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Religion and Society

On Proselitism and its Too Many Meanings

It is difficult to find a more controversial subject and a more ambiguous word. In fact, proselytism is an accusation that is launched against any kind of communication of faith.  

The subjects of religious freedom, of proselytism, and of conversion, are of great contemporary relevance. The recent episodes of violence committed against Christians in the Indian State of Orissa are only the latest episode on a much longer list that has involved all the great religions. Even though many believers and many leaders of all the Faiths have worked to conserve for religions that meaning of peace and profound humanity that are specific to them, the debate has become incandescent and has been concerned with the activities and the methods of sects and also the meaning of the presence of Christian schools and charitable centres in many countries. Read with Western eyes, these facts involve a violation of the Charter of Human Rights, whereas for those involved they are a reaction in order to defend that cultural and religious heritage which the West seems to be unable to respect.




These facts taken overall show how conversions are a controversial subject and end up with the application of the accusation of proselytism to every effort made to communicate one’s own faith. These are not subjects that are new in an absolute sense. Gandhi himself expressed similar ideas. In an interview given on 11 May 1935 he declared: ‘If I had power and could legislate, I should certainly stop all proselytizing. It is the cause of much avoidable conflict between classes and unnecessary heart-burning among missionaries’. After defining missionary methods as ‘outrageous’, he concluded: ‘in Hindu households the advent of a missionary has meant the disruption of the family coming in the wake of change of dress, manners, language, food and drink’(1). Many other quotations of his to this effect could be given.




Contemporary society, which is marked by an incredible mobility that removes frontiers that once existed and imposes a multicultural and multi-religious vision, requires a retrieval of reflection on conversions and a thinking anew about the subject: what is proselytism? Is communicating one’s faith to other people really so negative? What nexus exists between the approach of the person who bears witness to his faith and the conversion of the person who adheres to that faith? Does to convert mean to change one’s religion or does it mean simply to convert to God, an adherence to Him that is discovered and rediscovered in a never ending pathway? If one converts to God, what is the role and the value of the various Faiths, their dogmas and their religious practices? It does not seem to me that the passion that is nowadays applied to these questions and issues has achieved significant steps forward.




The Greek term ‘proselyte’ appears almost exclusively in Jewish and Christian writings and was the result of the way in which the Jewish world saw foreigners. The Jewish world knew a broad typology of foreigners and employed a certain variety of terms to describe them(2). On the basis of the Exodus, an experience of migration and slavery, the priestly literature and the literature of Deuteronomy likened the resident foreigner – the ger – to an Israelite and this process was confirmed by the Greek tradition of the LXX which on about seventy occasions translated the term ge-r with prose-lytos. The appreciation of this figure was the work of the Judaism of the diaspora more than the Judaism of Palestine. Whereas this last remained centred around a religious nationalism, in the diapora the term prose-lytos meant a religious pathway, without any interest in the social or national position of the person involved. This positive vision would be taken up in Christian writings. The proselytes would be the privileged interlocutors of mission and play a notable role in the lives of communities. Beyond any open question, the positive fact remains that proselytism was the expression of the commitment of believers and churches to make known the true God to everyone. Proselytism meant the communication of faith.



Intolerance and Fanaticism


This positive vision was maintained for centuries without special debates. It was the thinkers of the Enlightenment who changed the term: their interest was not the personal religious condition of the proselyte but the modality of communication of a person’s faith. Since they saw reason as the only criterion of truth, they described proselytism as a communication of a person’s beliefs that was wrongly authoritarian: it did not aim at fostering a free and enlightened personal faith but, rather, at a subtle inducing or an open forcing of a person to adhere to the religious beliefs of another person. Proselytism, in this pathology of communication, had kinship with intolerance and fanaticism. The emphasis on the individual and on his rationality led to a radical thinking anew about social life: authority left its role to reason and tradition disappeared behind recourse to the personal experience. In this anthropological approach there was no longer space for the impassioned communication of one’s own faith: proselytism was seen as asymmetrical communication, as violence.




To this criticism was added another of a socio-religious character. Many communities, who feel their cultural and religious heritage threatened by the subtle violence of globalisation, are rising up against all universalising forms and institutions and ask for a juridical regime of protection for their tradition and their religions. Encouraged by the arrogance of evangelical groups and fundamentalist sects, this reaction is not limited to contesting mistaken forms of evangelisation(3) but upholds a sort of ‘collective identity’ of non-Western peoples and affirms that this is a value to be protected. Beyond this reaction is to be seen an attestation of a collective heritage, understood as an untouchable identity: its defence even comes to involve the imposition of limits on individual pathways of freedom as well. To focus in on the mistaken behaviour of these groups is necessary but it is not everything – at the centre is the upholding of a ‘collective identity’, which is a very delicate category to analyse.




Not even the Churches, to tell the truth, have explored this question in depth. Accepting the Enlightenment approach, they have for the most part limited themselves to distinguishing between evangelisation and proselytism, thereby looking for an image for the communication of faith which was acceptable for modern man. Over the last ten years these appeals have only multiplied. In September 1997 there appeared the appeal Towards Common Witness: A Call to Adopt Responsible Relationships in Mission and to Renounce Proselytism, which was approved by the central committee of the WCC (World Council of Churches) and which presents proselytism as counter-witness; in May 2006 there took place the closed meeting between members of the Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue and the Office for Inter-religious Dialogue of the WCC to discuss ‘Interreligious Reflexions on Conversion: Assessing the Reality’ and draw up a common code of conduct. In general one can say that there are two hypotheses for a solution at the present time: the introduction of legislation that limits conversion or the acceptance of a common code of conduct, which for the moment is only hypothetical, which will help to distinguish between legitimate witness and deplorable proselytism.



A Living and Dynamic Reality


Even though carried out in a minor tone, the framework of the debate is sufficiently clear: on the one hand there is the Enlightenment position and on the other there is a growing religious pluralism which has imposed on the Churches and the missionary movements a reflection on the meaning and the modalities of the communication of faith and the sharing of personal and communal religious beliefs.




The Christian Churches unanimously uphold the right to proclaim their faith: in doing this they base themselves both upon religious freedom, understood as an undeniable right of people and as a criterion for state laws based upon freedom,(4) and upon the value of witness as an original and ineradicable form of communication. Leaving to one side the question of religious freedom, a subject that has been addressed by other authors, the heart of the debate lies in the relationship that is established between individual and collective freedom, between freedom of conscience and cultural-religious belonging. Identity, and as a consequence belonging, should be thought of as a living and dynamic reality that cannot be reduced to something that is immutable. It is something that is alive because it redefines itself in a constant relationship with other people who confirm or discuss our way of interpreting life. For this reason, individual identity always lives in a social context. While indicating what we have in common, it is also indicates what makes us different.




Identity, to sum up, has an aspect that remains identical to itself and indicates that ‘I’ that surmounts every change and a changing aspect that surmounts the weight and chance of changing influences that come from the environment and, first and foremost, from the encounter with other people. Identity is always ‘changing-identity’ and cannot be fixed in an unchangeable form, unless ideologically. Religious identity as well, religious tradition as well. It is not a reserve of already ready answers that have been packaged for all ages. It is a resource, a stimulus to live with faithfulness the worrying problems and questions that the various epochs raise; faithfulness to one’s own religious tradition is a responsibility and a risk to be honoured, not a talent to be kept underground. To one’s own identity belongs an ineradicable tension between personal research and cultural and religious membership; to become aware of this is to accept constant change and to commit oneself to living it.




In this changing-identity find space both the traditions of a people, from its culture to its religion, and the encounter – which today is multiple – with different and extraneous people, witnesses to the humanistic breadth of the world. It should be said that a certain ethno-centrism is present in every person and every culture: it proclaims the special point of view of a civilisation and the cultural membership of every individual. Every cultural membership must recognise the limits of its own civilisation and the humanism that underpins it; its fullness is only achieved in openness and dialogue with other civilisations and requires a cold, faithful and creative thinking anew about its own identity. It is certainly the case that not all cultures have the same humanistic weight and value but it is the task of those that claim a universal meaning to become responsible for a dialogue with all the others.




Amongst these is to be found Western culture. Founded on the Greek lógos, on the Roman ius, and on the Christian pístis, Western culture has the duty to engage in this dialogue. The pride and the rage to which Fallaci refers and which appreciate the universal need for a homeland should (5) be channelled in this direction. The debate on the Westernisation of the world will involve a re-discussion of the breadth and the quality of an anthropological approach reduced to scientific-technical dominion and personal consumerism; it will also involve a re-discussion of the breadth and quality of the anthropologies of other peoples. In this flow of relations and transformations nobody should claim a role that limits the cultural and religious freedom of other people.



Different Universalities


In an article published in 2005 in the Corriere della Sera, Tommaso Padoa Schioppa referred to proselytism as ‘freedom to persuade’. The communication to other people of one’s own beliefs is indispensable and is practised in all fields, from the scientific to the political and on to the religious. For this reason he believed that it was at the least arduous if not impossible to separate freedom of expression from proselytism, that is to say from the wish to convince other people of what we are convinced and why we are convinced of what we are convinced. The impassioned effort to communicate at a deep level with another person and to convince him – Christian witness – has a enlightening value for us – one understands better the value and the weight of one’s own choices. This ‘freedom to persuade’ is not only distant from every form of proselytism but is the bone structure of a correct social life.




Many of the advanced points of this author one can agree with, but the broadly Enlightenment tone is not totally suited to the lives of religious institutions directed towards that ultimate foundation that they refer to with the name of God. The heart of their lives and their pathways, in fact, is that handing over of their lives to God, something that illuminates and puts into a hierarchy every other experience. This experience is decisive in conversion as well: one is not dealing with a change in religion but with a discovery or deeper rediscovery of God. Why should the choice of life of a poor and uneducated person be an unethical conversion? Can only those who are rich and wise decide at a deep level about their own lives? And one must look at whether a person is taking his own life into his own hands. Certainly, deciding for a person does not foster his freedom.




Ad Gentes n. 13 describes conversion as a ‘spiritual itinerary’: the person who converts ‘is introduced to the mystery of the love of God’, that God who – in Christ – calls him to a personal relationship with Him. This ingress requires a change in mentality and life, a change in ethical choices and in membership of a community, but the decisive event remains the handing over of one’s own life to God. The Christian ministry of communication of faith – apostleship or if we want proselytism – is at the service of this event. On this service weighs a history in which the encounter with these peoples was experienced as the ‘exportation’, ‘spread’ and ‘imposition’ of a foreign model of religious community.



The price paid was the establishment of a distance between the faith and the practice of Christian communities and the specific traditions of non-European cultures; still today, after many centuries, Christianity is seen in those lands as a foreign religion. Today the moment has come to think anew about that approach. First of all, it should be made clear that the universality of the Christian Churches and of the West do not have the same interests and the same projects: the choices of the recent Popes during the wars in Kosovo and Iraq, and their speeches on the questions and issues connected with motherhood, women and sexuality; on an only economic and mercantile globalisation; on the connection between peace, freedom and human rights; and on the future of the human family and the role of international institutions are sufficient to argue that Christianity today cannot be put on the same plane as the West, at the level of principle and statistics. Secondly, one has to demonstrate that the universality of Christ and his salvation is not the same things as the catholicity of the Church: through the witness of her life – the primary expression of every communication – the Church is at the service of that kingdom of which she is the seed and the beginning. In a few words, only Churches that are faithful to the Gospel and are authentically incultured can overturn the perception of cultural extraneousness that still accompanies Christianity. And the belief that cultural plurality goes back in the final analysis to the creative act of God makes this undertaking even more urgent and indispensable.



Giving and Receiving


In this context, evangelisation or apostleship or proselytism well understood loses its hardness. It is witness and service to that Love that is the strength of every authentic religious journey; it is an impassioned communication of that Gospel of the kingdom that makes love the contents and the method of every apostleship; to live evangelisation as the giving of oneself in the kénosis of the Incarnation and in the agápe of Easter is to live it in a way that is distant from every proselytistic excess or perversion.




This communication of one’s own faith involves giving but it also involves receiving. A witness and heir to a religious tradition that has learnt to look with Christian eyes, the person who converts is not only a believer on the path of maturation, he is also a grace and a gift that helps the whole Church to add new lineaments to the faith that she lives and to the witness with which she serves that faith. To convert is not to adhere to a pre-created and immutable religious system but to add one’s own support to the pathway of a community. Since the person who converts can escape neither the tragedy of divisions amongst Christians nor the knot of relations between the various religions of the world, his history and his contribution are a moment of extraordinary dialogic fecundity for the whole of the Church.



For this reason, the communication of one’s own faith or evangelisation is not a question of tolerance or of dialogue but of witness and service to the design of God; for this reason, the Church supports religious freedom for everyone: true religiosity is expressed by living one’s own beliefs and not by impeding other people from living theirs.






(1) Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, ‘80. Interview to a Missionary Nurse (before May 11, 1935)’, in IDEM, The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, vol. 67 (25 April, 1935 – 22 September, 1935) (The Publication


Division – Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Government of India, New Delhi 1960-1987), pp. 48-49.



(2) The terms used are:ge-r, nokrî, za-r, tôsˇa-b. On these terms see Robert Martin-Achard, ‘gur - dimorare come


forestiero’, in Ernst Jenni and Claus Westermann, Dizionario Teologico dell’Antico Testamento (I, Marietti, Turin, 1978), pp. 355-358; AdamSimon Van Der Woude, ‘zar – straniero, ibid pp. 451-454; Karl Georg Kuhn,


‘prosélytos’, in GLNT. XI (Paideia, Brescia, 1977), pp. 297-344. The term ‘proselyte’ is to be found four


times in Christian writings: Mt 23:15; Acts 6:5; 13:43 and is alluded to in 8:27.



(3) For example the caricaturing of the doctrines and practices of other Faiths, the accusation of idolatry because of the veneration of Marian icons or saints, the rejection of baptism received in other confessions and the obligation to be re-baptised, exaggerating the problems of certain Churches, offering humanitarian or educational aid with a view to conversion, recourse to economic, cultural or ethnic pressures, taking advantage of ignorance in order to confuse people, exploiting loneliness or illness or disappointment in order to propose conversion as a remedy.



(4) Article 18 of the Declaration of Human Rights which was approved by the UN on 10 December 1948 declares


that ‘everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his


religion or belief, and freedom, either aloneor in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his


religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance’.



(5) Oriana Fallaci, La rabbia e l’orgoglio (Rizzoli, Milan, 2001).