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.

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5 Responses to Proselytizing

  1. You might be interested in my book just released: The Ethics of Proselytizing: A Philosophical Defense of Proselytizing and Persuasion (IVP Academic, 2011)

  2. Thoth says:

    Hello Dr. Thiessen,

    Looking over your bio on your blog, it seems that perhaps you would shared some views with the author of Proselytizing. As Mr. Coon wrote above:

    “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.”

    You seem to focus a good deal on faith based schools in your writings (just glancing at them superficially). I see you wrote two other books entitled “Teaching for Commitment,” and “In Defence of Religious Schools and Colleges.” Those titles sound like books about the kind of benign good works Mr. Coon is talking about.

    It is also interesting that you come from Canada. As I was reading a little about religion in Canada the other day, I was shocked and thrilled to find that many of the protestant churches in Canada merged into one collective union called “The United Church of Canada” which has become THE MAJOR protestant group in Canada (unlike the much smaller unity oriented churches in the U.S. which ironically become instead just one more division in our endless divisions.)

    In the U.S., our culture has specialized in fracturing religious communities into endless denominations, and then we send missionaries of every strip and color (and hair splitting theological difference) around the world to win more adherents to increasingly narrow points of view. Continuing on in the direction however that I see in the religious culture of Canada, it seems possible to imagine an entirely different paradigm where people of different religious traditions don’t compete in a zero sum game but rather find common denominators instead. I think this would make Mr. Coon’s concern about stealing converts less of an issue. And personally, I think finding that kind of bridge building and cooperation between and among religions in the universal quest for improving human character education is thrilling.

    As a teacher, I would like to teach in faith based schools that united instead of divide. Other than the Waldorf movement, do you know of any other school movements in Canada that I should look into for future inspiration? Thank you for your comment and your work.



  3. Carl Coon says:

    I haven’t been paying too much attention to this website lately, hope to correct that soon. For longer pieces go into the archives. You might start with the piece that begins “Reflections…” Or go to The for my serialized ‘Short Hitory of Evolution’.

  4. Carl Coon says:

    I have this problem sometimes with incoming posts. I press Command-A (select all), then start a new message, and copy the one I just selected into it. It all fits into the new box.

  5. Carl Coon says:

    Practice makes perfect, or at least it makes it easier. I write a lot more easily now than I did as an adolescent. Later on, I used to wake up with a thought, and I’d sit down and let the thought develop itself. For longer essays or books I’d go through multiple drafts before parts would fit together. I still do. It can be hard work. Those early morning insights can be crucial, even now.
    And then there’s the question of voice, of growing into a style that is your own. That comes naturally, over time, if you don’t worry about it, just let it happen, be yourself.

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