What’s Wrong with Preaching to the Choir?

George Williamson

So you’ve just come from a meeting of your secularist group, at which there was a great discussion with plenty of questions and thought-provoking commentary. You bump into an acquaintance, and you tell her about the wonderful time you’ve had. Intrigued by your enthusiasm, she asks you about the group, and you describe its purpose as the sharing of views between individuals of a secular bent. Alas, your acquaintance finds this rather uninteresting. She comments: “It sounds nice, but aren’t you really just preaching to the choir?”

Maybe it’s not very harsh as criticism goes, but this remark stings a bit, and not only from whatever is implied in the religious metaphor. In a meager four words, your acquaintance has dismissed the worth of forming and participating in a group such as yours, and it seems unlikely that she can be counted on to increase the membership. No longer riding high on your enjoyment of the discussion, you wonder if the remark doesn’t capture some truth about the sort of group in which you are involved. True, your group doesn’t stalk the streets, confronting other beliefs on every corner (for which you are grateful). Everyone in the group does share roughly the same perspective on many topics. The comment implies that such groups as yours are perhaps self-indulgent or self-congratulatory, even engaged in an unseemly form of intellectual onanism. Your acquaintance seems to think the whole thing is just a pointless exercise.

Nonetheless, you find it difficult to accept that the great discussion in which you’ve just taken part can be boiled down to this catchphrase. Is it really a fair cop, or is there some further value in belonging to such a group? Let’s probe the supposed pointlessness implied in the phrase “preaching to the choir” and see if it is an accurate assessment of groups such as secularist community groups. For ease of reference, let’s call this sort of group a “shared-belief group,” since uniformity of belief seems to be the feature that invites this criticism. Obviously, this category will include many religious groups in addition to secularist, atheist, and humanist groups, and perhaps many nondenominational groups as well. With a bit of careful attention to some assumptions about the nature of shared-belief groups, we may see that the charge of “preaching to the choir” has little substance.

“Preaching to the choir” also appears in the alternative form “preaching to the converted,” and in this form the supposed problem is seen more readily. The critic assumes that the group’s purpose is to win converts to a particular belief and that it paradoxically attempts to practice this on those who already share the same beliefs. In other words, the supposed aim is to persuade those who should need no persuading. Expressed in this way, this does make the group sound rather pointless. But how accurate is the characterization?

Of course, most social groups would see themselves as having an interest if not in expanding their membership, then at least in maintaining it. It is hard to imagine any group relishing the chance to watch as its members drift away until no one is left. But typically, such groups also want to do something besides acquiring members, and whatever this is will be the main purpose of the group. In taking conversion to be the main or even sole purpose of a shared-belief group, the critic mistakes the nature of such groups, perhaps by confusing preaching with proselytizing—the role of the minister with that of the missionary. Despite the religious metaphor, not even religious groups pursue conversion as their sole end, though that might seem closer to the raison d’etre of a religious group than of other groups. Given that a religious service does not usually involve proselytization, the supposed problem with “preaching” doesn’t even hold true in the original context, so it hardly seems likely to be accurate in another context.

Let’s stipulate that the critic mistakes the nature of shared-belief groups in assuming that their purpose is to win converts. But behind this first assumption are others that serve to support it, the most important of which is that the members of the group are all utterly uniform in their belief. All members must believe exactly the same thing and must grasp it with the same degree of clarity, comprehension, and completeness. This is possibly because of an additional assumption that all members are equally well-educated. Only if this is assumed does it make sense to think there is no point in discussing your beliefs with others who share those beliefs. Where all members have an equally clear understanding, further discussion serves no purpose.

Again, such a group would be rather atypical among either secularists or churchgoers. If we can’t assume this degree of uniformity, the collective airing of beliefs within a typical group will be far from purposeless. The discussion of belief in shared-belief groups can help to extend or deepen comprehension, to explain or clarify subtleties and difficult points, to make a system of beliefs more integrated or complete, and to achieve harmony in coordinating the group’s activities. None of these functions are without point; rather, they highlight the value of collective reflection on belief. Doubtless, the opportunity to engage in these activities is part of the reason for founding such groups and will only be more important where education and skill in dealing with ideas are not uniform. And who knows? Along the way, this might just turn a few converts as well.

Now, some may object that I haven’t so much explained why preaching to the converted is not pointless, as I have simply changed the subject in taking “preaching” to include a range of activities. Strictly speaking, perhaps few of these activities would be thought of as preaching per se. However, in making this “change of subject,” if such it is, I am guided by the reality of what is actually done in groups of this nature as I have experienced them. Rather than being the sole function of such groups, proselytizing is in fact a marginal activity. So far as critics take the simple fact of shared belief as justification for issuing the charge of preaching to the choir, they fail to recognize what these groups actually do. To make the charge stick, critics will have to do much more than this.

George Williamson

George Williamson, PhD, teaches philosophy at the University of Saskatchewan. He is also an editorial assistant at Dialogue: Canadian Philosophical Review. He is a proud Canadian citizen, in spite of the Harper government.

In secular groups, activities derided as “preaching to the choir” actually serve valuable purposes.

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