now fill out the story: suppose that the person was only pretending to be gravely injured, and that it was a fun game, and that my attempts to help him disrupted his concentration and ruined his afternoon. I'm not criticizable for trying to help him, since I had the reasonable and false belief that he needed help. In fact, it would be a horrible thing for me to just walk on by. That would be evidence that I don't care about the suffering of those around me. It seems to me that the evangelical Christian might be like I am in that story. She have false beliefs about what we need, and they try to help us accordingly. The problem is in the belief, not in the action. I would be hurt if I knew that someone who professed to care about me believed that by talking to me, she might've successfully saved me from eternal damnation, and didn't even try. What's the upshot of all this? I definitely do *not* want the evangelicals of the world to redouble their efforts to bring me to Christ. But I think what this sort of consideration shows is that it's not reasonable to just ask them to hold onto their beliefs, minus the going forth to all nations making disciples part. The problem is not that they're trying to force their beliefs onto others -- the problem is that their beliefs are wrong. I think this means that we athiests have to either gratefully accept the annoying but virtuous intentions of the evangelicals, or be willing to engage their religious convictions; willing to try to bring them around to our worldview. We liberals should have a knee-jerk reaction against this suggestion, but if we're serious about the unacceptability of this sort of evangelism, the way that we're serious about the unacceptability of raping children, then this seems to be the appropriate course. (I'm not committing to that last alternative. Maybe we should just put up with it all. But we should NOT continue to criticize the actions while holding the beliefs to be above reproach. The beliefs make the actions appropriate.)


  1. "If pestering me on my deathbed is the only way to send me to heaven instead of to hell, then by all means, pester me on my deathbed.

    And I think something like this argument will even go through on the assumption that evangelical Christianity is *false*.

    You're treading on dangerous ground there. What if someone believes that the only way to salvation is not through faith, but through being submitted to rape and torture? We surely wouldn't excuse their going around raping sick people, would we?

    Not that you were suggesting any such thing, of course, but it does seem your reasoning above would also apply to this more extreme version of evangelism. After all, if they were right... well, rape and torture is a small price to pay for eternal bliss, right?

    I guess the key is in the following:
    "I'm not criticizable for trying to help him, since I had the reasonable and false belief that he needed help."

    I suppose we all agree that the rape & torture religion is not a reasonable one. Having said that, I don't see how orthodox theism is any more reasonable (it's just far less harmful, is all).

    I'm in full agreement with your conclusion, however: "we should NOT continue to criticize the actions while holding the beliefs to be above reproach."
    Very nicely put. But then, I've never understood why religious beliefs should be immune from criticism. That's the sort of woolly idea Ophelia Benson (Butterflies & Wheels) is so good at poking fun at.

  2. Hi Richard,

    I don't mean to be endorsing deathbed evangelism. I don't think that trying to convert dying people is a good, or even an acceptable, thing. I'm just saying that it is that it *would* be the appropriate action, if evangelical Christianity were correct. And, like you say, there is a possible religion such that if it were true, rape and torture is the appropriate action. In both cases, given that the religion is false, the behavior is objectively inappropriate.

    But the *behavior* is not the point where they go wrong. They're subjectively acting exactly right -- both the regular evangelizer and the rape and torture version. Each person acts well, with good intentions, on bad beliefs. The problem is the belief, not the action.

    My point is that we shouldn't criticize these people for failing to respect our dying wishes, or failing to be tolerant of alternative worldviews -- the only point that they (I'm only talking about the best ones, obviously) go wrong is in the religious belief. We should treat them the way we treat misinformed people, not the way we treat bad people.

  3. Thanks for stopping by, Sarah-Jane.

    I admit, I have no grounds for being completely *certain* that the religious beliefs in question are false. I can't prove it. (Well, maybe I can... the problem of evil is pretty compelling... but I'll even grant for now that I cannot.)

    But I believe that they're false, and I think I am epistemically responsible in so doing. That's good enough to go on, here. Obviously, if I'm wrong and evangelical Christianity is right, then they are acting appropriately on TRUE beliefs, and all is well (except for me, who is failing to have important true beliefs). All the more reason to engage things at the level of belief. Whichever party is wrong, correcting the beliefs is the way to make them right.

  4. Jonathan,

    I didn't mean to imply that you were endorsing deathbed evangelism. For the most part I agree with what you've said. We both agree their beliefs are problematic. However, even given those (false) beliefs, I think we should also hold their actions to be blameworthy - I take it you disagree on this point.

    To clarify: I agree that if the beliefs were true, then their actions would be justified. But it doesn't follow that their action is also justified given sincere (but mistaken) belief. The sincere belief must also be a reasonable one (as in your 'first aid' example).

    Actions can gain justification from false beliefs only if the actor is justified in holding those beliefs. To act on unjustified false beliefs is reckless, and thus blameworthy despite sincere good intentions.

    So I guess I disagree that "[t]he beliefs make the actions appropriate." Beliefs can pass on 'appropriateness' to actions only if the beliefs possess this attribute to begin with.

    It seems that otherwise you could (potentially) never criticise actions at all - since even the most heinous act could be 'justified' by an equally heinous belief. (As I was trying to get at with the example of the 'rape & torture' religion.) I'm not sure we should want to excuse them on that basis.

    (Having said all that, this is a pretty minor point, and I do largely agree with everything else you've said here.)

  5. lindsay that's the point that Jonothan is getting at. It is very crucial for one who believes in the Christian faith - the more desperate the closer the subject is to death.

    Jonothan i believe i am quite an interesting person to be writing here and hopefully you'll bear with me.

    Basically... i'm a confessed christian and a regular church goer. I don't go out preaching (probably because of fear of persecution, and that i understand how much i'd hate it if somebody was trying to sell me something i didnt want) but now i'm in quite a difficult situation.
    My girlfriend (also a christian) has a grandmother who is quite literaly on her deathbed. The grandmother is not a christian. My girlfriend and I are now stuck with this near impossible task (i dont think anybody has mentioned the enormity of task at hand anyway). nobody in either my family nor my girlfriends are of Christian faith.... and they're very much of the persuation that we're nothing but pests..

    You can see the difficulty of my situation I'm sure. Both my girlfriend and I are desperate to convert her Grandmother to faith, but her parents think we're the lowest scum on the earth for even trying.

    I read your article on it because i was searching for "deathbed evangelism" - (i wanted some real-life examples so i could have some assistance and i'll get back to that very shortly) - and i was encouraged by what you've written.

    Basically - thankyou for your understanding. I know many people think we're a bunch of intrusive looney's but there are a few good people like you who understand our desperation. I know there are plenty of Christians who do the whole instrusive thing. I myself don't unless something like this comes up.

    Anyway thanks again. You're a good man.