Trying to Convert Other People

Trying to convert other people to one’s own way of thinking may seem natural, but great care is needed to avoid giving offence.

Religious people may wish to convert others, whether because they see it as a religious duty to do so or because they want to help other people to see the benefits.  Or one might regard another person's beliefs as unacceptable to oneself on moral or political grounds – and therefore a basis for pity, dislike or contempt for the other person.  Whatever people’s reasons for wanting to convert others, though, they should exercise some restraint on how coercive they try to be – not least because freedom of belief is widely held to be a human right, as in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Appendix 1) for example:

“Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”

This freedom is an important safeguard in trying to implement peaceful pluralism, and it sets limits on people’s right to try to influence the beliefs of other people.

There are three possible approaches in converting other people to one's own beliefs: selling, attempting to persuade, or attempting to coerce.  The first option is clearly the best.  People will be attracted if religious leaders are seen as responsible and morally right, and if their followers, when asked, express satisfaction with the support given by the organisation concerned and declare faith in its creed. 

Where one person tries to persuade another, in an attempt to convert him or her to a different belief, there is the potential to stir up strife.  In the Moral Dimension, it is appropriate to apply the Golden Rule: the ethic of reciprocity requires that everyone is entitled to their own beliefs – because that is what one wants in return.  If the other person wants to enter into discussion on the subject of beliefs – a big 'if' – disagreement can be courteously expressed: explaining one’s viewpoint to the other person without making the error of ever assuming that one is right.  John Stuart Mill, in Chapter 2 of his book On Liberty, pointed out that many people who might otherwise have been regarded as just, have, in hindsight, been seen to have been in error [pp. 29-32].

Advertisements, including Internet web sites, should be tested against the criterion of whether the material they contain would be offensive to somebody who might hold different convictions.  Attempts at conversion on a person-to-person basis should exercise similar sensitivity.  Some religious groups already recognise that they need to sell their message to potential adherents – as time has moved on, almost all societies contain multiple strands of belief and the potential consumers really have a choice. 

In practice, coercive or hostile attempts at religious conversion have the opposite effect: they produce a reaction that strengthens those who are being attacked.  Karen Armstrong, in The Battle for God, quotes many examples of perceived threats to religion and religious organisations that led to a "retreat to fundamentalism", including the reaction to an address entitled The Future of Religion in 1909, which immediately resulted in the publication of pamphlets entitled The Fundamentals [pp. 170-171].  In the following pages she describes a sequence of repeated thrust and counter-thrust as Christianity defended itself from attempts to modernise it.  A similar debate is happening now within Islam.

The concept of restraint, when trying to convert people, sits uneasily with religious people’s need to believe that theirs is the only answer and that it is their duty to convert others to the same point of view.  It is necessary for such people to moderate their evangelical efforts in accordance with the more important requirement to obey the Golden Rule.  A sincere, but courteous, attempt at conversion is as far as they can go without contravening it.  Given that this is a problem in the Moral Dimension, society should ask the would-be missionaries to voluntarily exercise restraint – and people should not be afraid to speak out where inappropriate material is published. 



(This is an archive of a page intended to form part of Edition 4 of the Patterns of Power series of books.  The latest versions are at book contents).