(Apology: This was not as clean and clear as I would have liked. Fight through it.)
Like the irony that everyone has a religion, whether they acknowledge it or not, there is also the paradox that everyone evangelises for that religion, even if their main evangelising point is that no one should evangelise. While this seems an offensive formulation to U-U’s, Episcopalians, and Jews – some of the leaders in the Thou Shalt Not Evangelise crew - I don’t think it need be. There are important distinctions, social and intellectual, between the hard evangelism of well, people like me, and the soft evangelism of the others noted above. I don’t want to paint myself into a corner of “it’s exactly the same” when it in fact isn’t.
At the simplest and least offensive level, if we think something is true, we eventually tell that to others. We might choose to keep silent in many situations, desiring comity; we might think it an important truth to remind others that there is no one truth, only perspectives; we may be forceful or subtle, open or covert, gentle or vengeful, but we eventually say what we mean. Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks is one of the more brutal truths of scripture. Christopher Hitchens preaches a gospel that organised religions poison everything they touch, whether quickly or slowly; Richard Dawkins advocates strongly that what cannot be proven should not be believed. No problem, really, however irritating that is to many Christians. It’s just a different faith, derived in part from some of our own principles.
To contend that all religions are ultimately exclusive in their claims is murkier and more difficult, but I think it holds at the end. There is a wide gap between a srtict Roman Catholic, or say, a Jehovah’s Witness, or Moslem, Mormon, or Two-Seed-In-The-Spirit-Baptist and a modern all-paths “Spiritual” person; there is a wider gap still between any of them and a person who believes it is all eyewash, describing nothing. Yet in an odd twist, there is a unity among them. The Buddha taught Four Noble Truths, after all, not Speculations. Jews do not believe that everyone should be made to use two sets of dishes – in fact, they consider outsiders doing such things to be artificial and a bit of a mockery. From this they conclude that they are not claiming an exclusivity, a One Way to heaven. Yet they are. They believe that certain things about G-d have been revealed to their people, and these things are true. No matter how much ground they might give about things revealed to others also being true, or humility in asserting the imperfectly understood, or even, as with some Reform Jews, are uncomfortable with this God-talk in the traditional sense, still they will find many pronouncements about God to be quite untrue.
Those who are simply uninterested in the discussion at all would seem to have the strongest claim that they do not preach an exclusivity. These might have a mild fondness or antipathy toward other beliefs, but generally don’t think about the issue at all. Surviving is their focus, or advancement. Enjoyment, equanimity, or excitement might be their focus. In theory, some may exist who have absolutely no interest in larger and universal questions at all. But my experience is that this is always only in theory. When presented with the counter-evangelism of someone in their midst who forcefully asserts their own truths, they are quick to squelch that, or absent themselves.
Soft at the edges does not mean soft all the way to the core. Everyone eventually finds something up with which they will not put, because it’s just wrong, not true, not fair, not real, not polite, not important enough to bother about. It may be a negative religion, a negative evangelism, a negative exclusivity, but it comes to the same thing in the end. By nature, some folks have hard edges and like to insist that others attend to the details of what is true. Other folks have soft edges and don’t like to insist others adopt their details, finding that rude or intrusive. But that is in itself a statement that people should have soft edges, that we’d all be happier if everyone had soft edges, that good religions teach people to have soft edges. Imagining …no religion…living for today… is a deeply evangelistic and exclusive religion.