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Christian converters cross the line

ACTIVISM is usually good. Some activism, however, is really bad. Unfortunately, some of that bad activism is present at the University.

Religion is good. Pride in your religion is good. Wanting to share it with others is good. Being pushy about it is bad. Shoving it down the throats of others when they clearly don't want it is bad. And looking down on those who don't want to hear it especially is bad.

It has become clear that there is a contingent of very religious, usually Protestant, Christians at the University who attempt to get other self-described non-religious, Jewish, or even Catholics to join them in Bible sessions using very pushy tactics. Indeed, some will engage you in conversation, unprovoked, and will insist that you join them.

To be more precise, I was selecting my courses in the computer lab the other day without many people around. A young man, who called himself Chris and whom I had never met, approached me without any solicitation on my part and asked "Do you ever read the Bible?"

First, this couldn't have put me in a more awkward position. If I answer "yes," I clearly open the door for Chris to ask me some questions and to continue a conversation I may have never wanted to have in the first place. If I answer "no," he looks at me in disgust and treats me as if I am a heathen to be corrected and thus offers to read the Bible with me. And if I just don't talk to him, then I'm just being mean. No matter how you cut it, he doesn't leave you alone.

Even though I don't like the way they approach people, they certainly are free to speak about and to practice their religion. It was when I declined to read the Bible with Chris and his cronies that I think he crossed the line. He kept going and offering me several meeting times and places that I had to decline one after the other. Then after not understanding my desire not to go to Bible study, he begins to instruct me then and there. "You have to read the Bible" and critically no less, he instructed. See, all along, I thought I just was supposed to look at the pictures.

Chris, however, was in for more than he had bargained. I protested, saying "It is impossible to read the Bible literally and yet have science and religion be compatible." To that he had the really intelligent response, "Come read the Bible with us. It'll be fun," accompanied by a very healthy smile.

I think after a while Chris got the picture and he resigned himself to leaving me his number, a time, and place as if I had accepted his invitation. This incident is certainly not an isolated one. It has happened to me four times. And talking to many others around me about this topic suggests that I'm not alone here either.

The major problem with this proselytizing is that the goal of it is unclear. Is the goal to expose me to other religions? If it is, we have a great religious studies department which could do the job a thousand times better than these students. Is the goal to convert me? If so, the assumption they must be making is that I'm wrong. By forcing me into unwanted conversations and prodding into the sanctity of my thoughts and what I believe -- something which I could legitimately wish to keep private, my free exercise of religion is violated by them having taken theirs too far.

What is more, they don't tell you much above the fact that they read the Bible. Whether in religious school, for personal edification, by parental decree, or for a high school English class, most educated people and by induction most U.Va. students have read the Bible. It is curious that just because we are familiar with the Bible, these students think that they can use it to change our minds. The only variable here is the company in which you read it. That suggests that there is this company is persuading you, not just informing you. Company that changes your mind about deep religious convictions is the type of group that brainwashes people.

In truth, the mere suggestion that I should be dissatisfied with my religion and so should convert to theirs is insulting. Underlying their actions is an assumption of inferiority of which we should all be greatly wary. It is that very assumption that spawned nearly 300 years of religious wars and conflagrations that saw some of the worst and most senseless bloodshed ever witnessed. It was that statement of inferiority that saw the attempt at ordered extermination that devastated Eastern European Jewry.

By no means do I think that those who proselytize have this evil on their mind. But what I hope they realize is that their actions have commonalities with the assumptions that caused these great tragedies. That's why it's time for this to stop.

(Jeffrey Eisenberg's column appears Mondays in The Cavalier Daily.)


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