Is there a problem with proselytism overseas by U.S. religious groups?
Isn’t sharing one’s faith part of religious freedom?
When does it cross the line into manipulation and coercion?
If I had some good news–really good news that would help others–I would eagerly want to share that news. Spread the word, pass it on, share the joy. The desire to offer Truth to others may even seem rational.
But we are dealing with matters of faith and the experiential, rather than the empirical and rational. And we are wrestling with not only the benign connotations of evangelism and charity, but also the incendiary vocabulary of religious imperialism, asymmetry and conversion.
The Berkely Center at Georgetown University examined the ethics of proselytization overseas with Christians and Muslim speakers. Dharma religions were excluded though they are the targets of proselytism–but it is also apropos. For only Christianity and Islam have a history of displaying an often violent urge to share good news…whether you want to hear it or not never much mattered!
The Crusades or the Conquests, the Inquisition or the sword, the results were the same: millions were forced to turn their backs on their own faith and embrace another. Only the name of the God changed.
Today, that same urge to persuade, convince and even coerce the good news upon others remains; the methodology insidiously different, but the result is the same.
Groups ranging from the overtly evangelical World Vision to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), and many others firmly hold that religious freedom means unhindered access to carry out the work of proselytism. Article 18 of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UNDHR), is often held up as the rationale–the green light for proselytization. That every individual “has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief…”
But pluralists–adherents of Dharma religions, paganism and native religious traditions–have long argued that there is a very basic asymmetry at play rendering the Declaration deeply flawed. Abrahamic religions claim exclusivity in their belief system’s legitimacy as the only spiritual path and demand absolute adherence.
This fundamental difference–that a pluralist accepts the injunction of the ancient Rig Veda that, “Truth is One, but sages call it by various names” while the non-pluralist demands that there is only One Truth and all others are false and dangerous–renders the pluralist vulnerable to the asymmetric force of the proselytizer. The pluralist would find seeking converts or evangelizing others anathema, while the non-pluralist seeks converts as a God given mandate.
Compound this asymmetry with the reality that the most prolific proselytizers today comprise a multi-billion dollar megachurch industry, and the previously colonized developing world is open ground for this latest avatar of colonization. Witnesses from the hotspots for global proselytism abound with testimony of access to education, medical care, employment and other necessities being traded on the marketplace of religious affiliation. Most sinister is the overt bargaining of disaster supplies or better hospital beds after tsunamis and earthquakes for those willing to convert.
The violence of conversion is very real. The religious conversion is too often a conversion to intolerance. A convert is asked to repudiate his sangha (community) and reject the customs and traditions of his family passed down for generations. A person’s conversion begins a cascade of upheaval that tears apart families, communities and societies creating a political and demographic tinderbox that too often explodes.
Spreading hate against native religions is perhaps the most vile tactic. And even the Catholic Church, with its centuries old presence in India, has blasted the tactics of the new proselytizers plying their trade today. Here, consumer protection laws ensure that retailers abide by truth-in-marketing laws. There is no parallel protection in the rabid sales of religion that the proselytizer markets overseas, and the consumers are the victims.
And finally, there is the fact that the evangelical community can only “pick on” the pluralist societies. India, Nepal and much of Africa where indigenous traditions still hold sway, are among the targets today for the next “harvest.” The “Muslim world” rewards conversion away from Islam with death, and in China, Russia Burma and others, autocracy, the Orthodox Church or military junta proscribe missionary work.
And so, the very democracy and openness of pluralistic societies becomes their vulnerability. The Native Americans, the indigenous progeny of Latin America, the Aborigines are silent witness to lost religions and decimated traditions that fell to earlier onslaughts.
It is in this spirit, that many human rights activists and academics today argue for an overdue amending of the UNDHR. The Hindu American Foundation proposed in a letter to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights that Article 18 be amended to as follows (emphasis added):
“§1 … the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right shall include freedom to have, retain or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice…
§2 No one shall be subject to force, fraud and/or coercion, including but not limited to harassment, intimidation or exploitation…”
The right to have and retain one’s path to salvation is and must be as important as the right to find or adopt a new way. It is time to change the vocabulary in our engagement with religious freedom. Religious freedom must mean a commitment to the true spirit of pluralism, and not a license to those “bearing witness” and forcing judgement.
Views expressed here are the personal views of Dr. Aseem Shukla, and do not necessarily represent those of the University of Minnesota or Hindu American Foundation.