Tolerance is an important virtue for the peaceful coexistence of our species but historically one of the barriers to it has been the coercion —sometimes through violence—of people to convert to a different religion.
The act of seeking out new converts—known as proselytizing—is an explicit command in some religious scriptures and it is seen as a holy duty or mission. Proselytizing can be seen as a benevolent gesture facilitating the salvation of others but many use pressure or bribery as inducements, and some even misquote scriptures to condone violence to further their proselytizing zeal giving it a pejorative connotation.
The main proselytizing religions are Christianity and Islam, which explains their vast global following. Christianity has made its way all over the world and has adapted its messages to find receptive audiences in other cultures. However, Pope Francis has often spoken strongly against proselytizing and said, “The Church is not a soccer team that goes around seeking fans.”
Hinduism is a way of life so anyone can become a Hindu without any ritual or formal initiation ceremony. Popularity of Yoga, meditation, and the idea of a personal relationship with a loving god has enticed many to embrace Hinduism.
Judaism actively resists proselytizing and even makes the process of conversion quite lengthy and difficult — though not impossible — reflecting its emphasis on tradition and its attitude of being God’s Chosen People. But for those who sincerely undergo this lengthy process of conversion, the utmost respect is to be afforded.
The Baha’i faith has a small following but has a truly global spread. Meanwhile, Taoism and Confucianism never spread too far outside China, though they have had great influence over the development of religious traditions in Japan and other parts of Asia.
Religion is not easy to transplant. We deepen our own faith by exploring the ideas and beliefs of other faiths. Ultimately, the best way to convert others to your beliefs is to make your best argument for why you hold those beliefs, and let others make their own decisions. The most devout converts will be those who come into the fold of their own accord.
“Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”
—The New Testament (Matthew 28:19), Christian text
“Invite all to the Way of your Lord with wisdom and kind advice, and only debate with them in the best manner. Surely your Lord alone knows best who has strayed from His Way and who is rightly guided.”
—The Qur’an (16:125), Islamic text
“I do not want you to become a Hindu. But I do want you to become a better Christian by absorbing all that may be good in Hinduism and that you may not find in the same measure or not at all in the Christian teaching.”
—Mahatma Gandhi, acknowledged by Indians as Father of the Nation
“It is true that Bahá’u’lláh lays on every Bahá’í the duty to teach His Faith. At the same time, however, we are forbidden to proselytize, so it is important for all believers to understand the difference between teaching and proselytizing.”
—Universal House of Justice, Baha’i governing body
“I don’t want to convert people to Buddhism — all major religions, when understood properly, have the same potential for good. Fundamentalism is terrifying because it is based purely on emotion, rather than intelligence. It prevents followers from thinking as individuals and about the good of the world.”
—His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Tibetan Buddhist leader and activist