On Proselytizing and Conversion

Defn: proselytize: v. convert or attempt to convert (someone) from one religion, belief, or opinion to another (New Oxford American Dictionary, 3rd Edition). Christians, of varying sects, have a reputation for proselytizing. And they catch a lot of flak for it. There are other religions that proselytize, but I think the most active at this endeavor are the Christians.

There are two types of conversion. The first is conversion by the sword. Basically, the practitioner of one religion approaches a non-believer and by threatening him or her with death, forces him or her to convert to the aggressor’s chosen religion. This conversion, however, is virtually meaningless as it is not genuine; there is no freely given heartfelt choice. Instead, it is a decision sprung from and enforced by the insecurities of the proselytizer. He believes that everyone must join him because he can’t accept the notion that he might be wrong. He needs brothers in his belief to strengthen his supports, or he fears they will weaken and fail. To the target of the proselytizer the proselytizer is frightening, violent, and dangerous. They convert to save their lives, but as I said, it is not a genuine conversion. Later generations, of course, may become more sincere, but for the original convert the entire religion is based on fear. Some religions are more likely to practice this form of conversion than others. But, thankfully, this particular practice is fading into the past where it belongs (although it still plagues some countries still).

The second type of conversion is peaceful. It is conversion through active dialogue. The target is invited to personal reflection and a shared discussion. Questions posed should be honestly answered by the proselytizer. Any aggression on the part of the proselytizer is entirely verbal in nature; it springs from zeal for the religion in question, and the truths they believe it teaches. In civilized nations, free speech rights protect the rights of the peaceful proselytizer (Countries that pass laws against peaceful proselytizers do not earn the moniker of ‘civilized.’ They are in the wrong, completely and totally.). To the target of the peaceful proselytizer, his words and actions may sometimes seem annoying. But such should be borne with grace and aplomb. In all likelihood, the peaceful proselytizer is not as likely to be as successful as the proselytizer with the sword. However, when it is successful, it is likely to be better grounded and more lasting because it is inherently more sincere.

Now for my personal confession. I’m Catholic (sort of) and I’m terrible at proselytizing. Actually, I don’t think I’ve ever even tried. But I know it is something I really can’t do. It’s taken my whole life to convince me that there’s a God. Add to that my current condition and belief system (see “The Crazy Stuff” page above), and I just don’t know where to begin. A few times I’ve been on the receiving end of a proselytizer’s speaking, and yes, it was annoying. Regardless, proselytizers mean well and they should be respected. To that end, I have never resorted to harsh words against a proselytizer, just perhaps, a “No, thank you,” and that is all.

Ultimately, the religious have the right to try to persuade others to their religion—provided it is done peacefully (Christians have been doing this for centuries—although not always peacefully, but most of the time). Conversion by the sword is grossly immoral and has no place in the civilized world.

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