Leading Them On

I’m interested in religion from a social and cultural perspective. I’m interested in the breadth of religious activity and religious self-conception. The majority of my experience is in mainline protestant Christianity, with the rest mostly in evangelical protestant Christianity.

I used to travel a lot for work, and I tried to go to visit different religious groups: Bahai, unitarian, new religious movements, and so on. If I was in a town for a week, then it seemed okay to go and snoop.

Tonight the Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses is holding a bible study for Passover (in which is contained their celebration of the death and resurrection of Jesus). I’ve been having conversations with one of the Witnesses, who invited me. I’d like to go, I am interested in authoritarian religious groups (I’ve also got a soft-spot for Scientology). But I’ve decided not to.

The reason is, I’ve been unable to communicate why I am interested in them. So they see someone who’s always willing to talk about God, who is interested. And I know, from my past history in evangelicalism, I know what that means to them. I know enough about the Witnesses to know that evangelism is a significant demand on each member, bringing in someone new is a deeply important event.

So I feel like I am abusing their invitation, somewhat. Or that I’m certainly there under false pretences. Or that I’m storing up unnecessary problems for the guy who has been evangelising me.

Maybe it wouldn’t be like that, I certainly wouldn’t have a problem if they didn’t. But its going to take more conversations to make my position clear and to understand how they could relate to an interested party with no prospect of conversion. When the relationship is still at the level of “let me tell you about this amazing man, Jesus” we’re not there yet.

I wouldn’t think twice if these weren’t people in my little village. If this was a business trip, and I was leaving next week and never coming back. But somehow it feels deceitful. Which is a shame, because I’ve never been in a Kingdom Hall before, and I’d love to experience more of what goes on there.

Am I being over-sensitive?



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14 responses to “Leading Them On

  1. Yes. You are being over-sensitive.

    I would be honored to have you in our church, not cause I would totally convert you, but because of your perspective and what you would bring to the table.

    I think that’s where we meet and why we’ve been hanging out for a few years: our interest in the human species. We are essentially humanists with differing views on the nature of the divine. I would love to do what you do, but sadly my Sundays are all booked up. But if it’s a chance to get to understand someone, not out of a sense of conversion one way or another (you to they or they to you) then what you’re left with is communion.

  2. I can’t speak for the religious because that’s not my circle, but I think you might be being a little over-sensitive. It all depends on the person inviting you. On the one hand, many such folk believe in their ‘product’ so much that they trust that mere exposure will bring you closer, even if you arrive without being open to such conversion. On the other hand, if they didn’t know that your interest is more anthropological, they might have justification for feeling deceived. Can you simply tell your friend you’re curious, respectful (as you appear to be), and not there to be converted? Your true intention is respectful even if it would be too easy for someone to feel otherwise. Short version: give them a chance to respect your differing beliefs as you respect theirs.

    That said, I feel awkward attending any church because I feel insincere and would hate for my beliefs (or lack thereof) to contaminate something attendees might hold dear. When I do attend, with family or friends, I feel awkward both praying (it’d be insincere) and not praying (it might seem disrespectful). Singing? I’m on board. That’s just fun!

  3. Ian

    @Luke – thanks, that means a lot mate.

    @orange – yes, that’s pretty much what I thought. If I’ve had chance to say those things by the time the next thing comes round, I’ll go. But I’ve really only spoken to the guy three times, and in none of those have I got him off his evangelism script.

  4. I do wish the Luke-like voices (above) were more prominent than than the non Luke-like voices (they probably are, but my hearing must be a little off). That’d be the kind of pleasant world I could happily sign up for.

    Here’s to you Luke … [imaginary mutually acceptable drink raised] …

  5. In my view, you’re far from over-sensitive, and are responding perceptively to a real risk. My question is, is Luke a Jehovah’s Witness? That makes a difference.

    In some denominations, the number of conversions a person brings into the fold “counts” toward that person’s perceived faith. In that case, your intent never to be a convert would be a serious misappropriation of his time and a threat to his perception of the legitimacy of his Christianity. On the other hand, a less bookkeeping attitude in a different denomination could welcome you simply as a visitor, with no harm.

    Thoughtfulness of this kind is almost never out of place.

  6. Ian

    Thanks Nan, and welcome. I appreciate the thought, and that is similar to the thought process I went through.

  7. You know what, when people do bizarre things, making them uncomfortable could be the best thing for them. Make you Witness friend uncomfortable. Get him to see that his superficial relationship with you is based only on conversion. Make him a failure — something needs to shake them awake.

    Play with them. After all, they are not treating you as a real person anyway. Make them disappointed and confused. Why be tender and enable their horrible way of viewing others.

    Well, that is my humble take. I’ve been there many times myself, as you know. I let them know that I am approaching the anthropologically — they don’t understand, of course, but that is their tough luck.

    But I get it that they are in your village — it is not that you care for them more deeply, it is that they could bad mouth you in ways that could surprisingly hurt in indirect ways in the small village.

  8. Ian

    Thanks Sabio, great to have the other viewpoint put bluntly (I should point out that this man I wouldn’t consider a friend. I’ve spoken to him three times, and all purely in the context of his evangelical duty). I entertain those kinds of ideas too, but then I find it difficult to actually act that way. It does feel immoral, regardless of the immorality of the belief system in question.

  9. *tips glass back to Orange

    Wrote today’s Holy Week reflection based on this thread and a feeling I have had recently. Granted it’s written for my church peeps, but I hope you get the idea. Thanks for the inspiration! Rawk on out, y’all!

  10. Interesting! In my view, you’re being just sensitive enough. I can only speak from the perspective of an ex-Wiccan: if someone were to come to our ceremonies simply to “observe” the human behavior, I’d consider that a tad invasive. Granted this is a group of the religious who have no qualms about walking onto my porch and spreading their gospel (real Wiccans would never, ever do that) but you decided to be thoughtful about it and it says a lot about your integrity.

  11. arcseconds

    I don’t think you’re being oversensitive, either. It doesn’t matter if other people act weirdly, that in itself is no reason to knowingly make life awkward for them in return. It’s also not your place to turn their world upside down.

    I would say you have no business turning up to someone’s private party under entirely false pretexts. If I turned up to your house-party under the pretext of enjoying fine wine and good company, and it turned out I had lied and I was there to rat on how debauched you and your libtertine friends are for the ultra-conservative residents’ rag, you’d be within your rights to be absolutely furious with me. That’s an extreme example, but you can see why it’s a problem if there’s a big gap between my understanding of why you turned up and yours.

    If they can’t understand why you’re there, then you are always going to be there under false pretexts.

    I’m of the understanding that cultural anthropologists these days regard it as good ethical practice to explain to their hosts why they are there when they’re doing the whole participant-observer thing.

    I think it’s fine if they accept that in your head, you’re there because you’re curious, but in theirs, they’re hoping for conversion. Disagreement about the likely outcome of your attendance is fine, but I think they should realise that there is a disagreement.

  12. Ian

    Amelie, thanks. I’d love to attend a Shabbatsabbat (darn autocorrect) too, but that’s harder still to come by!

    Arc, agreed. Thanks for that.

    I know when I was an evangelical I wouldn’t have minded (because I would have told myself that there was always a chance, and that nobody could be interested without having some deep longing for the ‘truth’). I’ll let everyone know what happens next.

    Though to be frank, it is hard to express anything to someone who has you in a poor lost soul box. When he asked me if I believed in god and I said that I thought god was a human construct, he seemed a bit lost for words for a moment, before referring me to some unrelated page of the watchtower. I suspect it might be hard to express where I’m coming from to someone who has never even thought that people like us exist.

  13. arcseconds

    Right, it might be difficult, or even impossible, but that means that they’re not capable of giving informed consent :]

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