If Communication is Imposition, Missionaries are among the most Imposing of all Communicators

“Do you have the time?”

“Uh, yeah. It’s half past—”

I know what time it is. I wanted to know if you knew. Have you ever considered your watch there on your wrist? Like how it had to have a maker?”

Hold up there, Bill Paley. 

When this conversation unfolds, I am an undergraduate at a large state university waiting at the bus-stop for the campus shuttle that will help me shorten the otherwise half-hour, hot schlep on foot clear to the other side of the sprawling southern campus. I am also a Religious Studies major and have taken the required course in Philosophy of Religion. So I recognize immediately the famous—or should I say infamous?—watchmaker analogy at the core of eighteenth-century clergyman, Christian apologist, and philosopher William Paley’s version of the argument from design.

Paley is renowned for having formulated one of the better known versions of the argument for the existence of God from design, also known as the teleological argument for God. Folks usually refer to Paley’s version as the “watchmaker analogy” because it relies on an analogy between the internal complexity and utility observed in the make-up of a watch and that which Paley claimed could be observed in the natural world. Of course, the good rector didn’t invent either the analogy or the argument itself. Those go back at least to the Stoic philosophers of the Hellenistic period. Cicero quotes their version of a watchmaker argument in De Natura Deorum (On the nature of the gods) II.34 (87):

“When you see a sundial or a water-clock, you see that it tells the time by design and not by chance. How then can you imagine that the universe as a whole is devoid of purpose and intelligence, when it embraces everything, including these artifacts themselves and their artificers?”

On the first page of his 1802 work entitled Natural Theology, Paley wrote similarly:

“In crossing a heath, suppose I pitched my foot against a stone, and were asked how the stone came to be there: I might possibly answer, that, for any thing I knew to the contrary, it had lain there for ever; nor would it perhaps be very easy to show the absurdity of this answer. But suppose I had found a watch upon the ground, and it should be inquired how the watch happened to be in that place; I should hardly think of the answer which I had before given,—that, for any thing I knew, the watch might have always been there. Yet why should not this answer serve for the watch as well as for the stone? why is it not as admissible in the second case, as in the first? For this reason, and for no other, viz. that, when we come to inspect the watch, we perceive (what we could not discover in the stone) that its several parts are framed and put together for a purpose, e.g. that they are so formed and adjusted as to produce motion, and that motion so regulated as to point out the hour of the day; that, if the different parts had been differently shaped from what they are, of a different size from what they are, or placed after any other manner, or in any other order, than that in which they are placed, either no motion at all would have been carried on in the machine, or none which would have answered the use that is now served by it.”

Paley then proceeded to argue that nature, too, shows “[e]very indication of contrivance, every manifestation of design” and to a much a greater extent than a watch does. 

The success or failure of Paley’s argument rests on the strength of the analogy he draws. Whether or not one “buys” it depends, in large part, on how plausible you judge the comparison at the idea’s core. My twelve-dollar Timex, the key to unlocking the mysteries of the universe and the existence of God? Hmmm…I doubt it.

As I stood there before the apparent reincarnation of an eighteenth-century relic on the sweltering campus, however, what concerned me more than anything was not a critique of Paley’s—oh, I’m sorry, Cicero’s—oh wait, I’m so sorry—the Stoics’—old saw of an argument, with its subtle effacing of the distinction between the natural and the artificial and destruction of the standard by which we judge the one from the other or its relentless solipsism in seeing purpose and intent ex post facto in the blind workings of evolution. No, my beef at that moment was with the arrogance and presumption of my would-be Christian converter. 

If, as philosopher H. Paul Grice thought, human communication is based at least in part on a principle of cooperation, then rhetorical questions have the potential to constitute an ugly betrayal of the very basis for spoken interactions. Their ineluctable smugness derives from the fact that the question format—what some linguists and philologists might call the interrogative mood—serves to solicit information from an interlocutor, whether in the form of actual content or a simple yes or no. But rhetorical questions already presuppose the very answer the literal letter of their words would seek to elicit. In some cases, the presupposition of the answer extends to the addressee as well, and the point of “asking” the question in the first place is merely to jar the questionee’s mind, beckoning his or her attention to what is already known, a gentle reminder if you will. In other cases, though, the presupposition extends no farther than the ego of the asker: the explicit point is to elicit befuddlement—what fancy Greek philosophers might have called aporia—on the part of the listener and to use that highlighted lack of knowledge as a jumping off point for instruction and discussion. If you’re a teacher, these latter sorts of rhetorical questions are pretty standard fare and pass without much objection. If you’re not standing before a class of eager young minds you’re employed to fill with knowledge or inspiration, however, using this sort of rhetorical question makes you look like an unmitigated ass.

What my guy did—and what made him look like a BIG FLAMING ASSHOLE—was to employ a third kind of rhetorical question: the covert rhetorical question. Its form and context make it seem to all parties involved in the communication like a regular, plain vanilla, genuine question. It’s flagged as rhetorical not because the interlocutor suddenly realizes that both she and the asker already share knowledge of the answer, nor because the addressee clearly doesn’t know the answer and can sense that the asker expected as much and intends to fill her in immediately. Rather this third type of rhetorical question only betrays its true identity as rhetorical when the asker interrupts the interlocutor mid-reply and admits flatly: I already know the answer to the question I posed, and I posed it merely to gauge your knowledge, or rather to use the fake interaction as a douchey icebreaker for an entirely different discussion I intended to have and am now springing on you without your consent or cooperation.


Missionaries and their tricks

I know a thing or two about missionaries. I earned my third and—I swear to Satan!—final master’s degree at a small graduate school in south Dallas that was originally established in 1998 as a semi-independent and fully accredited academic training ground for SIL.

What is SIL, you ask? I first heard about that particular organization while reading Mark Abley’s 2005 book about language endangerment entitled Spoken Here: Travels among Threatened Languages. In his book, Abley wrote: 

“Based in Dallas, Texas, SIL is among the largest employers of linguists in the field—linguists, that is, who actually study the world’s languages rather than engaging in arcane analysis of the structural underpinnings of speech.” 

Apart from the slamming of professional theoretical linguistics, that sounds fantastic, right? Abley also goes on to discuss the history of SIL, like the fact that the acronym stands for Summer Institute of Linguistics. That funny name came about because the organization began in Arkansas in 1934 as a summer training school in linguistics.

Who would want to go to summer school for training in linguistics in 1934, you ask? Why evangelical Christian missionaries who are committed to a literal reading of Revelation 7:9, of course. For reference, here’s that scriptural passage:

After this I beheld, and, lo, a great multitude, which no man could number, of all nations, and kindreds, and people, and tongues, stood before the throne, and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes, and palms in their hands. (KJV)

Literal fulfillment of this scripture provides a key underpinning of the stated Bible translation goal of beginning a translation project by the year 2025 in every language community that currently doesn’t have a Bible available to them in their own mother tongue. The guy who founded SIL, William Cameron “Uncle Cam” Townsend, believed deeply that missionized people needed to be able to read and understand the scriptures in their own first languages, something missionaries in his grand tradition still refer to not only as “mother tongues” but, even more sentimentally, as “heart languages.” 

As warm and fuzzy as all that may sound, there has also, at times, been a darker, more sobering motivation behind SIL’s activities. In some early publications, Townsend also quoted Matthew 24:14 as a prime motivation for his work:

And this gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in all the world for a witness unto all nations; and then shall the end come. (KJV)

Note the final clause: having the “good news” in the form of the Bible available to all peoples throughout the world in their own “heart languages” is but preparation for the end of that world and the second coming of Christ. This same passage of scripture is still in the online materials associated with Wycliffe Bible Translators, the explicit missionary organization also founded by Cameron Townsend in 1942, although, on some other pages at the Wycliffe.org site, the scriptural passage appears without its ominous final clause.

Missionaries and dissembling

Hiding their true purposes and dissembling ultimate aims is something many missionaries possess a studied skill at. In his 1975 book cowritten by SIL heavy hitter Richard S. Pittman entitled Remember All the Way, Uncle Cam devotes an entire chapter to the subject. Recalling a time when he was overseeing missionary activity in rural Mexico, Townsend relates how a Cakchiquel Maya native he had trained as an evangelist came to him requesting permission to go evangelize a nearby area where the indigenous inhabitants spoke a closely related, mutually intelligible language. The would-be converter, however, returned from the trip dejected and discouraged from his mission. He explained how, whenever he would approach a homestead and announce his true purpose for visiting, the locals would shoo him away, saying: “Go away, you lazy Indian. You are just trying to live without working. Go get yourself a respectable job.” And they would refuse to listen to him. But the native preacher had an idea, for which he requested Townsend’s assistance. He asked that Uncle Cam buy him hair-cutting equipment, which the American did, and he then returned to the area posing as a barber. Whenever locals would ask “Who’s there?” in response to his coming round their door, he would now answer, “A barber. Anybody want a haircut?” When the inhabitants asked about price, he intentionally threw them some lowball figure, all the better to entice them further. Then, he explains:

 “Within fifteen minutes I was not only improving their looks, but also explaining the way to salvation, and they drank it in. I had a job they respected and they listened” (p. 59).

In justifying this deceptive behavior for the purpose of spreading the gospel, Townsend writes without irony of friends of his who owned companies incorporated under several different names or configured differently with respect to union and non-union labor in different states, all in a bid to achieve beneficial tax statuses or to operate in areas of the country that have relatively stronger or laxer union-labor laws. That is, Uncle Cam defended his own and his subordinate’s behavior in terms of simple expediency. He writes:

“The important thing is that he gets the job done and keeps people happy.” (p. 58).   

Townsend then proceeds to quote Jesus’ teaching about fasting in Matthew 6:16, where the Messiah counsels his followers not to put on a show of obvious fasting, but rather to dissemble their true behavior by dressing nicely and appearing freshly groomed and well-fed. Uncle Cam notes that he decided missionaries should become accredited linguists in order to be “welcomed as colleagues of ministries of education, of universities, to work with them on a linguistic job that they as well want done. Governments welcome us because we are willing to work with them in something which interests them vitally—literacy” (p. 60). Indeed, in my time as a student at the SIL school in Dallas, I heard over and over again the refrain that missionaries bring many positives to the lives of the people they evangelize, especially the construction of schools and medical facilities and the spreading of literacy. 

Something else I heard repeatedly during my time there is that missionaries from several different evangelistic groups regularly push the envelope of legality in several of the countries in which they operate in order to be able to work there. I attended numerous so-called “platform presentations” where representatives of various missionary organizations and/or actual missionaries recently returned on furlough from “the field” spoke frankly and in detail about the lengths to which they went, morally and legally, to guarantee their ability to spread the gospel wherever their organizations had determined. For instance, during one session, the missionary speakers emphasized how they had partnered with NGOs or even other religious groups that already had access to the area in order to be able to gain entrée to the country in which they were working. In another, the pair of speakers reveled that they would travel by land from their base in the northern part of a country in which their missionary organization was welcome and well established to cross the border unofficially into a neighboring nation where their activity was not permitted. Whenever events were held at the school where photographers were on hand to document for posterity and for future publicity-materials, missionaries to areas of the world where their presence was unwelcome and clandestine were instructed to place red stickers on their name tags so that, when the photos were edited later, the staff would know to make sure that such folks were never clearly shown in connection with SIL or related groups. When SIL or Wycliffe Bible translators and missionaries get killed in areas of the world where they are not officially supposed to be, as apparently happened in 2016, misinformation and deliberate agnotology are the norm. To this day, I’m on the mailing lists of missionary couples serving in such hush-hush capacities and receive their newsletters directed at friends, family, and financial backers here stateside, in which they use acknowledged pseudonyms both for the area of the world where they work and for the people group they are evangelizing.

I once had a confrontation of sorts over missionaries and the propriety—or lack thereof!—of their activity in the world that unfolded right after a meeting of the advanced syntax course I was taking, which had been guest-taught that day by a friend and future missionary who, at the time, was earning his Ph.D. in linguistics from the nearby University of Texas at Arlington. When he and I butted heads over the issue of missionaries going to far-flung, less economically well-off communities and peddling their religious wares, my friend defended the practice on the grounds that the world is a marketplace of ideas, and all missionaries are doing is showcasing one more set of ideas that are on sale for all to buy into. Of course, his argument ignores the inevitable power imbalance and dynamic at work when wealthy western missionaries travel to impoverished third-world areas and set up shop, with their expensive laptops, digital cameras, high-definition video recorders, and offers to pay locals for collaboration. Even with that omission notwithstanding, it’s hard to see how my colleague’s free-market idea could stand up, given that missionaries and Bible translators are often operating on false pretenses. Uncle Cam’s Cakchiquel protégé had to pretend to be peddling one thing, only to perform a masterful bait and switch once his services as barber had been contracted! The move was not unlike what happened to me at that sweltering bus stop that day during undergraduate.

The deceptiveness of religious tracts

Would-be missionaries and evangelists here in the United States use similarly deceptive and disingenuous tactics, especially when it comes to their religious tracts. On a recent Saturday morning, my wife went for her usual walk along the 5-mile paved greenbelt trail that runs through a series of parks behind our house. As she plodded along, a male walker passing from the other direction stopped her to ask: “Hey, how are you doing? Would you like this tract?” Kudos to him for just coming right out and admitting that he was passing out religious tracts. However, when my wife had a moment to read the business-card-sized handout that she promptly brought home to me as fodder for my “research,” she felt gobsmacked by its deceptiveness. 

The front side of the card displays the bold red header: “Are you a good person?” Below that, the smaller text provides a brief definition of “good person” as “good enough to go to Heaven” and then instructs its bearer to place his or her thumb over a small purple person icon displayed along the right side, holding it there for eight seconds. The instructions assure you that, if you are a good person as previously defined, the individual pictured in the purple icon will turn green. But of course, the card is not some kind of fancy thermochromic device that will change color when you touch or press on it with your warm finger. It’s just a paper business card.

So, unsurprisingly, when you flip the card over and discover the back chock full of fine print, the very first word you read is “Sorry…,” followed by the relatively insulting let down “you’re just like the rest of us” when measured for “moral excellence” against “the standard—the Ten Commandments.” The card then segues from claiming that your life falls short of this putative moral benchmark to threatening you with eternal punishment if you don’t trust in Jeebus, etc. and so on.

When my wife showed me the card-tract, it immediately reminded me of the time, also during my undergrad years, when I worked as the bakery bar attendant in Ryan’s Steakhouse in Athens, Georgia. My long-term live-in girlfriend at the time worked as a waitress in the restaurant, and boy did she have some stories to tell! A lot of those stories had to do with dreading work on Sunday afternoons. I mean absolutely hating and even positively fearing to go in to work a shift due to the fact that the restaurant would inevitably fill up to the brim with Christians™ fresh from their Sunday services. Not only did my girlfriend and her fellow waitstaff find these people to be the absolute worst customers—petty, prone to complaint about everything under the sun, and inordinately demanding—but they also knew them to be the absolute worst tippers in the world. 

One day, my girlfriend brings a folded piece of paper over to me at the bakery bar for my perusal. She had found it left at her table as a “tip.” From the outside, the paper looked for all the world like a folded twenty dollar bill, the kind of thing every server would love to see left by paying customers following a meal, no matter how big a bunch of pains in the ass they had been. Try to unfold that apparent bill, however, and you would discover—like my girlfriend did to her horror and unmitigated fury—that it was, in fact, just a religious tract that read something to the effect of: “Bet you thought this was a twenty-dollar tip, didn’t you? Well, this is something way better: a chance at eternal life!” 

The real pisser is: my wife has a new, very demanding job for which she is well suited but which has had her lately feeling somewhat fragile and inadequate: learning curves and growing pains type stuff. So she can be a little brittle these days as far as her self-esteem is concerned. When this A-hole of an evangelist comes along in the park and hands her a piece of paper that assures her with bullshit trickery that she’s no good person at all, it upset her a bit. The would-be missionary’s cheap emotional manipulation left her feeling hurt and more than a little angry, not far off the mark of how I felt in the presence of the douchey Time Lord with his fake questions at the bus stop back at my undergrad alma mater or how my girlfriend felt upon opening that phony $20 tip to discover its true, unsavory nature. 

The larger counterfeits of traditional religion

Christians™ are always resorting to such cheap emotional manipulation, holding genuinely good people hostage to those people’s own better impulses to trust in others and expect that things will usually turn out to be more or less as they present themselves. When my wife came home from her walk all indignant over the business-card tract, she fulminated for a while over just how fucked up Christian™ rhetoric can be. Just imagine your run-of-the-mill human parent saying to another person, even someone they don’t particularly know: 

“Hey, if you don’t live your life the way I want you to, I’m going to kill my kid. And then his blood will be on your hands!” 

Sounds like the worst kind of emotional abuse, and yet that’s precisely the party line of standard Christianity. What can you expect, though, from a religion that bids you manifest a positive affective state like love on demand toward complete and total strangers all over the world, even including your enemies and those who actively persecute you? And don’t get me started about Jesus’ passive-aggressive warning over adulterous thought crimes: that’s a topic for another post.

I don’t think Christians™ realize, though, just how off-putting their constant manipulations and fabrications can be. They’re so convinced of their own righteousness and that of their chosen path that they’ve become completely blind to the massive beam of this unfair treatment of their fellow human beings that’s marring their own vision. Try to wrap your mind around the enormity of the irony of Uncle Cam’s choosing to entitle the chapter of his book in which he discusses his disingenuous missionary practices with the question “Who’s there?” Just like the kid who accosted me at the bus stop, he apparently has no pangs of mordant self-consciousness over the fact that ordinary folks expect such questions to be genuine and worthy of genuine—and truthful!—answers. When your attention and efforts are directed toward the present, real world and not some pie-in-the-sky hoped-for cloud-kingdom to come, your patience for riding rough shod over plain and simple veracity and ordinary expectations for person-to-person interactions runs a little thin. After all, I can’t justify being a deceptive dick to people in this life by rationalizing that I’m somehow saving us all for some promised better life still to come. I’ve got one shot at this, and plying people with cheap emotional manipulation just isn’t going to cut it. Call me old school, but this Satanist very much opposes bearing false witness without some damn good reason for doing so. And making people feel bad about themselves so they’ll buy into my personal belief system most certainly isn’t a damn good reason.

By the way, this type of emotional counterfeit is not restricted to Christianity™ nor to the words the religious use to sucker others into their systems of belief and practice. Many atheist and secular humanist writers have observed over the years that if traditional religions were ever forbidden to indoctrinate children from a young age, traditional religion itself would soon die out. There’s good reason why modern marketers also target children, hoping to leverage warm & fuzzy childhood memories and associations with a given product or service into a lifetime of devotion and dedication to a given brand: it’s because that strategy works. Traditional religions figured this much out millennia ago and have been trading on the same counterfeit emotional coin ever since. 

Then, too, there’s the structure of traditional religious architecture: usually massive buildings, soaring to impossible heights, abounding in artistic treasures and immaculately kept grounds. All part of a carefully constructed bid to provoke in the beholder feelings of awe that go in the philosophical literature under the heading of the sublime, along with a positive affective state that will render the individual well disposed toward the religion that could inspire such artistry and grandiosity to begin with. From beautiful Christian cathedrals to intricate Hindu mandirs to shining Muslim mosques to latter-day LDS temples with their manicured lawns and flower beds, this same pattern plays out all over the world. It was in part responsible for my choice, many years ago, to set out down a path that eventually led my wife and myself to seek baptism as converts into the Mormon religion. But that, too, is a story for another post.           

And don’t even get me started on the topic of Crisis Pregnancy Centers, the conservative, right-wing, anti-abortion propaganda centers deceptively gussied up to superficially look and feel like actual medical clinics offering real advice and assistance with women’s reproductive freedoms and choices. Just like with Uncle Cam’s faux-barber underling: if these places announced at the door what they’re really all about, their ability to bait-n’-switch would flounder because nobody, but nobody, seeking real help would ever venture inside.  

5 thoughts on “If Communication is Imposition, Missionaries are among the most Imposing of all Communicators

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