Proselytization has become more controversial in the last decade; not only the faithful of traditional religions, but secular circles as well have become increasingly suspicious toward at least some types of missionary activities.
“Proselytization revisited” was the topic of a day-long symposium, organized by Rosalind Hackett (University of Tennessee), which took place on March 26 in Tokyo, during the 19th World Congress of the International Association for the History of Religions (IAHR), which RW attended.
In the current context of globalization, conflicts over proselytism are likely to grow, said Jean-François Mayer (University of Fribourg, and RWcontributing editor). Conflicts over missionary activities are not limited to the non-Western world: Mayer sees the “cult controversies” as belonging at least to some extent a similar set of issues. Proselytism is often interpreted as an attempt to extend political dominance and ideological influence, threatening not only traditional religious beliefs, but also national interests.
In Russia, according to a paper presented by Olga Kazmina (Moscow State University), the discussion on proselytism became more harsh by the mid-1990s, with an emphasis on religion as a political factor. The issue has been shaped by identity issues, and since the mid and late 1990s, the population has been much more sympathetic to the claim that foreign denominations are threatening Russian culture. Indeed, Grace Kao (Virginia Polytechnic Institute) remarked that proselytism is seen today in a pejorative light and that those who want to proselytize are increasingly asked to justify their actions.
Several religious bodies are indeed eager to differentiate between (legitimate) missionary activities and (intrusive) proselytization. Organizations such as the World Council of Churches consider proselytism toward other Christians as a “scandal.”. Interestingly, the criticism of proselytization seems to single out religious forms of persuasion, while secular causes remain free to make efforts to ask others to join their ranks.
In some cases, the new (and controversial) emphasis on group rights comes to clash with freedom to proselytize, according to several presenters. But there are also new issues which might contribute to shape the future of discussions about proselytism around the world. One of them is the increasing number of Christian missionary forces from the South; this is what Paul Freston (Calvin College) called in his paper the “browning of Christian proselytism,” not an entirely new phenomenon, but it has increased “both in terms of numbers involved and in terms of greater transnational reach.”
This should be seen as part of a general shift in the center of gravity of Christianity. The “brown” missionaries are not “geopolitically compromised,” and thus are not associated with “post-colonial guilt”. However, Freston acknowledged that the national identity of proselytizers is irrelevant in some cases, though it can change the context of such controversies.