Laws to forbid conversion have become disturbingly common. They may nominally be directed at conversion by force or fraud, but the reality is a desire to ban any activity. The practicalities for the individual are concerning.
Several states in Asia have laws to punish conversions, aimed at stopping people from becoming Christian. The rhetoric is that conversions are driven by bribes or dishonesty or other methods which are unknown to Christian missionaries: cruel therapy, blackmail; or seduction by beautiful girls is one lurid example. Having made the anger of the legislators rise with such stories, anything can be forbidden. Even private prayer may draw a prison sentence or an angry mob.
I have known plenty of people who, in a midlife crisis, have turned away from a lifetime of Christian devotion to find new spirituality in exotic gods. Will the activists demand that in this case he must have been a pagan from birth? Once captured by one side, he can never be invited to a church fete again for fear of forceful reconversion.
I have known others who embraced the Asian aesthetic in their excitable youth and declared themselves to be Buddhist and then when more matured have found that actually this was a youthful folly and their heart lies with the Gospel of Christ. For young women who self-identify in this way this way in teenage, 70% change back later. Would I be clapped in irons for inviting them to church, or for praying for them?
Just a few years ago there was a lifelong Church of England vicar, who suddenly became a Hindu: he was shocked and offended when the bishop suspended his licence to preach. These days I wonder if a bishop would dare; he might celebrate diversity in the priesthood.
The idea that one is born as a particular religion and by an iron law will remain of that persuasion ones whole life is a nonsense; a demonstrable falsehood, of which we all have examples from our own experience. The Roman Catholic teaching that allegiance to Rome is branded indelibly on the soul by the water of baptism is just a way to frighten those who may stray. For proponents it is (as Gibbon might have said) a “necessary fiction”, without which their whole rationale falls.
What then of the man who shuffles embarrassedly to his vicar or a counsellor and says that he has always been a Christian, as plenty of girls could testify, but lately he has been having thoughts about cycles of rebirth, and could the counsellor help him to rid himself of these unwanted feelings? Can a Tibetan lama then leap upon him and claim that these feelings are proof that the man is a Buddhist and has always been from birth, and no one shall be permitted to convert him?
The truth of religious preference is that it is not in the strict categories its advocates pretend: it is a swirling, ever-changing sea of senses and responses which , taken together, may be characterised as generally one name of another. Even for those of us who have always been exclusively Christian, I may waver year to year over Arminian ideas, or annihilationism, or degrees of acceptance of figurative art; which is normal, healthy development. Others go further in their wandering deep reactions, which should be accepted too and not punished by law.
In India such laws against conversion practices started in the princely states to impede Christian missionaries. Allegiance declared in the impetuosity of youth had to be caught and frozen when otherwise at mature reflection might embrace the promises of the Gospel. Personal development had to be impeded by the policeman’s boot.
Once one state has adopted such a law, the pressure comes on others not to be left behind. It is an outrageous law, but once normalised in one place, there is no outrage heard. An activist will portray a failure to enact a conversion ban to be the outrage.
Could we see such a thing in Britain?
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- By Jordan B Peterson:
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