Ask Richard: Unwelcome Evangelizing by University Math Teacher February 13, 2012

Ask Richard: Unwelcome Evangelizing by University Math Teacher

Note: Letter writers’ names are changed to protect their privacy.

Hi Richard,

I know a Christian mathematician and lecturer at my local university. Though not friends we have always been on friendly terms. Ever since he found out that I’m an ex-Christian, he’s been looking for an opportunity to “share the gospel” with me and “bring me back to the fold.” Not wishing to cause friction (as I’m a student), I’m usually quick enough to avoid any religious conversations. Things came to a head today, when he caught me unawares. Naturally, we got into an argument. He told me that my arguments “were confused,” I was giving the “standard stuff off the internet,” and that I was “choosing to reject Jesus.” Eventually, I just played along until he calmed down and then excused myself. I know that he will come at me again. I feel intimidated and unsure of myself. He seemed to have an answer for all the objections I put forward. He used a combination of apologetics combined with some analogies from mathematics. How do I stand up for myself against an individual who is intellectually my superior?

Kind Regards and Much Thanks

Dear Carl,

I hope that by “Christian mathematician” you don’t mean he teaches “Christian mathematics.” What little I know of Christian mathematics are things like 0 + 0 = 1, 0 x 0 = 1, and zero evidence plus a large amount of talk equals one deity’s existence.

Kidding aside, I think you should not bother puzzling over how to “win” this debate, when you don’t even want to be in the debate. You said that you don’t want to cause friction because you are a student, so you prefer to avoid religious conversations entirely. You have a completely legitimate right to do so.

His position as a teacher gives him or implies that he has authority and power over students, and that carries a responsibility to be mindful and sensitive about how he interacts with students. His aggressively pursuing you to attempt to evangelize you without your invitation is inappropriate for his role as a math teacher, and he is overstepping his bounds.

You had to play along with him until he “calmed down,” as if you felt were at risk in some way, and you feel intimidated by the prospect of him “coming at you” again. This is the professorial version of playground bullying, and he should be called on it. Because he may not realize how unwelcome his behavior is, he deserves one fair warning to back off.

If you don’t want to have these discussions, you don’t have to endure them, but it is up to you to put a stop to them. The time for avoiding friction has passed. You’re not on friendly terms any more. He has spoiled that. Don’t bother trying to unravel his bafflingly elaborate arguments that are bankrupt of evidence, and don’t tolerate his condescending characterizations of your private motives, i.e., “choosing to reject Jesus.”

Instead of struggling to argue with him, stand up to his badgering. Otherwise he’ll just persist and escalate, and he’ll also feel free to do this to other students. Look him right in the eye and in a calm, cool tone say something like, “Professor ____, this has nothing to do with math and nothing to do with my studies. Your proselytizing is unasked for, unwelcome, and out of line. I am not interested in having this conversation with you, and I want you to stop now.”

Hopefully he’ll stop right there, but he might make some snide remark implying that you are being cowardly, or that you’re conceding defeat because you can’t counter his “argument,” or some other attempt to goad you. Don’t fall for anything like those! Those are just traps to sucker you back into playing in his ego trip. Take a deep, slow breath and calmly reply, “I’m not going to respond to that. I’ve made it clear that what you’re doing is unwelcome. If you persist, I will file a complaint with the Dean.” If you are too nervous to verbally deliver either of these two steps with the necessary poise, that’s okay, write it on a note and hand it to him.

You must not bluff. You must be prepared to follow through. You have rights as a student, and you have rights as a human being, but you will not enjoy those rights unless you are ready to enforce them yourself. Other people may be willing to stand up for you, but you must stand up first. Because you are a student, I assume that you are young. Build this conviction into your psyche now, so that it will set deeply.

You also can draw upon support from your fellow students. If there is a Secular Student Alliance on your campus, or some kind of club for non-believers, approach them and ask their advice. Such college groups should not only be for enjoying sharing ideas and views. They should also be for mutual support against abuse. If there isn’t a group on campus, it’s clearly needed. Start one.

Later in life, you’ll have more self-confidence and more argumentation skills, and perhaps you’ll have more time and interest in engaging in these amusements. Generally I prefer to cut these very short, because I have better things to do.

The best way I have found is to first explain to the person that to be convinced of any important claim, I need to be shown evidence that matches its significance. Some people believe outlandish hypotheses at the mere suggestion. I can’t. That’s just the way I am; I was born this way. Arguments are not evidence. Arguments need evidence. Arguments are what people fall back on when they have no evidence. No matter how eloquent, elaborate or simply long-winded an argument is, if it has no acceptable evidence at its foundation, then it’s just vibrating air. Acceptable evidence is three-dimensional and has mass. It requires no mystical knowledge or ability, and it can be observed by anyone using at least one of the five senses. Then I politely ask the person to skip all the talk and show me the evidence, or please stop wasting my time.

Carl, I hope that your years at the university are full of the sheer pleasure and excitement of learning, and I hope that your interactions with your teachers are far more productive and suitable than the kind of inappropriate and annoying claptrap that you got from this one teacher.


You may send your questions for Richard to AskRichard. Please keep your letters concise. They may be edited. There is a very large number of letters. I am sorry if I am unable to respond in a timely manner.

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  •  The only Christian math equation I can think of is


  • Nathan


  • Anonymous

    Unless he is the dean of the university, he has superiors. If nothing else works, complain to this next higher boss, e.g. the head of the maths department

  •  It’s more like 1+1+1=1. I realized you simplified the equation but the joke is funnier if you show your work. 😉

  • chicago dyke, evolved outlaw

    i would come down on him hard. Richard is a nice guy and says give him one warning, but these people never take ‘no’ for answer unless there is muscle behind the request. Take it to the Dept Chair. as a former academic, this shocks and angers me. doing something like this to a student is beyond the pale and all academics should know better, or find other work for a church or something like that. it’s disgusting. 

  • Anonymous

    It isn’t clear to me from the letter whether the writer is a student of the proselytizer’s. If this is the case, the student needs to make a written complaint to administration before things escalate further in case the professor decides to retaliate in terms of grading, attention paid during class, and the like. If the writer isn’t a student of the proselytizer’s, the “bop on the nose” tactic laid out by Richard is right on the money.

  • Ubi Dubium

    I wouldn’t be so sure that he’s intellectually your superior, either.  He may know a lot of math, but he hasn’t figured out that apologetics do not equal hard evidence.

  • Tom

    A couple of suggestions:

    (1) If you don’t feel that you have the chops to engage with his arguments yet, there’s nothing wrong with adverting to expert opinion until you can. (This is what we do in our day-to-day lives in other areas, right?) And the weight of expert opinion is against theism; according to the PhilPapers survey, only 15% of philosophers “accept or lean toward” theism. (You can search for ‘philpapers survey.’) Appeal to authority is only an “informal” fallacy because it’s not strictly always fallacious. It’s certainly rational in many cases to trust expert opinion.

    If he thinks he has a version of an argument for theism that hasn’t yet been answered, tell him to find you a recent peer-reviewed journal article that propounds it. If there isn’t one, tell him to publish his. (If he has a good one, it’s very likely some philosopher in the philosophy department will help him publish it co-authored.) And if he does find you one, you can probably find a response to it, or a philosopher who will tell you what’s wrong with it.

    While 15% of philosophers accept or lean toward theism, my suspicion is that fewer than 10% think there is an argument for theism that should rationally persuade someone who hasn’t had any religious experiences that theism is true. So if the experts generally agree that atheism or agnosticism is correct, they’re even more sure that there’s no good argument for theism to persuade nonbelievers.

    There will always be smart people who disagree with you. I think the important thing is not to think that you and he are the only people who ever argued or thought about whether God exists.

    (2) If you think you might need to talk to his department chair, you should try to get the stuff he’s saying to you in saved emails, not just in person.

  • A friend of mine went through this exact same thing last year. I told her to try and find other students that this “teacher” also “evangelized” to. (She actually had a secular student meeting and asked all the attendees)

    There were about a dozen students that joined her to file a complaint to the Dean. The teacher was warned, but after two weeks was dismissed for doing it again.

  • Glasofruix

    “Dear professor, let me present this direction to you, it’s called off and i’d like you to fuck it”

  • Good fences make good neighbors. Richard is right, don’t argue with this  clown.

  • The Bible doesn’t state or imply that PI is equal to the integer 3.

    1 Kings 7 does mention a circular basin 10 units across and 30 units in circumference, but it doesn’t specify 10.0 units across and 30.0 units in circumference. Precision (or lack thereof) matters!

    If the basin were 9.7 units across, the circumference would be closest to 30 units. Same for anything between 9.5 and 9.7. The precise value of PI does, therefore, fall within the measurements given as the level of precision given.

    Accusing the Bible of errancy in cases like this is foolish because Christians can turn to apologetics, find out that it’s genuinely a non-issue, and feel a little more justified in writing off skepticism as an irrational, emotional thing.

    In other words: please stop.

  • A person who has difficulty convincing peers to have sex may be able to use a position of power over students to get sex.

    A person who has difficulty convincing peers to adopt religious beliefs may be able to use a position of power over students to evangelize.

  • T-Rex

    If he’s just one of the teachers and not yours I’d tell him to “F” off! If he is your professor I’d go to one of his superiors and file a complaint, or wait until the end of the semester then tell him to “F” off, as long as you don’t think you’ll have him as a teacher in the future. He may know math, but he obviously doesn’t know anything about science or requiiring evidence to back one’s claims. Either way, I’d tell him to “F” off sooner or later because sounds like a pious, delusional prick to me. 

  • Icecreamassassin

    “Acceptable evidence is three-dimensional and has mass”
    I’m not sure this is the best line to use, as I would disagree that acceptable evidence always has 3 dimensions and mass (photons come to mind).  Isn’t a more accurate statement “acceptable evidence has measurable effects on reality”?

  • Valerie C

    I’ve personally found the best response is to pick arguments in their own field.  I would recommend studying up and using Bayes Theorem, as seen here, and see what he says:

  • Surprises aplenty

    I’m with you CDEO, but ‘Carl’ has been speaking with the prof in a somewhat friendly way for some time.  I can’t say what the tone of Carl’s discussions was, but they seem to have gone on for some time.  To suddenly go over the profs head and complain seems a little treacherous to me.  If Carl had given a strong statement at the beginning (I wouldn’t have, either), then he could immediately go go to the Dean, but now, I don’t think so.  I would suggest following Cobo Wowbo’s suggestion, then speaking to the prof…

  • JenniferT

    “Acceptable evidence is three-dimensional and has mass” isn’t really applicable to a mathematics teacher either.

  • Matto the Hun

    Carl says the guy started god-bothering him when he found out Carl was an “ex-Chrsitian”. Wouldn’t it be interesting to know if this teacher proselytized to students who were life long Jews, Muslims, Hindus, etc.? Shouldn’t that make him consistent with his god-bothering? The only reason to go after an “ex-Christian” is because that is easy prey, which would make the teacher a pathetic, spineless, opportunistic worm. Far better to be the consistent douche-bag that goes after any non-Christian regardless of whether they were ever Christian or not. At least there is some honesty in that.

  • Anonymous

    If it were 10 units across it would be 31 units in circumference…… since precision matters:)

  • Carl

    Thanks to Richard for the advice and everyone who has commented thus far.
    To think that there are guys from thousands of miles away who support you (I’m from South Africa) is uplifting.

    I feel I need to offer some clarification to my original e-mail to Richard. The “University Math Teacher”, whom I’ll call “Bob” has not taught me. We know each other on a first name basis. (As a tutor I became friendly with one of his colleagues who introduced us.)
    The time that Bob was preaching to me was outside a classroom situation. I had met him in the late afternoon, while walking on campus. Like a seasoned evangelist he saw an opportunity to speak to me as I was alone.

    I think he feels more confident in his evangelizing efforts with me because he sees me as a social peer. He seems more casual with me than with, say, his supervizor (who I understand to be “at most” a deist!)

    I think I’ll be visiting this blog more often…^_^

  • Anonymous

     Damn. That makes the “complain to superior” route far less viable

  • Rwlawoffice

    Even if you are sharing the Gospel there is no excuse for being rude which it sounds like this colleague is being. 

  • Anonymous

    Given that you have more of a social than professional relationship, I’d just tell him that you’re not interested in talking about religion with him, because you don’t think either of you will change your minds and it will just create animosity between you. If he doesn’t listen, *then* go the first warning route.

  •  Going directly to the department chair may seem treacherous, but a professor may be in a position to harm a student’s academic career. It’s important that the complaint be on record, so that the professor can’t just fail Carl out of any classes he may have with the professor in the future out of spite, without consequence.

    It’s also important that the complaint be on record to help put a stop to the behavior in case of future additional problems with the professor.

  • Riptide

     No, it doesn’t. (At least not out of hand, anyway.) But if it’s true that there isn’t an imbalance of power between Carl and Bob, then this situation is far more like two friends disagreeing, and should be resolved that way. The friendship may not last, but if Carl thinks it’s not in Bob’s nature to proselytize to his own students, there’s no reason to ruin Bob’s academic career. Being a bloviating ass isn’t a crime, after all.

    However, if Bob seems the type to abuse his position of trust and authority, that may be something worth addressing with the faculty and/or administration power structure.

  • Justin Miyundees

    True dat.  And by the transitive property, π = 1 because the bibble says C/d = 3.  To assert otherwise is blasphemy.

  • My suggestion, as a student who has a similar relationship with a former teacher (however in a much different situation, I am in grade 9), I would suggest saying it really isn’t a topic you would enjoy discussing perhaps even a “maybe some other time” to shut him up, and then turn on to a topic you find more interesting, or better, a topic he finds more interesting.  It is a band aid solution and if you do believe an argument is imminent I would suggest, to begin, do some research.  When it happens do your best to derail the discussion and then if all else fails, bring up your best point (Epicurus?).  If you feel he is cornering you, tell him that you can understand his point of view and that you with your current understanding of the issue you can’t properly represent your views.  If he pursues further explain your discomfort and that you feel he is acting inappropriately.

  • Alchemist

    Hi Carl
    I’m sorry that you must deal with this man’s blathering about his imaginary friend. How very tiresome.
    I have just one thing to add to Richard’s advice. If you chose to have that last conversation and give that one warning, I suggest you record the conversation. Does you mobile phone have voice recording? MP3 player perhaps?
    The reason I suggest this is for future protection. If he becomes nasty or treats you unfairly you have evidence to back up any complaint you need to make about him.
    Good luck

  • ReginaldJooald

    3 * 10^1

    1 digit of precision.

  • Eivind Kjorstad

    Arguing about religion with someone who is directly above, or below you in some kind of hierarchy (say a student of yours, a teacher of yours or a boss of yours) is harmful. There’s no way anything good can come of it.

    Simply respond: “I have no interest in debating this subject with you.”, such a request is perfectly reasonable when the subject is unrelated to what he’s supposed to be teaching you. If he fails to accept it anyway, you may need to say the same thing more forcefully, or worst case, file a complaint.

  • It seems to me that we are missing the point here. The question does not seem to be “how do I stop him from evangelizing me” – even then, threats of formal complaints are totally out of proportion; ask him nicely first.

    Instead, the question appears to be:
    “He seemed to have an answer for all the objections I put forward.
    He used a combination of apologetics combined with some analogies from
    mathematics. How do I stand up for myself against an individual who is
    intellectually my superior?”

    Intellectually superior. It’s “how to talk to someone smarter (more knowledgeable) than me?” It’s a good question, but none of you seems to be answering it.

    First, obviously, figure out how to respond to his arguments to your own satisfaction. Anything else is a disgrace for your rationality. It’s taking your atheism on “faith”, in the worst sense.

    When someone comes to you with an argument that you can’t respond to, you try to figure out a response or change your mind. You don’t go to his superiors and accuse him of pestering you. Really. I’m surprised that needs pointing out.

    Still, even if you figure out replies to what he is saying in your own head,  it’s possible that he will be able to “out-talk” you in an actual discussion, due to better rhetoric or knowledge.

    In that case, you can request to continue the discussion via mail, where you have more time to research and think. Or, if you don’t want to continue the discussion, putting a halt to it in a friendly way is a fine (without even considering any formal action at this point, let alone threatening it). Saying “you make some good points, I’ll have to get back to you on them if I have time to think them through” or somesuch is nice and polite, and fairly acknowledges he “won” the discussion while at the same time making it clear you want it to stop.

    Now if he continues to badger you after that, you might consider the advice given here.
    At the same time, if you are at all interested in the issue, you should think and do research until you can answer his arguments to your own satisfaction.

    (I’d be pretty interested to hear what he said that you couldn’t reply to :P)

    That’s my view anyway. Cheers!

  • Since he’s not your teacher, you can offend him all you want. Eric Cartman would urge you to kick him in the nuts. I concur.

  • Carl

    Thanks Stjephan, for the advice. In fact I’ve already been trying to carry out your first suggestion of figuring out a satisfactory response to his arguments.

    With regards to the arguments that he put forward:
    It’s been over two months now since I had the argument with him, so I’ll do my best to recall some of the main points he tried to make.

    His overarching strategy was to convince me of the statement that “Just as a mathematician/scientist  first believes that a particular hypothesis is true and then proceeds to prove it, so too a person must first believe in Jesus and then God rewards belief with evidence”.

    After some thought I feel a bit foolish. Firstly, what convinces a mathematician that a given mathematical statement is possibly true? Doesn’t he sit down with a pencil and paper and play around with some examples? A scientist (of a more emperical nature) observes some phenomenon and attempts to construct a naturalistic scientific theory  to explain such a phenomenon. So there is some sort of empiricism and not belief that is used initially.

    Secondly, what do I need to do as a mathematician to convince another like-minded individual that in fact my hypothesis is a mathematical truth? Using a set of axioms, rules of inference and previous results I construct a mathematical argument. If he agrees that my mathematical proof is sound then I’ve convinced him. With empirical science I have to collect data to furnish my explanation of the phenomenon. I need to be careful to also take note of data that could possibly falsify my explaination.
    Bob mentioned some  ‘healing’ that he experienced and how ‘the Lord helps him with his mathematics’. Simplistically, I could’ve just as easily pointed out the unanswered prayers of those who need food. Surely the good Lord, who has supplies  his paltry request for good mathematics, can supply good food?

    Thirdly, he tried to use Gödel’s incompleteness theorems to show that trying to argue for the existence of a deity is futile and therefore logic must be supplanted by faith. My little understanding of Gödel’s theorem informs me that Gödel’s theorems talk about logical systems that are, roughly speaking, “strong enough to talk about arithmetic”. If I am correct, Gödel’s theorems are confined to mathematics, so I don’t see the relevance of such an argument involving the existence of a god. Also, Gödel himself put forward an ontological proof for God using modal logic. So it does seem that Gödel did believe that the existence of a god could be proven. I have not studied mathematical logic indepth, so I think Tom and the other philosophers on the site may have to correct me on this one…

    Lastly, he tried to argue that in the light of our own ignorance, faith is justified. He asked me to estimate the amount of mathematics that I understood, given the amount of mathematics that I had learnt. Natuarally, I replied that is was ‘very low’. He then went on to say that in spite of my ignorance, I continued to carry on studying mathematics. “In the same way, ” he argued, “even though we may not have all the answers we should pursue our faith in Jesus.”
    I was not sharp enough to point out that the pursuit of understanding of mathematics may be justified though its usefulness or beauty.

    So it seems that he was just using some clever rhetoric and equivocation to get me ‘back into the fold’.

  •  It looks to me like the professor has been treacherous in cultivating a false friendship, when all along he was planning to try to convert Carl.  Christians initiate these fake friendships all the time to get you into their churches.

  • Carl,

    Remember when discussing religion with anyone that religion is all in the person’s mind.  There is nothing to religion outside the mind itself.  It is possible to discuss and argue some formal religious system but there is no evidence that any such religious system has any ontology in the real world.  The religious ideas can only influence the actions of believers.  Take away the believers and there is no religion.  Any real world evidence that he may cite is just selection bias on his part (and the part of the other believers that came before him).  Even if there is some kind of supernatural entity in the world, we don’t have any evidence that it is anything like what the Christians say it is like.  None what-so-ever.  Don’t ever forget that.  It doesn’t matter how smart that guy is in his field.  When it comes to religion, he is just fooling himself.  All you have to say to him is that you are not convinced.  You don’t really need any explanation.  Its up to the people claiming the supernatural existence to demonstrate or argue for it.  You don’t have to explain why you don’t believe some claim.  Just state that you don’t think he has made his case and walk away. 

  • Anonymous

    Thanks Richard, I am glad you pointed out that the professor is bullying the student. good call.

    and  they say we atheists are “angry” 

  • Gus Snarp

    Hmmm, probably no one is reading this thread anymore, but…..

    If you feel you have to, or want to, have this argument with the professor, I advise something akin to the Socratic method. Basically, ask questions. You’ll need to be able to answer some as well, but it may be less scary, and it allows you to follow a path of critical thinking without actually having every piece of information at hand. My first question if someone wants to try to convince me god exists, is “how do you define god?” It’s fundamental to the whole conversation. Is some nebulous universal consciousness god? Is god infallible? Omnipotent? Omniscient? Omnibenevolent? Is the Bible a fairly accurate depiction of God? Did he actually do all of those things in the Old Testament? New Testament? What in the Bible is a metaphor and what is a true story of God? A lot of the discussion to follow hinges on these questions. The whole “could god make a boulder so heavy he couldn’t lift it” question probably isn’t the best, but it is hard to argue that any god could possibly be all three Omni’s and also be responsible for the world we inhabit, let alone all his supposed acts in the Old Testament.

    Another question this professor seems to have raised is, what is it that makes the question of God subject to a lesser standard of evidence than anything else, when it should be subject to a higher standard of evidence, since it is a rather extraordinary claim?

    Asking question like this can be far more polite than just stating claims back and forth and trying to destroy them. And it gives you time to get your own thoughts in order, and the opportunity to see holes in his arguments that you might have missed if he was stating them independently. The question forces clarification and makes obfuscation obvious. One can use the Socratic method to intentionally set a trap for him to fall into (the whole, is god omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent path is a known trap), but it can also be a very natural discussion, where you are trying to find out what he really believes, and the traps just naturally occur when his line of reasoning is followed to its inevitable conclusion.

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