The Missionary Thrust

by Victor Gunasekara

Bill Cooke in his “Letter from America” (not to be confused with the long-running BBC program of that name by Alistair Cook) writes that “There are more missionaries in the world now than at any other time in the history of the world” (Australian Humanist, No. 72, Summer 2003, p. 12). This is indeed a telling statistic of the vigour of religion in this 21st Century, and by implication of the failure of humanism and secularism. It is indeed surprising that the sway of supernatural religion is still being extended in this scientific age by its dedicated followers with little or no opposition.

              There are several issues that have to be considered in this expanding missionary thrust in this scientific age. Amongst these issues we may mention the following as the more important: (1) What are the religions that are being propagated? (2) Who are the worst offenders? (3) Who are the targeted victims? (4) Where is this missionary activity taking place? (5) What methods are being employed in the current missionary activity? (6) How can this missionary activity be countered?. This essay considers these six questions. It is not possible within the compass of this article do deal exhaustively with even any one of these issues..

              Australian Humanists have generally neglected this question. This is partly because conversion activity has not been great, or successful, within Australia itself. The last great spurt of Conversion here was when aboriginal people were converted to Christianity. There has been very little consideration of the ethics and the methods of this episode of conversion, even by the Aboriginal leaders here who have been agitating on other matters like land rights. It is not the purpose here to examine this episode of Australian conversion as it raises many questions of its own.

              Today conversion activity in Australia is largely seen as an attempt by one Christian group to convert other Christians. The door-knocking campaign of Mormons and Jehovah’s witnesses are conspicuous in every place. But their activity does not seem to have yielded them much success given by their relatively stagnant numbers in census counts. Other religions like Islam, Judaism, Hinduism or Buddhism are relatively minor in Australia, and even though they may have made some converts this is not significant in terms of the totality of religious believers.

              Probably more important than inter-sect conversion in Australia is the phenomenon of so-called “born again Christianity”. This is an attempt to bring nominal and non-practicing Christians, and lapsed Catholics, back into the fold of the religion they were originally born into. This could also be seen as a kind of religious conversion of those who have veered towards secularism, and those who promote this activity may also be considered “missionaries”. Since this is a direct attack on secularism it should be of particular interest to Humanists. There has been a phenomenal growth in Christian “outreach” centres and charismatic churches in all the major Australian cities. These are often the institutions which promote born-again conversions. This has counteracted the long term decline of church attendance in the “mainline” religions. However important this phenomenon should be to Humanists we shall not deal with it here, reserving it for special consideration on a later occasion.

              But if Australia does not have a high degree of internal missionary activity it is one of the largest providers of missionaries in the world-wide missionary thrust. Australian missionaries have been in the forefront, some even becoming martyrs for their cause. For this reason alone this subject deserves consideration by Australian Humanists. This subject has been neglected in the Australian Humanist literature, and this essay is only a preliminary effort in this direction. We can only consider only a few of the main issues involved in this question Footnote .

Major Phases of Conversion activity

              Throughout history there have been instances of philosophers and visionaries wandering about proclaiming their views and seeking followers. Footnote These cannot be considered as organized attempts at conversion. We may distinguish at least four distinct phases when organized attempts were made to spread a religion on a national, continental or global range. These are:


1. The Christianization of Europe. This was perhaps the first episode of religious missionary activity. A brief description of this phase was given in a previous article by the present writer Footnote . It followed the conversion of the Roman emperor Constantine to Christianity. Already during this phase some of the tactics of the use of State power in converting people was worked out by the priests. It was one of the most successful episodes of missionary activity as it transformed the whole of Europe to this new creed. It stopped only after the conversion of Europe. An attempt to extend it in the Crusades failed. This wave of Christianization retarded the development of European civilization by several centuries.

2. The Islamic Expansion. This took place during the four centuries following the death of Muhammad, the Prophet of Islam. It was primarily a military effort and it succeeded in converting a whole swathe of countries from the Atlantic to Asia. However it too ran out of steam when the military might of Islam, which was the force that drove it, petered out.

3. The Western Colonial Phase. This started in the sixteenth century and continued to the middle of the twentieth century. A succession of Western colonial powers succeed between them in colonizing almost the whole of the Americas, Asia, Africa ad Oceania. Like the previous Islamic wave, its success was due to the use of its military might. Throughout the colonized world the missionaries were given every facility to conduct their work of conversion. The techniques used changed with the dominance colonial powers. Originally it was the Spanish and the Portuguese who sought to divide the world in terms of the Treaty of Torsidellas (1492) mediated by the Pope. Their conversion activity was characterized by the utmost brutality. The later Dutch, French and British colonizers used the more subtle methods like easy access to education, jobs and even outright bribery. While these methods brought a significant harvest of converts in Africa and Asia their success was not complete. Only in a few countries like the Phillippines and the Pacific Islands was their a complete success. A large part of the population of the colonized world managed to resist the conversion activity.

4. The Post-Colonial Phase. This commenced about the middle of the twentieth century when classic colonialism was gradually replaced by neo-colonialism. This used some of the techniques of “unethical conversion” which had started during the previous phase. These were now refined by the modern missionaries. It is this phase that we will be concerned with, and which we will refer to as the fourth wave of religious proselytization.

The Contest for Converts

              At the centre of all missionary activity is the contest between religions. A good part of history, particularly that of the West, has been shaped by the religious conflict. When Western hegemony was extended to most parts of the world during the colonial era, the religious imperative was transferred along with the political control.

              Missionary activity has always been a feature of the two Abrahamic religions of Christianity and Islam. There is a subtle difference in the attitude to conversion in Christianity and Islam.

              The original Abrahamic religion (Judaism) alone has been free of the missionary imperative. Footnote The Jewish population has never been large (in global terms) and they had been subjected to persecution and proselytization by Christians and Muslims. They have however been remarkably successful in meeting the challenge of the missionaries.

              Christianity and Islam, have succeeded in making the religion of the chosen people into an engine of religious imperialism and enslavement. Their victims ranged from the followers of animistic and “pagan” religions Footnote to the more advanced religions of Asia. There is a subtle theoretical difference in the attitude to conversion as between Islam and Christianity. Initially Muhammad’s view was that a person’s choice of religion should be a voluntary matter. This is contained in the well-known Koranic statement “There is no compulsion in Religion” which Muslims often quote. Footnote Later on Muhammad himself went against this injunction when he ordered that all non-Muslims in Arabia be either killed or be exiled. The conversion of Muslims was made impossible by the rule that apostasy was punishable by death. So if one is a Muslim it is impossible for that person to choose any other religion.

              But Christianity does not have such a theoretical limitation. Nor does it have any standards of ethics when it comes to conversion. The harvesting of “souls” for their mythical God is their supreme concern.

              In dealing with the different kinds of potential converts the Christian missionaries used different techniques. They were most successful in dealing with “primitive” people who lacked even an elementary knowledge of scientific principles. A principled person would have thought that their primary duty is to bring them into line with the knowledge gained by other advanced nations. But to the Christian missionary this was not their concern but to capitalize on their very ignorance to propagate their own fantastic religious myths. With the number of primitive people declining the missionaries have had to turn to the other established religions.

              The missionary encounter between Christians and Muslims has been the most explosive of the religious contests of modern times. In Islam the Christian missionaries encountered a religion which was also based on their own Abrahamic roots and used some of the central concepts of Christianity in a more consistent way than the Christians themselves. In particular the God-myth which is central to Christianity is used by Islam in the most uncompromising way. Muhammad while admitting Jesus into the ranks of the prophets actually treated him in a somewhat derisive way. The Muslims openly mock the myth of Jesus as the “Son of God”, thus deflating the principal selling pitch of Christian missionaries.

              The contest between Christians and Islam is perhaps the most acute in Africa. It still has a substantial population that is classed as animist, and both the Abrahamic religions seek to target them.

              The latest phase of the Muslim-Christian encounter is the phase of terrorism. This led the US, now the most uncompromising of the Christian nations, to declare a War on Terrorism. Despite the use of the seemingly religion-neutral term “terrorism”, this war actually aimed at one particular brand of terrorists, the Islamic terrorists who target America and its allies.

              With the conversion of Muslims being made more difficult by their militancy and their rule on apostasy the missionaries have turned to other established religions. Of these the current effort is principally directed against Orthodox Christianity, Hinduism and Islam. Parts of the world where these religions have prevailed historically have become the new battleground of missionary conflict.


The New Arenas of Missionary Activity

              With the collapse of the Soviet Union Russia and other former areas of the Soviet state have been overrun with Missionaries. From Moscow to Outer Mongolia they are busy converting the inhabitants. The principal instrument is the economic largesse they disburse. With the collapse of the Soviet system large segments of the population was deprived of the social support they received and thrown to the mercy of the new capitalist vultures. The missionaries are using this to entice people to join their religions using the bait of economic assistance.

              The Russian Orthodox Church has sought protection from the Russian government to curb missionary activity. They have had some partial success, but the missionary thrust in the new Russia has not been blunted. Under the Communist system the Orthodox Church was actually protected, but it is not finding any such certainty from the new capitalist rulers of Russia.

              The other arenas that have opened up are the Indian subcontinent (mainly against Hindus and Buddhists), and South East Asia and the Far East (mainly against Buddhists and the followers of Chinese religion). In these latter areas there has been a renewed effort to convert Muslims as well making use the relatively more liberal Islam that prevails in these areas. In all these areas the tactics of “unethical conversion” have been deployed, and it is to these that we must turn.

Unethical Conversion

              Unethical conversion is a term used to designate the use of economic and material incentives to make people adopt the proselytizing religion. This is essentially an attempt to capitalize on greed and poverty rather than on the truth of the religion propagated.

              The Indian subcontinent provides a perfect arena for the exercise of unethical conversion. There is mass poverty, and even though the Indian government seeks to provide basic services these are inadequate and large areas of deprivation exist. The missionaries provide some social services (mainly in the areas of health services and education) and sometimes even with the gift of money, food and other requisites. Even if no direct attempt at conversion is made there are indirect pressures which result in a “harvest of souls” which are broadcast in the home countries of the missionaries in order to get even more resources to continue with the missionary thrust.

              The provision of medical services, of which the Mother Theresa syndrome Footnote is the best example, has become a staple method of conversion. As the pros and cons of this have been well debated it will not be considered here. Where education is provided this is largely an attempt at indoctrinate young children with the crude myths of the Christian religion. Some basics of literacy may be imparted but this good is more than compensated by the religious indoctrination. Well-known Western charities also distribute food, medicine etc., but with a few exceptions, with the evangelical motive. It is not intended to give a account here of how unethical conversion works out in practice as it would require a special treatment of its own.

              Another tactic, particularly useful in India, is to champion the plight of the lowest castes in Indian Society (Dalits and tribals). While the ending of the discrimination against these peoples is justified the motives of the evangelists are different. Even if these people are converted they still remain discriminated against.

A Counter Offensive?

              The missionary thrust has produced a counter offensive. Those opposing unethical conversion are in something of a quandary. These counties have generally had a tradition of tolerance when compared to the main missionary offenders, Christianity and Islam. The counter offensive has taken many directions, some of them completely undesirable.

              At one extreme we have mob violence directed at the missionaries. They have been physically attacked and churches and less commonly mosques have been attacked. The most notorious of these was the killing of an Australian missionary and his son in Orissa in India. This has resulted in conviction of the perpetrators, one of these being sentenced to death.

              Others have raised the unethical activities of missionaries as a political issue. The rise of the Hindutava movement in India is typical of this. While this has been condemned by many Western Humanists they do not usually consider the reasons that has led to its rise.

              Another tendency has been to legislate against unethical conversion. The Indian state of Tamilnadu was the first to move in this direction. This has been attacked by the Pope and other Christian propagandists as limiting the religious freedom even though historically considered no one has limited religious freedom than the Pope and others who now masquerade as proponents of freedom of belief. Indeed a true equality of belief is incompatible with the fundamentals of their religion. The Tamilnadu example has been followed by some other jurisdictions in India and neighboring countries. Footnote

              However the real answer is to expose the fallacies of the Christian religion, a tactic rarely used. Koenraad Elst has observed: “...the Hindutva campaigners against Christian proselytization are silent about what ought to be their strongest, most peaceful yet most devastating weapon: the fictional nature of Christian dogma.” Some even go to retail stories of Jesus having come to India, that his message is distorted by the Church. These are poor apologias which actually tend to support the missionary thrust.

              But where the traditional religions fail Humanists can take the lead. They have a unique insight into the way Christianity has operated throughout all phases of its expansion, its gross disregard for ethical conduct not to mention elementary truth, etc.

              Unfortunately Humanists have not taken up this challenge. It is time that they did.