Fear of the Unknown

By Merv Budd

Recently the Heineken Beer company released an advertisement that sought to bring people together who would normally not associate. People who held not just opposite views but who held prejudices against them. What they found was that as people began to know those whom they had objectified as people, they began to be less harsh and less judgmental.

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While the world wide web may give the illusion that we are becoming closer to others as a species, the reality is that most of us really don’t associate with people who are not like us. In The Meaning of Sunday, Canadian sociologist, Joel Thiessen, revealed the results of a study in which he dealt with how people practise their faith or lack of faith in Canada–how is what they believe or disbelieve, lived out. In the book he divided the people who were interviewed into three main categories.

The first he calls “Active Affiliates” these are people who identify with a particular faith and actively practise that faith. Most of you would fit into this category. The second category he calls “Marginal Affiliates”. These would be people who identify themselves by a specific faith but do not really practise that faith on a regular basis. It does not have much influence on their day to day life. These would be people who may come to church at Christmas and Easter more out of tradition than any other reason. The last group are “Religious Nones”. These are those people who do not identify with a particular religion. They are the ones who on census surveys under the religious affiliation question check the box that says “none”. This is the fastest growing religious category in Canada.

As I read the book I began to find that I was getting irritated. In particular, when it came to the Marginal Affiliates and the Religious Nones telling why they have not fully embraced faith. The reasons given showed that they misunderstood what they were rejecting. It irritated me that they seemed to flippantly write off faith for reasons that were so erroneous, based upon ignorance about what Christian faith taught.

But what really started to bug me, was the results of one of the questions that was asked of each group was with regard to who they are friends with. Generally, those who were Marginal Affiliates exclusively associated with other Marginal Affiliates and Religious Nones exclusively associated with other Religious Nones. And I began to ask myself how are these people’s misunderstandings about faith, how are their erroneous assumptions going to be challenged unless they know people from the Active Affiliate group.

By now that niggle had already gone to my gut, it was eating me up that people where so uniformed. But then I realised that when the Active Affiliates were questioned about their friends, they too generally exclusively associated with other Active Affiliates. And this got me thinking if each group only stays in their own little sub-culture they will never have their assumptions challenged, their misconceptions corrected and the stereo-types changed. And why wouldn’t anyone want to be friends with evangelicals? After all we’re so nice. Aren’t we?

The truth is there is an increasing fear of the unknown when it comes to evangelicals in North America. A Pew Research poll found that in the last three years the feelings of Americans toward various religions “warmed” in every case except evangelical Christians. Similarly, A San Francisco-based Institute for Jewish and Community Research found that 53 percent of its sample of 1,200 college and university faculty members said they have “unfavorable” feelings toward evangelical Christians. Faculty have positive feelings toward Jews, Buddhists, Catholics, and Atheists. This is the only religious group about which a majority of non-Evangelical faculty have negative feelings (read the study here).

In the minds of those who observe us evangelicals are scary. In the Western world, the word “evangelical” has become an extreme right wing political group which is harsh, hypocritical and militant. How do we help to change this perception of evangelical Christians so that we are associated more with the person of Jesus?

A number of studies have shown that short, casual, in-person conversations with someone with an opposing viewpoint is one of the easiest paths to changing someone’s mind. It seems that the way of Jesus really is the means by which we display the character of Jesus. We need to go to them, to befriend them and alleviate their fears of us.

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