2019-02-20
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Of the five major world religions, three actively work to gain converts. Islam, Buddhism and Christianity all place a great deal of emphasis on spreading their faith and converting others. This has hastened the spread of all three of these religions to all corners of the globe and sent their numbers of adherents through the roof. Neither the increase in the number of practitioners nor the geographical range over which the religion is practiced has been easily won. Converting a person to another religion is not as easy as many think it to be. One cannot simply say the right words, offer the correct verses or sutras, make the perfect argument or have the best conversation and win over a potential convert. Conversion takes time, energy, patience and realistically tends to have very little to do with the person who is trying to convert another. When it comes to conversion, everything begins and ends with the person who is considering converting.

Changing religions is not something that people take lightly. Even those who do not feel deeply connected to their current faith are often wary of converting to another. This has less to do with theology that aims to retain religious adherents and more to do with the fact that changing religions means a person fundamentally changes their identity. Secular culture puts little emphasis on faith and the effect is has on a person, but religion is one of the cornerstones of a person’s worldview even if they are not the slightest bit devout. A person’s faith forms the basic foundation for their sense for morality and the consequences for acting in unethical or immoral ways. While the major world religions, and most of the smaller religions, share common moral themes, there are subtle differences between them. For example, all of the major world religions as they are interpreted today prohibit murder. The circumstances under which killing another human being is acceptable, however, vary between the religions. Christianity states that it should be done only in self-defense, by soldiers fighting in a war or as a part of capital punishment. Buddhism states that a person can fight in self-defense but should avoid striking a lethal blow. Islam, meanwhile, is far more accepting of the killing of non-Muslims, but states that women and children should not be harmed. All three would claim that cold blooded murder is wrong but would handle killing in self-defense differently. As such, an adherent of each religion would approach the question of self-defense with a slightly different mentality.

Religion is also the key to how people understand the world around them and how they make sense of everyday trials and triumphs. Hinduism and Buddhism, for example, hold that everything that happens to a person is the result of their actions in a past life. It is karma unfolding. If a person has a difficult life, it is because they were a bad person in a past life. If they are successful and filled with happiness, they built up good karma in a past life. The underlying assumptions are that a person receives exactly what they earned through their actions long ago and that each person lives innumerable lives that are somehow linked. Christianity, Islam and Judaism would disagree with both these statements vehemently. None of them believe in reincarnation, so the idea of good and bad karma is nonexistent. All three religions believe that a person only gets one life on Earth. When evil happens, adherents of the Abrahamic religions have a few responses, though which one they tend to favor depends on their specific faith. Muslims, for example, tend to hold that trials are either the result of giving into the Devil’s temptations or occur because Allah is testing them or preparing them for something. Christians may agree that God challenges or tests His people in order to further His plans, but they may also claim that evil exists because of the inherently broken nature of human beings as cemented by the original sin. There is quite a difference between assuming that difficulties are, essentially, one’s just desserts finally arriving rather than a divine test or demonic temptation.

Converting religions requires essentially overhauling everything a person has ever known, but for some people it is the only way. For those who do convert, the decision to change religions is not a sudden flip of a switch but a slow process that ends with the straw that broke the camel’s back. To seriously consider converting, a person has to be deeply unhappy or unsatisfied with their current religion. Conversions do not come from minor confusions about esoteric theology or disagreements about bits and pieces of doctrine. Such issues may lead someone to change their denomination or sect, but they are unlikely to completely change faiths. Instead, a person has to feel that there is something fundamentally incorrect about their current religion. This would normally be on par with a Christian doubting that the Resurrection occurred or a Muslim finding it difficult to believe that Muhammad was actually the final prophet of God. Both ideas form the cornerstone of the religion. If a person cannot believe in those basic tenets, they do not truly believe in the faith.

The lack of satisfaction in a person’s current religion also needs to be something that cannot be corrected by their current faith. There cannot be a handy text that alleviates their doubts or explains how one can continue to practice their current faith with such doubt. To drive someone away from a religion, their concerns or doubts need to remain.

Converts also need to find that what they were missing in their own religion can be satisfied by another. They need to connect with a new faith and feel that it is the answer to their challenges. Both their dissatisfaction with their old faith and their love of their new faith need to be maintained over a decent period of time as well. An intense curiosity about a new faith is not necessarily the same as an interest in converting. 

For all that there are billions of people who seek to convert others to their faith, there are painfully few who seem to realize what conversion really entails. It is a long, messy process that almost always involves trials and tears. It requires a person to rewrite everything they have ever known and create an entirely new identity for themselves. Harrowing though it can be to learn to look at the world through new eyes, most converts would say that it is completely worth it to finally feel at home in their own soul and spirituality.