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October 9, 2008

The Ethics of Religious Conversion by christian missionaries

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The Ethics of Religious Conversion

The Ethics of Religious Conversions – Dr. David Frawley
Conversion has always been a topic that arouses, if not
inflames our human emotions. After all, the missionary is
trying to persuade a person to change his religious belief
which concerns the ultimate issues of life and death, the very
meaning of our existence. And the missionary is usually
denigrating the person’s current belief, which may represent a
strong personal commitment or a long family or cultural
tradition, calling it inferior, wrong, sinful or even
Such statements are hardly polite or courteous and are often
insulting and derogatory. The missionary is not coming with an
open mind for sincere discussion and give and take dialogue,
but already has his mind made up and is seeking to impose his
opinion on others, often even before he knows what they
actually believe or do. It is difficult to imagine a more
stressful human encounter short of actual physical violence.
Missionary activity always holds an implicit psychological
violence, however discreetly it is conducted. It is aimed at
turning the minds and hearts of people away from their native
religion to one that is generally unsympathetic and hostile to
In this article I will address conversion and missionary
activity mainly with regard to Christianity, which has so
commonly employed and insisted upon the practice. Indeed it is
difficult to imagine the Christian religion apart from
missionary activity, which has been the backbone of the faith
for most of its history. Christianity has mainly been an
outward looking religion seeking to convert the world. In this
process it has seldom been open to real dialogue with other
religions. It has rarely examined its own motives or the harm
that such missionary activity has caused, even though the
history of its missionary activity has been tainted with
intolerance, genocide and the destruction not only of
individuals but of entire cultures.
But much of this discussion applies to Islam as well, which
shares an agenda with Christianity to convert the world to its
particular belief. As an American raised as a Catholic and who
attended Catholic school and then later adapted Hindu-based
spiritual teachings, I can perhaps provide another angle on
this topic that hopefully will give ground for new thinking. I
had to break through much religious intolerance and prejudice
to make the changes that I did.
Conversion and the Missionary Business
First let us define what we mean by conversion. Let us
immediately clearly discriminate between conversion or change
of beliefs that happens in free human interchange in open
discussion as opposed to organized conversion efforts that
employ financial, media or even armed persuasion. That certain
individuals may influence other individuals to adapt one
religious belief or another has seldom been a problem. There
should be open and friendly discussion and debate about
religion just as there is about science. But when one religion
creates an agenda of conversion and mobilizes massive
resources to that end, targeting unsuspecting, poor or
disorganized groups, it is no longer a free discussion. It is
an ideological assault. It is a form of religious violence and
Organized conversion efforts are quite another matter than the
common dialogue and interchange between members of different
religious communities in daily life, or even than organized
discussions in forums or academic settings. Organized
conversion activity is like a trained army invading a country
from the outside. This missionary army often goes into
communities where there is little organized resistance to it,
or which may not even be aware of its power or its motives. It
will even take advantage of communities that are tolerant and
open- minded about religion and use that to promote a
missionary agenda that destroys this tolerance.
Such organized conversion efforts often go by the name of
evangelization. The Catholic Church uses this term for its
long-standing conversion efforts. Fundamentalist Protestant
Christians call their movement the evangelical movement.
Evangelization sounds nicer and more ennobling than
conversion. But let us be clear about the matter. The
Evangelist aim is to convert the entire world to the Christian
faith, which naturally implies the rejection of other
religions. Such evangelical movements have world conversion
strategies and programs to target India and Hindus state by
state, tribe by tribe, even village by village. They keep
track of the numbers of converts and mark them in the win
column as gains for Christ. Organized conversion and
evangelical efforts are not interested in dialogue or in
learning from other religious groups. Such organizations have
their mind made up that theirs is the true faith and they are
unwilling to grant equality to any other belief. Real dialogue
is only possible when there is equality and open-mindedness.
This cannot occur between a missionary faith and the faith
that it is targeting anymore than it can happen between a
hunter and his prey. If missionaries initiate dialogue it is
either to promote conversion or to protect their converts. The
missionary is not about to change his mind, believe that he
might be wrong about something or accept any other point of
view that might compromise his conversion agenda.
The missionary business remains one of the largest in the
world and has enormous funding on many levels. It is like
several multinational corporations with the different
Catholic, Protestant and Evangelical groups involved. There
are full-time staffs and organizations allocating money,
creating media hype, plotting strategies and seeking new ways
to promote conversion. The local native religion has about as
much chance against such multinational incursions as a local
food seller has if McDonald’s moves into his neighborhood with
a slick, well-funded advertising campaign targeting his
customers. Yet while many Third World countries have
government policies to protect local businesses, they usually
do not have any safety mechanism to protect local religions.
In fact, missionary activity is like an ideological war. It is
quite systematic, motivated and directed. It can even resemble
a blitzkrieg using media, money, people and public shows to
appeal to the masses in an emotional way. Therefore, with
missionary activity we are not talking about unplanned,
spontaneous or isolated events. We are talking about a
religious effort towards world conquest that is quite happy to
put an end to other religious traditions, that looks to
establish one particular religion for all human beings in
which the diversity of human religions is discredited and
Regions where missionary activity has been successful have
seen their older traditions demoted or destroyed, whether it
is those of the pagan Europeans, the native Americans, or the
pre-Islamic Arabs. Hinduism would likely fall along the same
wayside should it lose the battle against missionary
religions, just as Hinduism in Islamic Pakistan has all but
Missionary activity and conversion, therefore, is not about
freedom of religion. It is about the attempt of one religion
to exterminate all others. Such an exclusive attitude cannot
promote tolerance or understanding or resolve communal
tensions. The missionary wants to put an end to pluralism,
choice and freedom of religion. He wants one religion, his
own, for everyone and will sacrifice his life to that cause.
True freedom of religion should involve freedom from
conversion. The missionary is like a salesman targeting people
in their homes or like an invader seeking to conquer. Such
disruptive activity is not a right and it cannot promote
social harmony. In fact, people should have the right not to
be bothered by missionaries unless they seek them out. Those
of us in the West are irritated by local missionaries like the
Jehovah’s Witnesses that often come soliciting at our doors.
Can one imagine the distress or confusion they could cause to
some poor person in Asia? Once let into the door, it is hard
to get them out.
Religious freedom should not be a license for one country or
one community to wage religious war against another. Even if
this conversion battle is softened by charities it is still
hostile in its intent and destructive in its action.
History of Conversion
Let us look at the history of conversion, how it arose and
what it has become through time. Organized conversion on a
mass scale hardly existed anywhere in the world before the
advent of Christianity some two thousand years ago. It became
particularly strong after the Roman Empire became Christian in
the fourth century. This resulted in a Roman or Imperial
Church that used the resources of the Empire, including the
army, to promote the religion, which was a state institution.
Church and state became closely tied and one was used to
uphold the other. This alliance of church and state occurred
well into the Middle Ages and into the nineteenth century
throughout much of Europe.
In the seventh century, Islam brought about a religion in
which church and state, or religion and politics were not
simply allied but became the same, with the Caliph functioning
as both the religious and secular head of the Empire. This
non-division between religion and politics continues in most
Islamic countries today, including Pakistan, which has gone so
far recently to proclaim the Koran as the supreme law of the
land, though it is not a secular law book or any kind of law
book. Can one imagine a Western country proclaiming the Bible
as the law of the land? Yet the church dominated the laws of
Europe for centuries.
Prior to adapting Christianity, Rome had its state religion
but this existed largely as a show for political purposes –
the worship of the Emperor. Rome tolerated all other religions
as long as they gave a nominal and political support to the
state religion. The Romans persecuted Christians not because
they were intolerant of religious differences but because they
expected all religious groups to at least afford this nominal
recognition for the state religion, which the Christians
refused to do.
When Christianity became the state religion, because of the
belief that it alone was the true religion, this tolerance of
other religions came to an end in the Roman Empire. Pagan
temples and schools were closed, if not replaced by churches
or even destroyed, including the closing of the great Platonic
Academy in Athens in the sixth century. Paganism in all of its
forms was eventually banned as not only false, but also as
immoral and illegal. Pagan, or even unorthodox groups,
continued to be oppressed in Europe up to the witches of the
Middle Ages, which resulted in the deaths of millions in the
name of religion and protecting the church.
In the colonial period, Christian missionary activity spread
throughout the world and brought with it a great violence and
intolerance that continued the anti-pagan crusades as part of
colonialism. Missionary efforts in the colonial period, with
some exceptions, contributed to, or even brought about, the
tremendous genocide of native populations not only in America
but also in Africa and Asia. Native peoples had their
religions banned, their holy places destroyed or taken over by
the Christians. The history of the Spanish in Mexico and Peru
in the sixteenth century is comparable to the Nazis of this
century, if not worse, pillaging and plundering a continent in
the name of and with the blessings of the church. This process
of missionary colonialism reached its zenith in the nineteenth
century, in which Native Africans were the main group subject
to genocide, and it is only now slowly declining. However,
missionary groups have done little to apologize much less to
atone for the violence and hatred this five hundred years of
colonialism created, and which destroyed many traditional
religions and cultures.
In fact colonialism has not truly ended but has recently taken
a more economic rather than military, form along with the
Westernization along economic lines. As Christianity is the
dominant Western religion, it continues to use the current
economic expansion of Western culture to promote its
conversion agendas. The greater financial resources and media
dominance of the West affords Christianity a great edge in
religious and social encounters throughout the world. Even
when it is a question of a Christian minority in a land
dominated by a non-Christian religion, the non-Christians are
often at a disadvantage in terms of money and media through
the Western support that the Christian community has,
particularly in regard to its conversion activities.
Though most countries in the world today are secular, this
still has not created a level playing field in the area of
religion. Western religions are still taking an aggressive,
intolerant, if not predatory role toward non-Western beliefs.
They are using financial and media advantages, including mass
marketing, to promote their agenda of conversion. Though
missionary activity became less overt after the end of the
colonial era, it still goes on. And we cannot forget the
bloody history of missionary activity or its potential for
disruption, violence and destruction should the circumstance
again arise.
The main reason that there is secularism and religious freedom
in the West is not because of Christianity but owing to an
older secular Greco-Roman tradition that was pagan in nature
and managed to reassert itself against Christian intolerance
after the Renaissance. Unfortunately, Western countries are
far less discriminating of Christianity for export and its
missionary aggression than they are of its actions in the
West. While Christianity is largely subdued in the West, where
few people are pious or take religion seriously, its old
medieval aggression and intolerance easily comes out in
missionary circles overseas.
The Motivation Behind Conversion
What is the motivation behind conversion activities? Why
should one person want to convert another to his or her
religious belief? In a pluralistic world, such as we live,
there are many different types of culture, art, language,
business and religion that contribute much to the richness of
society. Why should we demand that everyone be like us in
terms of anything, including religion? Isn’t this diversity
the very beauty of culture and our greater human heritage?
Clearly the missionary seeking converts must believe that
other people cannot find their goal of life by any other
religion than the one that he is propagating. Otherwise there
would be no need to convert anyone. And generally, the
missionary is not simply announcing that he has something good
or better, like someone who has invented a better light bulb.
He is usually claiming that his religion is the one true faith
and that the others are either inferior, out of date, or
simply false.
One could argue therefore that the conversion mentality is
inherently intolerant. If I recognize that many religions are
good and religious belief should be arrived at freely and
without interference, then I will not create a massive
organization to convert other people to my belief and get them
to renounce what they already have. Only an intolerant and
exclusive religious ideology requires conversion or funds it
on a massive scale.
In short conversion activity is anti-secular. It does not
tolerate the religious differences that must exist in a truly
secular society but aims at eliminating them. The irony is
that secular law provides the religious freedom that allows
conversion activity to go on. The very missionaries that once
used colonial armies to promote their conversion agendas are
now maintaining them in the post-colonial era under the guise
of freedom of religion. The very groups that denied or limited
religious freedom when they were in power in the colonial era,
now use freedom of religion to keep those same missionary
activities going! This is both ironical and hypocritical!
Generally, missionary efforts are stronger to the degree that
the missionary is opposed to the religions that people already
follow. The old dominant Christian strategy, which many
Protestant groups still promote, is to denigrate non-Biblical
beliefs as heathen, or the work of the devil. Evangelical
missionaries still identify Hinduism with devil worship. Pat
Robertson and Jerry Falwell, two of the most influential
American evangelical leaders say this repeatedly, as do their
followers, and they are sponsoring missionary activity in
India as well. Naturally this gives a missionary much zeal and
intensity, saving souls from the clutches of evil and driving
out demons.
Such a zealous missionary inevitably spreads misunderstanding,
venom and hatred in society. If I am promoting the idea that
your religion is a work of the devil, can I be regarded as a
friend or well-wisher to your community? Can such views help
your community to understand itself or reconcile community
Today it is illegal in most countries to promote racial
hatred, to call a person of any race inferior or the product
of the devil (which white Christians used to call the blacks
until recently). But Hindus can still be denigrated as
polytheists, idolaters and devil-worshippers. This is
tolerated under freedom of religion, though it obviously
breeds distrust, if not hatred and itself is prejudicial.
Prejudicial statements that are not allowed about race are
allowed about religion, and missionaries commonly employ these
derogatory remarks.
In fact most Christians view Hinduism like the pagan religions
that the early Christians had to overcome, the Roman, Greek,
Celtic, Egyptians and Babylonian religions, which do have much
in common with Hinduism. Equating Hindus with Biblical
idolaters promotes the history of missionary aggression and
religious conflict. Most such Christians have never seriously
or open-mindedly studied Hinduism or other pagan beliefs. They
know little of Yoga and Vedanta or the great traditions of
Hindu and Buddhist spirituality. They prefer to highlight the
Hindu worship of God even in animal images like Hanuman as a
form of superstition or evil.
The Catholic Church is a bit more diplomatic these days. It is
now telling Hindus that their religion may have some value but
that Christianity is even better! Such a view is a bit more
tolerant but cannot be called sincere either. If Catholics no
longer believe that Hinduism is a religion of the Devil, as
they were promoting until only recently, they ought to
apologize to Hindus for their mistaken notions and the
problems that these must have caused.
Discriminating Hindus can only look upon this more tolerant
Catholicism of the post-colonial era as an attempt to maintain
the edge of the Church in a less politically favorable era.
The Catholics say they respect the spiritual philosophies of
India, which they for centuries failed to note, but still feel
it necessary to convert Hindus to their religion. What kind of
respect is that?
The Ideology of Conversion
Conversion reflects a certain ideology. In fact it mainly
involves getting people to change beliefs, ideas or ideology.
Conversion demands that we follow a certain ideology and
reject others. The dominant ideology behind organized
conversion efforts is that of an exclusive monotheistic
religion. There is only one God, one book, one saviour, one
final prophet and so on. Most Christian missionaries try to
get people to accept Christ as their personal saviour and
Christianity in one form or another as the true faith for all
A religion that is pluralistic in nature like the Hindu cannot
have such a conversion-based ideology. Hindus accept that
there are many paths, so naturally they will not feel
compelled to get everyone to abandon their own path and follow
the Hindu path instead. In fact there is no one Hindu path but
rather a variety of paths, with new paths coming into being
every day.
It has long been the dominant belief of Christians and Muslims
that only members of their religion go to heaven, while
members of other religions go to hell, particularly
idol-worshipping Hindus and other pagans. This promise of
heaven and threat of hell has long been used for conversion
purposes and is a prime part of the ideology and its
propaganda. Christians have often been motivated by this
medieval heaven-hell idea in their conversion efforts. The old
nineteenth century idea was a Christian missionary going to
Asia to save the pagan babies from the clutches of hell.
This eternal heaven-hell idea does arouse a certain passion as
well as intolerance, but one can hardly call it enlightened.
In fact, it causes emotional imbalance in people, which many
Christians, particularly Catholics, have sought psychological
help to overcome.
A God who has created heaven for his believers and hell for
those who follow other religious beliefs is a recipe not only
for missionary activity but also for emotional turbulence and
violence. In fact, this promise of great rewards and threats
of great punishment is the basis of most forms of
conditioning, brain-washing and hypnosis. It is the dominant
strategy of all mind-control cults.
Conversion, Charity and Social Upliftment
Many missionaries claim today that they are not seeking
converts but merely doing charity, trying to help the
downtrodden in life. Given the mentality behind conversion
efforts and its history, one can only greet that statement
with skepticism, though in a few isolated instances it may be
true. The very missionaries that only recently used colonial
governments and armies to their advantage cannot be regarded
as suddenly without any overt conversion motivations.
However, if missionaries simply want to bring about social
upliftment, then why don’t they just open up a hospital or
school and give up all the religious trappings about it. As
long as the religious ornaments are there in these charitable
institutions they are still seeking converts. Once you give
your charity or social work a religious guise, the conversion
motivation must be there and communal disharmony is likely to
be promoted even by your charities.
If missionaries want to uplift society they can do that
through education or economic help on a secular level. There
is no need to bring religion into it. That is how societies
have uplifted themselves throughout the world, whether it is
the United States or Japan. It was not religious charity that
raised up these countries economically. In fact bringing
religion into social upliftment confuses the issue. Converting
people to an exclusive creed does not eradicate poverty or
disease, much less promote the cause of religious harmony.
The Philippines, the most predominant and oldest Christian
country in Asia, is one of the poorest countries in the
region. Conversion to Christianity did not raise the country
economically. Central and South America, which are much more
staunchly Catholic and religious than North America, are also
much poorer and have a lower level of education. In fact, the
more evangelic and orthodox forms of Christianity are more
popular in poorer and less educated groups in the West.
Fundamentalist Christianity is more common in America with
farmers and those who did not go to college. Educated people
in the West are less likely to be staunch Christians, and many
of them look to Eastern religions for spiritual guidance.
In India, Christians claim that by eradicating the caste
system they are helping people and raising them up socially.
They could do this easier by helping reform Hindu society
rather than by trying to destroy or change the religion.
Clearly they are using, if not promoting, caste differences as
a conversion strategy. Christian cultures still have their
class and other social inequalities, particularly in Central
and South America, but Christians do not see that the religion
has to be changed in order to get rid of these.
The desire to help people in terms of social upliftment and
the desire to change their religion are clearly not the same
and can be contradictory. Changing a person’s religion may not
help them in terms of health, education, or economics.
A similar argument is that the conversion effort is part of
service to humanity, that the missionary is motivated by love
of humanity. This is also questionable. If you are motivated
by love of humanity you will help people regardless of their
religious background. You will try to help people in a
practical way rather than aim at getting them to embrace your
religious belief. You will also love their religion, even if
it is an aborigine worshipping a stone. You will give
unconditional love to people, which is not the love of Jesus
or the Church, but universal love. You will not condemn any
person to hell for not following your particular belief. You
will not interfere with that person’s religious motivation and
seek to convert him to your belief. You will honor the Divine
in that person and in his belief.
Such social work born of love is hardly to be found in
missionary Christianity, though it likes to pretend that this
is the motivation. If one were truly motivated by love of
humanity and the need to serve humanity, one would not promote
massive conversion agendas. In fact, one would regard such
practices as inhumane, which they are.
Conversion and Cults: Religious Freedom in the West
In the West there is a cry against cults, which any religious
movement out of mainstream Christianity can be called. There
is a tendency to regard Hindu-based religious movements in the
West as cults. Under the guise of being a cult, a religious
organization can be sued for millions of dollars if even one
disgruntled or disappointed former disciple can be found who
feels that they were taken advantage of. Many Hindu-based and
yoga movements in the West have been sued as cults.
The criticism against cults is that they are outside the
cultural religious norm, that they are intolerant of majority
religions, that they divide families and turn individuals
against their upbringing. Precisely the same charges can be
levelled against missionaries all over the world. The early
Romans, for the same reasons, regarded Christianity as a cult.
People in India may believe that, in America, all religions
are treated equally. Certainly the law requires that, but this
is not the fact of life. For example, it is still very
difficult for Hindus to build temples in the United States,
particularly in areas in which fundamentalist Christians are
strong, like the Bible belt of the South. To put it in
perspective, one would say that it is over ten times harder in
America to build a temple than it is to build a church. In
many areas, temples must not outwardly look like a temple, but
should look like a school or church, or the local governments
would not approve of them. While there are a few Hindu-style
temples in America these are exceptional and took special
efforts to be allowed.
Most Americans believe that Hinduism is a religion of cults.
Organized Christian cult-busting legal groups, with dozens of
lawyers and budgets in the many millions, go around
systematically encouraging suits against Hindu or Indian
religious groups. Such groups as the Hare Krishnas (ISKCON),
TM, Ananda (a Yogananda group), the Himalayan Institute,
Rajneesh and the Sikhs under Yogi Bhajan, to mention a few,
have had to face such suits and sometimes settlements in the
millions against them. These actions are religious bullying by
Christian groups, not a form of justice.
What Christians in America cannot do overtly because of
religious freedom in the country, they are still managing to
do covertly through the legal system. Any prominent
Hindu-based teacher in America, particularly one who is
working with the general American public or bringing people
from Christianity to Hindu-based teachings, remains under a
severe legal threat. Should any Hindu-based group, like the
Hare Krishnas, actively seek converts in the West, they are
likely to face severe litigation on many fronts. On the other
hand, Christian missionaries in India do not have to endure
those types of legal threats or legal suits that can put them
out of business, even if their proselytizing efforts are much
more aggressive.
Meanwhile Western textbooks and the Western media routinely
portray Hinduism as cults, idolatry, or even as eroticism.
Such negative portrayals of Christianity would not be allowed
in the Indian press. These views contribute to anti-Hindu and
pro-missionary attitudes. Even in the universities,
discussions of world religions often leave Hinduism out,
precisely because it is not a conversion-seeking religion,
even though it is the third largest religion in the world!
So let us not pretend that the West is enlightened or tolerant
about religion. The legal secularism of the West still hides
much religious prejudice. We also note that the West
politically will defend Christian interests overseas and
criticize alleged discrimination against Christians. However,
it will ignore discrimination against non-Christians,
particularly if done by Christians. Recently the Russians
criticized the Mormons, an evangelical American Christian
group, as a cult. The American government lodged a protest to
protect the Mormons and their missionary activity in Russia.
No Indian government so far has made any such protest to
protect Hindu groups in the West.
And let us not forget the religious intolerance of communists
and Marxists historically, though in India these days it is
fashionable for Marxists to portray themselves as defenders of
religious freedom. Stalin was perhaps the world’s greatest
destroyer of both churches and mosques but his pictures adorn
the government buildings of Kerala and Bengal.
The Destructive Effect of Missionary Activities in Tribal
The history of missionary activity is one of intolerance and
violence, with only rare episodes of love and charity. This
comes out particularly when the missionaries come into a
primitive or tribal culture.
There is a beauty in tribal cultures, like the beauty of the
wilderness itself. You know that wherever the developers go,
the wilderness is destroyed and many species perish. So too,
wherever missionaries go, tribal cultures are destroyed and
much of human heritage goes with it. What missionary honors
the non-Christian cultures of the world or seeks to protect
them? On the other hand, Hinduism does not interfere with
native and tribal beliefs but seeks to share with them and
learn from them.
There is a beauty in non-Biblical beliefs like Hinduism,
Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism, Shinto and the many native
beliefs. The old pagan religions of Europe had their beauty
and profundity. This is lost on the missionary mind that only
sees potential converts held in the clutches of false beliefs.
Followers of missionary religions must recognize that their
religion is hostile to other religions like Hinduism, even if
it has good feelings for the people following that religion.
Yet other religions also represent people and their sincere
beliefs. To target religions is to attack people as well. To
attack Hinduism as a religion is to insult and attack Hindus
as human beings.
The Ethics of Conversion
Conversion efforts do have their ethics, which are the ethics
of conversion. The ethics of conversion is not secularism. It
is not religious freedom, religious tolerance or honoring
religious pluralism. The ethics of conversion is saving souls,
generally saving souls from damnation. The ethics of
conversion follows an exclusive belief system, a one true
faith. After all, if people are really likely to suffer
eternal damnation for their wrong beliefs, the sincere
missionary must do whatever he can to stop it. The missionary
views the non-Christian as a person who is deluded or even
under the influence of a demoniac force, not simply someone
who has a valid but different opinion about life than he does.
This ethics of conversion can override other human ethics in
missionary activity. In order to save souls, which is the
highest missionary ethic, missionaries historically have
resorted to various forms of enticement or even force to
arrive at the desired result of new converts. While these
practices appear intolerant or dishonest in a secular society,
in a religious or colonial society they appear moral. To the
sincere missionary these can appear as necessary indiscretions
to save unwilling souls.
Please note that I do not doubt the sincerity of the
missionary in all this. No doubt the missionaries who allowed
the massacre of Native Americans were also sincere in their
beliefs, just as were the white slave-holders in nineteenth
century America. The problem is that they are sincere about a
belief that easily promotes intolerance and harms those of
other beliefs.
Therefore, one could argue that conversion is inherently an
unethical practice and inevitably breeds unethical results.
The missionary ethics of saving souls is so compelling to the
missionary that it can easily cause him to compromise the
human rights or integrity of his potential converts. Certainly
the long history of conversion is a history of every sort of
crime, whatever good may have been done along the side.
On a spiritual level, one could argue that conversion efforts,
particularly for an exclusive belief, are unspiritual and
unethical. Conversion is a sin against the Divine in man. It
refuses to recognize the religion of another as valid. Above
all, the organized conversion business is one of the meanest
and most underhanded activities of the human being, on par
with war. It seeks to undermine and discredit the natural
faith of people. As we move into a global age, let us set this
messy business of conversion behind, along with the other
superstitions of the Dark Ages.
We are all God. There is only one Self in all creatures. Who
is there to convert and what could anyone be converted from?
The soul is Divine. It is not Christian, Islamic or Hindu or
anything else. The soul cannot be saved. It is beyond gain and
loss. We can only understand ourselves. The real goal of
religion is to discover the light of the soul that is not
bound by time, place, person or belief. True religion is to be
true to one’s nature and to respect the nature of others. What
missionary has this attitude or has discovered this truth?
Backlash Against Missionaries
In recent times there have been some violent backlashes
against missionaries or their religions, which is regrettable.
This has occurred not only in India but also in many other
parts of the world, like Africa or Central America. But given
the intolerance of the missionaries, it is understandable and
cannot be looked at in isolation. You cannot century after
century trash or even destroy the culture and religions of
people in the name of your God and expect that they will just
politely let you go on with it. Particularly if they are poor
or backward people without the financial, legal or government
resources to protect themselves, they may resort to a more
primitive response.
Yet the violence of this backlash is minuscule compared to the
physical and psychological violence that the missionaries have
brought about and continue to perpetrate. The anti-Christian
activities in India recently must be viewed in this light.
Recently Sonia Gandhi, the head of the Congress Party in
India, though still a member of the Catholic Church which has
yet to renounce its claims as the only true faith or to stop
its missionary efforts against Hindus, quoted Swami
Vivekananda as a spokesperson for true religion. Let us
remember what Vivekananda said to the Americans and in many
other instances about missionary activity:
“Whenever your missionaries criticize us please remember this.
If all of India stands up and takes all the mud that is at the
bottom of the Indian Ocean and throws it up against the
Western countries, it will not be doing an infinitesimal part
of that which you are doing to us.”
Mahatma Gandhi was also a fierce critic of the missionaries.
Yet, strangely, today it is the Congress Party of India and
various leftists that are defending Christian missionary
activity and painting a picture of Hindu intolerance, ignoring
the whole history and motivation of these massive conversion
efforts against Hindus.
Let us also remember the latest word from the Pope in the
“Coming of the Third Millennium”:
“The Asia Synod will deal with the challenge for
evangelisation posed by the encounter with ancient religions
such as Buddhism and Hinduism. While expressing esteem for the
elements of truth in these religions, the Church must make it
clear that Christ is the one mediator between God and man and
the sole Redeemer of the world.”
In other words all the greatness of Buddhism and Hinduism does
not alter the basic view of Christianity that Christ alone is
the supreme religious figure. No Buddha, Krishna, Ramana
Maharshi or Sri Aurobindo can compare with him. What are the
elements of truth that the Pope is speaking about? If he does
not credit either Buddhism or Hinduism with anything equal to
Jesus, he probably does not give them much credit for their
ideas of karma, dharma or rebirth, their practices of yoga and
meditation, or their entire seeking of enlightenment and
Self-realization that is not defined in terms of Jesus.
Clearly such a statement is condescending. It has abandoned
the old heathen-pagan-idolatry charge but the goal is still
conversion, not respect.
Religious Dialogue
As a final note, being opposed to organized conversion does
not mean that one should be opposed to discussion and even
debate on religious matters.
Missionaries usually target the uneducated and work behind the
scenes. They do not try to create a fair exchange of ideas or
even a debate. They are afraid of being exposed. In fact such
a debate on religious issues is necessary to deal with the
problems caused by missionary activity. The missionaries
usually avoid facing a fair debate on religion and target
those who are not well versed in their own beliefs.
More than anything today we need a real religious dialogue, so
that religious conflicts, which have such a potential for
violence, do not occur. This dialogue should be a quest for
truth. It should not aim at proving one religion to be supreme
but at examining the ultimate issues of life. What is the goal
of life? What is the nature of immortality? Is there a
permanent heaven or hell? Is there Self-realization or
Nirvana? What is enlightenment? What is karma? Does the soul
have one or many lives? What is the highest state of
consciousness and how can we achieve it? What practices are
necessary to change human nature from the egoistic to the
Divine? Can mere belief transform us or is knowledge and work
also necessary? Are special psycho-physical techniques
helpful? How do the different religions view such issues?
These are the real issues of religious dialogue.
Merely getting a person to change their belief does not
address these complex and profound issues. True religion
requires profound work and examination, particularly of our
own minds and hearts. It is not a matter of mere names,
slogans or labels.
In one way, Hindus do lose a lot by converting to a religion
like Christianity or Islam. Hinduism has a much broader scope
of spiritual and yogic practices, philosophies and mystical
teachings than does Christianity. Should a Hindu become a
Christian they lose these and enter into a much more limited
and outward form of religious belief? Hindu teachings of
higher consciousness, self-realization, karma, rebirth,
chakras, and kundalini are almost unknown in Christianity or
rejected as the work of the devil. That is why so many
Americans seeking a spiritual path are attracted to
Hindu-based teachings and leave orthodox and mainstream
Christianity behind.
In fact Christianity continues to decline in the West. Very
few new people are taking up the roles of priests and nuns in
the Catholic Church, for example. Partly to replenish their
ranks, the Catholic Church has targeted Asia and, particularly
India, for conversion because Hindus are quite devotional and
easily take up priestly or monastic roles. Meanwhile the
Evangelical Christians are targeting India to counter the
influence of Hindu-based teachings in America, which they find
so threatening as to frequently denounce Hinduism and Hindu
gurus as the religion of the devil.
So let us not be naïve about conversion. It is not about
freedom of religion or about social upliftment. The main
conversion activities in the world are part of organized and
well-funded strategies to conquer the world for a single
religious belief that would end religious freedom and
diversity. In this situation it is easy to identify the
predators and the victims. Which are you likely to be and
which are you likely to give your sympathy to?


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