Tuesday, 14 April 2015

Should Conversions Be Illegal?

All of us in India know that ‘conversions’ are a very controversial and sensitive issue. Maybe because religion is a very integral part of how most Indians identify themselves, a change of religion can cause a lot of emotional reactions. The religion you are born into is almost seen as your identity, quite apart from your personal beliefs.

Our culture seems inextricable from our religion. If an Indian talks about a particular religion, they are referring to their manner of dressing, the food they eat (upper caste Hindus are vegetarian, though some eat chicken, and of course beef is taboo, Jains are strictly vegetarian, Muslims are beef-eaters, but won’t touch pork , Christians are the weirdos who eat everything), the languages they speak, sometimes even their family professions, their cultural celebrations, and also their manner and place of worship.

 Which makes for very picturesque school shows about unity in diversity

India being a secular country, we have been told time and time again that all religions are equal, no one culture is better than another, and that tolerance is the highest virtue. So conversion seems to contradict that- if all religions are equally valid, then changing religions is seen as a statement that one is better than another. Also, if religion = culture, then conversion is seen as a rejection of the culture of your family.

Add to that some shady historical conversions (not all conversions were shady), from entire villages being converted to Christianity by the Portuguese rulers in Goa, to Muslim invaders bringing Islam with the sword, to many from ‘untouchable’ castes converting to Buddhism and Christianity in order to escape an oppressive and unjust system within Hinduism, to some ‘incentives’ allegedly given to poorer people leading to the coining of terms such as ‘rice Christians’, and you have quite the explosive and inflammatory issue. Take a look at any of the comments on online articles on religious differences and difficulties in India, and you can get quite a shock at how much anger and heat people feel.

Dr. Ambedkar and thousands of Dalits converted to Buddhism in 1956

 No doubt a lot of that anger and heat is fuelled by certain political parties with an agenda. It’s a basic psychological ploy. You can’t have an ‘in group’ without an ‘out group’. So certain right wing groups demonize other religions, and converts to other religions are considered traitors of the worst kind.

Given all this back history, people argue, why not just ban conversions? Everybody stay in the religion you’re born into, and avoid causing trouble with all this nonsense. If we want peace in our country, we have to take measures to ensure that no one gets upset. No one religion is better than any other, so it’s a logical and even necessary step the government must take.

Sounds reasonable?

Well, except for one thing. Such a law would be unconstitutional because it completely takes away the individual’s right to adopt, practise and propagate the religion of their choice.

United Nations' universal declaration of human rights

It seems like people either don’t know or ignore that at its heart religion is about personal beliefs. YOU cannot choose what someone is allowed to believe! Not even family loyalty, love for the nation or love for my neighbour can make me believe something against my will.

Yes, my personal beliefs should not be allowed to hurt any other human being. But conversion means I choose what I believe, not that I attack anyone else! The word 'conversion' means 'the process of changing'. Are we not allowed to change? To grow? To transform? To work out our thoughts and feelings about morality and God and life? To make changes based on deep spiritual experiences that we have?

But what about all the other people who will be upset? Shouldn’t that be a reason not to convert?

That sounds a bit like a controlling husband telling his wife she cannot leave the house or talk to anyone except him. If she does go out, he’s going to lose his temper, and perhaps even beat her. So isn’t it better for the peace of the family that she just obeys him?

No! It is not! His display of temper shows that it is HIS problem, not hers! His behaviour is what needs to change, not hers!

I don't think some anti-conversion or anti-religion activists realize that their opinions are as dogmatic as the ones they profess to oppose.

They say “Conversions should be banned because all religions are equal. They all basically teach the same thing. All gods are one. That is the only valid belief.”

I say, “That is YOUR belief, not mine. I do not impose my belief on you, you may not impose yours on me. Although I believe every human being has an equal right to follow any religion, I do NOT believe all religions are pretty much the same, or equally true.”

Others say, “Conversions should be banned because religion is a great evil that has caused wars, enslaved people’s minds and made them into mindless superstitious fools. In fact it would be better if we banned religion.” (Cue John Lennon's Imagine.)

 Once again I say, “That too is YOUR personal opinion. You may certainly try to show me that this is true, but I reserve the right to completely disagree with you, and in fact assert that wars are caused by human beings, not religions, (as communist regimes show) and that most religion if true to itself has helped man to be truly more human.”

When people oppose conversions, they are opposing the basic right of every human being to make decisions for themselves. (Sometimes in a very elitist, arrogant way- assuming a poor person who converts must have been brainwashed, instead of admitting they too are capable of making their own choices.) When people oppose missionaries (of any religion), they are opposing the spread of ideas. Should anyone be stopped from sharing their ideas with others? Were all social reformers wrong?

Jyotiba Phule and Savitribai Phule, social reformers in India who fought against the caste system

If you believe that there is truth in your religion, and that such truth will benefit others, you too are free to teach and propagate that truth to anyone willing to listen.

Of course, I’m a Christian, and part of our faith is to ‘Go into all the world and teach them everything Jesus commanded us.’ So maybe I am biased?

To test whether I really believe this, I ask myself, "Am I equally willing for my Christian friends and family to convert to another religion (or even a denomination of Christianity)?" And the answer is "I would be very disappointed and sad if they did, because I would feel that they are moving away from the truth, and I would do my best to talk to them, to help them work through their reasons and doubts. But if they WERE convinced, I accept that that is their right. I would not cut them off from my family, I would not issue death threats, I would not try to make a law to prevent them from making that choice. I would pray for them, I would love them (hopefully) and I would trust that if they are sincerely seeking truth, God will lead them back to Himself."

Basically, you cannot be anti-conversion if you are pro-human freedom. India is a secular country, and we need to fight to protect every citizen's right to make their own choices, (as long as they don't hurt anyone else) even if we don't fully agree with them.

1 comment:

  1. Great article . Unfortunately, I do not see such good argument's put forward during TV debates on this subject. It seems most people these days have lost the power to think independently and rationally. God Bless