Religious conversion is the adoption of a set of beliefs identified with one particular religious denomination to the exclusion of others. Thus “religious conversion” would describe the abandoning of adherence to one denomination and affiliating with another. This might be from one to another denomination within the same religion, for example, from Baptist to Catholic Christianity or from Sunni Islam to Shi’a Islam. In some cases, religious conversion “marks a transformation of religious identity and is symbolized by special rituals”.
People convert to a different religion for various reasons, including active conversion by free choice due to a change in beliefs, secondary conversion, deathbed conversion, conversion for convenience, marital conversion, and forced conversion.
Proselytism is the act of attempting to convert by persuasion another individual from a different religion or belief system. Apostate is a term used by members of a religion or denomination to refer to someone who has left that religion or denomination.
In sharing their faith with others, Bahá’ís are cautioned to “obtain a hearing” – meaning to make sure the person they are proposing to teach is open to hearing what they have to say. “Bahá’í pioneers“, rather than attempting to supplant the cultural underpinnings of the people in their adopted communities, are encouraged to integrate into the society and apply Bahá’í principles in living and working with their neighbors.
Bahá’ís recognize the divine origins of all revealed religion, and believe that these religions occurred sequentially as part of a divine plan (see Progressive revelation), with each new revelation superseding and fulfilling that of its predecessors. Bahá’ís regard their own faith as the most recent (but not the last), and believe its teachings – which are centered around the principle of the oneness of humanity – are most suited to meeting the needs of a global community.
In most countries conversion is a simple matter of filling out a card stating a declaration of belief. This includes acknowledgement of Bahá’u’llah – the Founder of the Faith – as the Messenger of God for this age, awareness and acceptance of his teachings, and intention to be obedient to the institutions and laws he established.
Conversion to the Bahá’í Faith carries with it an explicit belief in the common foundation of all revealed religion, a commitment to the unity of mankind, and active service to the community at large, especially in areas that will foster unity and concord. Since the Bahá’í Faith has no clergy, converts are encouraged to be active in all aspects of community life. Even a recent convert may be elected to serve on a local Spiritual Assembly – the guiding Bahá’í institution at the community level.
Within Christianity conversion refers variously to three different phenomena: a person becoming Christian who was previously not Christian; a Christian moving from one Christian denomination to another; a particular spiritual development, sometimes called the “second conversion”, or “the conversion of the baptised”.
Conversion to Christianity is the religious conversion of a previously non-Christian person to some form of Christianity. Some Christian sects require full conversion for new members regardless of any history in other Christian sects, or from certain other sects. The exact requirements vary between different churches and denominations. Baptism is traditionally seen as a sacrament of admission to Christianity. Christian baptism has some parallels with Jewish immersion by mikvah.
In the New Testament, Jesus commanded his disciples in the Great Commission to “go and make disciples of all nations”. Evangelization—sharing the Gospel message or “Good News” in deed and word, is an expectation of Christians.
Latter Day Saint movement
Much of the theology of Latter Day Saint baptism was established during the early Latter Day Saint movement founded by Joseph Smith. According to this theology, baptism must be by immersion, for the remission of sins (meaning that through baptism, past sins are forgiven), and occurs after one has shown faith and repentance. Mormon baptism does not purport to remit any sins other than personal ones, as adherents do not believe in original sin. Latter Day Saints baptisms also occur only after an “age of accountability” which is defined as the age of eight years. The theology thus rejects infant baptism.
In addition, Latter Day Saint theology requires that baptism may only be performed with one who has been called and ordained by God with priesthood authority. Because the churches of the Latter Day Saint movement operate under a lay priesthood, children raised in a Mormon family are usually baptized by a father or close male friend or family member who has achieved the office of priest, which is conferred upon worthy male members at least 16 years old in the LDS Church.
Baptism is seen as symbolic both of Jesus‘ death, burial and resurrection and is also symbolic of the baptized individual putting off of the natural or sinful man and becoming spiritually reborn as a disciple of Jesus.
Membership into a Latter Day Saint church is granted only by baptism whether or not a person has been raised in the church. Latter Day Saint churches do not recognize baptisms of other faiths as valid because they believe baptisms must be performed under the church’s unique authority. Thus, all who come into one of the Latter Day Saint faiths as converts are baptized, even if they have previously received baptism in another faith.
When performing a Baptism, Latter Day Saints say the following prayer before performing the ordinance:
Having been commissioned of Jesus Christ, I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Baptisms inside and outside the temples are usually done in a baptis try, although they can be performed in any body of water in which the person may be completely immersed. The person administering the baptism must recite the prayer exactly, and immerse every part, limb, hair and clothing of the person being baptized. If there are any mistakes, or if any part of the person being baptized is not fully immersed, the baptism must be redone. In addition to the baptizer, two members of the church witness the baptism to ensure that it is performed properly.
Latter Day Saints hold that one may be baptized after death through the vicarious act of a living individual, and holders of the Melchezidek Priesthood practice baptism for the dead as a missionary ritual. This doctrine answers the question of the righteous non-believer and the unevangelized by providing a post-mortem means of repentance and salvation.
Converting to Islam requires the shahada, the Muslim profession of faith (“there is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is the messenger of Allah”). Islam teaches that everyone is Muslim at birth but the parents or society can cause them to deviate from the straight path. When someone accepts Islam, they are considered to revert to the original condition. In Islam, circumcision is a Sunnah custom not mentioned in the Quran. The majority clerical opinion holds that circumcision is not required upon entering Islam. The Shafi`i and Hanbali schools regard it as obligatory, while the Maliki and Hanafi schools regard it as only recommended. However, it is not a precondition for the acceptance of a person’s Islamic practices, nor is choosing to forgo circumcision considered a sin. It is not one of the Five Pillars of Islam.
Conversion to Judaism is the religious conversion of non-Jews to become members of the Jewish religion and Jewish ethno religious community. The procedure and requirements for conversion depend on the sponsoring denomination. A conversion in accordance with the process of a denomination is not a guarantee of recognition by another denomination. A formal conversion is also sometimes undertaken by individuals whose Jewish ancestry is questioned, even if they were raised Jewish, but may not actually be considered Jews according to traditional Jewish law.
In some cases, a person may forgo a formal conversion to Judaism and adopt some or all beliefs and practices of Judaism. However, without a formal conversion, many highly observant Jews will reject a convert’s Jewish status.
There are no rituals or dogmas, nor any sort of procedures in conversion to Spiritism. The doctrine is first considered as science, then philosophy and lastly as a religion. Allan Kardec‘s codification of Spiritism occurred between the years 1857 and 1868. Currently there are 25 to 60 million people studying Spiritism in various countries, mainly in Brazil, through its essential books, which include The Spirits Book, The Book on Mediums, The Gospel According to Spiritism, Heaven and Hell and The Genesis According to Spiritism.
As explained in the first of the 1,019 questions and answers in The Spirits Book:
1. What is God? Answer: “God is the Supreme Intelligence-First Cause of all things.”
The consensus in Spiritism is that God, the Great Creator, is above everything, including all human things such as rituals, dogmas, denominations or any other thing.
Persons newly adhering to Buddhism traditionally “take Refuge” (express faith in the Three Jewels—Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha) before a monk, nun, or similar representative, with often the sangha, the community of practitioners, also in ritual attendance.
Throughout the timeline of Buddhism, conversions of entire countries and regions to Buddhism were frequent, as Buddhism spread throughout Asia. For example, in the 11th century in Burma, king Anoratha converted his entire country to Theravada Buddhism. At the end of the 12th century, Jayavarman VII set the stage for conversion of the Khmer people to Theravada Buddhism. Mass conversions of areas and communities to Buddhism occur up to the present day, for example, in the Dalit Buddhist movement in India there have been organized mass conversions.
Hinduism is a diverse system of thought with beliefs spanning monotheism, polytheism, panentheism, pantheism, pandeism, monism, and atheism among others. Hinduism has no traditional ecclesiastical order, no centralized religious authorities, no universally accepted governing body, no binding holy book nor any mandatory prayer attendance requirements. Hinduism has been described as a way of life. In its diffuse and open structure, numerous schools and sects of Hinduism have developed and spun off in India with help from its ascetic scholars, since the Vedic age. The six Astika and two Nastika schools of Hindu philosophy, in its history, did not develop a missionary or proselytization methodology, and they co-existed with each other. Most Hindu sub-schools and sects do not actively seek converts. Individuals have had a choice to enter, leave or change their god(s), spiritual convictions, accept or discard any rituals and practices, and pursue spiritual knowledge and liberation (moksha) in different ways. However, various schools of Hinduism do have some core common beliefs, such as the belief that all living beings have Atman (soul), a belief in karma theory, spirituality, ahimsa (non-violence) as the greatest dharma or virtue, and others.
Religious conversion to Hinduism has a long history outside India. Merchants and traders of India, particularly from Indian peninsula, carried their religious ideas, which led to religious conversions to Hinduism in Indonesia, Vietnam, Cambodia and Burma. Some sects of Hindus, particularly of the Bhakti schools began seeking or accepting converts in early to mid 20th century. For example, groups like the International Society for Krishna Consciousness accept those who have a desire to follow their sects of Hinduism and have their own religious conversion procedure.
Since 1800 CE, religious conversion from and to Hinduism has been a controversial subject within Hinduism. Some have suggested that the concept of missionary conversion, either way, is contrary to the precepts of Hinduism. Religious leaders of some of Hinduism sects such as Brahmo Samaj have seen Hinduism as a non-missionary religion yet welcomed new members, while other leaders of Hinduism’s diverse schools have stated that with the arrival of missionary Islam and Christianity in India, the view that “there is no such thing as proselytism in Hinduism” must be re-examined.
In recent decades, mainstream Hinduism schools have attempted to systematize ways to accept religious converts, with an increase in inter-religious mixed marriages. The steps involved in becoming a Hindu have variously included a period where the interested person gets an informal ardha-Hindu name and studies ancient literature on spiritual path and practices (English translations of Upanishads, Agama, Itihasa, ethics in Sutra, Hindu festivals, yoga). If after a period of study, the individual still wants to convert, a NamakaranaSamskara ceremony is held, where the individual adopts a traditional Hindu name. The initiation ceremony may also include Yajna (i.e., fire ritual with Sanskrit hymns) under guidance of a local Hindu priest. Some of these places are mathas and asramas (hermitage, monastery), where one or more gurus (spiritual guide) conduct the conversion and offer spiritual discussions. Some schools encourage the new convert to learn and participate in community activities such as festivals (Diwali etc.), read and discuss ancient literature, learn and engage in rites of passages (ceremonies of birth, first feeding, first learning day, age of majority, wedding, cremation and others).
Jainism accepts anyone who wants to embrace the religion. There is no specific ritual for becoming a Jain. One does not need to ask any authorities for admission. One becomes a Jain on one’s own by observing the five vows (vratas). The five main vows as mentioned in the ancient Jain texts like Tattvarthasutra are:
- Ahimsa – Not to injure any living being by actions and thoughts.
- Satya – Not to lie or speak words that hurt others.
- Asteya – Not to take anything if not given.
- Brahmacharya – Chastity for householders / Celibacy in action, words and thoughts for monks and nuns.
- Aparigraha (Non-possession)- non-attachment to possessions.
Following the five vows is the main requirement in Jainism. All other aspects such as visiting temples are secondary. Jain monks and nuns are required to observe these five vows strictly.
Sikhism is not known to openly proselytize, but accepts converts.
Other religions and sects
In the second half of the 20th century, the rapid growth of new religious movements (NRMs) led some psychologists and other scholars to propose that these groups were using “brainwashing” or “mind control” techniques to gain converts. This theory was publicized by the popular news media but disputed by other scholars, including some sociologists of religion.
In the 1960s sociologist John Lofland lived with Unification Church missionary Young Oon Kim and a small group of American church members in California and studied their activities in trying to promote their beliefs and win converts to their church. Lofland noted that most of their efforts were ineffective and that most of the people who joined did so because of personal relationships with other members, often family relationships.
Lofland published his findings in 1964 as a doctoral thesis entitled “The World Savers: A Field Study of Cult Processes”, and in 1966 in book form by Prentice-Hall as Doomsday Cult: A Study of Conversion, Proselytization, and Maintenance of Faith. It is considered to be one of the most important and widely cited studies of the process of religious conversion, and one of the first modern sociological studies of a new religious movement.
The Church of Scientology attempts to gain converts by offering “free stress tests”. It has also used the celebrity status of some of its members (most famously the American actor Tom Cruise) to attract converts. The Church of Scientology requires that all converts sign a legal waiver which covers their relationship with the Church of Scientology before engaging in Scientology services.
Research in the United States and the Netherlands has shown a positive correlation between areas lacking mainstream churches and the percentage of people who are a member of a new religious movement. This applies also for the presence of New Age centres. On the other end of the scale are religions that do not accept any converts, or do so very rarely.
Often these are relatively small, close-knit minority religions that are ethnically based such as the Yazidis, Druze, and Mandaeans. Zoroastrianism classically does not accept converts, but this issue has become controversial in the 20th century due to the rapid decline in membership. Chinese traditional religion lacks clear criteria for membership, and hence for conversion. The Shakers and some Indian eunuch brotherhoods do not allow procreation, so that every member is a convert.
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). Despite this UN-declared human right, some groups forbid or restrict religious conversion.
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.”
Since the collapse of the former Soviet Union 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 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 $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 v. Greece, a member of the Pentecostal church also won a case in the European Court of Human Rights.