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A Primer on the Rights and Wrongs of Proselytism

John Witte Jr.

Emory University School of Law


Cumberland Law Review, Vol. 31, pp. 619-629, 2001

The problem of proselytism is ironic. The modern human rights revolution has catalyzed a great awakening of religion around the globe. Religion has become the latest “transnational variable.” However, this awakening has created a new “war for souls” as foreign religious groups have begun converting the faithful of areas previously untouched by Western religion. Local religions have become increasingly resentful of such attempts, especially by Western religions that assume a Western human rights ethic. Thus, national and international governing bodies are being forced to balance the rights of groups to preach their gospel and the freedom of the individual to choose a religion with the right of local groups to be left alone with their faith. This is a theological and legal war that is leading to increasing religious balkanization.

The problem of conversion stems from a difference in legal and theological understandings of conversion. For Western Christians, conversion is an easy process. For Jews, conversion is a much more difficult process. For Muslim, converting into the faith is easy, but it is impossible to convert out of Islam. Thus, the question, “Whose rites get rights?” becomes a complex and delicate problem. Governing bodies have agreed that children should not be converted, and coercive methods should never be used. Other than that, the boundary of what is proper proselytism remains difficult to define.

Traditionally, dissenters from local churches were excommunicated and even killed for their beliefs. However, a middle ground of banishment was a milder way to ease the tension within religious communities. Thus, religious dissenters should be free, and perhaps even encouraged to leave a religious community that is no longer their own as a way to lower tensions. Ultimately, the only solution to the problem of proselytism is less state control of the issue and more self-restraint by both local and foreign groups. Perhaps implementing a moratorium on proselytism for a few years in developing nations would help to ease the tensions that proselytism can create. However, such a moratorium could not be permanent, as preaching the gospel is a central facet of many religions.

Number of Pages in PDF File: 12

Keywords: Proselytism, human rights, international, Western, religious dissent

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Date posted: May 26, 2011  

Suggested Citation

Witte, John, A Primer on the Rights and Wrongs of Proselytism (2001). Cumberland Law Review, Vol. 31, pp. 619-629, 2001. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1851125

Contact Information

John Witte Jr. (Contact Author)
Emory University School of Law ( email )
1301 Clifton Road
Atlanta, GA 30322
United States
404-727-6980 (Phone)
404-712-8605 (Fax)
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