The Hidden Agenda of Witnessing


“If you take a close look at evangelism, you begin to see that it has at least as much to do with fortifying the inner conviction of the born-again Christian as it has with saving the “unsaved.” [Presenting] Eric Hoffer:

The missionary zeal seems rather an expression of some deep misgiving, some pressing feeling of insufficiency at the center. Proselytizing is more a passionate search for something not yet found than a desire to bestow upon the world something we already have. It is a search for a final and irrefutable demonstration that our absolute truth is indeed the one and only truth. The proselytizing fanatic strengthens his own faith by converting others.

Remember the “plausibility structure?” It is a social peer-support group within which we find a shared belief compelling despite the skeptical jeering of those outside, whose criticisms are put on the shelf while we breathe the heady atmosphere of mutual affirmation. Well, evangelism is an attempt to increase the plausibility structure attendant to our belief so that we may never have any more occasion to doubt it. If I can get everybody to agree with me, then I must be right! They all agree! More votes! A million Mustang owners can’t be wrong, can they? So let’s sell some Mustangs!

Leon Festinger, Henry W. Riecken, and Stanley Schachter, in When Prophecy Fails, a study of a flying-saucer cult that set a date for a space invasion that ignominiously failed to materialize, saw the same dynamic at play. What are you going to do when you’ve been preaching that people ought to repent or face destruction when Klaatu gets back with his deadly robot Gort–and he stands you up? They started reinterpreting fast! Just like Jehovah’s Witnesses and others whose deadlines for the end of the world fell through in 2000. But this is not enough. One still suffers from a migraine of doubt. The alarms of “cognitive dissonance” keep going off in one’s head. Which would be less painful: to give up in shame and embarrassment and admit you were wrong, or to stonewall and hope the facts (and more important, the ridicule) will just go away? Many sects in such a situation (and it happens frequently) choose the latter. And then it is time to redouble one’s evangelistic efforts. Even though the product is now much harder to sell, thanks to the public debunking, the believers turn up the juice. Why bother?

If more and more people can be persuaded that the system of belief is correct, then clearly it must, after all, be correct. Consider the extreme case: if everyone in the whole world believed something, there would be no question at all to the validity of this belief. It is for this reason that we observe the increase in proselytizing following disconfirmation. If the proselytizing proves successful, then by gathering more adherents and effectively surrounding himself with supporters, the believer reduces dissonance to the point where he can live with it.”

(The Reason Driven Life, pp. 340-341)


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