The short answer: Unless you are one of them, don’t.
Things you can’t tell a religious zealot:
- They are wrong
- Someone else might be right
- Not everyone wants to hear them
- They are offensive
This is not because they won’t believe you (except on point #2, and they definitely do not believe that), but because the religions that most inspire zealotry tell their followers to be prepared for persecution because if they are doing it right, people will tell them they are wrong, people will say they don’t want to hear it, and people will call them offensive. “No, I don’t want to hear about your almighty Bob! Will you quit?! I find your constant talking about Bob Almighty to be offensive,” is music to the zealot’s ears–not because the zealot wants to be obnoxious (although some do), but because you are reinforcing the zealot’s teaching. You don’t like him, so he is doing it right!
I, having been chief among zealots, am well qualified to say so.
Zealots don’t have an off switch. If you are being offensive toward them, they will see you as either someone who deserves pity and prayer, or as someone who is an agent of their spiritual enemy (in which case you deserve pity, prayer, and possibly some sort of awful thing to happen to you–like financial ruin, in the event of which, all your worldly goods are somehow magically transferred into the hands of the zealot/coffers of the zealot’s place of worship.) In either case, they do not see you as being wise/clear-minded enough to have made your own rational decision about faith. If you don’t believe what they do, it is because you either haven’t been taught, haven’t been taught properly, or need prayer and pity because you are a willful child, resisting Bob Almighty’s love.
A very sincere zealot, who has actual concern for your soul is the most purposefully obtuse kind (see Lane). That zealot sees every person outside her faith as standing on the edge of a volcano. One false move, and you are doomed. That zealot really, truly, genuinely wants you to believe what she believes, so she can get you down from the mouth of that volcano. If you yell at her, she thinks you are really yelling for her. She does not believe you when you say, no, you are yelling at her. She is a gadfly, who thinks she is a godfly.
Which brings me to that time I got written up at work for being an evangelical asshole.
Ironically, I wasn’t even talking to the girl who reported me. However, I was her manager. She was trapped in a corner, on a teller line, where I was stood yakking away with a fellow believer (not quite a zealot, but I was working on it, and working on getting her into my church.) As I recall it, we were both praising our churches to high heaven, probably Christian-competing with one another. The trapped girl did not share our beliefs and felt uncomfortable with our conversation (which probably included things like, “I just wish everyone understood,” or “If people would just let go, and let Bob,” or “When Bob comes back for us, it’s going to be so hard for those left behind,” or “People who don’t have Bob in their lives are just sad,”) but because I was her manager, did not feel like she could tell me to shut up. She also couldn’t just walk away.
So, she did the only thing she could do: She reported me to upper management, and they wrote me up and counseled me on what was, and was not appropriate as far as sharing my faith was concerned.
I was furious.
I made such a stink that the company had to fly down HR personnel from our New York office to deal with me. It didn’t matter what anyone said, you could not get it through my brain that while I did have a right to free speech, and a right to freedom of religious expression, as a manager, I did not have the right to create a hostile work environment by subjecting a captive audience to my absolute delight in Bob.
That whole issue dragged on for a month, during which I most magnanimously forgave the teller who had reported me because she was clearly a pawn of The Enemy, who had been sent to kill, steal, and destroy my faith. I focused myself on spiritual warfare and being prepared to do battle with the demonic forces that oppressed the HR lady.
I will never forget how her face looked while she was trying to talk to me. Clearly, she understood it was a forgone conclusion: This girl is nuts, and she is not going to give an inch.
I must be as magical as Sookie Stackhouse because they never fired me, and they could have given my resistance to their instruction to cut it out with the Bob talking, and my increased outcry of Religious Persecution (in front of the teller who reported me, because I am as subtle as a heart attack.) Instead, after a month, they gave the girl a new position far away from me, took the written warning out of my file, and just registered it as a verbal.
I stayed in the job a little while longer, then quit to pursue work in the actual ministry. Because if you want to bring religion to work, you should probably go to work in religion. Otherwise, it’s going to be clash of the Titans when you run into someone who is a zealot for the opposing team.
Now? I wish I could find that girl and apologize to her.