I HAVE OFTEN been called an "evangelical atheist." Technically, evangelism is the Christian practice of proselytizing, of bringing souls to Christ. But for the sake of argument I'm employing the looser definition--evangelizing as an attempt to convert people to another point of view.
I was raised an Orthodox Jew, and Jews don't proselytize gentiles. That practice stopped in the fifth century, when the Roman Empire outlawed conversion to Judaism under penalty of death. But Jews do proselytize other Jews. One such early memory took place during a Shabbas (Saturday) walk in Philadelphia with my rabbi. When a man asked us where the nearest subway was, my rabbi in response asked him if he was Jewish. When the man acknowledged that he was, my rabbi refused the request because Jews are not permitted to ride on the Sabbath. My rabbi was "protecting" this Jew from breaking the law. Such a response was consistent with our weekly wait outside the synagogue on Saturday morning until a gentile passed who would turn on the lights for us. (Incidentally, Colin Powell was once a "Shabbas Goy" in New York.) There is no pretense in Judaism that such rules have anything to do with ethical behavior. We are simply separating our tribe from the gentile tribe.
My first exposure to Christian evangelism was at a Billy Graham Crusade in the early 1960s. I was working my way through college by selling hot dogs and orange drinks at basketball games and other events at Convention Hall in Philadelphia. When I heard about the Crusade to be held there, I asked the organizers if I could sell my wares. The Christian organizers turned down my request, but they invited me to attend the event. I went and had a terrific time. Graham was a charismatic speaker who moved an audience in ways I had never seen before. At the end, he invited people to come forward. So I did, out of curiosity. After Graham mumbled a few words about being "saved" to those of us who came forward, nearby waiting pastors each chose one of us to indoctrinate further.
My pastor began by asking if I had accepted Jesus Christ into my life, to which I said no. Further attempts (fire and brimstone included) to close the deal were met with similar frustration for him. When he found out I was Jewish, he transferred me to another pastor with a Jewish background. I began the conversation with Pastor Two by asking if his parents were alive. After hearing that they had died good Jews, I asked how painful it was for him to know that his devoted parents were suffering the torments of hell. When he disagreed with my conclusion, I suggested we invite Pastor One into our conversation. The highlight of my evening was watching the two of them argue about the afterlife of Pastor Two's parents.
I know I am in a distinct minority, but I decided after this first positive experience that being evangelized could be a lot of fun. I have since enjoyed inviting Jehovah's Witnesses into my house, frequently to their surprise. More often than not, they leave before I am finished talking to them.
My wife Sharon and I were once invited to take a personality test at a Scientology storefront mission during a visit to Ann Arbor. After waiting for a few minutes of tabulation, we were given our results. Sharon passed, and was invited to join. Much to my surprise, I was told that my personality test revealed that I might not be a suitable member. I had even answered the questions honestly! Does anyone know of other Scientology rejects? Sharon received two years of increasingly more urgent mailed requests to become a Scientologist, until they finally concluded that her case was hopeless, too.
I later had a brief involvement with members of the Unification Church (otherwise known as Moonies). They were proselytizing on my College of Charleston campus, along with other religious groups, until campus authorities told them to leave because they didn't have a faculty sponsor. …