Contentious Conversion   2 comments

This week, the Archbishops of Canterbury and York have said, in the report Sharing the Gospel of Salvation*, that Christians shouldn’t be worried about converting others.  The report itself uses terms such as “[Christianity is] a gift to be shared” and addresses the issue of the word ‘conversion’ having become linked to certain negative connotations.  However, should these leading figures in the Church of England really be promoting conversion as a good act for their followers to practice?

What I am trying to ask is: ‘In a society where the freedoms of choice and belief are highly valued, should people be allowed to try to convert others?’

It could be argued that if people actively tried to convert others, then individuals would be more aware of other belief systems and could access more information in order to make a more informed choice about which religion (if any) they choose to follow.  This would surely be a positive outcome as it would (hopefully) lead to a reduction in the number of agnostics or apathetic believers who are unsure of – or cannot be bothered to decide upon – their own feelings about faith.

On the other hand, looking at certain religious groups, such as Orthodox Judaism, conversion is viewed as undesirable.  The Orthodox branch of Judaism is very strict about its membership: anyone who is not born to a Jewish mother is automatically an outsider and any converts have a very steep mountain to climb to be accepted into the faith community.  This is becoming increasingly difficult to uphold as the community watches its numbers fall when men marry outside the faith or offspring choose not to practice the family religion.

In complete opposition to the Orthodox Jewish viewpoint is the stance of the Jehovah’s Witnesses.  This group’s members are the least shy about conversion: in fact, I was visited by a pair doing the old door-to-door ‘selling’ just this week.  Maybe the Jehovah’s Witnesses are so pro-active when it comes to conversion because they are still very much in the minority and wouldn’t be able to survive without continually trying to attract new members: due to necessity as well as conviction.  They are also particularly committed to their conversion tactics because they believe that anyone who doesn’t share their beliefs is in big trouble when “the end” comes (and it is apparently nigh), as they won’t be ‘saved’, no matter how many good things they have done.

Now this idea of “good deeds” is present in some form in pretty much every religious group and their importance has changed – at least in some of the belief systems – in more recent times.  The doing of good deeds and living a good life used to only be acceptable if they were enacted by a person who practiced the ‘correct’ religion; today, most believers (of many a religion) will accept that someone who does good deeds and lives a good life can go to their religion’s version of heaven even if that person actually believes in another religion (or none).  This pluralistic viewpoint is best summed up by the Hindu phrase “all paths lead to god”: telling us that it doesn’t matter how we get there, but we do all have the opportunity to get there.  However, this could of course be taken in a cynical way by noting that this belief seems to be a ‘get-out clause’ for people who are worried that when they reach the afterlife they will find that their religion was the ‘wrong’ one.

My last point is concerned with intra-faith relations: should Christians try to convert other Christians – i.e. is it acceptable, for example, for a Presbyterian to attempt to convert a Catholic?  They might be considered different branches of the same religion but in reality Christian denominations often find it much harder to agree with one another than with those from other religions on some issues, e.g. abortion and euthanasia are very divisive in the Christian community.  Although we should remember that other religions have similar divisions which cause tension too: Orthodox and Reform Judaism, Sunni and Shi’ia Islam, Hinayana and Mahayana (sometimes called Tibetan) Buddhism, Vaishnav and Shaive Hinduism, and there are more within these and within other religions.

So now for the discussion to begin: Is the promotion of active conversion acceptable in a modern, democratic, multi-faith society? When contemplating your opinion on this, remember to consider the boundaries – at what point does conversion become acceptable or stop being unacceptable?

Happy debating!

* if you wish to read this report in full, click here.


Posted 24/06/2010 by thinkmindy in Morality, Religion

2 responses to “Contentious Conversion

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  1. Proselytising will always be contentious – but surely as long as no coercion is involved – religions should be confident enough of the robustness of their own beliefs not to worry about it.

    In a free society we should all be free to offer our own beliefs to others – and they should be free toaccept or reject them as they see fit.

    Alan Mabbutt
  2. Pingback: Sexuality versus Spirituality « Think Mindy's Blog

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