Conversion & Proselytization: A Common Theme Across Religions
Wednesday November 16 is International Tolerance Day. Tolerance is an important virtue for the peaceful coexistence of our species but historically one of the barriers to it has been the coercion — sometimes through violence — of people to convert to a different religion.
The act of seeking out new converts — known as proselytizing — is an explicit command in some religious scriptures and it is seen as a holy duty or mission. Given the grand nature of religious revelations, many people want to share their own divine insights with the rest of the world. So proselytizing can be a very benevolent gesture with the intention of improving other people’s lives.
Unfortunately, history shows there is a fine line between peaceful proselytizing and outright coercion, which may even involve violence. There is evidence of this throughout the world. Unpeel a church in Spain and you will likely find a mosque beneath. Hindus and Muslims have been fighting for decades over a sacred site in India, which according to Hindus was a Hindu temple converted forcibly into a mosque by Mogul invaders, in spite of the sacred Hindu belief that God exists everywhere.
The main proselytizing religions are Christianity and Islam, which explains their vast global following. Christianity has made its way all over the world and has adapted its messages to find receptive audiences in other cultures. And yet, both Christianity and Islam began as small, heavily persecuted communities that faced the threat of extinction in their early days. It was not until they took to proselytizing that they were able to amass enough followers to become the two most populous religions in the world today.
Hinduism is a way of life so anyone can follow the philosophy without much ritual. The initial spread of Hinduism in the Far East was supposedly through influence rather than any proselytizing methods. One of the biggest Hindu temples, is in Angkor Wat, Cambodia, which alternated between a Hindu, then Buddhist temple, and now has deities from both religions.
Zoroastrians believe you can only be born into the faith. Similarly, Judaism actively resists proselytizing and even makes the process of conversion quite lengthy and difficult — though not impossible — reflecting its emphasis on tradition and its attitude of being God’s Chosen People. But for those who sincerely undergo this lengthy process of conversion, the utmost respect is to be afforded.
The Baha’i faith has a small following but has a truly global spread. It focuses on educating people on the faith rather than outright proselytization. Meanwhile, Taoism and Confucianism never spread too far outside China, though they have had great influence over the development of religious traditions in Japan and other parts of Asia.
Religion is not easy to transplant. Ultimately, the best way to convert others to your beliefs is to make your best argument for why you hold those beliefs, and let others make their own decisions. The most devout converts will be those who come into the fold of their own accord.
“Yes, I do convert. I convert you to be a better Hindu, a better Christian, a better Catholic, a better Sikh, a better Muslim. When you have found God, it’s up to you to do with him what you want.”
— Mother Teresa, Christian saint
“Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”
— The New Testament (Matthew 28:19), Christian text
“There is no compulsion in religion: true guidance has become distinct from error, so whoever rejects false gods and believes in God has grasped the firmest hand-hold, one that will never break. God is all hearing and all knowing.”
— The Qur’an (2:256), Islamic text
“Invite all to the Way of your Lord with wisdom and kind advice, and only debate with them in the best manner. Surely your Lord alone knows best who has strayed from His Way and who is rightly guided.”
— The Qur’an (16:125), Islamic text
“ ‘And the Levite[…]and the proselyte shall come’ (Deut. 14:29). Moses spoke up to the Holy One: Is a proselyte as important to You as a Levite? God replied: He is more important to Me, since he became a proselyte for My sake […]. But this one came on his own. He is therefore deemed by Me the equal of an Israelite, even of a Levite.”
— Sefer Ha-Aggadah, collection of Jewish writings
“It is true that Bahá’u’lláh lays on every Bahá’í the duty to teach His Faith. At the same time, however, we are forbidden to proselytize, so it is important for all believers to understand the difference between teaching and proselytizing […] Proselytizing implies bringing undue pressure to bear upon someone to change his Faith. It is also usually understood to imply the making of threats or the offering of material benefits as an inducement to conversion.”
— Universal House of Justice, Baha’i governing body
“We all know that the Cause of Bahá’u’lláh is the world’s only salvation, and that our duty is to actively teach receptive souls, and to do our utmost to help in the consolidation of the institutions of the Faith. Only in this way can we contribute our share of servitude at His Threshold, and we should then leave the rest to Him.”
— Universal House of Justice, Baha’i governing body
“I do not want you to become a Hindu. But I do want you to become a better Christian by absorbing all that may be good in Hinduism and that you may not find in the same measure or not at all in the Christian teaching.”
— Mahatma Gandhi, acknowledged by Indians as Father of the Nation
“Dogen-zenji said, ‘When you say something to someone, he may not accept it, but do not try to make him understand it intellectually. Do not argue with him; just listen to his objections until he himself finds something wrong with them.’”
— Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Buddhist monk and teacher
“I don’t want to convert people to Buddhism — all major religions, when understood properly, have the same potential for good. Fundamentalism is terrifying because it is based purely on emotion, rather than intelligence. It prevents followers from thinking as individuals and about the good of the world.”
— His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Tibetan Buddhist leader and activist
“The great man shows his greatness by combining all the common aspects of humanity. So, when ideas come to him from outside, he can receive them but does not cling to them. Likewise, when he brings forth some idea from within himself, they are like guides to those around but they do not seek to dominate.”
— The Book of Chuang Tzu, Daoist text
“To show forbearance and gentleness in teaching others; and not to revenge unreasonable conduct — this is the energy of southern regions, and the good man makes it his study.”
— The Doctrine of the Mean, Confucian text
Modern Philosophy and Theology
“Conversion is in its essence a normal adolescent phenomenon, incidental to the passage from the child’s small universe to the wider intellectual and spiritual life of maturity”
— William James, philosopher and psychologist