religious freedom:

For and against proselytism

posted by José Casanova

This post draws on a talk originally presented at Georgetown University, during a symposium sponsored by the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs. A second post, by Gerard V. Bradley, is forthcoming. Video of the event is available here.—ed.

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I view my task not as that of winning points in a debate on the grounds of logical or rhetorical argumentation. I concede defeat already. No layperson could ever win a debate with an American law professor, much less with Gerry Bradley.

My task is to complicate the framework and the context of our arguments. In fact, I would like to argue for and against proselytism simultaneously, not because of indecisive avoidance, wanting to both have my cake and eat it too, but because of a recognition of the tension between two goods.

I would like to divide the rationales for and against proselytism into three groups—theological, legal-juridical, and socio-cultural—and to argue both for and against proselytism on each of these grounds.

1) Theological Rationales

I fully acknowledge the religious duty to preach the good news, to proclaim the Gospel.

For some religions at least, certainly for Christianity, this is a duty, an obligation which must be taken very seriously as central to the religion.

But against this religious duty there is the moral obligation, which I must take equally seriously, to respect other versions of the good news, other gospels, which other religious persons, other humans, take equally seriously.

In the case of the Christian Gospel, the mystery of salvation is complicated by the historicity of revelation and of God’s economy of redemption.

Just think of the genealogy of Jesus as it appears in the gospels as being linked directly to Abraham. This clearly reveals that the incarnation is linked to a particular genealogy of the children of Abraham that has nothing to do with other, unrelated ancestries.

Here we are confronting the fundamental theological-philosophical paradox, which becomes evident with the multiple competing universalisms that emerged with the axial revolutions: Jewish, Greek, Confucian, Buddhist, etc.

Every universalism is particularistic and irremediably so.

The mystery of salvation, for a Catholic at least, consists in the fact that the principle “extra ecclesia nulla salus”—or, there is “salvation only through Jesus Christ”—would exclude perhaps as much as 90 percent of humanity from God’s plans of salvation. This remains a mystery of faith and no easy rationalization; not even the Catholic doctrines of natural law and human moral reason can explain the mystery away.

Once one confronts this mystery, theologically, one must acknowledge in full humility that we cannot be sure we understand the ways of God, and that we should be careful in appropriating for ourselves the plans of God for humanity or for creation, even when we affirm our faith in God’s particular historical revelation through Jesus of Nazareth.

2) Legal-Juridical Rationales

I accept and defend the right to freedom of conscience and freedom of religion as inalienable individual rights.

I am willing to concede gladly that this is the first basic modern individual right and the foundation of every other right.

Paradoxically, it emerged precisely out of the wars of religion in early modern Europe, and against the Westphalian principle of cuius regio, eius religio.

The right to exit—to emigrate—then became fundamental. No monarch could coerce his subjects into any particular religion. They had no right to stay in his realm, but they had the right to emigrate. That’s the way Europe solved the problem of religious pluralism—by the ethno-religious cleansing and territorialization of religion.

This is the fundamental inalienable right of every individual: the right to exit, the right to conversion, the right to be born again, which the religious sects brought to the American colonies.

But this individual right cannot be translated into another equally inalienable right—that is, my right to proselytize and to convert others. Individuals may have a right to conversion, which should be legally protected by every state that has signed any of the modern universal declarations of human rights.  But this does not necessarily imply a parallel, juridically enforceable right to proselytize.  The individual’s right to exit his or her religious community does not necessarily entail the right of outsiders to enter that community in order to encourage others to exit.

I have a right to the free exercise of my religion, but this right will inevitably clash with the right of others to the free exercise of their religion(s).

Here I think it is necessary to introduce a distinction between the national legal context, where I would be more reluctant to set clear limits to the right to proselytize, and the global international context of multiple legal-constitutional jurisdictions, in which the right to proselytize would need to be translated into the right to go anywhere in the world and preach my gospel, which bumps into the right of states to control their borders, to control entry and exit.

Indeed, I am not sure that the most adamant defenders of the right to proselytism are willing to defend the right of anybody to enter the U.S. and settle here, and therefore the need to demolish the wall we are erecting on our Southern border.

Here we enter into all the difficulties and contradictions of an international human rights regime enforced by sovereign states.

I am adamantly opposed to the principle cuius regio, eius religio: that sovereign states have the right to determine the religion or religions of their subjects. But there is inevitably a need for state regulation of religious pluralism, which, however, will take many different socio-cultural and constitutional forms.

3) Socio-cultural Rationales

The working definition of proselytism we were given—“the effort to win adherents for one’s religious community through persuasion”—itself illustrates the problems internal to the concept of proselytism.

A world of religious communities in which proselytism is a zero sum game—in which my win is your loss—is a recipe for inter-religious conflict on a global scale.

The very definition is based on three problematic presuppositions:

a) That individuals can change religious communities at will, that religious communities are nothing but voluntary associations, confessions or denominations.

Against such a notion, one must remember Hannah Arendt’s discussion of what she called “natal religions,” that is, those religious communities that one enters into through birth. Judaism and Hinduism are such religions.

It is not only that such religions are hardly reconcilable with the right to exit, but that they do not acknowledge the right to enter, to conversion, and therefore have no urge to win adherents, other than through high levels of fertility.

In a similar group of religions one must recognize all those linked to ancestor cults, such as the Asian Confucian religions and Chinese folk religions, but also many African religions, in which kinship obligations binding the living and the dead across generations are central.  Here, to exit means to abandon one’s kinship obligations and solidarity for egoistic individualism.

Even if one acknowledges the individual pursuit of happiness as one of the fundamental modern rights, one of those truths that we may hold as self-evident, and in this context, the search for salvation, for eternal individual happiness, could be understood as an expression of this fundamental right, we should be weary of defining this right in strictly egoistic individualist terms that would be opposed to the duties to my community.

b) That individuals need to choose, to belong to one particular religious community rather than another, rather than being able to belong simultaneously to multiple religious communities or to none at all.

It is like our old binary racial categories: you were either black or white, until the census introduced a monkey wrench into the system by letting people pick ‘all of the above.’

This is not the way Chinese, for instance, tend to think of religion, which is not as a community to which one belongs exclusively. When asked by surveys whether they are Christian, Buddhist, Taoist, Confucian, etc., Chinese could as easily reply, “all of the above,” as they could, “none.”

Both responses, however, would be, strictly speaking, wrong.

The very notion of belonging to a religious community is not necessarily self-evident.

And this brings into focus the tension between two forms of religious belonging, which, following Max Weber, could be distinguished as:

a) Community cults, to which individuals belong by virtue of their belonging to some territorial, kinship, cultural, or national community;

b) Religious communities, which individuals qua individuals enter in search of salvation or of specifically religious fellowship.

If all of the religious communities in the world were of the second type—that is, voluntary associational communities made up of individuals qua individuals—then the principle of proselytism would present no problem and could easily be generalized.  But the principle of proselytism clearly clashes and is in profound tension with the first type of religious community cults, in which the religious community is coextensive with other, non-religious communitarian principles.

c) That conversion happens through “persuasion,” as a kind of cognitive rational choice process through which individuals weigh the pros and cons of the various alternatives and settle for the one which makes most sense to them.

This is a very problematic definition of the way in which religious conversion, affirmation, or submission (in Islam) phenomenologically happen.  Religious discourses in many traditions often acknowledge such a phenomenological experience in such concepts as those of calling or grace,  according to which we do not so much choose as we may be chosen, we do not grasp so much as we may be grasped by faith and grace.

In any case, the experience of religious conversion is often in tension with the utilitarian, liberal, individualist notion of rational choice, as much as with a Habermasian conception of a world of undistorted communication, in which the better—and more rational—argument ought to prevail.

The sociological reality is one of irremediable embeddedness of both individuals and communities, one of the particulate historicity of religious communities, inevitably tied to particular cultures and conceptions of the world.

Moreover, the histories of colonialism, of civilizational conflicts, of imperialism, are not easily erasable, and these form the context within which today’s practices of proselytism take place.

In our global context, we need to come to terms with the irremediable plurality of world religions and human cultures.

We ought to develop a respect for this plurality, especially for the most endangered species, rather than aspiring through proselytism to a single universal religion or culture.

Ultimately, it all depends on how we define “persuasion.” If one could envision a form of persuasion that would be devoid of any force, of any unequal relation or power, of any subjection, of any seduction, of any non-rational factor…. Of course, such a persuasion is unreal.

I can embrace the proselytism of Mother Teresa, the one who bears witness to one’s faith by serving the most disprivileged. But, without any ulterior motives?

We could aspire to a system of global denominationalism, in which everybody is ready to affirm with Mother Teresa: “I love all religions, but I am in love with my own.” I could embrace a proselytism which is compatible with such an attitude.

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One Response to “For and against proselytism”

  1. avatar Jessica Benmen says:

    I am specifically interested in the concept of proselytism within the context of interfaith work. If we are trying to create a safe and open community in which people may practice their beliefs freely and without feeling threatened or pressured, the phenomenon of proselytizing is fairly problematic. While one individual might claim they their religion commands proselytizing, and thus a full tolerance of their faith must include the acceptance of evangelizing, another member of this interfaith community might find this practice coercive and intimidating.

    I have been told by less orthodox members of evangelist faiths that there exist interpretations of the order to proselytize that understand the injunction to mean that one should lead by example. That is to say, a believer should thoroughly espouse virtue and goodness in his or her life, and in this way they can proclaim the message of their religion. When others witness the righteousness of these believers, they too will be drawn to the faith in question. In this way, one can fulfill the direction to proselytize without any aggressive interference in the lives of others.

    I appreciate and admire this vision, but it seems to me that this would not satisfy many believers of evangelization. I would imagine that many traditional believers would condemn this sort of interpretation as a sacrifice of convictions, a renouncement of a faith in favor of compliance with an intolerant secular world. It is hard to say that these people are wrong. In the United States we pride ourselves on a commitment to religious freedom, and to the best of our ability try to avoid forcing religious people to comprise their beliefs. Of course, this raises the question of the hierarchy of freedom – are the rights of the proselytizers, seeking to fulfill the commandments of their faith, more important than those of the secular or of different faiths, simply trying to live in peace without the interruption of would-be redeemers. Probably not, but it is unclear how to me how to accommodate both sides.

    Ultimately I think Casanova’s impulse is good, in embracing the affirmation of Mother Theresa to love (and more importantly, respect) all religions, reserving a special spot in one’s heart for his or her own. Yet this almost seems too idealistic. By what rationale can traditional, orthodox observers of proselytizing religions conform to this standard? It’s hard to say, but hopefully this vision of peaceful co-existence will materialize soon.

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