February 13, 2008
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.