Proselytism is the act or fact of religious conversion, and it also includes actions which invite it. The word proselytize is derived from the Greek language prefix (pros-, “toward”) and the verb (érchomai, “I come”) in the form of (prosélytos, “newcomer”). Historically in the Koine Greek Septuagint and New Testament, the word proselyte denoted a Gentile who was considering conversion to Judaism. Though the word proselytism originally referred to Judaism (and earlier Gentiles such as God-fearers), it now refers to the attempt of any religion or religious individuals to convert people to their beliefs, or any attempt to convert people to a different point of view, religious or not. Proselytism is illegal in some countries. However, the right to convert to another religion and to manifest religion is enshrined in Article 18 of the UN Declaration of Human Rights. The term is generally understood as pejorative, by contrast with evangelism which is viewed as a term of approval. The World Council of Churches has indicated that, used pejoratively, proselytism refers to attempts at conversion by ‘unjust means that violate the conscience of the human person’, such as by coercion or bribery.
In the writings of the Bahá’í Faith, the endeavour to attract people to the religion is strongly emphasized. The process of attracting people to the religion is referred to as teaching. The term proselytism is given the connotation of aggressively teaching the religion to others – as such, it is prohibited.
Every Bahá’í has the obligation of teaching their religion, as it is seen as the path toward bringing peace and justice to the world Some Bahá’ís move to other countries or cities where there are a small number of Bahá’ís to help spread the religion, and this is called pioneering. Some other Bahá’ís move from place to place in a process called travel teaching. When moving or travelling to other countries Bahá’ís are encouraged to integrate into their new society and apply Bahá’ís principles in living and working with their neighbours. In total, however, only a small minority of Bahá’ís are directly teaching their religion to others. Despite this, religion has grown “at least twice as fast as the population of almost every UN region” over the last century.
Bahá’u’lláh, the founder of the Bahá’í Faith, wrote that those who would be teaching his religion should emphasize the importance of ethics and wisdom, and he counselled Bahá’ís to be unrestrained and put their trust in God. At the same time he stated that Bahá’ís should exercise moderation, tact and wisdom and not be too aggressive in their teaching In sharing their faith with others, Bahá’ís are cautioned to make sure the person they are proposing to teach is open to hearing what they have to say. In most countries becoming a Bahá’í is a simple matter of filling out a card stating a declaration of belief. This includes acknowledgement of Bahá’u’llah as the messenger of God for this age, awareness and acceptance of his teachings, and intention to be obedient to the institutions and laws he established. It does not involve negating one’s previous beliefs, due to the Bahá’í belief in progressive revelation.
Many Christians consider it their obligation to follow what is often termed the Great Commission of Jesus, recorded in the final verses of the Gospel of Matthew: “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world. Amen.” The Acts of the Apostles and other sources contain several accounts of early Christians following this directive by engaging in individual conversations and mass sermons to spread the Good News.
Most self-described Christian groups have organizations devoted to missionary work which in whole or in part includes proselytism of the non-religious and people of other faiths (including sometimes other variants of Christianity). Jehovah’s Witnesses and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are known in particular for their doctrinal emphasis on proselytizing.
Some Christians define proselytize more narrowly as the attempt to convert people from one Christian tradition to another; those who use the term in this way generally view the practice as illegitimate and in contrast to evangelism, which is converting non-Christians to Christianity. An Eastern Orthodox writer, Stephen Methodius Hayes, has written: “If people talk about the need for evangelism, they meet with the response, ‘the Orthodox church does not proselytize’ as if evangelizing and proselytism were the same thing.” However the boundary varies from group to group. The World Council of Churches has defined the pejorative sense as ‘by unjust means’, and gives a list of examples (see below). For instance the Moscow Patriarchate has repeatedly strongly condemned what it describes as Catholic proselytism of Orthodox Christians within Russia and has therefore opposed a Catholic construction project in an area of Russia where the Catholic community is small. The Catholic Church claims that it is supporting the existing Catholic community within Russia and is not proselytizing. In 1993 the Balamand declaration on proselytism was released between the Roman Catholic Church and Orthodox Churches.
Buddhism does not have an accepted or strong proselytism tradition with the Buddha having taught his followers to respect other religions and the clergy. Emperor Ashoka, however, sent royal missionaries to various kingdoms and sent his son and daughter as missionaries to Sri Lanka following his conversion to Buddhism. Aggressive proselytizing is discouraged in the major Buddhist schools and Buddhists do not engage in the practice of proselytisation.
Some adherents of Nichiren Buddhism proselytise in a process called Shakubuku.
Hinduism lacks a proselytism tradition. Classical Hinduism represents a diversity of views and theology. Its followers are free to follow any among the theistic, non-theistic or other traditions within Hinduism. Followers can pick or change to any philosophy or belief he or she fancies and worship any personal god or goddess in a manner they deem fit. In the modern era, religious conversion from and to Hinduism has been a controversial subject. Some state the concept of missionary activity and proselytism is anathema to the precepts of Hinduism.
While proselytism is not a part of the Hindu tradition, religious conversion to various traditions within Hinduism such as Vaishnavism, Shaivism and Shaktism has a long history.
The debate on proselytization and religious conversion between Christianity, Islam and Hinduism is more recent, and started in the 19th century Religious leaders of some Hindu reform movements such as the Arya Samaj launched the Shuddhi movement to proselytize and reconvert Muslims and Christians back to Hinduism, while those such as the Brahmo Samaj suggested Hinduism to be a non-missionary religion. All these sects of Hinduism have welcomed new members to their group, while other leaders of Hinduism’s diverse schools have stated that given the intensive proselytization activities from missionary Islam and Christianity, this “there is no such thing as proselytism in Hinduism” view must be re-examined.
One group that takes in willing converts in Hinduism is the International Society for Krishna Consciousness also known as Hare Krishnas. Devotees of the Krishna Consciousness have no codified rituals of conversion, but promote recitation of the Hare Krishna mantra as a means to achieve a mature stage of love of God. ISKCON adherents view Krishna as the supreme deity that those of other faith traditions worship. A commonly accepted notion among Krisna Consciousness devotees is that ISKCON allows one to recognize the primacy of the supreme deity, Krishna, in the practices and traditions of other faiths. Krishna Consciousness promotes the concept of Sanatana-Dharma (Hinduism), the ‘eternal law’ that other faiths can uncover.
Mahavira (599–527 BC), the 24th Tirthankara of Jainism, developed an early philosophy regarding relativism and subjectivism known as Anekantavada. As a result of this acceptance of alternate religious practices, the phenomenon of proselytisation is largely absent in these religions but not unknown. Converts are welcome to the Jain faith.
Sikhism is not a proselytizing religion and proselytism is largely discouraged “through force or inducement” out of the belief that each person has a fundamental right to practice their religion freely.
There is no (permission) to force (anyone into following this) way of life. The truth stands clear from error. Whoever rejects falsehood and believes in Allah has grasped a firm hand-hold that will never break, for Allah hears and knows (all things). Al Baqarah (‘The Cow’, 2:256
Unlike in the Hellenistic era (Second Temple Judaism), in the modern era Judaism generally does not proselytize non-Jews. Instead, non-Jews are encouraged to follow Noahide Law, assuring a place in the world to come. In ancient times, these observant non-Jews could become geirim toshvim, a term still sometimes used informally to refer to those who strive to follow these laws and who will join the Jewish people in the world to come. A non-Jew who follows Noahide law is considered to believe in Noahidism; for this end, there is some minor outreach by Orthodox Jewish organizations.
Generally, Jews expect any convert to Judaism to come through their own accord. A common source of converts are those who have married a Jew, though there are also many people who join for spiritual or other personal reasons; these people are called “Jews by choice”. Rabbis will often discourage new members from joining, although they may provide guidance through seminars or personal meetings for those who are truly interested. Orthodox Judaism in theory neither encourages nor discourages conversion. Standards for conversion can be very challenging, but rabbis will acquiesce to persistent and sincere requests for conversion. Much emphasis is placed on gaining a Jewish identity.
The Muggletonians founded by John Reeve and Lodowick Muggleton in mid-17th century London believed that if a person were exposed to the full tenets of their faith and rejected it they would be irretrievably damned. This risk tempered proselytization: they hesitated to expose people to loss of salvation which may explain their low numbers. In the mid-19th century two wealthy Muggletonians Joseph and Isaac Frost broke with this cautious approach and published several books about the faith.
The right to change religion and to manifest religion is protected under Article 18 of the UN Declaration of Human Rights
Some countries such as Greece prohibited all proselytism until 1994 when Jehovah’s Witnesses were legally recognized as a religion and allowed to preach. Some countries such as Morocco prohibit it except for Islam. Some restrict it in various ways such as prohibiting attempts to convert children or prohibit offering physical benefits to new converts.
Religious groups also draw lines between what they are willing to do or not do to convert people. For instance the Catholic Church in Ad gentes states that “The Church strictly forbids forcing anyone to embrace the Faith, or alluring or enticing people by worrisome wiles.”
The World Council of Churches in The Challenge of Proselytism and the Calling to Common Witness states the following:
19. Proselytism as described in this document stands in opposition to all ecumenical effort. It includes certain activities which often aim at having people change their church affiliation and which we believe must be avoided, such as the following:
- making unjust or uncharitable references to other churches’ beliefs and practices and even ridiculing them;
- comparing two Christian communities by emphasizing the achievements and ideals of one, and the weaknesses and practical problems of the other;
- employing any kind of physical violence, moral compulsion and psychological pressure e.g. the use of certain advertising techniques in mass media that might bring undue pressure on readers/viewers;
- using political, social and economic power as a means of winning new members for one’s own church;
- extending explicit or implicit offers of education, health care or material inducements or using financial resources with the intent of making converts;
- manipulative attitudes and practices that exploit people’s needs, weaknesses or lack of education especially in situations of distress, and fail to respect their freedom and human dignity.
Adapted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia