Dialogue on Religion is Dead—and I Killed It
Back in January, I wrote an article about the dangers of individualism, warning that the dignity and agency of human beings is at risk in a society where we are required by law to treat others as black boxes and consider sacrosanct the freedom to close ourselves off from people and ideas. The recent controversy over the Indiana Religious Freedom Restoration Act brought these thoughts back to my mind. Since then, I’ve again been wondering where the demand made by secularizing forces that religious people keep their faith at home and out of the public square will lead us. As it turns out, it leads to my front door.
We moved into our current house last summer. There are many improvements over our old rental: it’s very private, the view is beautiful, the appliances are gas, the yard is large enough for the dog to gallop around, and the Jehovah’s Witnesses never, ever come around. Or at least, they didn’t until a week ago.
At our previous pad, the Jehovah’s Witnesses were reliable as a clock. Every Friday, sometime in the late morning or early afternoon, there’d be a knock at my door. Terry, a smiling elderly gentleman with hair dyed yellow (not blond, yellow), had arrived. He’d ask questions like, “Do you think there could ever be a time on Earth when there is no more poverty?” or “Do you think the Bible is God’s word?”, shove a tract into my hand, and read a Bible verse. I rarely answered the door. If I did, I politely hurried Terry through the conversation until he began reading a verse from the New Testament, then I’d bow my head to listen before sending him off with a word of thanks.
Last Saturday “the JWs” at last gathered the courage to ascend the steep driveway of our somewhat secluded home, spurred by a mission to interrupt my breakfast for the sake of evangelism. I was not pleased when the doorbell rang. I approached the door grumbling, “It’s probably the Jehovah’s Witnesses!” loud enough for them to hear. I yanked open the door, letting my bathrobe flutter unabashedly in the breeze. The two middle-aged women at the door hesitated for only a moment before diving into the routine. I didn’t tell them outright to leave, which might have been kinder in the end, but I was short with them.
I didn’t want to hear what they had to say. I know their views. I know they’re wrong. I didn’t care enough to challenge them on their beliefs. I didn’t want to teach them, to help them know better. I just wanted them gone, off my property, somewhere where they weren’t interfering with my private life. I wanted to be left alone and not be bothered by people with wrong beliefs.
It dawned on me about ten minutes later that I had adopted precisely the mindset I’d been worrying about. Someone with a point of view with which I disagreed entered my bubble, and I did my best to send them packing as quickly as I could. All this time I thought I was part of the solution, that I was a person who welcomed debate and dialogue because of his great love for truth and all those who sought it. It turns out that I am not interested in debate and dialogue; I am interested in being right and being left alone.
It seems to me that if I want society to respect my claim that I am fulfilling a religious obligation when I do something not discussed in Scripture, like, say, decline to provide services for a same-sex wedding ceremony, I should be able to demonstrate that I fulfill the religious obligations explicitly placed on me. “Love your neighbor,”1 said our Lord. “Preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching,”2 wrote Paul. These commands are clear, yet rarely do I obey them when I find them inconvenient. So it was last Saturday; it was my opportunity to preach sound doctrine to the visitors who came on a religious errand, but I shooed them away to protect my individual bubble.
If you ever hear anyone ask why religion vanished from debates, why the discussion died, point them towards me, the man at his door in a blue bathrobe. It is I who killed it.
1. Mark 12:31.
2. 2 Timothy 4:2
Photo from Mike Pulsifer at Flickr Creative Commons, used under (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).