The Conversion Agenda

"Freedom to convert" is counterproductive as a generalized doctrine. It fails to come to terms with the complex interrelationships between self and society that make the concept of individual choice meaningful. Hence, religious conversion undermines, and in extremes would dissolve, that individual autonomy and human freedom.

Friday, January 02, 2004

The Problem With Monotheism

Why the world's two largest faiths, Christianity and Islam, have a tendency to 'turn evil.'

Interview by Deborah Caldwell

How does a religion become evil?

Well-intentioned people can do things and justify behavior that contradicts what’s at the very heart of their religious tradition, and it can descend into cruel and violent behavior.

One example is a belief in absolute truth. People who believe they have God in their pocket and know what God wants for them have proven time and again that they’re capable of doing anything because it’s not their will but God’s will being carried out. You see this most obviously in a suicide bomber—someone who is convinced he or she knows what God wants, and can end up doing the most horrific things to innocent people.

Another example is blind obedience to a leader. When people become so convinced of a particular person or charismatic leader that they blindly will follow that person, it can lead to Jim Jones and Jonestown. It can lead to the Buddhist group Aum Shinrikyo in Tokyo in 1995 that released sarin gas in the Tokyo subway system. There’s a pattern in sects, and also in local churches, where power is concentrated in too few hands with not enough checks and balances. And you can have a charismatic leader who gets out of control.

One of the scariest examples is the belief that the end justifies any means. Every religion is predicated on the notion that something in the world is terribly wrong. If we weren’t ignorant we wouldn’t need the Buddha to enlighten us, and if we weren’t sinful we wouldn’t need Jesus to save us, and if we weren’t forgetful we wouldn’t need Muhammad to guide us. The presupposition that something is wrong is premised on rectifying that wrong, overcoming obstacles, and moving toward a more hopeful future or meaningful end, whether that’s heaven or nirvana or whatever. And often that has a component of making life more just and peaceful. That’s normal.

The problem is when people become convinced they know the route to the peaceable kingdom and they are God’s agents to make it happen. And here is where you get groups of extremist Jews whose messianic mission leads them to tunnel under the Dome of the Rock and try to blow it up in order to facilitate the building of the Third Temple. Or Christian fundamentalist groups who long for Armageddon to the point that they will support violent extremists trying to destroy the Dome of the Rock. Now, pious Orthodox Jews pray for the coming of the Messiah and the Third Temple, which they believe God will bring down from heaven. But that’s a very different thing from saying, "I’m going to give God a helping hand and blow up some buildings in the process."

And this behavior is dangerous in a place like Israel and Palestine. You have millions of Christians fixated on Armageddon theology. They spend a great deal of time watching TV preachers, picking apart Bible verses, looking at headlines in the news, patching together pieces of information to create a sort of image that “Jesus is coming on Tuesday.” But when I read the New Testament it’s pretty clear Jesus says nothing like, “On Judgment Day how much of your puzzle did you piece together?” He says, “When I was hungry, did you give me something to eat, and when I was thirsty did you give me something to drink?” The mandate of following Christ involves reaching out to people in need, and peacemaking. Whether Jesus comes next Tuesday or in a thousand years is really God’s business.

Even worse, there are many well-intentioned Christians who actively oppose any kind of reconciliation among Israelis and Palestinians because it’s theologically counterintuitive to them. They say, “Why would you work for peace when we know Armageddon is about to occur?” In their theology Israel is part of God’s plan. This is one of the most dangerous things because you put that over against 50 million copies of the Left Behind series, which makes good reading, but a lot of people gobble this up as though it’s God’s truth.

So you’re saying that even though these kinds of Christians aren’t literally acting out violence, they are as scary as, say, Islamic jihadists?

Well, not more scary, but potentially a very destructive force. I saw a female evangelist interviewed a few weeks ago on this very topic, and she was claiming, “I love the Jewish people. These are God’s people.” And someone said, “Yes, but in your theology all but a remnant of them are going to be wiped out. If things unfold the way you believe, most of the Jews are going to be killed.” She smiled into the camera and said, “Well this isn’t me talking--this is God talking.” Now, from where I sit this is not the kind of friends the Jewish people need. She’s perfectly willing to watch the slaughter of Jews because it’s part of “God’s plan.” That’s only a half-step removed from people who are putting dynamite under the Dome of the Rock.

You sometimes hear that the histories of Islam and Christianity aren’t in sync, because Christianity came first and went through its worst violence earlier. And maybe, the theory goes, Islam is going through the same kind of violent spasm that Christianity went through during, say, the Crusades.

Well, there are Christians shooting doctors at abortion clinics.

But it’s not the same kind of numbers as militant Islamists.

I don’t want to be in the business of saying you’re worse than me, or this isn’t as bad as that. I call September 11 Exhibit A of religion becoming evil. This is a classic example of people preparing to meet God and feeling justified and righteous in doing a horrific thing, not only for the people in those buildings or on those planes, but the enormous consequences for people all over the world. Who knows how many tens of thousands of people died because of economic dislocations that happened in the aftermath?

So I don’t want to in any way say a TV preacher is just as bad as someone flying an airplane into a building. But we can see some of the ways well-intentioned people lose sight of the central focus of their religion and justify evil behavior.

For example, Charles Stanley at InTouch Ministries is preaching that governments are in power because God has them in power. Then he quotes the Hebrew Bible and says that if you don’t go to war when God wants you to go to war, God will punish you. I’m no fan of Saddam Hussein—in the 1980s when I was working the Middle East I gave Congressional testimony railing against the U.S. Government because we were supporting Saddam Hussein. He is one of the worst thugs on the planet. Yet I’ve also seen the tremendous suffering of the Iraqi people. When I hear Christians in this country essentially glorify massive bombing attacks and say this is what God wants us to do, I think we’re moving on a continuum that is hard to square with the Gospel message.

But why is it now Muslims in a literal sense acting out with violence?

I don’t want to equate suicide bombing with Charles Stanley’s sermons, though I have a lot of trouble with Charles Stanley’s sermons. But let’s take a step back to a few years ago. We had 20,000 documented cases of rape and murder of Bosnian Muslim women and children at the hands of Serbian Christians.

Were they acting as Christians?

They certainly were united and attacking people because they were Muslims. And there were atrocities that went the other way, too--it was so bad that the U.S. Government and many Christians were telling the Serbians “stop this.”

But were the Serbians saying, “I want to glorify Jesus and therefore I’m going to rape Muslim woman?”

There were pretty strong statements by Serbian Orthodox and Catholic leaders supporting whatever was being done in the name of Serbian nationalism. The church was endorsing it. They weren’t endorsing rape and murder, but they were also denying it was happening. It was a blind nationalism that was linked with religion. It’s not quite so easy to say Christian violence just happened during the Crusades.

Look at the Phalangists in Lebanon. Who were the people who perpetrated the slaughter of Sabra and Shatila? Those were Christians in Lebanon.

I don’t want to be saying all this is equal, but I also want to say that there is a clear pattern in all religious communities. People tend to compare the ideal of their own religion with the flawed reality of everyone else’s. So Christians tend to say, “That was in the past” or “We don’t really believe that.” Here’s the classic example in recent memory—Jerry Falwell on 60 Minutes last fall said that Jesus taught a gospel of love, but that Muhammad was a terrorist.

I believe Jesus taught a gospel of love. But if you happen to have been Jewish for the last 2,000 years and on the receiving end of that “love,” it certainly hasn’t felt very good. That’s not ancient history. The Holocaust happened in the last century. It wasn’t done in the name of Christianity, but it was done against Jews by a predominantly Christian country. And it was the culmination of a long history of assault on Jews by Christians.

You say all religious groups and sects have the potential to turn evil, but that Christian and Muslims have a much longer track record. Why?

It may be linked to monotheism. I think that’s worth really thinking about, because there is a sense in which monotheism and the missionary impulse—common to both faiths--are linked to absolutist claims. I readily admit this is a difficult area to talk about because I’m an ordained Baptist minister and a practicing Christian, and I believe there is one God. But I also believe that even if I possess some “absolute truth” in the sense of a connection with God, and we have to be humble in appropriating what we understand to be absolute truth. I think the problem comes when you lose that humility and think you know the mind of God and that you’re carrying this forward oblivious to history.

If monotheism is the issue, why hasn’t Judaism become as evil, as often, as Christianity and Islam?

The missionary impulse of Christianity and Islam is part of it--Jews haven’t been historically evangelical. And power. When you combine religious conviction with a kind of certainty with political or military power, then you have a much more powerful combination. And Jews haven’t been in positions of power until fairly recently. And the excesses that you primarily see have been excesses from Jewish settlers and extremists in the context of Israel—people who have power.

How does “evil religion” relate now to Iraq?

I’ll start with my hope, which is that within Islam and Christianity you have teachings about loving God and your neighbor, and living cooperatively with your neighbor. There’s a long history of Christians and Muslims living together in Iraq through good times and bad. And they have an opportunity to find new ways of living together with a government that isn’t Islamic or Christian.

But when you inject absolutist claims into the mix—people who believe they have all the answers—and we now have an opening for evangelicals to come in and evangelize where before they couldn’t do that. Then you have an incendiary dimension.

So you’re concerned about evangelical Christian groups doing relief work there?

I’m very concerned about that. This is an extremely dangerous situation. We have groups clearly identified as hostile to Islam coming into a situation where there is already suspicion about the real motives in this war, people who already believe it’s between Christianity and Islam.

What incendiary actions might Muslims take?

There are a lot of things. When you have the head of Alazhar University in Cairo calling for a holy war, that’s pretty incendiary. There are dangers in all the traditions, but there are many Muslim voices being anything but helpful right now.

Is there some concern they could persecute Christians in Iraq?

No question, and we’ve seen this in the past. In the former Yugoslavia you had Christians and Muslims living together for a long period of time, and then something went terribly wrong and people were raping and murdering one another.

So you would liken the situation in Iraq as potentially like Bosnia?

It has the potential. Although since the numbers aren’t close to equal--the Christian population is very small--Christians could be in a very precarious position. We’ve seen this in Lebanon, where Christians and Muslims, who were roughly divided, started lining up against each other and taking hostages and developing militias along religious lines.

There are extremists in the Muslim world, no question. There are many millions of Muslims who aren’t looking to blow up anything, but they’re angry and frustrated and living in situations of oppression, human rights violations, and economic exploitation. A good deal of their anger is focused internally but also at the United States. My concern is if you start lighting matches in a room full of dynamite, you run the risk of driving hundreds of thousands of people into the arms of Osama bin Laden.

Many of the events in the world right now--September 11, terrorism, the war with Iraq, even the Catholic clergy sex scandal--have religion as a major component. Is there any way that religion can play a good role?

Actually, religion is our best hope, and what we have to do is look to the heart of religious traditions to find the guidelines we need to cut through all this. In every major religious tradition you find a teaching that parallels Jesus’ teaching to love God with all your heart and love your neighbor as yourself. That has direct implications for the way you relate to the rest of God’s creation. You can’t say “I love God” and fly an airplane into a building.


At 5/04/2005 12:15:00 AM, Blogger Maha Vishnu said...

This is not generalization as you try to imply. In fact you are trying to generalize this by equating Hindus as believing in monotheism as the Christians or Muslims.

Monotheism from a Hindu perspective does not in anyway reflect the Christian belief that there is only one God. A more appropriate word from the Hindu perspective that best explain its conception is Monism. It is a philosophy that holds that everything is an extension of one reality. Therefore Hindus does not seek to destroy the other faiths as they do not see the others as non-believers just because they don’t accept of the exclusive one God as prescribed by the Christians or Muslims.

Thus, there is a direct contrast and it does not make out to any generalization, but a factual response.

"It is wrong to draw ideological parallels between Christianity and Hinduism. It is pointless to contrast dogmas as original sin, eternal damnation, and the absolutism of the Kingdom of God with that of the experiential reality of the Hindu Darshanaas which proclaim: "Each soul is potentially Divine", and teach the authentic way and means to discover, realize and manifest in day to day life the inherent divinity equally present in all. Hinduism and Christianity represent incompatible modes of thought and irreconcilable value systems.

Hinduism is dedicated to individual freedoms and rights. The philosophy of Hinduism and Christianity does not mix. Equating Hinduism (or, indeed, any religion of the book) would be doubly regrettable."

-- Coercive Religious Conversion: A Crime against Humanity
by Dr. Babu Suseelan

At 5/08/2005 08:48:00 PM, Blogger Maha Vishnu said...

Which sect of Hinduism are you comparing to which sect of Xtianity?

I think you have no idea about what Hinduism is. The ideological differences explained above have nothing to do with sects. There are many margs in Hinduism, but all of them share the same worldview whereas the Christian worldview is common to all Christian denominations. So to ignore these fundamental differences and to make assumption that they have similar views is a sign of ignorance.

Some Hindu's do believe in destroying other faiths, I have personally witnessed one ISKCon man try to convert Xtians and even tell other Hindus that they should to go to his temple, not that other "cult".

So you agree to the fact that trying to convert one is actually seeking to destroy other? What do you think all these Christian missionaries doing in India? Isn’t they are indulging in this same intolerant agenda seeking to destroy Hindus? Don’t you think Hindus have reasonable grounds to oppose such hate inspired activities?

Yes this is true to all organized conversion activities. If ISKCon engages is such activities then they definitely does not represent the Hindu thought system. The Hindu thought system does not seek to convert another to any particular belief system. You must be a seeker on your own to learn Hinduism. The seeking must come from you and not someone hunting heads for conversion. If ISKCon is engaging in such activities then it is all because the prevailing Christian thought system in the Western world. There is ISKCon in many Asian countries but they do not do that. If you really think they need to change their ways, then the real responsibility is on the Christians, to change their intolerant ways of seeking conversions, not only in America but all over the world. ISKCon is comparatively miniscule if compared to the huge multi-billion dollar Christian organization investing huge sum to convert the world into their breed of belief system. You can’t associate ISKCon with is just a miniscule sect of Hinduism to equate with the entire Christian missionary empire.

Hinduism is dedicated to individual freedom and rights - agreed, now which religion claims it isn't? Has any religion ever stated that they are anti-individual freedom and for imprisionment?

Again your question only shows that you have no idea about what is meant above from the Hindu perspective. If you want to understand the Hindu perspective, you must see it from the Hindu point of view and not from the Christian view.

Anyway since you asked, here is the fundamental difference. . .

Why do you think Hindus does not seek conversion? Do you think it is by mistake? Or do you think it is because of some sort of blind faith? Or because Hindus are weak?

Why Hindus do not seek conversion is because of the profound Hindu thought system. You must first understand that, Hinduism is not a “religion” as it is defined or understood in the West using this Western term or category. Thus, it is not a “religion” in a similar sense Christianity or Islam is considered. That’s why, while the Christians or Muslims, have a single founder, a single holy book, has uniform belief system, and it was founded on a particular point of time. None of all these defines the Hindu “religion”. In fact a better term to understand Hinduism will be to call it a spiritual tradition or a better word will be sanathana dharma as know to Hindus conventionally. This definition has a profound meaning and thoughts associated with it.

Thus in this spiritual tradition there are many margs (spiritual paths), and a Hindu is someone who practices any of these margs based on his or her choice. No margs founded based on Hindu tradition, seeks conversion or defines a set of dogmas for one to follow. Such things are unknown to Hindu tradition. Later when Hindus encountered the Semitic faiths, like Christianity or Islam, only then these conceptions of “conversion” was enforced into the Hindu psyche. Yet even though these two religions were alien to Hindu worldview, the Hindu tradition still does not restrict one to learn from the non traditional Hindu faiths. Thus as a Hindu, one is free to learn from any source if it were to benefit one spiritually. It is a democratic spiritual tradition whereby the choice is left to the individual. In this system one is left free to choose based on their spiritual needs.

So where does this need for “conversion” come into existence? It arises when one is opposed to this very concept of freedom as been expounded by the Hindu spiritual tradition. A religion or person who seeks to convert another actually seeks to limit the freedom of an individual by restricting them to only follow their version of belief system – thus the need for conversion. Thus by converting, a person is urged to only accept their prophet as the only messenger and their version of god as the only God and it is insisted that only their scripture is the ultimate truth and encourages one to denounce the others. Thus the doctrine of believers and non-believers come into existence. The Christians and Muslims today seek to convert the non-believers to their respective belief system, each claims “exclusive” authority towards God and spiritual goals. This explains why many Christian organizations invest Billions of dollars on Christian missionaries and conversion activities and this has become fundamental to their global agenda.

A converted person ultimately looses his or her freedom, by complying with a certain type of belief system. The only way they can regain their open means of seeking spiritual practices can only be acquired by “un-converting” one from this “exclusive” faith.

I need not have to explain more on this as the above article gives a good account on this.

So now do you understand what is meant by. . .

Hinduism is dedicated to individual freedom and rights

The “freedom” is not based on what you say or claim, it is based on what you believe and practice. You can’t advocate conversion activities and at the same time advocate about freedom as both are completely incompatible.

So if a religion believes that they need to convert the non-believers, do you think such religion preaches “freedom”? In fact they are seeking to put an end to what is fundamental for the existence of freedom. Thus they are indeed anti-individual freedom and for imprisonment of one spiritual freedom.

Being for freedom, why do Buddhist and Hindus fight each other? These two are both similar and not 'of the book', but even so, have difficulty getting along.

Nonsense! There is no any sort of fight against Hindus and Buddhists. There is no ideological or doctrinal reason for a Hindu or Buddhist fight as opposed to what the Christian or Muslims believes or practice.


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