To proselytize is to be human. The prevention of proselytization is barbarism.
These are two very simple statements, but they lie at the heart of religious freedom. And, particularly in today’s day and age—with the advent of such things as blasphemy laws—they are a very real concern for those who care about international religious freedom.
I argued last October that the freedom of religion includes the freedom to proselytize:
[It] is simply wrong to suggest that there is an asymmetrical relationship between the right to have religious belief and the right to persuade others of the validity of that belief. If [this] was correct, individuals would not be free, but would be confined to keeping their most fundamental beliefs private. To say otherwise is to ask people to act without integrity (i.e. to believe one thing in private and another thing in public). Such a conception necessarily bifurcates religion.
My October blog was intended to promote the positive value of proselytization against the claims of McGill professor Arvind Sharma. Sharma, however, continues to be concerned about the role of Canada’s forthcoming Office of Religious Freedom. And his desire to move what is an empirically undeniable truth—that some religions are not “missionary” religions—into the realm of political rights requires more attention.
Sharma’s basic concern is that “non-proselytizing” religions like Buddhism—which do not try to “convert” people to their structures of belief and practice—are at a distinct disadvantage against “proselytizing” religions like Christianity and Islam. He states:
In the event of an interface between proselytizing and non-proselytizing religions, the non-proselytizing religions often begin to feel as if they are labouring under a disadvantage, as the proselytizing religions are able to target them for conversion, and the non-proselytizing religions are unable to respond in kind . . . Religious freedom . . . in a context which involves interaction among the proselytizing religions should be distinguished from its operation in a context which involves interaction among non-proselytizing religions, and further if special safeguards may be required to protect the freedom of religion of non-proselytizing religions from becoming victims of proselytization. (emphasis added)
In other words, Sharma argues that non-proselytizing religions might need special political protection from missionary religions. To which we need to ask: doesn’t that violate the principle of state neutrality when it comes to religion, and therefore prevent other religions from free exercise? The answer, of course, is yes. In other words, one’s concept of religious freedom will differ depending on which religion you ground your concept of freedom in, and how you view the role of the state and the individual’s relation to it. A choice needs to be made—one cannot hold these two concepts of religious freedom at once.
Which leads me back to my first sentence: to proselytize is to be human. Proselytization is nothing more than the process—organized or not—of attempting to persuade others of the plausibility and/or validity of the structure of one’s belief. Enlisting political resources to protect groups or individuals from the process of persuasion is coercion. Preventing people from attempting to persuade others through peaceful means is barbaric because it provides an unfair advantage to what should be an equal exchange.
It might be true, as Sharma states, that some religions enjoy “financial and organizational advantages” but, if these are gained through free human choice, it stands to reason that these advantages can be attained by all. What Sharma should be advocating for is not greater limits on proselytization, but for the non-proselytising religions to begin speaking with one another.