Religious conversion

Religious conversion is the adoption of new religious beliefs that differ from the convert's previous beliefs; in some cultures (e.g. Judaism) conversion also signifies joining an ethnic group as well as adopting that group's religious beliefs. Conversion requires internalization of the new belief system.


The convert/proselyte

A person who has undergone conversion is called a convert or proselyte. A proselyte (from the Latin word proselytus which in turn comes from the Greek word προσήλυτος, proselytos meaning "someone who has found his/her place") is in general a title given to a person who has fully embraced a certain religion, world view, ideology, metaphysics, ontology et cetera.

On the historical meaning of the Greek word, Acts of Pilate, roughly dated from 150 to 400, in chapter 2, has Annas and Caiaphas define proselyte for Pilate:

"And Pilate, summoning the Jews, says to them: You know that my wife is a worshipper of God, and prefers to adhere to the Jewish religion along with you. ... Annas and Caiaphas say to Pilate: All the multitude of us cry out that he [Jesus] was born of fornication, and are not believed; these [who disagree] are proselytes, and his disciples. And Pilate, calling Annas and Caiaphas, says to them: What are proselytes? They say to him: They are by birth children of the Greeks, and have now become Jews" -Roberts Translation [1] (

In the traditional sense like in Proselytism this word signified people who have converted to Judaism, but is nowadays used in a wider meaning.

Conversion to Judaism

See also the main article ger tzedek


Jewish law has strict guidelines for accepting new converts to Judaism (a process called "giur"). According to Jewish law, which is still followed as normative by Orthodox Judaism and most of Conservative Judaism, potential converts must want to convert to Judaism for its own sake, and for no ulterior motives. A male convert needs to undergo a ritual circumcision, and there has to be a commitment to observe the 613 commandments and Jewish law. A convert must accept Jewish principles of faith, and reject the previous theology that he or she had prior to the conversion. Ritual immersion in a small pool of water known as a mikvah is required, and the convert takes a new Jewish name and is considered to be a son or daughter (in spirit) of the biblical patriarch Abraham, and a male is called up in that way to the Torah.

The Reform Judaism and Conservative Judaism movements are lenient in their acceptance of converts. Many of their members are married to non-Jews, and these movements make an effort to welcome the spouses of Jews who seek to convert. This issue is a lightning rod in modern day Israel as many immigrants from the former Soviet Union are technically not Jewish.

Conversion to Judaism in history

See the main article: List of converts to Judaism

The most famous Jewish King, King David, was descended from the convert Ruth (who, according to the Talmud and Midrash, was a Moabite princess). No formal conversion procedure is given in the text; modern critical historians generally hold giur, in its modern sense, to be an innovation of a later period. Joseph, the father of the most famous sage of the Talmud, Rabbi Akiva, was a convert.

Christians were forbidden to convert to Judaism on pain of death during most of the Middle Ages. In the 1700s a famous convert by the name of Count Valentin Potoski in Poland was burned at the stake. He was a contemporary and a disciple of Rabbi Elijah, known as the Vilna Gaon.

In Hellenistic and Roman times, some Pharisees were eager proselytizers, and had at least some success throughout the empire. Some Jews are also descended from converts to Judaism outside the Mediterranean world. It is known that some Khazars, Edomites, and Ethiopians, as well as many Arabs, particularly in Yemen before, converted to Judaism in the past; today in the United States, Israel and Europe some people still convert to Judaism. In fact, there is a greater tradition of conversion to Judaism than many people realize. The word "proselyte" originally meant a Greek who had converted to Judaism. As late as the 6th century the Eastern Roman empire (i.e., the Byzantine empire) was issuing decrees against conversion to Judaism, implying that conversion to Judaism was still occurring.

Relationship with converts

The Hebrew Bible states that converts deserve special attention (Deuteronomy 10:19). The Hebrew word for "convert", ger, is the same as that for a stranger. It is also related to the root gar - "to dwell'. Hence since the Children of Israel were "strangers" - geirim in Egypt, they are therefore instructed to be welcoming to those who seek to convert and dwell amongst them.

Since around 300 CE, Judaism has stopped encouraging people to join its faith. In fact, in Orthodox and Conservative Judaism, converts are often discouraged from becoming Jews and warned that being a Jew entails special obligations, as well as, at least in certain places, the risk of anti-semitism. A Rabbinic tradition holds that a prospective convert should be refused three times.

Differences between Jewish and Christian views

Judaism does not characterize itself as a religion (although one can speak of the Jewish religion and religious Jews). The subject of the Tanach (Hebrew Bible) is the history of the Children of Israel (also called Hebrews), especially in terms of their relationship with God. Thus, Judaism has also been characterized as a culture or as a civilization. Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan defines Judaism as an evolving religious civilization. One crucial sign of this is that one need not believe, or even do, anything to be Jewish; the Rabbinic definition of 'Jewishness' requires only that one be born of a Jewish mother, or that one convert to Judaism in accord with Jewish law. (Today, Reform and Reconstructionist Jews also include those born of Jewish fathers and Gentile mothers if they are raised as Jews.)

To Jews, Jewish peoplehood is closely tied to their relationship with God, and thus has a strong theological component. This relationship is encapsulated in the notion that Jews are a chosen people. Although some have taken this as a sign of arrogance or exclusivity, there are Jewish scholars and theologians who have emphasized that a special relationship between Jews and God does not in any way preclude other nations having their own relationship with God. For Jews, being "chosen" fundamentally means that Jews have chosen to obey a certain set of laws (see Torah and halakha) as an expression of their covenant with God. Jews hold that other nations and peoples are not required or expected to obey these laws, and face no penalty for not obeying them. Thus, as a national religion, Judaism has no problem with the notion that others have their own paths to God (or "salvation"), though it still makes claim as to the truth or falsehood of other beliefs, and as to whether Gentiles are allowed to hold them. Thus, for example, Maimonides believed that the truth claims of Islam were largely false, but he also believed that Gentiles were not sinning by following Islam; on the other hand, he regarded idolatry not just as false, but also as a serious sin, for Jew or non-Jew. In this respect, Rabbinical sources have usually classed Christianity with Islam, rather than with idolatry, though the use of icons in many denominations has raised questions as to whether they are, in fact, idolatrous.

Christianity is characterized by its claim to universality, which marks a break with Jewish identity. As a religion claiming universality, Christianity has had to define itself in relation with religions that make radically different claims about Gods. Christians believe that Christianity represents the fulfillment of God's promise to Abraham and the nation of Israel, that Israel would be a blessing to all nations.

This crucial difference between the two religions has other implications. For example, conversion to Judaism is more like a form of adoption (i.e. becoming a member of the nation, in part by metaphorically becoming a child of Abraham), whereas conversion to Christianity is explicitly a declaration of faith. Of course, conversion to Judaism also entails a declaration of faith, and, in Christian churches, conversion also has a social component, as the individual is in many ways adopted into the Church, with a strong family model.

Conversion to Christianity

Telling non-Christians about Christianity has been seen as a duty of Christians since the time of Jesus. According to the New Testament, Jesus commanded his disciples to "go into the world and make disciples of all nations". Evangelism, or 'spreading the Good News' has been a central part of the life of Christians since that time. In Christianity conversion is properly seen as the work of God. Humans may preach and teach, but it is considered to be God who brings the convert to faith.

In the times of Jesus, all of his disciples were Jews. On occasion, he performed miracles for Gentiles without requiring their conversion; in one conversation with a Samaritan woman, he downplayed the differences between Jews and Samaritans (John 4). Gentiles who sought to join the early Church were often required to undergo conversion to Judaism (or conversion to the practices of Jesus) first including circumcision for men. Some believe this requirement was later dropped entirely after Paul forced the issue. (See the "Incident at Antioch" of Galatians 2 where Paul publicly condemned Peter for Judaizing.)

The origin of Christian Baptism in water is derived from the Jewish law requiring a convert to submerge themselves in pure water (of a mikvah) in order to receive a new pure soul from God. In the first centuries there was a live debate with Jewish-Christians being labeled as Judaizers at one extreme and Marcionism at the other extreme with Gnosticism somewhere in between.

Christianity and Islam are two religions that encourage preaching their faith in order to convert non-believers. In both cases, this missionary property has been used as a justification for religious wars (cf. Crusades, jihad) on other countries. This property encourages evangelists to convert people of other faiths, and history has shown that the motives were not always pure. Because of this, evangelism is sometimes viewed scornfully by modern society.

In the year 1000, the Viking age parliament of Iceland decided that the entire country should convert to Christianity, and that sacrifice to the old gods, while still allowed, should no longer be made in the open. Similar mass conversions in other Scandinavian countries were not as democratic.

Conversion to Islam

One becomes a Muslim by believing that Allah (Arabic for God) is the only God and that Muhammad is His messenger. A person is considered a Muslim from the moment he sincerely makes this witness, the shahada. Of course a new Muslim has to familiarize himself/herself with the religion, the belief, and the practices of Islam, but there is no formal requirement for that. It is a personal process; acceptance of all of that is taken to follow from the original statement, since all of Islam is considered to derive from either divine inspiration, in the form of the Qur'an, or prophetic example, in the form of the hadith and sunna of Muhammad.

Conversion to religions of Indic origin

Religions of Indic origin such as Hinduism, Sikhism and Buddhism do not believe in conversion as a form of religious expansion, even though they welcome anybody to join their faiths. The reason for this is the strongly held belief in these religions that "all religions are true and are only different paths to the same truth". The followers also believe that the religion you follow is to be chosen based on an individual's temprement, birth etc. Also, what would be very strange and foreign to non-indic origin faiths is that people can claim to be follower of multiple religions. For example in Japan which was influenced by the indic faith of Buddhism, it is easy to find people who follow both Buddhism and Shinto. It is also common to find people in India claming to be both Hindu and Buddhist or Hindu and Sikh etc. This inclusivism is in direct contrast to the belief that the ordained path in the book is the only true paths, found in exclusivistic belief systems. This inclusivism also makes any conversion unnecessary. It should be noted that the above does not apply for some sects of Indic faiths, like Soka Gakkai and Hare Krishna/ISKCON.

Conversion to new religious movements and cults

Conversion to new religious movements (NRM's) is riddled with controversies. The anti-cult movement sometimes uses the term thought reform or even brainwashing, though the latter term has now become discredited, for this process. Often they will call certain NRM's cults. However, the definition of a cult has become so broad that in many instances it is almost meaningless and is used to define anything outside of Orthodoxy. NRMs are very diverse and it is not clear whether conversion to NRMs differs from conversion to mainstream religions. See also Brainwashing controversy in new religious movements

Research, both in the USA and in the Netherlands has shown that there is a positive correlation between the lack of involvement in main stream churches in certain areas and provinces and the percentage of people who are a member of a new religious movement. This applies also for the presence of New Age centers. [1],[2] The Dutch research included Jehovah's Witnesses and the Latter Day Saint movement/Mormonism to the NRM's.

Research in the USA has shown that disproportionally many people of Jewish descent join NRM's which worries some in the Jewish community. [3]

Professor Eileen Barker believes that the psychological changes as described in converts of the Divine Light Mission can be generalized for other NRMs, however she has supplied no proof of such claims.

Conversion of Catholics to Protestantism

Prior to Vatican Council II, Catholics who converted to protestantism were called perverts.

Prohibition of conversion

Several ethnic religions don't accept converts, like the Yazidis, the Druze, and Zoroastrians. The only way to become a Yazidi is to be born in a Yazidi family. Conversely, the Shakers and some Indian eunuch brotherhoods don't allow procreation, so every member is a convert.


The English language word proselytism is derived ultimately from the Greek language prefix 'pros' (towards) and the verb 'erchomai' (to come). It generally describes attempts to convert a person from one point of view to another, usually in a religious context.


In the Bible, the word proselyte denotes a person who has converted to Judaism, without overtly negative overtones. In our day, however, the connotations of the word proselytism are almost exclusively negative. Nonetheless, many people use the words interchangeably. An Orthodox writer, Stephen Methodius Hayes has written: "If people talk about the need for evangelism, they meet with the response, "The Orthodox church does not 'proselytize' as if evangelizing and proselytism were the same thing."

Many Christians consider it their obligation to follow what is often termed the "Great Commission" of Jesus, recorded in the final verses of the Gospel of Matthew: "Go to all the nations and make disciples. Baptize them and teach them my commands." The early Christians were noted for their evangelizing work.

The difference between the two terms is not easily defined. What one person considers legitimate evangelizing, or witness bearing, another may consider intrusive and improper.

Illustrating the problems that can arise from such subjective viewpoints is this extract from an article by Dr. C. Davis, published in Cleveland State University's 'Journal of Law and Health': "According to the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, Jews for Jesus and Hebrew Christians constitute two of the most dangerous cults, and its members are appropriate candidates for deprogramming. Anti-cult evangelicals ... protest that 'aggressiveness and proselytizing . . . are basic to authentic Christianity,' and that Jews for Jesus and Campus Crusade for Christ are not to be labeled as cults. Furthermore, certain Hassidic groups who physically attacked a meeting of the Hebrew Christian 'cult' have themselves been labeled a 'cult' and equated with the followers of Reverend Moon, by none other than the President of the Central Conference of American Rabbis". [2] (

Views on the propriety of proselytism, or even evangelism, differ radically. Some feel that freedom of speech should have no limits and that virtually anyone, anywhere should have the right to talk about anything they see fit. Others see all sorts of evangelism as a nuisance and an intrusion and would like to see them proscribed. Thus, Natan Lerner observes that the issue is one of a clash of rights - the right of a person to express his views versus the right of a person not to be exposed to views that he does not wish to hear.

From a legal standpoint, there do appear to be certain criteria in distinguishing legitimate evangelization from illicit proselytism:

  • All humans have the right to have religious beliefs, and to change these beliefs, even repeatedly, if they so wish. (Freedom of Religion)
  • They have the right to form religious organizations for the purpose of worship, as well as for promoting their cause (Freedom of Association)
  • They have the right to speak to others about their convictions, with the purpose of influencing the others. (Freedom of Speech).

By the same token, these very rights exercise a limiting influence on the freedoms of others. For instance, the right to have one's religious beliefs presumably includes the right not to be coerced into changing these beliefs by threats, discrimination, or similar inducements.

Hence a category of improper proselytizing can be discerned.

  • It would not be proper to use coercion, threats, the weight of authority of the educational system, access to health care or similar facilities in order to induce people to change their religion.
  • It would be improper to try to impose one's beliefs on a 'captive audience,' where the listeners have no choice but to be present. This would presumably require restraint in the exercise of their right to free speech, by teachers in the classroom, army officers to their inferiors, prison officers in prison, medical staff in hospitals, so as to avoid impinging on the rights of others.
  • It would not be proper to offer money, work, housing or other material inducements as a means of persuading people to adopt another religion.

Issues involving proselytism

Since the collapse of the former Soviet Union and the rise of democracy in the Eastern Bloc, the Russian Orthodox Church has enjoyed a revival. However, it takes exception to what it considers illegitimate proselytizing by the Roman Catholic Church, the Salvation Army, Jehovah's Witnesses and other religious movements [3] ( in what it refers to as its canonical territory.

Greece has a long history of conflict, mostly with Jehovah's Witnesses but also with some Pentecostals over its laws on proselytism. This situation stems from a law passed in the 1930s by the dictator Ioannis Metaxas. A Jehovah's Witness, Minos Kokkinakis, won the equivalent of US $14,400 in damages from the Greek state after being arrested repeatedly for the 'offence' of preaching his faith from door to door. In another case, Larissis vs. Greece, a member of the Pentecostal church also won a case in the European Court of Human Rights.

See also


  • 1. Schepens, T. (Dutch) Religieuze bewegingen in Nederland volume 29, Sekten Ontkerkelijking en religieuze vitaliteit: nieuwe religieuze bewegingen en New Age-centra in Nederland (1994) VU uitgeverij ISBN 90-5383-341-2
  • 2. Starks, R & W.S. Bainbridge The future of religion: secularization, revival and cult formation (1985) Berkely/Los Angeles/London: University of California press
  • 3. Barrett, D. V. The New Believers - A survey of sects, cults and alternative religions (2001) UK, Cassell & Co [4] (

External links

es:Proselitismo fr:Prosélytisme he:המרת דת nl:Bekering pl:Prozelityzm


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