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This question is not being posted to get into a religion or freedom of speech debate, but rather present the idea that regardless of religious beliefs, aggressive and pushy behavior wrapped in the pretense of a specific faith’s beliefs is often unwanted at best and annoying at worst. Is there any way to politely sidestep these folks?


I am a secular Jew living in New York City (USA of course) and find it difficulty to politely deal with Evangelical preachers of all faiths who aggressively hand out religious tracts. Below are the different degrees of folks I typically run into and my experiences with them.

  • Jehovah’s Witnesses: Not So Bad: Sometimes I am dealing with Jehovah’s Witnesses who honestly are not that bad. As far from aggressive as possible. They just stand there with a pamphlet kiosk and easy enough to walk away from.
  • Chabad Lubavitch: “Yes, I am Jewish… Please go away.” Next up are the Chabad Lubavitch Orthodox Jewish folks who are fairly aggressive if you are nearby, running up to you and asking “Are you Jewish.” I tend to just walk away if possible, but sometimes I say, “Yes, I am Jewish but I don’t want to talk to you.” Sometimes these efforts to avoid them work and they disengage. Sometimes they become even more aggressive and have even chased me down the street.
  • Christian Evangelical Groups: Unpredictable: During the holiday season in New York City, you tend to encounter various groups of Christian Evangelical groups. Sometimes there are groups that are not horrible to deal with; they respect distance and boundaries. Other times you get groups who clearly have a tactic of doing things like (for example) aggressively surrounding subway exits around rush hour (5:00pm to 7:00pm) at night and confronting commuters going home after a long day of work.

I understand that these people believe in their respective religions. And I respect that in some cases this kind of preaching is a part of their beliefs in some way. And I also understand that for many people this is—essentially—their job and they will be rewarded by their leaders with housing, food and support they could not get otherwise.

So knowing that I want to respect their position in the world, is there any way to cleanly and politely say thanks but no thanks without lying or being mean or deceptive?

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Dealing with zealots is a real challenge. I've taken a class on evangelism, and one of the first things we learned was that badgering people isn't really effective.

With zealots, trying to debate or discuss isn't a very good option. Remember, they're right and any discussion only serves to help them think that you're that much closer to making a decision. (This applies to political as well as religious zealots, BTW.) As long as they have you talking, they're winning.

I've generally, with these folks, just taken to either outright ignoring them (which seems rude to me, but sometimes I have to) or saying, "Thanks.. not interested" and repeating the message. Sometimes I've just held up a hand and not said anything and continued on my way. That also seems to get the point across that I'm not interested and have more interesting things to do. The politest thing to do is not waste someone's time - both yours and theirs - so continuing on is actually less rude than one would think.

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There are people like that who wait at certain areas of my home city to approach those who wander past, whether it is to get you interested in their religion or donate to charity, like in your case, most of the them mean well and aren't aggressive or pushy, but I'm almost never interested in what they have to offer. I've got a few methods of getting around them:

  • Deflect them with humour. You'd probably have to judge how well this works based on the other person's disposition, but in my case for example, some Christian groups approach me and I half-jokingly wave them off with "thanks but you're preaching to the converted!" and continue on. I was raised Christian. 99% of the time they take it in a good way and leave me be.
  • Most people will accept a straightforward but polite refusal. I will sometimes give them a friendly wave and a "thanks but no thanks". So long as you don't sound aggressive in your reply, they are unlikely to take offence. Like a sales pitch, they know that time spent on someone who simply won't engage with them is time wasted that could be spent on someone else who might. Provided you are being polite to them, they will not take offence and probably forget about you in a few minutes or so.
  • For those that aggressively surround train stations etc., so long as they aren't denying anyone access to the entrances and exits, I would imagine they aren't breaking any laws (I'm no expert on that) and so there is little that can be done. In the hustle of the morning / evening commute, some people simply aren't in a talkative mood. They usually know that as much as we do. Again, a straightforward but polite refusal should be enough for them to know you're not interested. Avoid saying anything that could lead to starting a conversation or being offered something. If you said "maybe later" for example, they might follow it up with "well, take this pamphlet to look at later" or "if you want to talk to someone else later...", which can lead to getting rid of them being a more awkward task.

Some religious preachers may take ANY sort of refusal more personally than others, but I've found these approaches to be useful in 99% of cases, as well as for highly enthusiastic charity workers, flyer distributors etc. Hope it helps!

  • This answer is okay, but I tend to look at religious zealots and “enthusiastic charity workers, flyer distributors etc…” as two different groups entirely. Zealots might be doing a sales job as well as charity workers, flyer distributors but the zealots always seem more aggressive and tenacious from my perspective. I find it easy to blow off charity workers and flyer distributors but not so when it comes to religious “workers.” – JakeGould Nov 20 '18 at 16:14

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