Everybody should be converting: The sequel

There was a fascinating discussion in the comments section on the post Everybody should be converting that I encourage everyone to read. I was going to reply in the comments but it got too long (my usual failing) and I thought it merited a new post that pre-empted (once again) the series on the new economics.

What took me by surprise was the challenge to my assertion that religions, by their very nature, asserted a set of beliefs that implied the primacy of each one over its competitors, and thus implied a duty by its adherents to convert others to its beliefs. Of course, whether any one individual chose to proselytize or not and if so, how one set about doing it, was a matter of choice. But I said that one could hardly fault anyone who took their religion seriously enough that they tried to persuade others to join. Hence I could not understand what the fuss was about Pope Benedict XVI’s revision of the Good Friday prayer and Ann Coulter’s remarks about the need to help Jews and other non-Christians “see the light” (as it were) and convert to Christianity.

The response in some comments that modern “liberal” versions of Christianity were more like a lifestyle choice, that one picked one that meshed with one’s own way of life and was congenial to one’s own personal philosophy, was eye-opening for me. As I understand it, there is usually a core set of beliefs that each religion adheres to and one affirms a belief in those doctrines during the process whereby one becomes a member of that religion. To see what belonging to a religion implies, one should look at the affirmations of belief that one has to make before one can be converted to a new religion.

For example, if one wishes to become a Muslim, then one has to accept certain doctrines, which includes a statement of primacy over other religions, such as: “[Islam] is a religion as well as a complete way of life which requires submission to the Will of Allah and obedience to the laws of Allah alone as set down in the final of the revealed Books of Allah, the Holy Qur’an. Islam, in fact, is the direct relationship of a Muslim with God Almighty.”

A similar requirement to accept Judaism to the exclusion of all other religious faiths and practices is obligatory when one wants to convert to at least some forms of Judaism. At the very least, it requires a rejection of the idea that Jesus is the Messiah or divine in any way.

The statement of belief for Christians can be found in the baptism and/or confirmation process they go through as children or adolescents, which I went through as well. Such affirmations of belief are also routinely required in the liturgy at each worship service for Christian denominations. In Christian churches, one sees this in the Apostle’s Creed or the related Nicene Creed, one of which is usually said by the congregation at every communion service. The former says:

I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth.

And in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord; who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried; he descended into hell; the third day he rose again from the dead; he ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty; from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Ghost; the holy catholic Church; the communion of saints; the forgiveness of sins; the resurrection of the body; and the life everlasting.

What Catholics and Protestants generally agree upon is the following:

Both Catholics and conservative Protestants generally agree on some major theological matters, like the existence of angels, Mary’s virgin conception; Jesus’ sinless life, incarnation, crucifixion, bodily resurrection, and his imminent return of Jesus to Earth in the second coming; Heaven, Hell; the Trinity, and the deity of Jesus. They agree that his execution brought about atonement — the potential to bridge the gulf between humanity and God caused by sin.

This is a pretty powerful set of beliefs that one affirms each Sunday. It was because of my inability to accept these things that I left the church. I just could not bring myself to make these assertions, even though I was completely comfortable with the lifestyle of the liberal Methodist church I belonged to, liked the people there, and agreed with its approach to many social justice issues.

It is true that in many churches there is no explicit call to evangelize (although Jesus (Mark 6:10-12) does encourage his disciples to do so), but my point was that if you believe all the things that are stated in (say) the Apostle’s Creed, one is saying that Christians have a special relationship with god, just the way that Muslims and Jews say they have a special relationship too. Surely that message is an important one that should be shared with non-believers?

Since Protestant Christians can usually switch between denominations and join new churches without formal conversion practices or a renewed public statement of beliefs, that may make it easier to think that joining a church is a lifestyle choice, without any doctrinal commitment. But I think that is misleading. It arises because almost all the Protestant churches share a common set of doctrinal beliefs, making transitions appear to be non-doctrinal. This funny sketch by the BBC comedy series That Mitchell and Webb Look illustrates this point.

The vicar in this sketch is a particularly nasty person but his point is that joining a religious organization is different from joining a book club where all that one is looking for are companionable people. Joining a religious organization carries with it a real intellectual cost and requires a commitment to a set of doctrines that usually includes, at a minimum, a rejection of all other religious doctrines.

The novel Life of Pi tells the story of a little boy in India who wanders through his city and happens to come across congenial priests in the neighborhood Muslim mosque, Hindu temple, and Christian church. He studies each religion with its priest, finds them all attractive for different reasons, and unbeknownst to the other priests or even his family, considers himself a member of each religion. Each priest considers the boy to be an exemplary member of that particular religion, who attends religious services regularly and shows proper devotion. The comedic showdown occurs when Pi is walking with his family in the park and by coincidence, encounters all three priests as well. Everyone is shocked and disapproving of his membership in the competing religions, much to Pi’s chagrin and puzzlement.

Of course, I realize that there are some religions (like the Unitarians) that are specifically geared towards people who simply want to be part of a community of like-minded people seeking some sort of spiritual companionship and which do not assert a set of doctrines that require allegiance or exclusivity. But those are exceptions. Most religions do not allow (or at least frown upon) their members being simultaneously members of competing religions. They see themselves as being right and the others wrong at least on one (and usually more than one) important doctrinal issue. And as such, it makes sense to try and bring other people in, to convert them.


  1. says

    I also have a hard time understanding why members of major religions don’t try to convert each other more often -- in my opinion, the Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses have got it right with regards to their own internal belief system. If Christianity is true, then members of all other religions are going to Hell -- if Christians care about the fate of billions of souls, why not try harder to convert people?

    By this logic, the Inquisition was completely justified. Better a little suffering in this short time on Earth than an eternity of torture in Hell.

    (This was written quickly in between classes, so I may show up with a better-formed opinion later.)

  2. Lord Xynthion, KSC, POEE POPE says

    Discordians frequently perform baptisms and/or canonize as saints: the living, the dead, embryos, animals, vegetables (but not cabbages), and sundry inanimate objects.

    Sometimes Eris chooses her followers by force, but for the most part people are free to pursue the “lifestyle” and switch sects at will or whim. Usually this doesn’t even involve public flogging or fear-factor style eating of gross things (like worms), but that depends on the sect. We don’t have special underwear for adherents, but we’re working on that. Some barbaric sects still insist on “going commando”, so negotiations are at a standstill.

    As others mentioned for their religions, there’s a clear emphasis on “emotional fulfillment” over objective reality, since everyone knows that scientific theories like quantum mechanics can be terribly confusing and that all confusion is due to Goddess anyway.

    Discordianism is primordial in the sense that it has a cosmogeny, but since Eris is Greek we kind of owe a lot to them too. This is convenient, because then questions like “why does she seem so moody anyway?” can be blamed on the pantheon of a bronze-age civilization instead.

    As a pope, it’s not important to be consistent, since the entire disorganization can be re-disorganized if something goes wrong. But I do think that it’s vital that the readers of this tongue-in-cheek blog comment repent for the sin of believing what they read, accept the maybes of discordian catma, and convert.

  3. says

    I wanted to add that for Jews the whole missionary concept is quite a skew, and since the religion is also a way of defining nations and countries, there is a part in tradition that describes the rules that were given to the non-Jewish people in the world.

    They do not need to follow all the rules, only a few of them.

  4. Katie says

    I think there is a happy medium between having no desire to convert people to your “lifestyle” and feeling a need to convert those who don’t want to be converted. I would certainly be thrilled to tell people about Christianity who wanted to know more. However, if a person already has a religion that they are happy with, I see no point in forcing the issue. Jesus’ speech about “many mansions” in John 14 has been interpreted a number of ways, but to me it has always meant that there are a multitude of ways to get to heaven. I would never presume that my way is better than anyone else’s.
    This is not to say that every other Christian agrees with me, but there are many who do.

  5. says

    It looks like people are missing the point. Mainline religion, as stated in the principal documents (or spoken directly in affirmation oaths), generally forbids its adherents from accepting outside gods/religion, and mandates that they accept theirs as (supposed metaphysical) truth. As such, it’s inconsistent (or callous) NOT to directly evangelize everyone else, because that means one of two things: either you don’t think that “truth” is genuinely important, or you don’t care for the (alleged) welfare of other humans after they die.

    All this other fluff about “lifestyle” and “not imposing” seems to be either liberalization or outright ignorance of doctrine, and (to my limited knowledge) not officially documented. Correct me if I’m wrong.

    Again, this only applies to mainline, religion. Something like Unitarianism is, by design, quite liberal and outside of that scope.

  6. Paul Jarc says

    I just could not bring myself to make these assertions, even though I was completely comfortable with the lifestyle of the liberal Methodist church I belonged to, liked the people there, and agreed with its approach to many social justice issues.

    My suspicion is that many people are more comfortable making those assertions, even if they don’t entirely agree with them. Being a member of the church community may be rewarding enough to offset any discomfort about their dogmatic doubts and disagreements. I wouldn’t even think of it as a question of whether there are such people, but one of how many there are -- and I wouldn’t trust my own speculation enough to make a guess.

  7. Corbin says

    Hi Mano,

    Thanks for writing this. I found this to be one of your most
    thoughtful posts on the topic. Nice work!

    Since you raised the topic of creeds within Christian denominations as
    a example I hope you will not mind if I wax philosophical here on the
    topic of liberal viewpoints within “creedal” denominations.

    I suspect that within most “mainline” Protestant denominations there
    are blocks of liberal members and also liberal-oriented and
    liberal-tolerant churches. Within the life of a given organization,
    the question of whether one interprets all or some of the prescribed
    doctrine metaphorically might vary from person to person and from
    group to group and from region to region.

    For example, in my experience there are certainly some mainline
    protestant churches where these creeds are almost never read during
    regular worship, and there are other churches where creeds are
    sometimes read but with the clear understanding that each person is
    free to interpret these in different ways. The same can also be said
    to apply to the process for induction into membership into some
    churches, be it as an adult or youth. From a liberal perspective, the
    issue is not whether these creeds and affirmation represent a set of
    fixed beliefs about what is literally true. Rather the question is
    what these statements might mean in a personal context, and this might
    be much more ritual or metaphoric or poetic.

    Further, in some groups and churches, these issues of creedal and
    doctrinal adherence are dramatically de-emphasized in the context of
    membership relative to issues and explorations of what it means to
    belong to a given church. Yes, a church is not a “club”, and
    commitments are expected from and made by new members but in churches
    with more liberal settings, the issues of doctrinal adherence are not
    particular relevant to the issue of church membership. In some
    mainline denominational churches it is quite natural that these kinds
    of issues are discussed openly and clearly at many levels during the
    process of discernment with regards to membership. In some mainline
    denominational churches, a wide diversity of theological perspectives
    is tolerated and sometimes celebrated. I guess my point here is
    simply that how this plays out varies from place to place and how this
    is experienced by individuals also varies from person to person, even
    within a given setting.

    Obviously, this kind of diversity can lead to disagreement and
    tension. Then this idea of what one is “comfortable with” is very
    intriguing and comes into play quite often. When one associates
    oneself with a group there is always the question of what kinds of
    differences one can put up with. For example I might call myself a
    “Democrat” and still find myself in opposition to some major component
    of the party’s platform. In this case the question boils down to what
    is perceived as essential. If the matter is of fundamental
    importance, I might quit the association. Otherwise, I might put up
    with belonging to an organization that espouses some ideas I disagree
    with because they are not as important to me as the ones I mostly care
    about. I think this kind of thing comes into play alot with many
    religious people. For some the question of clarity and interpretation
    of doctrine is of defining importance to the concept of religious
    identity. For others this issue is a very minor concern.

    I’ll agree that the liberal perspective within mainline protestant
    denominations remains a minority point of view. But I would argue that
    this it is not an insignificant minority, and I would also argue that
    this viewpoint can be defended with integrity. I also think a case
    can be made that liberal perspectives are gaining ground within the
    life of several mainline denominations — consider for example what is
    happening in the Episcopal church with regards to the question of
    ordaining a gay bishop, where the primary defense of this is made on
    theological grounds. You might also not be surprised to learn that
    liberal and liberal-tolerant viewpoints are found more commonly among
    the faculty of certain schools of religion and theology. And several
    prominent church leaders, such as J.S. Spong, Peter Gomes, Marcus
    Borg, and C.J. Sprague have written books and articles rather
    eloquently defending different aspects liberal religious viewpoints.
    So these ideas are out there and they are part of the spectrum of
    theological viewpoints that coexist in a variety of mainline churches.

    I do not know for sure, but if I might speculate, I would guess that
    within certain denominations and religious traditions, these kinds of
    liberal viewpoints will become more and more accepted and common as
    time goes on. I believe that this might be because having such a
    viewpoint allows a person to avoid the many logical/philosophical
    difficulties that are characteristic of a more “fundamentalist”
    viewpoints, without also having to forgo the major
    emotional/personal/spiritual/social/contextual/perspective values that
    are provided by being part of a religious group and participating
    within a tradition. Perhaps.

    Finally, yes, the viewpoints of the Unitarians and other liberals
    within other denominations are the “exceptions”, but I think this does
    not automatically disqualify these viewpoints as “not genuinely
    religious”. My inclination is to leave the definition of what
    constitutes a religion to those people who would call themselves
    religious. These “definitional” issues are not entirely just
    semantics, since they play into the questions of identity within
    religious groups and communities. As you might imagine, there is a
    trend within certain fundamentalist Christian circles to label
    individuals, churches, and now even whole denominations that do not
    tote a literalistic interpretation of doctrines and scripture as being
    “not really Christian”. Naturally, it is the instinct of most liberal
    religious followers to resist being told that one’s viewpoint is not
    “genuinely religious” — whether such accusations are leveled by
    fundamentalists or atheists.

  8. says

    Since it’s not based on evidence, as an atheist I tend conclude that religion is a product of reinforcement. It’s extremely reinforcing to think that you’ll get an eternal happy life with the only slightest bit of effort to be good. It’s not reinforcing to try to convert people. It’s actually a pretty unpleasant conversation almost every time. One might predict that any aspect of religion that makes its practictioners uncomfortable will fade over time. This can include cognitive dissonance from creationism vs science, being anti-gay when you actually know gay people, etc. (Though I guess self-righteousness is pretty reinforcing too.) If religion is a lifestyle that provides emotional fulfillment, it’ll change to become more emotionally fulfilling. If something is not consistent with evidence based reasoning, why would we expect it to be internally consistent. Why wouldn’t we expect people to believe something when it makes them happy, and turn around and believe something inconsistent with that when that makes them happy?

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