At the moment I’m pondering the nature of religious proselytizing in light of the Pope’s rather defiant response in India to a bunch of Hindus saying please lay off, stop trying to convert us. During his recent visit to India, he said, in effect: my religion is better than yours and we shall overcome. In other words, if some of you Hindus don’t like our efforts to convert you, that’s tough.
Present efforts by Catholicism and certain other Christian faiths to spread the Gospel in overpopulated but underdeveloped parts of Asia resemble the strategy of the big American tobacco companies. They are losing ground in their home territory, so they branch out where the perils of their product are less well known.
The Pope is arrogantly assuming that his God has given him the right, indeed the obligation, to tell people of other faiths that their gods are no good and that they must convert or go to eternal damnation. This is not, of course, something he has dreamed up on his own, during his present incumbency. Christians throughout the ages have included militant proselytizers among their ranks. So, of course, have the Muslims; Islam is at least as militantly expansionist as Christianity. Hinduism and Buddhism are less obviously aggressive, but the temptation to expand is at least latent in their ranks.
I suppose humanists also nurture expansionist ambitions, when you come right down to it, but our collective wings are mortally clipped by our inability to promise potential converts a vision of paradise, or at least provide some satisfactory notion that life goes on after death. Poor us, we cannot bribe or blackmail the unwary, we have to rely on rational arguments.
But except for humanists and agnostics and atheists, life out there is a jungle. The different religions, and subsets within each religion, are like carnivorous beasts roaming around, looking hungrily for their next meal. They are in constant competition with each other for scarce resources. But in all fairness, the forms this competition takes are not always on the kill-or-get-killed model; sometimes proselytizing can take a relatively benign form.
At the ugly end of the spectrum is conversion by force, by the sword–embrace my god or die! The Shias in Iran have been trying to do this to their Baha’is.
It is old-fashioned now, but still, many zealots secretly think it’s the way to go.
A slightly less ugly kind of proselytizing involves conversion by trickery, stealth, or bribery. Mother Teresa got Hindus on the deathbed and promised them
salvation if they accepted Christ. This was the basic technique by which she achieved sainthood. Other Christian missions, mostly Protestant, use other similarly dubious techniques to gain Asian converts. Closer to home, fundamentalists in the USA seek to control the subjects being taught in our public schools. If they succeed we’ll see more of this attempted conversion by suasion not persuasion. Catch ’em young and all that.
More benign is the stance of the Christian missionaries who opened schools like Godavari in Nepal (Catholic) and the American University of Beirut (Protestant). Do good works, set a good example, and let those who are sufficiently impressed to want to join you do so of their own free will. I can live with that. My peeve in this essay is with the more extreme forms of proselytizing.
Ideally, adherents of different religions would commingle peacefully, with no attempt to proselytize at all. Live and let live. The lion lying down with the lamb and all that. If you have to encourage others to share your world view, do it by setting a good example, letting the people you want to impress draw their own conclusions.
As a humanist, I tend to regard any proselytizing with suspicion these days. It is no more a human right than the right to steal. The Pope, as usual, is selfishly
promoting Catholicism at the expense of everybody else. What he is telling the Hindus in effect is a version of the old “What’s mine is mine, what’s yours is negotiable.”
As long as Hindus are the ones the Pope has targeted, my emotions are only marginally engaged. A pox on all their houses, let them eat each other. But when the proselytizers of any stripe move in my country, nibbling away at the constitutional barrier between church and state, I am roused to action. This may not be exactly fair, but charity–and protection of one’s right to hang onto one’s own belief system–begins at home.
In the United States and other educated, prosperous lands, the tide is with the humanists, the non-believers. We don’t have to go out armed with pamphlets to airports and railway stations. We don’t have to go from door to door harrassing people in their homes. The enlightenment is spreading, and our main job is to keep the old guard from using dirty tricks to shutter out its rays. We lead by example and by the essential rationality of our world view.
But that doesn’t mean we have to approve of what the Catholics and other fundamentalists are up to in places like India. What they are doing is wrong. The Pope is wrong on this issue, as he is on so many others.