Contemporary culture, especially in India (where I live), looks at religious conversion with deep apprehension — sometimes justifiably so. It immediately raises in the mind of the reader the spectre of expansion of political power through economic incentives (aka bribes) given to unsuspecting and usually uneducated populations by unscrupulous individuals claiming to represent Christianity under the statutory cover of freedom of religious expression. There is little doubt in my mind that what I have described above (or specific variants thereof) belongs in that large unholy pile of exploitative practices that human history is unfortunately rife with and therefore worthy of condemnation and censure.
The point of this post is not to debate the moral depravity of this practice, but to consider whether this abuse somehow calls into question the validity of religious conversion altogether.
Conversion is not a bad word #
Firstly, there is the idea of conversion itself. Bereft of its charged contemporary cultural meaning, in the context of this post, I use the word to refer to the idea of someone changing their mind about something in the face of evidence that they find compelling. In this sense, someone converting from a position of hostility towards the idea of adding pineapple topping on pizza to one of enthusiastic endorsement (presumably in the face of irrefutable evidence in favour of such unnatural union) should be no more worthy of condemnation and censure as someone converting from one religion to another.
Difference in opinion about pizza topping preferences, however, does not evoke the kind of visceral response that religious conversion does. If you would bear with some armchair sociological analysis, I would speculate that this response must have something to do with how religion often is more a deeply held social identity marker that human beings use to belong to a community (and conversely, to identify those that do not) than a well-reasoned and thought through position on the nature of reality. Someone converting to a different religion is tantamount to betraying one’s allegiance to one’s community. And in eastern honour/shame cultures, such betrayal is seen as an act that brings deep shame to one’s immediate family which then results in a loss of standing in the community.
It is unfortunate that religion as a world view and religion as a social identity marker are so joined at the hip in this manner. An honest pursuit of truth demands that at any given point in time one ought to be willing to amend or even upend one’s set of beliefs when faced with evidence that necessitates such emendation. I would argue in fact that such willingness and ability is a sign of good intellectual and psychological health.
Everybody converts #
Further, I propose that in any civil discourse, none of us can help but seek to convert. Human social interaction is largely a sequence of conversion attempts between individuals and groups. Some do it well, leading to fulfilling thriving relationships and others do it less well, leading to conflict and wars. Even the person who is unilaterally opposed to the idea of religious conversion is, in the process of espousing their position, attempting to convert their interlocutors to their position.
The idea of changing minds is morally neutral. Every proposition must stand, or fall based on the merits of the argument being made in its defence. It is indeed arguable that all progress is critically contingent on the ability of a people group to freely traffic in ideas in a civil manner. What matters therefore is not whether conversion in and of itself is morally permissible or not (because it is morally neutral) or whether one ought to engage in conversion attempts or not (because we cannot help but engage in it) but whether the truth proposition being made is coherent and consistent with reality.
Epistemology of abuse? #
Epistemology is concerned with how we know that a proposition is true. Is it true that historically Christian proselytization has been used as a cudgel to win and consolidate political power? Yes. Does the fact of such abuse automatically invalidate the Christian proposition? Regardless of the merits of the specific arguments themselves I want to propose here that its abuse has little relevance to its truth or falsehood. In other words, no truth proposition should be accepted or rejected based on whether or how it has been abused. This sort of epistemology of abuse, it must be self-evident, leads to all kinds of absurdities.
We would be hard pressed to find a single prevalent (or defunct, for that matter) world view, which has not at some point been a victim of abuse. Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Judaism and so on, including even secular naturalistic world views have been and are being used as instruments of oppression designed to gain or consolidate political and other forms of power. This in and of itself does not make those world views false. Nor, importantly, does it justify the abolishing of the propounding of those world views in the marketplace of ideas. Instead, an appropriate response would be to fight and abolish the abuse and oppression.
Meagre moral fruits? #
As a professing Christian, do I not find the fact of the amenability of the Christian proposition to abuse troubling? I do. Does it, however, discredit the whole Christian project? As it happens, taken as a whole, Christian doctrine predicts that such abuse would occur. In other words, the presence of the abuse of Christianity is internally coherent with the truth claims that it makes. Take for instance the following verse from the prophet Jeremiah (17:9) in the Bible.
The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?
And again, in Ecclesiastes 9:3.
…the hearts of the children of man are full of evil, and madness is in their hearts while they live…
It is not a surprise that Christian doctrine is appropriated by some for serving ends that do not agree with the very doctrines that they purport to espouse. Indeed, that and more is to be expected given the Biblical diagnosis that the human heart is naturally inclined to folly.
Why proselytize at all? #
The question of why Christians bother with proselytization at all is perhaps the most contentious of all concerns. Could we not leave people be with the beliefs that they choose to hold? Why must the Christian evangelise? Are we all not entitled to our own beliefs? Isn’t it narrow minded to insist that Christianity has access to exclusive truths that are somehow unavailable to others?
On human flourishing #
Christianity adopts a particular view as to what leads to a thriving abundant life in the context of both life as it persists presently and also in the age to come. If we were to simply grant that the Christian view is not in error, then certain conclusions naturally follow (note that I am not making a defence below for the truth of Christian claims but only pointing out the necessary out-workings that follow from taking those claims seriously).
Given the exclusive nature of the Christian claim1 it necessarily follows that other views must be wrong. This is no more a narrow-minded perspective than claiming that affirming that being sufficiently hydrated is a necessary condition for the physical flourishing of human beings is a narrow-minded view. The claim is either true or false, but it is not narrow.
Given the Christian imperative to love one’s neighbour as oneself, it also necessarily follows that inviting others into Christian fellowship is an expression of love. Indeed, if Christianity is true then evangelism is the highest form of expression of brotherly love and to fail to do so is to essentially hate one’s neighbour.
At the heart of Christianity is Jesus, the Messiah foretold in Jewish scriptures. If Christianity is true (including the proposition that the gospel narratives provide a reliable account of Jesus' life) then one must take Jesus' claims seriously including His great commission to go forth and make disciples (not converts) of all nations2.
Christian evangelism therefore is consistent with the specific claim it makes with respect to what leads to human flourishing. The question to ask is not why the Christian evangelises but to challenge the truth claims that Christianity makes.
Every individual is free to hold any belief that they desire. The role of the evangelist stops at merely communicating the gospel. That coercion in this context is both pointless and morally repugnant should be self-evident but is worth reaffirming.
Human beings seem prone to over-reacting to situations — to respond to one extreme by over-correcting to a different extreme. It takes a concerted effort of will to resist that instinct and come up with a measured and appropriate response. Faced with the reality of abuse of exercise of religious freedom in evangelising one’s beliefs, the over-correction is to abolish evangelism entirely. A measured response would be to work towards abolishing the abuse of exercise of religious freedom and to protect the vulnerable. Ideas ought to stand or fall as a function of the merit of the arguments offered in its defence. Shutting down all discourse of a specific kind only sets the precedent for similar excesses in the future where those who are in power, or a social majority is able to determine what everyone is allowed to think and say.
As one finds in the New Testament in the book of Acts, chapter 4 and verse 12 where Peter, speaking of Jesus, under divine inspiration, remarks, “And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.”. ↩︎
“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit…” – Matthew 28:19 ↩︎