Limiting Free Speech (22): Aggressive Proselytizing

Some governments, local or national, want to ban aggressive proselytizing by some religious groups. In a multicultural environment, and especially in an area where there have already been tensions or clashes between religious groups, governments may believe that public order requires such a ban. Aggressive proselytizing by one group can provoke angry reactions by other groups. This can lead to public disturbances or even violent clashes.

As a rule, proselytizing is a form of speech that should be protected by freedom of speech, even when it is “aggressive” in the sense of persistent, widespread, continuous, and highly visible. However, “aggressive” can be more than this. As always in discussions on limits on freedom of speech, this freedom has to be balanced against other rights. When freedom of speech is used in such a way that it leads to violations of other rights, one has to decide which does the least harm: continuing to respect freedom of speech, or limit it for the sake of respect for other rights?

For example, when proselytizing becomes intrusive, the right to privacy may be harmed (in the case of religious telephone marketing for example). Or when it becomes too aggressive in an already tense multicultural setting, it may lead to violence and violations of the rights to security and bodily integrity. The system of human rights isn’t an harmonious whole, and different rights can harm each other. Freedom of speech is very important, but there’s no reason to believe that it is the only important or the most important human right.

Proselytizing is of course also part of freedom of religion. Article 18 of the Universal Declaration grants the right to freedom of religion, but this article doesn’t include a right to try to induce someone to convert to one’s faith. It merely states that anyone has the right to freely choose, practice, change, teach, manifest and worship his or her religion. “Teach” may be interpreted to include proselytizing, but that is not evident. Article 19, however, the article about freedom of speech, does specifically grant the right to impart information and ideas. Religious information and ideas are obviously included.

Article 18 clearly states that proselytizing shouldn’t mean forcing people to adhere to a certain religion. Religion should be a free choice. The rule against forced conversion is mirrored by the exit-right: freedom of religion means that people shouldn’t be forcefully converted, and also means that people who are already members of a religion have the right to decide to leave. Article 20 of the Universal Declaration as well prohibits coerced membership of an association.

This prohibition of coercion is important when talking about proselytizing. Many religious groups use “soft coercion” in their attempts to increase their flock:

  • they use their power in the media, in politics or in the economy
  • they promise rewards to people if they convert (such as education or healthcare)
  • they use family members who have already converted to try to convince people to convert as well,  etc.

Hard coercion, such as indoctrination, “deprogramming” (a kind of indoctrination), fear tactics, bribes etc. are less common, because most religions understand that religious belief must come from the heart and must be a voluntary choice (albeit a voluntary choice that can be encouraged).

It is precisely when coercive tactics (hard or soft) are used that the “target religions” will consider the proselytizing to be aggressive. And then they may decide that counter-aggression in some form is the only possible response. The results of this are obvious.

Proselytizing should be a contest of ideas, and the only tactic should be voluntary persuasion. This can mean argumentation, “witnessing”, giving the good example, and even doing good works and engaging in charity if there are no conditions attached. A soup kitchen that is only accessible after conversion is again a type of coercion that shouldn’t be allowed. Most religions adhere to these principle, at least in their major texts. Many followers, however, are less patient in their attempts to save unbelievers from eternal doom. And their impatience often forces them to use tactics that go beyond persuasion.

For many religions, it’s a duty to proselytize: “Go to all the nations and make disciples” says the Bible. And this is understandable: if you’re convinced that you possess the truth, it would be immoral to leave your fellow humans in the darkness of error. The same goes for non-religious “truth”. What makes religious truth special is that this truth means eternal salvation. So the absence of truth not only means error but also eternal damnation. Hence, persuasion is a very important and urgent matter (although some religions, like Orthodox Judaism, don’t proselytize at all, in part as a result of a historical fear that other religions would react in an aggressive way). This importance and urgency, however, do not excuse the violation of people’s freedom to choose.


2 thoughts on “Limiting Free Speech (22): Aggressive Proselytizing

  1. “they use family members who have already converted to try to convince people to convert as well, etc.”

    I don’t understand why this is listed in a negative light as “soft coercion.” If one believes that he has found the truth, the first people he’ll want to show that truth to are those he loves most: his family. Could it be considered negative, perhaps, because it often “works” quite well?

    1. I take your point. That was a bit over the top. I was thinking about certain types of sect behavior which isn’t applicable to religion in general.

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