religious community

Religious conversion

Religious conversion is the adoption of a new religious identity, or a change from one religious identity to another. This typically entails the sincere avowal of a new belief system, but may also present itself in other ways, such as adoption into an identity group or spiritual lineage. "Conversion" occurs not only from one religion to another, but also between different sects, such as Protestant denominations, within the same faith, when this involves a felt change of identity rather than other reasons such as convenience.

Within the Christian faith, conversion is intended to involve more than a simple change in religious identity. In fact, the Latin word conversio, translating the Greek metanoia, literally means "going the other way." The convert, therefore, is expected to renounce sin and personally commit to a life of righteousness as defined and exemplified by Paul of Tarsus. In some Protestant traditions, this is called "accepting Christ as one's Savior and following him as Lord."

In another variation, the 1910 Catholic Dictionary defines "conversion" as "One who turns or changes from a state of sin to repentance, from a lax to a more earnest and serious way of life, from unbelief to faith, from heresy to the true faith. In this older usage, the term "pervert" was occasionally used to mean transition in the opposite direction. For example, the Encyclical of Pope Gregory XVI promulgated on 27 May 1832 entitled Summo Iugiter Studio (On Mixed Marriages) included the following: "the Catholic party must not be perverted, but rather must make every effort to withdraw the non-Catholic party from error. English-speaking Muslims sometimes prefer the term "revert" to describe converts to Islam, since that religion teaches that all infants are born Muslims until made members of another religion through a religious ritual.

Christianity and Islam are major religions which emphasize the desirability of conversion. Buddhism has done so historically, and still witnesses modest levels of missionary activity. (Many Buddhists hold multiple religious identities.) Judaism allows in-conversion, but generally does not encourage it. A few sects of Hinduism promote the possibility of "becoming a Hindu" (or a Brahmin), but their stance does not meet with wide acceptance in Indian society.

Zoroastrianism: The religion of Zarathushtra is open to all persons of moral goodness and goodwill who would accept the Gathic Revelation. Zarathushtra preached a religion which demanded of individuals responsibility for reflective moral living, and transformed human existence from social abrasion to social harmony.

Chinese traditional religion lacks clear criteria for membership, and hence for conversion. Several ethnic religions—including the Yazidis, Druze, and Mandaeans—appear to refuse all applicants for conversion. The Shakers and some Indian eunuch brotherhoods do not allow procreation, so that every member is a convert.

Proselytism is the act of attempting to convert another individual from a specific religion or belief system. (See proselyte).

Apostate (n.) is a term with pejorative connotations used by members of one church or religion to refer to someone who has left that church or religion.

Conversion to Christianity

Conversion to Christianity is the religious conversion of a previously non-Christian person to some form of Christianity. The exact understanding of what it means to attain salvation varies somewhat among denominations. It primarily involves repentance of sin, baptism in the name of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and a decision to live a life that is holy and acceptable to God.

The process of conversion to Christianity varies somewhat among Christian denominations. Most Protestants believe in conversion by faith to attain salvation. According to this understanding, the person professes faith in Jesus Christ as Savior. While an individual may make such a decision privately, usually it entails being baptized and becoming a member of a denomination or church. In these traditions, one is considered to become a Christian by publicly acknowledging the reality of the death, burial and resurrection Jesus for the remission of sins, and thereby receiving Jesus as their personal Savior.

A person converting to Christianity often chooses to experience believer's baptism as a sign of their conversion. It is required by some Churches and denominations as a prerequisite to membership. Catholics and some Protestants believe that baptism is essential for salvation, though most Protestants do not.

Catholics, Orthodox and many Protestant denominations encourage infant baptism, welcoming children into the Christian faith before they are aware of their status. Baptized children are expected to participate in confirmation classes as pre-teens and affirm their faith by personal choice.

Transferring from one Christian denomination to another may consist of a relatively simple transfer of membership, especially if moving from one Trinitarian denomination to another, and if the person has received water baptism in the name of the Trinity. If not, then the person may need to be baptized or rebaptized to become incorporated into the new Church. Some denominations, such as those in the Anabaptist tradition, require previously-baptized Christians to be re-baptized before being accepted into their respective religious community.

According to most branches of Christianity, sharing the message or Good News of Jesus Christ and his gospel is a responsibility of all followers of Jesus. According to the New Testament, Jesus commanded his disciples to "go and make disciples of all nations" the so-called Great Commission. Evangelism, or "spreading the Good News," has been a central part of the life of Christians since that time. This command by Jesus is known as the Great Commission. Conversion means also to turn from sin and start a new life in happiness with God.

Conversion to Hinduism

A ritual called dīkshā ("initiation") may mark the beginning of Hindu life after conversion; while as, a ritual called shuddhi ("purification") may mark the reentry into Hinduism after reconversion.

The modern view of conversions into Hinduism is influenced by the demise of caste system combined with the persistence of age old ideas of Sanathan Dharm. Hindus today continue to be influenced by historical ideas of acceptability of conversion. Hence, many Hindus continue to believe that Hinduism is an identity that can only be had from birth, while many others continue to believe that anyone who follows Hindu beliefs and practices is a Hindu, and many believe in some form of both theories. However, as a reaction to perceived and actual threat of evangelization, prozelyzation, and conversion activities of other major religions many modern Hindus are opposed to the idea of conversion from (any) one religion to (any) other per se.

Reconversion among people who were formerly Hindus or whose ancestors were formerly Hindus has picked up pace with the growth of Hindu revivalist movements. National organizations such as Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (India) and Parisada Hindu Dharma (Indonesia) actively facilitate such reconversions. Reconversions, in general, are well accepted within Hindu society since conversion out of Hinduism is not considered valid in the first place. Conversion through marriage is well accepted within Hinduism and often expected in order to enable the non-Hindu partner to fully participate in their spiritual, religious, and cultural roles within the larger Hindu family and society.

Evangelization by Hindus, and large scale conversion to Hinduism has occurred throughout the ages as well. In Southeast Asia the merchant, sailor, and priestly class accounted for much of the spread of the religion. Many foreign groups including Gujjars, Ahoms, and Hunas converted to Hinduism after generations of Sanskritization. In the 18th century, Manipur was evanglelized by Hindu priests. In India and Indonesia today many groups still convert to Hinduism on a large basis.

Conversion to Islam

There are five pillars, or foundations, of Islam but the primary, and most important is by believing that there is only one God and creator, referred to as Allah (the word for God in Arabic) and that Muhammad is his messenger. A person is considered converted to Islam from the moment he or she sincerely makes this declaration of faith, called the shahadah. It is common belief among Muslims that everyone is Muslim at birth [derived from a single source and brought into being by the single entity] but sometimes chooses to take steps to revert back to their origins.

According to Sheikh Ahmad Kutty, a senior lecturer and Islamic scholar at the Islamic Institute of Toronto, Canada, it is highly recommended that one's conversion be documented. New converts should obtain a certificate of conversion from a reputable Islamic centre, organization or mosque, which has been registered for this purpose. Sheikh Kutty writes that such a certificate might be absolutely necessary for the purposes of pilgrimage, marriage, etc.

In Islam, circumcision is a strongly recommended Sunnah custom (a practice of the Prophet) to be emulated by all the males among Muslims. According to the Shafi`i’ School, it is obligatory for all Muslim males. Men converting to Islam should undergo circumcision and a head shave either before or after taking the formal shahadah (testimony of faith). They are cautioned against postponing it indefinitely after embracing Islam. However, there is some dispute about this. There are five ingredients of natural religion and therefore part of the common legacy of Prophets: removing the pubic hair, circumcision, trimming the mustache, removing the underarm hair, and cutting of the nails.

A new Muslim is expected to familiarize himself/herself with the practices of Islam. It is a personal process; acceptance of all of that is taken to follow from the original statement, since all of Islam is considered to derive from either divine inspiration, in the form of the Qur'an, or for prophetic example, in the form of the hadith and sunnah of Muhammad.

"Al Mu'allafun kulubuhum" means those whom hearts need company or affection. So they receive a part of the zekat (due religious alms) and friendship from already and well established Muslims. The aim was to help these new converts to restart a new life as they were banned of their families and tribes in the early times of Islam.

Conversion to Judaism


Jewish law guidelines for accepting new converts to Judaism are called "giyur." Potential converts should desire conversion to Judaism for its own sake, and for no other motives. A male convert needs to undergo a ritual circumcision conducted according to Jewish law (if already circumcised, a needle is used to draw a symbolic drop of blood while the appropriate blessings are said), and there has to be a commitment to observe the 613 commandments and Jewish law. A convert must accept Jewish principles of faith, and reject the previous theology he or she had prior to the conversion. Ritual immersion in a small pool of water known as a mikvah is required.

The Reform and Conservative movements are lenient in their acceptance of converts. Many of their members are married to gentiles and these movements make an effort to welcome spouses who seek conversion. This issue is contentious in modern Israel as many immigrants from the former Soviet Union are not considered Jewish.

Orthodox Jews tend to discourage conversion, urging the person to find their path to God through being a righteous Gentile and observing the Noahide laws and living a life of kindness, but they will accept conversion if the person persists. Controversially, some Syrian Jewish communities are reluctant to accept the validity of new conversions.

Conversion to Judaism in history

In Hellenistic and Roman times, some Pharisees were eager proselytizers, and had at least some success throughout the empire.

Some Jews are also descended from converts to Judaism outside the Mediterranean world. It is known that some Khazars, Edomites, and Ethiopians, as well as many Arabs, particularly in Yemen before, converted to Judaism in the past; today people all over the world convert to Judaism. In fact, there is a greater tradition of conversion to Judaism than many people realize. The word "proselyte" originally meant a Greek who had converted to Judaism. As late as the 6th century the Eastern Roman empire (i.e., the Byzantine empire) was issuing decrees against conversion to Judaism, implying that conversion to Judaism was still occurring.

In recent times, members of the Reform Judaism movement began a program to convert to Judaism the non-Jewish spouses of its intermarried members and non-Jews who have an interest in Judaism. Their rationale is that so many Jews were lost during the Holocaust that newcomers must be sought out and welcomed. This approach has been repudiated by Orthodox and Conservative Jews as unrealistic and posing a danger. They say that these efforts make Judaism seem an easy religion to join and observe when in reality being Jewish entails many difficulties and sacrifices.

Differences between Jewish and Christian views

The subject of the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) is the history of the Children of Israel (also called Hebrews), especially in terms of their relationship with God. Thus, Judaism has also been characterized as a culture, a civilization and a nation. Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan defines Judaism as an evolving religious civilization. One crucial sign of this is that one need not believe, or even do, anything to be Jewish. The Rabbinic definition of "Jewishness" requires only that one be born of a Jewish mother, or that one convert to Judaism in accord with Jewish law. Today, Reform and Reconstructionist Jews also include those born of Jewish fathers and Gentile mothers but only if they are raised as Jews.

To Jews, Jewish peoplehood is closely tied to their relationship with God, and thus has a strong theological component. This relationship is encapsulated in the notion that Jews are a chosen people. Although some have taken this as a sign of arrogance or exclusivity, there are Jewish scholars and theologians who have emphasized that a special relationship between Jews and God does not in any way preclude other nations having their own relationship with God. For Jews, being "chosen" fundamentally means that Jews have chosen to obey a certain set of laws (see Torah and halakha) as an expression of their covenant with God. Jews hold that other nations and peoples are not required or expected to obey these laws, and face no penalty for not obeying them. Thus, as a national religion, Judaism has no problem with the notion that others have their own paths to God (or "salvation"), though it still makes claim as to the truth or falsehood of other beliefs, and about whether Gentiles are allowed to hold them.

By contrast, Christianity is characterized by its claim to universality. Renowned Harvard theologian and philosopher Paul Tillich defines this claim as meaning that "the Christian message is universal and valid for all cultures and religions, so that Christ must become what he potentially is, the center of history for all historical developments." Tillich, addressing the theology of Christian missions, offers both an affirmation of the universality claim and a caution:

Christianity's claim to universality marks a break with Jewish identity. Christianity has had to define itself in relation to religions that make radically different claims about their gods. Christians believe that Christianity represents the fulfillment of God's promise to Abraham and the nation of Israel, that Israel would be a blessing to all nations.

This crucial difference between the two religions has other implications. For example, conversion to Judaism is more like a form of adoption (i.e., becoming a member of the nation, in part by metaphorically becoming a child of Abraham), whereas conversion to Christianity is explicitly a declaration of faith, but cited in Eph 1:5 that all who proclaim Christ as their saviour are predestined to be sons, a spiritual adoption in sorts. Conversion to Judaism also entails a declaration of faith. In Christian churches, conversion also has a social component, as the individual is in many ways adopted into the Church, with a strong family model.

Conversion to Zoroastrianism

Zoroastrianism, the first monotheistic religion, founded approximately 1700 BCE by Zarathushtra, is a universal religion. It emphasizes individual judgment and responsibility based upon the grasp of the eternal and universal Truth by the divinely endowed Good Mind to implement the Righteous Order in existence. The religion is free to be chosen by whosoever desires it. Zarathushtra's Daena Vanguhi (the "Religion of Good Conscience", another name for Zoroastrianism), is a universal belief system for all, regardless of gender, nationality, race, or class.

Conversion to Dharmic religions

Sikhism is not known to openly proselytize, but accepts converts. See: List of converts to Sikhism

It does not appear to be possible at present to convert to Jainism. However, according to Indian law one has the right to assert him/herself as a follower of any religion which also includes Jainism.

Buddhism often engages in proselytism. The current Dalai Lama discourages conversion without ruling it out altogether. New Buddhists traditionally "take Refuge" (express faith in the Three Jewels—Buddha, Dharma, Sangha) before a monk, nun, or similar representative. Buddhists often hold multiple religious identities, combining the religion with Shinto (in Japan) or Taoism and Confucianism (in China; cf. Chinese traditional religion). Some Himalayan groups are ambiguous as to their status as Hindus or Buddhists.

According to Gampopa's Jewel Ornament of Liberation, taking refuge in the Buddha precludes one from worshiping gods and nature spirits. Other traditions take the position that a lay Buddhist can pay respects to, and give gifts to, gods or spirits, but should not regard them as a refuge. This position is generally practiced in the Theravada Buddhist tradition of Thailand.

Other religions and sects

Conversion to new religious movements (NRMs) is riddled with controversies. The anti-cult movement sometimes uses the term thought reform or even brainwashing. Often they will call certain NRMs cults. There are many different definitions for the word cult. NRMs are very diverse and it is not clear whether conversion to NRMs differs from conversion to mainstream religions. See also Brainwashing controversy in new religious movements

Research both in the USA and the Netherlands has shown there is a positive correlation between lack of involvement in mainstream churches in certain areas and provinces and the percentage of people who are a member of a new religious movement. This applies also for the presence of New Age centres. The Dutch research included Jehovah's Witnesses and the Latter Day Saint movement/Mormonism to the NRMs.

The Church of Scientology attempts to gain converts by offering "free stress tests" (see picture at auditing). In contrast to other religions, which require one to sign a card or membership book (e.g. Unitarian Universalism) or be baptised (e.g. Roman Catholic Church), Scientology requires converts to sign contracts before attending church.

On the other end of the scale are religions that do not accept any converts, or do so only very rarely. Often these are relatively small, closely-knit minority religions, like the Yazidis, Druze, and Mandaeans.

Conversion to the Bahá'í Faith

Though it actively seeks converts, the Bahá'í Faith prohibits proselytism and does not pursue "missionary" work. In sharing their Faith with others, Bahá'ís are cautioned to "obtain a hearing" – meaning to make sure the person they're 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 aknowledgement 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 to this Faith are encouraged to be active in all aspects of community life. Indeed, even a recent convert may be elected to serve on a Local Spiritual Assemby – the guiding Bahá'í institution at the community level.

Religious conversion in international law

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). Though this is controversial because some groups either forbid or restrict religious conversion (see below).

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.

Views on the propriety of proselytism, or even evangelism, differ radically. Some feel that freedom of speech should have no limits and that virtually anyone, anywhere should have the right to talk about anything they see fit. Others see all sorts of evangelism as a nuisance and an intrusion and would like to see them proscribed. Thus, Natan Lerner observes that the issue is one of a clash of rights—the right of a person to express his views versus the right of a person not to be exposed to views that he does not wish to hear.

From a legal standpoint, certain criteria are often mentioned in distinguishing legitimate evangelization from illicit proselytism:

  • All humans have the right to have religious beliefs, and to change these beliefs, even repeatedly, if they so wish. (Freedom of Religion)
  • They have the right to form religious organizations for the purpose of worship, as well as for promoting their cause (Freedom of Association)
  • They have the right to speak to others about their convictions, with the purpose of influencing the others. (Freedom of Speech).

By the same token, these very rights exercise a limiting influence on the freedoms of others. For instance, the right to have one's religious beliefs presumably includes the right not to be coerced into changing these beliefs by threats, discrimination, or similar inducements.

Hence a category of improper proselytizing can be discerned:

  • It would not be proper to use coercion, threats, the weight of authority of the educational system, access to health care or similar facilities in order to induce people to change their religion.
  • It would be improper to try to impose one's beliefs on a 'captive audience', where the listeners have no choice but to be present. This would presumably require restraint in the exercise of their right to free speech, by teachers in the classroom, army officers to their inferiors, prison officers in prison, medical staff in hospitals, so as to avoid impinging on the rights of others.
  • It would not be proper to offer money, work, housing or other material inducements as a means of persuading people to adopt another religion.

Since the collapse of the former Soviet Union and the rise of democracy in the Eastern Bloc, 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 US $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 vs. Greece, a member of the Pentecostal church also won a case in the European Court of Human Rights.

Some Islamic countries with Islamic law outlaw and carry strict sentences for proselytizing. Several Islamic countries under Islamic law, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Afghanistan and Pakistan, Egypt, Iran, and Maldives outlaw apostasy and carry imprisonment or the death penalty for those leaving Islam and those enticing Muslims to leave Islam.

See also



  • Barker, Eileen The Making of a Moonie: Choice or Brainwashing? (1984)
  • Barrett, D. V. The New Believers—A survey of sects, cults and alternative religions (2001) UK, Cassell & Co
  • Cooper, Richard S. "The Assessment and Collection of Kharaj Tax in Medieval Egypt" (Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 96, No. 3. (Jul – Sep., 1976), pp. 365–382.
  • Curtin, Phillip D. Cross-Cultural Trade in World History. Cambridge University Press, 1984.
  • Hoiberg, Dale, and Indu Ramachandran. Students' Britannica India. Popular Prakashan, 2000.
  • Ramstedt, Martin. Hinduism in Modern Indonesia: A Minority Religion Between Local, National, and Global Interests. Routledge, 2004.
  • Rawat, Ajay S. StudentMan and Forests: The Khatta and Gujjar Settlements of Sub-Himalayan Tarai. Indus Publishing, 1993.

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