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February 08, 2008

Everybody should be converting

(I am taking a short break from the series of posts on economic issues. They will continue next week.)

Earlier this week, Pope Benedict XVI issued a replacement for the traditional Good Friday prayer and it has riled up some Jewish groups. Part of the new prayer says: "Let us pray also for the Jews that the Lord our God may illuminate their hearts and that they also may acknowledge Our Lord Jesus Christ." This new prayer was considered less offensive to Jews than the old one because the "old text prayed for, in Latin, the conversion of the Jews, calling on God to deliver "that people. . .from its darkness" and to remove the "blindness" "

Nevertheless, the new prayer is still considered offensive. "Rabbi David Rosen, director of inter-religious affairs for the American Jewish Committee said that although he was pleased that the offensive terms were removed from the prayer, he still objected to the new prayer because it specified that Jews should find redemption specifically in Christ."

Abraham Foxman, national director of the New York-based Anti-Defamation League, also was disturbed, saying that he was "deeply troubled" that the intention to petition God for Jews to accept Jesus as Lord was kept intact.

To me, within the framework of religion, both the old and the new prayers make perfect sense. Clearly Catholics (and other Christians) believe that Christianity is the one true religion. Otherwise why would they be Christians? Many also believe that those who do not "accept Christ" in some form or other are not going to heaven, or at the very least are going to find some obstacles in their way to getting there, and at the very worst are going to find their post-death experience very nasty indeed. Therefore it is actually quite humane on their part to pray that Jews (and Hindus and Muslims and Buddhists and atheists) will also "see the light" and become Christians. As Rev. James Massa, executive director for interreligious affairs for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, points out, the prayer should be understood in the essential Catholic view that "all people come to salvation through Jesus Christ."

Similarly, when Ann Coulter caused outrage by saying to talk show host Donny Deutsch (who is Jewish) that it would be better if everyone became Christian, she was being consistent with believing in the virtues of her own religion.

DEUTSCH: That isn't what I said, but you said I should not — we should just throw Judaism away and we should all be Christians, then, or —
COULTER: Yeah.
DEUTSCH: Really?
COULTER: Well, it's a lot easier. It's kind of a fast track.
. . .
COULTER: We just want Jews to be perfected, as they say.
DEUTSCH: Wow, you didn't really say that, did you?
COULTER: Yes. That is what Christianity is. We believe the Old Testament, but ours is more like Federal Express.

Similarly, one would expect that Jews who think their own religion is the right one should be hoping and praying that non-Jews would recant their existing beliefs and believe in the Jewish god. After all, the Old Testament repeatedly tells us that the Jewish god takes a particularly harsh view of those who worship other gods and does not hesitate to dish out all kinds of awful punishments to apostates. So humane Jews should try to prevent people of other faiths from meeting such a fate by getting them to convert to Judaism.

It also makes sense for Muslims to try and convert people to their religion, even if it involves pointing out the deficiencies of other religions.

Since every religion thinks that their god is the right one, they should all be trying to convert each other, out of purely humane impulses, just so that everyone would be worshipping the 'right' god, according to them. To do otherwise would be a sign of callous disregard for the fates of people's immortal souls.

In fact, those who use Pascal's wager as an argument that atheists, just to be on the safe side, should profess belief in god should also advocate forcible conversions, since they clearly think that their god prefers even a cynical, self-serving statement of belief in god to principled disbelief.

The present situation, where people seem to think that politeness demands that we refrain from claiming superiority for their own religion, seems (within the framework of religion) contradictory. After all, religious people presumably think that their faith is the most important thing in their lives, so why be so reticent about it? Like the many debates we have had during the primary elections, why not have debates as to which religion is the best and which god is the right one to be worshipped? If we can spend so much time and energy in selecting a mere president, surely we should be willing to do at least as much for something as important as the ultimate fate of people's immortal souls?

I for one would enjoy listening to public debates as to why any one religion is better than the others. In fact, the logical thing would be for religions to run advertisements on TV to try and persuade people of other faiths to switch, kind of like the Mac vs. PC spots. It would be interesting to see Madison Avenue wrestle with how to do the religious equivalent of "Tastes great!" versus "Less filling!"

So let the games begin!

POST SCRIPT: Perhaps Mitt should have converted

I showed this clip last month but I am repeating it because of Mitt Romney's decision to suspend his campaign. Pat Condell pointed out that childhood indoctrination of religion is so strong that even though Mitt Romney must have known that his Mormon beliefs might be the one thing that might doom his candidacy for the office he craved, he still clung to it to the end, even though he had changed his stance on so many other issues.


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Comments

Regarding forcible conversions: Mormons have been known to baptise people posthumously, apparently including several hundred thousand Holocaust victims.

Posted by Erin on February 8, 2008 08:31 AM

Erin,

The Mormon's posthumous baptisms also makes perfect sense to me, within the framework of their religious beliefs.

Posted by Mano on February 8, 2008 11:37 AM

I wonder that you assume all religions want conversion. Some, perhaps many, expressly do not. It might be more peaceable, but the religious texts call for differentiation and special treatment of the chosen people. Conversion means you can choose to be chosen. Judaism, at least to the level I have studied it, specifically makes conversion difficult or impossible on the basis that no one can affect whether they were part of the select few. That is entirely in the 'hands' of their lord and is indicated in their religion of birth.

Posted by A Nonny Mouse on February 8, 2008 01:18 PM

Clearly Catholics (and other Christians) believe that Christianity is the one true religion. Otherwise why would they be Christians?

The fact that they remain Christian indicates only that they believe Christianity is the right religion for themselves. Indeed, the fact that they do not aggressively try to convert everyone else indicates, if anything, they they do not believe Christianity is necessarily the right religion for everyone.

Posted by Paul Jarc on February 8, 2008 01:28 PM

I have to agree with Paul- I as a Christian have no desire to convert people who already have a belief system (or lack thereof). Religion is for me about finding personal fulfillment, and I would never want to take that away from someone else, whatever form they find it in. And please don't use Ann Coulter to represent Christians- yuck! I don't think there's a human being whose view points differ more from mine...

Posted by Katie on February 8, 2008 04:39 PM

Paul and Katie and Nonny,

I understand completely what you are saying because I used to feel that way when I was religious. I had no desire to convert others. To each his/her own, was my view.

But now that I look back, I think my desire to not impose my beliefs on others was not consistent. Religions are not a lifestyle choice like taste in food. A religious belief is either right or wrong. How can a religion be right for some and not for others? If I really felt that being a Christian provided special benefits to me, surely I should have wanted others to obtain those benefits also?

I know that many Christians loathe Ann Coulter because of her generally hateful views, but in this case, wasn't she being consistent?

Posted by Mano on February 9, 2008 12:28 AM

Religions are not a lifestyle choice like taste in food.

The rarity of evangelism, including your own personal religious life, suggests that it is. Even if we don't entirely understand how this can be true, we can understand that it is true.

How can a religion be right for some and not for others?

By providing emotional fulfillment for some, and not for others.

I know that many Christians loathe Ann Coulter because of her generally hateful views, but in this case, wasn't she being consistent?

Consistent with her own views, sure. But other Christians' views are flexible enough not to require them to take such positions.

Posted by Paul Jarc on February 9, 2008 02:09 PM

Hi Mano,

I've got to chime in a side with Paul, Katie, and
Nonny. For many, religion is indeed a lifestyle
choice, just like one's "taste in food" or other
cultural or political tastes. Why not?
This is clearly how many people behave. These
are how many relgious groups and denominations
behave also, especially those which actively
promote an ecumenical approach. These
characteristics you indicate of being "consistent"
with some sentiment that religious beliefs must
be "either right or wrong" in some absolute
sense for all persons are not universal
characteristics of all religions. For many,
religion has very little to do with having
absolutely "right and wrong" beliefs and instead
has much more to do with providing
emotional and personal fulfillment and value.

Posted by Corbin on February 10, 2008 04:27 AM

It seems that Paul and Corbin are using the term "religion" to describe a personalized belief system loosely based on established religions, as opposed to the actual tenets of those established religions which Mano cites. Religions, at their heart, are not about flexibility and personal choice- they are about adherence to absolute rules and beliefs. To see flexibility in religious practice makes a religion more popular and accessible, but also less consistent with the actual form of the religion. The author Sam Harris writes eloquently about this phenomenon in "The End of Faith."

And as for Anne Coulter- the only thing she's consistent with is her desire to make inflammatory remarks to ensure future spots on FOX news.

Posted by Trevor on February 10, 2008 03:16 PM

To be very specific, it's not possible to accept 100% of either the Catholic, Methodist or Baptist dogma and believe that other religious beliefs are equally valid. But of course most Christians believe they can believe a subset of their church's teachings and still consider themselves members. The question is, when there are inconsistencies do you define a religion by its followers' beliefs or the church's doctrine?

Posted by Cindy on February 10, 2008 03:56 PM

Mano, I expect you might object "how can an assertion (say, that god exists), which can only be universally true or false, be a lifestyle choice?" And I imagine some might answer that objection with the religion-deals-with-a-different-kind-of-truth argument. I won't claim that religion deals with a different kind of truth, but I will claim that it has a different purpose from that of science. (Or more precisely, many people who practice religion have a different purpose for doing so from that of scientists practicing science.)

I claim that the purpose, for many (if not most) religious people, is not one of discovering factual truth, but of finding emotional fulfillment and leading a better life - and that is a lifestyle choice. Of course there are also several less respectable motives that are sometimes associated with religious practice and evangelism. But then, those motives are also lifestyle choices (not to say they have the same moral legitimacy), and are also not exclusive to religion.

Posted by Paul Jarc on February 11, 2008 02:39 AM

Trevor,

Allow me to respectfully disagree with your characterization of my point. You say "Religions, at their heart, are not about flexibility and personal choice- they are about adherence to absolute rules and beliefs." What evidence do you have to support such a claim? It seems to me that when you make such as assertion you are just setting up a straw man that is easily knocked down.

I will certainly grant you that some religious viewpoints have this aspect, but not all, and not even all "established religions".

Take Cyndy's point about someone being unable to be "100% Methodist" in terms of their adhering to doctrine. To my understanding there is no such things as "official Methodist doctrine". There are fundamentalist Methodists and liberal methodists and every flavor in between. If a preacher stands on the pulput and makes the case for acceptance and tolerance of other religions, is this merely "a loose collection of her personal beliefs"? If a Methodist bishop writes a book about the church needs to work in cooperation with people of al faiths, to stop making any attempts at converting people, and should spend all of its energies in other directions, does this mean that this is not a "religious" perspective?

To my mind this idea of a set of "tenets" as being the "definition" of religion is too narrow. When I look in the dictionary, such a definition is only one of several. Another one is the definition that includes the activities of regular people. This idea of a "religious viewpoint" as some sort of "model for reality" is to my mind a mis-application of the scientific metaphor. For many people religion has very little to do with "modeling reality" and instead concerns itself with "providing value". In this regard, for many people, religion is much more like music and art than science.

Posted by Corbin on February 11, 2008 08:24 AM

Mano:

Considering that you have not defined "religion", I'm afraid I must disagree with your conclusion that a religious person must necessarily wish for the conversion of all other people to his own religion. I am a Unitarian Universalist, which is an example of a non-creedal religion and thus has no single set of beliefs to convert someone to in the first place. Is UUism a religion under the definition you are using, as it does not absolutely prescribe certain beliefs upon its adherents? Also, consider a religion that does not claim exclusivity of salvation (they do exist); would they have any reason to force people to convert if those people have obtained their spiritual fulfillment elsewhere?

Posted by David Johnson on February 11, 2008 10:45 AM

Mano, et al...

A person's religious values might include tolerance, love, and respect for others ... which would include respect for others' cultures and religious beliefs and a hesitancy in trying to convert them to your way of thinking.

Rather than referring to religious faith as a lifestyle choice, I'd regard it as a means to an end -- the end being meaning. Presumably, people find meaning in various faiths and in no faith at all.

Another important value of Christianity and other faiths is humility. "Judge not lest ye be judged" and all that. Humility requires all of us, to my mind, to remember that we might just be wrong about everything.

Posted by Kathy on February 11, 2008 01:40 PM

I'm pretty sure there is such a thing as official Methodist doctrine. It's called the Book of Discipline and there's a representative democracy type way of changing it. When I was reading it as a young Methodist, I was surprised at how hardline some of the things in it were, particularly about other religions and social issues given how liberal my church was. Obviously most people in my church didn't even know it existed, much less feel uncomfortable about not being 100% in agreement. But for me, religion came from written authority, since I didn't have any personal sense of the existence of the supernatural, and you certainly couldn't come up with Christianity if it weren't already written down. It's too specific. So the obvious fallibility of these written sources was a big deal to me. Picking the things you like from your religion doesn't intellectually or emotionally work for everyone, though it seems to work for most.

Posted by Cindy on February 11, 2008 01:53 PM

Cindy makes a very good point about the United Methodist Book of
Discipline and I stand corrected -- mostly. I was going to say that
the Book of Discipline is primarily a thick "legal" document, with
hundreds of pages delineating a constitution and the rules by which
the church is governed. But I checked with my wife -- who knows
rather more about these things -- and she pointed out that there is
indeed a rather slim 20-page section right near the beginning entitled
"Our Doctrinal Standards".

For fun, I looked these up, and most of this section has more to do
with issues related to the history of the church, how worship will be
run, etc., To my eye, there is nothing in this section that advocates
for either a literal or a metaphorical interpretation of doctrine and
scripture, which I would offer allows for the wide range of viewpoints
on these matters within United Methodism.

This blog is hardly the place to enter into a discussion of the
details of Methodist doctrine and polity. You might imagine there is
enormous debate about these issues within the church, and I will not
pretend that a liberal perspective dominates on a national scale. I
would just reiterate what Cindy pointed out -- namely that as a
"mainline established religious institution" in the United States, the
United Methodist Church makes virtually no effort to directly
propagate it's own doctrinal standards -- even as unspecific as they
are -- to its own membership. I think this reflects the reality that
for many people at all levels of this particular established religious
organization, requiring adherence to some set of specific beliefs is
not considered essential or particularly important in comparison to
other activities and concerns.

Posted by Corbin on February 12, 2008 01:51 AM

I am a Hindu, but I respect other Religions too. I am no fanatic when it comes to Religion.

Posted by Appleipodz on February 12, 2008 09:19 AM