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religious conversion

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Religious conversion is the adoption of a new religious identity, or a change from one religious identity to another. This typically entails the (sincere) avowal of a new belief system, but may also be conceived in other ways, such as adoption into an identity group or spiritual lineage. "Conversion" occurs not only from one religion to another, but also between different sects within the same faith (when this involves a felt change of identity rather than other reasons such as convenience).

An older, less-common meaning is the transformation of a non-religious (or superficially religious) person to a religious one. In fact, the Latin word conversio ("going the other way," translating the Greek metanoia) refers to the first in a sequence of traditional stages of the Christian mystical path.

In another variation, the 1910 Catholic Dictionary defines "conversion" as "One who turns or changes from a state of sin to repentance, from a lax to a more earnest and serious way of life, from unbelief to faith, from heresy to the true faith."[1] In this older usage, the term "pervert" was occasionally used to mean transition in the opposite direction. For example, the Encyclical of Pope Gregory XVI promulgated on 27 May 1832 entitled Summo Iugiter Studio (On Mixed Marriages) included the following: "the Catholic party must not be perverted, but rather must make every effort to withdraw the non-Catholic party from error."[2] English-speaking Muslims sometimes prefer the term "revert" to describe converts to Islam, since that religion teaches that all infants are born Muslims until made members of another religion through a religious ritual.

Christianity and Islam are major religions which emphasize the desirability of conversion. Buddhism has done so historically, and still witnesses modest levels of missionary activity. (Many "Buddhists" in fact turn out to hold multiple religious identities.)[unverified] Judaism allows in-conversion, but does not encourage it. A few sects of Hinduism promote the possibility of "becoming a Hindu" (or a Brahmin)[unverified], but their stance does not meet with wide acceptance in Indian society.[unverified] Much the same could be said of Sikhism.[unverified] Chinese traditional religion lacks clear criteria for membership, and hence for conversion. Several ethnic religions—including the Yazidis, Druze, Zoroastrians, and Mandaeans—appear to refuse all applicants for conversion. Conversely, the Shakers and some Indian eunuch brotherhoods do not allow procreation, so that every member is a convert.

Proselytizing is the act of attempting to convert another individual from a specific religion or belief system. (See proselyte). Apostasy is a pejorative term for someone who leaves the "right" religion.

Conversion to Judaism[edit]

Main article: Conversion to Judaism


Jewish law guidelines for accepting new converts to Judaism are called "giur." Potential converts should desire conversion to Judaism for its own sake, and for no other motives. A male convert needs to undergo a ritual circumcision conducted according to Jewish law (if already circumcised, a needle is used to draw a symbolic drop of blood while the appropriate blessings are said), and there has to be a commitment to observe the 613 commandments and Jewish law. A convert must accept Jewish principles of faith, and reject the previous theology he or she had prior to the conversion. Ritual immersion in a small pool of water known as a mikvah is required. The convert takes a new Jewish name and is considered to be a son or daughter (in spirit) of the biblical patriarch Abraham, and a male is called up in that way to the Torah.[unverified]

The Reform and Conservative movements are lenient in their acceptance of converts[unverified]. Many of their members are married to gentiles[unverified] and these movements make an effort to welcome spouses who seek conversion[unverified]. This issue is contentious in modern Israel as many immigrants from the former Soviet Union are not considered Jewish[unverified].

Orthodox Jews tend to discourage conversion, urging the person to find their path to God through being a righteous Gentile and observing the Noahide laws and living a life of kindness, but they will accept conversion if the person persists.

Conversion to Judaism in history[edit]

In Hellenistic and Roman times, some Pharisees were eager proselytizers, and had at least some success throughout the empire. Some Jews are also descended from converts to Judaism outside the Mediterranean world. It is known that some Khazars, Edomites, and Ethiopians, as well as many Arabs, particularly in Yemen before, converted to Judaism in the past; today in the United States, Israel and Europe some people still convert to Judaism. In fact, there is a greater tradition of conversion to Judaism than many people realize. The word "proselyte" originally meant a Greek who had converted to Judaism. As late as the 6th century the Eastern Roman empire (i.e., the Byzantine empire) was issuing decrees against conversion to Judaism, implying that conversion to Judaism was still occurring. In recent times, members of the Reform Judaism movement began a program to convert to Judaism the non-Jewish spouses of its intermarried members and non-Jews who have an interest in Judaism. Their rationale is that so many Jews were lost during the Holocaust that newcomers must be sought out and welcomed. This approach has been repudiated by Orthodox and Conservative Jews as unrealistic and posing a danger. They say that these efforts make Judaism seem an easy religion to join and observe when in reality being Jewish entails many difficulties and sacrifices.

Differences between Jewish and Christian views[edit]

The subject of the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) is the history of the Children of Israel (also called Hebrews), especially in terms of their relationship with God. Thus, Judaism has also been characterized as a culture or as a civilization. Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan defines Judaism as an evolving religious civilization. One crucial sign of this is that one need not believe, or even do, anything to be Jewish; the Rabbinic definition of "Jewishness" requires only that one be born of a Jewish mother, or that one convert to Judaism in accord with Jewish law. Today, Reformed and Reconstructionist Jews also include those born of Jewish fathers and Gentile mothers if they are raised as Jews.

To Jews, Jewish peoplehood is closely tied to their relationship with God, and thus has a strong theological component. This relationship is encapsulated in the notion that Jews are a chosen people. Although some have taken this as a sign of arrogance or exclusivity, there are Jewish scholars and theologians who have emphasized that a special relationship between Jews and God does not in any way preclude other nations having their own relationship with God. For Jews, being "chosen" fundamentally means that Jews have chosen to obey a certain set of laws (see Torah and halakha) as an expression of their covenant with God. Jews hold that other nations and peoples are not required or expected to obey these laws, and face no penalty for not obeying them. Thus, as a national religion, Judaism has no problem with the notion that others have their own paths to God (or "salvation"), though it still makes claim as to the truth or falsehood of other beliefs, and about whether Gentiles are allowed to hold them. Thus, for example, Maimonides believed that the truth claims of Islam were largely false, but he also believed that Gentiles were not sinning by following Islam; on the other hand, he regarded idolatry not just as false, but also as a serious sin, for Jew or non-Jew. In this respect, Rabbinical sources have usually classed Christianity with Islam, rather than with idolatry, though the use of icons in many denominations has raised questions about whether they are, in fact, idolatrous.

Christianity is characterized by its claim to universality, which marks a break with Jewish identity. As a religion claiming universality, Christianity has had to define itself in relation with religions that make radically different claims about Gods. Christians believe that Christianity represents the fulfillment of God's promise to Abraham and the nation of Israel, that Israel would be a blessing to all nations.

This crucial difference between the two religions has other implications. For example, conversion to Judaism is more like a form of adoption (i.e., becoming a member of the nation, in part by metaphorically becoming a child of Abraham), whereas conversion to Christianity is explicitly a declaration of faith. Conversion to Judaism also entails a declaration of faith. In Christian churches, conversion also has a social component, as the individual is in many ways adopted into the Church, with a strong family model.

Conversion to Christianity[edit]

Within Christianity, conversion refers to one's making a change to the Christian faith—either from another religion or from no particular faith. Catholics and a few Protestants believe in conversion by baptism.

Most Protestants believe in conversion by salvation. According to this latter understanding, the person professes faith in Jesus Christ as Savior. While an individual may make such a decision privately, usually it entails being baptized and becoming a member of a denomination or church for the first time. In these traditions, one is considered to become a Christian by publicly accepting the death and resurrection of Jesus as their personal Savior, and substantiating this choice by baptism—generally as an adult or at the age of accountability, which varies among the different denominations. Evangelical, Fundamentalist, and Pentecostal Christians often refer to conversion as being "born again" or "saved."

Most branches of Christianity, such as Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and many Protestant denominations, encourage infant baptism, welcoming children into the Christian faith before they are aware of their status. Baptized children are expected to participate in confirmation classes as pre-teens and affirm their faith by personal choice. Some branches hold that baptism is necessary for salvation while others view it as symbolic in some way.

Transferring from one Christian denomination to another may consist of a relatively simple transfer of membership, especially if moving from one Trinitarian denomination to another, and if the person has received water baptism in the name of the Trinity. If not, then the person may need to be baptized or rebaptized to become incorporated into the new Church. Some denominations, such as those in the Anabaptist tradition, require previously-baptized Christians to be re-baptized before being accepted into their respective religious community.

According to most branches of Christianity, sharing the message or Good News of Jesus Christ and his gospel is a responsibility of all followers of Jesus. According to the New Testament, Jesus commanded his disciples to "go and make disciples of all nations" (Template:bibleref). Evangelism, or "spreading the Good News," has been a central part of the life of Christians since that time.

Conversion to Islam[edit]

Template:Original research

See also: List of converts to Islam

One becomes a Muslim by believing that Allah is the only god (God, the word for whom is Allah in Arabic, is the sole deity in Islam), and that Muhammad is God's messenger or prophet. A person is considered a Muslim from the moment he or she sincerely makes this witness, called the shahada.

Of course a new Muslim has to familiarize himself/herself with the practices of Islam, but there is no formal requirement for that. It is a personal process; acceptance of all of that is taken to follow from the original statement, since all of Islam is considered to derive from either divine inspiration, in the form of the Qur'an, or for prophetic example, in the form of the hadith and sunnah of Muhammad. Muslims believe that a new Muslim is pardoned from all past sins.

According to some Muslims, one of the important doctrines of Islam is "la ikraha fiddeen" (Qur'an, 2:256), meaning "There is no compulsion (or coercion) in religion." They believe that this verse implies that no nation can coerce another nation or individuals to change their religion. Similarly, they believe that no spouse can coerce his or her spouse into religion. The doctrine is stated in such general terms it can also influence the policies of an Islamic nation towards two challenging parties and not having the other one being coerced into the other's religion.

In Islamic culture there is no such label or word found that means "convert," probably [unverified] since new converts to Islam soon found their way to mainstream or even leadership ranks among Muslims. In other words, there was no need for the label in dealing with newcomers. However, it exist an expression which is "Al Mu'allafun kulubuhum" that deals with that issue. "Al Muaallafun kulubuhum" means those whom hearts need company or affection. So they receive a part of the zekat ( due religious alms) and friendship from already and well established Muslims. The aim was to help these new converts to restart a new life as they were banned of their families and tribesin the early times of Islam.( One example to this is the family of the late Iqbal of Pakistan[unverified].

Conversion to Dharmic religions[edit]

See also Dharmic religion

Some Hindus assume Hindu identity to be inherited at birth, i.e., that one cannot "convert to Hinduism" but must be born one. Some other people believe that the mere belief in the values of Sanatana Dharma makes one a Hindu. Others ackowledge the possibilty of becoming a Hindu as Vedic Dharma can become one's spiritual language. Samskaras such as Shuddhi (purification), Yajnopavit (thread ceremony) and Namakarana Samskaras (Name-giving ceremony) are suitable for westerners. Generally speaking, Hindus are very tolerant and do not feel the need for proselytizing. However, some religious traditions within the umbrella of Hinduism do accept converts. See, for instance List of converts to Hinduism.

  • The (Vaisnava) International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON, better known as the Hare Krishnas) give new members the cord of a Brahmin, though the group is not entirely satisfied with the term "Hindu" (owing to the diversity of views which might be associated with it.
  • Below is a link to an American book by a Saivite guru, himself a Western convert, on how to "become a Hindu." Its author advocates the Namakarana Samskara naming ceremony—in which one adopts the name of a Hindu god—and a legal name-change, on the principle that most Hindus will accept as Hindu anyone with a Hindu name on some official document.[3]

Because of growing Christian missionary activities in India,[4] [5] some Hindu organizations are aggressively trying to counter them. Because of this, reconversion drive of ex-Hindus (mostly Christians) by Hindu organizations in India has become well organized and seen many successes in recent years.[6] In former Hindu places such as Indonesia there have been Hindu restoration movement in which certain tribes, be they Muslims or anything else still practicing many of the ancient Hindu traditions have converted.[7]

Sikhism is in much the same position as Hinduism with regard to the possibility of conversion. However, the 3H0 organization is a Sikh group which accepts converts.

It does not appear to be possible at present to convert to Jainism.

Buddhism allows conversion, but does not generally engage in proselytism. New Buddhists traditionally "take Refuge" (express faith in the Three Jewels—Buddha, Dharma, Sangha) before a monk, nun, or similar representative. Buddhists often hold multiple religious identities, combining the religion with Shinto (in Japan) or Taoism and Confucianism (in China; cf. Chinese traditional religion). Some Himalayan groups are ambiguous as to their status as Hindus or Buddhists.

According to Gampopa's Jewel Ornament of Liberation, taking refuge in the Buddha precludes one from worshiping gods and nature spirits. Other traditions take the position that a lay Buddhist can pay respects to, and give gifts to, gods or spirits, but should not regard them as a refuge. This position is generally practiced in the Theravada Buddhist tradition of Thailand.

Conversion to the Bahá'í Faith[edit]

The Bahá'í Faith prohibits "proselytism" and "missionaries" but encourages its members to "teach the faith" and serve as "Bahá'í pioneers." Such distinctions can be very subtle at times. Although recognizing the divine origins of various world religions, Baha'is believe that these occurred sequentially (see Progressive revelation), with each new revelation superseding its predecessors. Bahá'ís regard their own faith as the most recent, and therefore as the one most suitable for all others to convert to. In most countries conversion is a simple matter of filling out a Bahá'í declaration card, stating one's awareness and acceptance of various figures, institutions, and laws in this tradition. It sometimes happens that inquirers fill out the card without understanding that the Bahá'ís understand this as an act of religious conversion.

Conversion to Scientology[edit]

The Church of Scientology attempts to gain converts by offering "free stress tests" (see picture at auditing). In contrast to other religions, which require one to sign a card (e.g. Unitarian Universalism) or be baptised (e.g. Roman Catholic Church), Scientology requires converts to sign contracts before attending church.

Other religions and sects[edit]

Conversion to new religious movements (NRMs) (some of which have been referred to as cults) is riddled with controversies. The anti-cult movement sometimes uses the term thought reform or even brainwashing, though the latter term has now become discredited. Often they will call certain NRMs cults. There are many different definitions for the word cult. NRMs are very diverse and it is not clear whether conversion to NRMs differs from conversion to mainstream religions. See also Brainwashing controversy in new religious movements

Research both in the USA and the Netherlands has shown there is a positive correlation between lack of involvement in mainstream churches in certain areas and provinces and the percentage of people who are a member of a new religious movement. This applies also for the presence of New Age centers. [1],[2] The Dutch research included Jehovah's Witnesses and the Latter Day Saint movement/Mormonism to the NRMs.

Research in the USA has shown disproportionately large numbers people of Jewish descent join NRMs which worries the Jewish community. [3]

Professor Eileen Barker believes the psychological changes as described in converts of the Divine Light Mission can be generalized for other NRMs, however she has supplied no proof of such claims.

Religious conversion in international law[edit]

The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights defines religious conversion as a human right: "Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, ...." (Article 18). Though this is controversial because some groups either forbid or restrict religious conversion (see below).

Based on the declaration the United Nations Commission on Human Rights (UNCHR) drafted the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, a legally binding treaty. It states that "Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right shall include freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice, ..." (Article 18.1). "No one shall be subject to coercion which would impair his freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice." (Article 18.2).

The UNCHR issued a General Comment on this Article in 1993: "The Committee observes that the freedom to 'have or to adopt' a religion or belief necessarily entails the freedom to choose a religion or belief, including the right to replace one's current religion or belief with another or to adopt atheistic views [...] Article 18.2 bars coercion that would impair the right to have or adopt a religion or belief, including the use of threat of physical force or penal sanctions to compel believers or non-believers to adhere to their religious beliefs and congregations, to recant their religion or belief or to convert." (CCPR/C/21/Rev.1/Add.4, General Comment No. 22.; emphasis added)

Some countries distinguish voluntary, motivated conversion from organized proselytism, attempting to restrict the latter. The boundary between them is not easily defined. What one person considers legitimate evangelizing, or witness bearing, another may consider intrusive and improper. Illustrating the problems that can arise from such subjective viewpoints is this extract from an article by Dr. C. Davis, published in Cleveland State University's 'Journal of Law and Health': "According to the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, Jews for Jesus and Hebrew Christians constitute two of the most dangerous cults, and its members are appropriate candidates for deprogramming. Anti-cult evangelicals ... protest that 'aggressiveness and proselytizing . . . are basic to authentic Christianity,' and that Jews for Jesus and Campus Crusade for Christ are not to be labeled as cults. Furthermore, certain Hassidic groups who physically attacked a meeting of the Hebrew Christian 'cult' have themselves been labeled a 'cult' and equated with the followers of Reverend Moon, by none other than the President of the Central Conference of American Rabbis."[8]

Views on the propriety of proselytism, or even evangelism, differ radically. Some feel that freedom of speech should have no limits and that virtually anyone, anywhere should have the right to talk about anything they see fit. Others see all sorts of evangelism as a nuisance and an intrusion and would like to see them proscribed. Thus, Natan Lerner observes that the issue is one of a clash of rights—the right of a person to express his views versus the right of a person not to be exposed to views that he does not wish to hear.

From a legal standpoint, certain criteria are often mentioned in distinguishing legitimate evangelization from illicit proselytism:

  • All humans have the right to have religious beliefs, and to change these beliefs, even repeatedly, if they so wish. (Freedom of Religion)
  • They have the right to form religious organizations for the purpose of worship, as well as for promoting their cause (Freedom of Association)
  • They have the right to speak to others about their convictions, with the purpose of influencing the others. (Freedom of Speech).

By the same token, these very rights exercise a limiting influence on the freedoms of others. For instance, the right to have one's religious beliefs presumably includes the right not to be coerced into changing these beliefs by threats, discrimination, or similar inducements.

Hence a category of improper proselytizing can be discerned.

  • It would not be proper to use coercion, threats, the weight of authority of the educational system, access to health care or similar facilities in order to induce people to change their religion.
  • It would be improper to try to impose one's beliefs on a 'captive audience', where the listeners have no choice but to be present. This would presumably require restraint in the exercise of their right to free speech, by teachers in the classroom, army officers to their inferiors, prison officers in prison, medical staff in hospitals, so as to avoid impinging on the rights of others.
  • It would not be proper to offer money, work, housing or other material inducements as a means of persuading people to adopt another religion.

Since the collapse of the former Soviet Union and the rise of democracy in the Eastern Bloc, the Russian Orthodox Church has enjoyed a revival. However, it takes exception to what it considers illegitimate proselytizing by the Roman Catholic Church, the Salvation Army, Jehovah's Witnesses and other religious movements[9] in what it refers to as its canonical territory.

Greece has a long history of conflict, mostly with Jehovah's Witnesses but also with some Pentecostals over its laws on proselytism. This situation stems from a law passed in the 1930s by the dictator Ioannis Metaxas. A Jehovah's Witness, Minos Kokkinakis, won the equivalent of US $14,400 in damages from the Greek state after being arrested for trying to preach his faith from door to door. In another case, Larissis vs. Greece, a member of the Pentecostal church also won a case in the European Court of Human Rights.

Some Islamic countries with Islamic law outlaw and carry strict sentences for proselytizing. Several Islamic countries under Islamic law, Saudi Arabia,[10] [11] Yemen,[12] Afghanistan and Pakistan,[13] Egypt,[14] Iran,[15] [16] and Maldives[17] outlaw apostacy and carry imprisonment or the death penalty for those leaving Islam and those enticing Muslims to leave Islam.


See also[edit]


  1. Schepens, T. (Dutch) Religieuze bewegingen in Nederland volume 29, Sekten Ontkerkelijking en religieuze vitaliteit: nieuwe religieuze bewegingen en New Age-centra in Nederland (1994) VU uitgeverij ISBN 90–5383–341–2
  2. Stark, R & W.S. Bainbridge The future of religion: secularization, revival and cult formation (1985) Berkeley/Los Angeles/London: University of California press
  3. Barrett, D. V. The New Believers—A survey of sects, cults and alternative religions (2001) UK, Cassell & Co [1]
  4. Cooper, Richard S. "The Assessment and Collection of Kharaj Tax in Medieval Egypt" (Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 96, No. 3. (Jul. – Sep., 1976), pp. 365–382.


External links[edit]

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