Ethics of Religious Persuasion

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Human communication would be vapid if we never tried to persuade others to understand what we consider to be true, good, beautiful, or important.  Sometimes persuasion is associated with relatively unimportant details of life:  “Come camping with me.  I know you’ll love it!”  Sometimes, however, persuasion attempts to change another’s views on fundamental assumptions about life: “Let Jesus into your heart and you will be saved.”

Persuasion aimed at such core elements of the self may become spiritually abusive when the persuasive behavior violates ethical boundaries. 

But how does one determine where those ethical boundaries should lie? 

This question could be reformulated as means-end questions, such as:  What persuasive methods are permissible to achieve what ends?  What persuasive methods are impermissible regardless of the nobility or importance of the end?

Our purpose here is not to answer these questions, but to help readers have more informed opinions concerning them.

Often, a new religious group will be labeled “cultic” because its members, however sincere their intentions, employ methods of persuasion that mainstream society may deem inappropriate or unethical.  One group, for example, used the telling phrase, “heavenly deception,” to justify lying to potential converts. 

Some condemn all attempts at religious persuasion, even though they may see no problem with political persuasion (“Vote for X!”) or commercial persuasion (“Try our new weight loss program!”).   Such condemnations have made “proselytize” a pejorative term in common discourse.  This negative bias toward religious persuasion, however, is incompatible with established principles of religious liberty in modern democracies. 

Hence, religious proselytizing and other forms of religious persuasion must be permitted in free societies, regardless of the discomfort some may feel.  

Yet one does not need a particularly fertile imagination to think of methods of religious persuasion that democratic societies ought to condemn as unethical, even if the behavior is tolerated legally.  Who among us, for example, would condone the secret staging of “signs and wonders”  designed to stimulate faith in unbelievers or to separate them from their money?

Nevertheless, because some tiny percentage of persons condone what the majority condemn, the majority needs some set of principles that can help them identify and justify the ethical boundaries in situations involving religious persuasion.  

Religious persuasion occurs on a continuum, with blatantly unethical methods on one end and clearly acceptable methods on the other. Elucidating appropriate ethical principles is not an easy task.  It is, however, an important task.  Those who appreciate and understand the ethical dimension of persuasion will show more skill in keeping their own house in order and more insight in their criticism of those who violate ethical norms. 

Despite its importance, the ethics of religious persuasion has received surprisingly little attention.  ICSA journals have published a number of articles pertinent to the subject (see resource list below).

More recently, philosopher Elmer Thiessen  (2013) proposed two principles for dealing with an ethics of evangelism or proselytizing [page numbers refer to sections in Thiessen's book that address the criterion (Thiessen, 2011). 

  • Dignity criterion: Ethical proselytizing is always done in such a way as to protect the dignity and worth of the person or persons being proselytized. Proselytizing becomes unethical when it reduces the proselytizee to the status of an object or a pawn in the proselytizing program of any religious institution or religious organization (p. 234).
  • Care criterion: Ethical proselytizing must always be an expression of concern for the whole person and all of his or her needs—physical, social, economic, intellectual, emotional, and spiritual. To care only for the salvation of the souls of persons is unethical. It involves an objectification of a part of the person and as such violates that person’s dignity (p. 234).

Though one should read Thiessen's article and book to understand his argument properly (ICSA members can obtain access to the issue in which his article appears), some benefit can be had by contemplating the other criteria that he lists in his ICSA Today article:
  • Physical-coercion criterion: The freedom to make choices is central to the dignity of persons. Ethical proselytizing will therefore allow persons to make a genuinely free and uncoerced choice with regard to conversion. Proselytizing involving the use of physical force or threats is immoral (p. 234). 
  • Psychological-coercion criterion: Ethical proselytizing avoids excessive psychological manipulation. Proselytizing can be (excessively) psychologically manipulative in various ways: (a) Proselytizers should avoid intense, repeated, and extremely programmatic approaches to bringing about conversions. (b) Proselytizers must take care to avoid exploiting others’ vulnerability. This principle becomes especially important when one is dealing with children, young people, vulnerable adults, and individuals facing personal crises. (c) Proselytizers also must avoid excessive appeals to emotion and fear (p. 235). 
  • Social-coercion criterion: While I acknowledge that some degree of power and control is inescapable in proselytizing, excessive expressions of power, or the exploitation of power imbalances when one is proselytizing is unethical (p. 235). 
  • Inducement criterion: Proselytizing accompanied by material enticement such as money, gifts, or privileges is immoral. In situations in which the provision of medical care, humanitarian aid, or education is in some way linked with proselytizing, the greater the need, the more sensitive the proselytizer must be to the danger of exploiting that need, and thus of inducing individuals to convert. In situations in which recipients’ physical needs are overwhelming, one should keep one’s proselytizing entirely separate from the activity of responding to these physical needs (p. 235).
  • Rationality criterion: Proselytizing involves persuasion to convert. Ethical persuasion includes providing information in order for the recipient to make such a decision. It also includes giving reasons to the recipient for the proposed change of heart and mind. Proselytizing that attempts to sidestep human reason entirely is unethical (p. 235). 
  • Truthfulness criterion: Ethical proselytizing is truthful. It seeks to tell the truth about the religion one is advocating. It is truthful also with regard to what it says about other religions. Integrity characterizes the ethical proselytizer. Proselytizing accompanied by hidden agendas, hidden identities, lying, deception, and failure to speak the truth should be condemned as immoral (p. 236). 
  • Humility criterion: Ethical proselytizing is characterized by humility. Proselytizing becomes unethical when it becomes arrogant, condescending, and dogmatic in the claims one is making (p. 236).
  • Motivation criterion: The primary motivation for ethical proselytizing is love for humanity. Ethical proselytizing is other centered. It grows out of genuine concern for the other person’s well-being, and his or her assumed need to hear the truth as understood by the proselytizer. With immoral proselytizing, in contrast, egocentric motives such as personal benefit and reward, personal reassurance resulting from being able to convert another person to one’s own position, personal domination over another person, and personal satisfaction about growth of one’s own church, become dominant (p. 236).
  • Identity criterion: Ethical proselytizing will take into account and show some respect for the communal identity of the proselytizee. Proselytizing that completely disregards the dignity of the individual as rooted in his or her social (or religious) attachments is immoral (p. 237).
  • Tolerance criterion: Ethical proselytizing treats persons who hold beliefs that differ from those of the proselytizer with love and respect. While this does not preclude fair criticism of other religious or irreligious beliefs, ethical proselytizing treats the same with respect, and avoids hostile attitudes or the use of insulting and abusive language against other religions and worldviews (p. 236). 
  • Golden Rule criterion: Ethical proselytizing operates under the assumption that the other has the right to proselytize as well. It is immoral to assume or to work toward a monopoly of the proselytizing enterprise (p. 237).

Resources

Cults, Evangelicals, and the Ethics of Social Influence” – a special issue of Cultic Studies Journal, Vol. 2, No. 2, 1985. 

Boland, Kim, & Lindbloom, Gordon (1992).  Psychotherapy cults: An ethical analysis.  Cultic Studies Journal, 9(2), 137-162.

Langone, Michael. (1989).  Social Influence: Ethical considerations.  Cultic Studies Journal, 6(1), 16-24.

Sandhill, Laird (1999). How should the communities movement handle questions of abuse?  Responding to Benjamin Zablocki's proposed "Bill of Rights."  Cultic Studies Journal, 16(2), 193-196.

Thiessen, Elmer J. (2006).  The problems and possibilities of defining precise criteria to distinguish between ethical and unethical proselytizing/evangelism. Cultic Studies Review, 5(3), 374-389.

Thiessen, Elmer J. (2011).  The ethics of evangelism:  A philosophical defense of proselytizing and persuasion.  Downer's Grove, IL: IVP Academic.

Thiessen, Elmer J. (2013).  The Ethics of Evangelism and Cult Recruitment.  ICSA Today, 4(2).

Zablocki, Benjamin.  (1999).  Proposing a "Bill of Inalienable Rights" for intentional communitiesCultic Studies Journal, 16(2), 185-192.