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Artillery Row

In defence of proselytising

We should thank religious nuts for most of the liberal rights we take for granted

Last Sunday in the Speakers’ Corner of Hyde Park, Hatun Tash, a Christian preacher was stabbed by a masked man who then fled the scene. Ms Tash is an ex-Muslim, who is well-known at Speakers Corner for criticising Islam, and encouraging Muslims to convert to Christianity, and this is almost certainly why she was violently attacked. Speakers’ Corner is a well-known British institution, regarded as an almost sacred example of the importance of religious and political freedom of speech, and the peaceful contesting of ideas. This attack then strikes at the heart of the pluralism of ideas that for two centuries has been taken to define Western, liberal society.

In our world today, that ideal is coming under growing pressure, both in Western societies and elsewhere. Though they tend not to resort to violence, Western Elites, increasingly confident they have discovered the final truth on religious and moral issues, are increasingly unsympathetic to those who noisily disagree, whether gender critical feminists, or evangelical Christians. More and more, it seems progressive consensus considers freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and other basic political freedoms, as less important than the freedom not to be offended, at least for certain people.

In doing so, Western Elites forget where their freedoms came from, and how transformative they have been. Street preachers can seem irritating, and progressive westerners may hold a trendy disdain for proselytising or missionary efforts around the world, but it was religious nuts, with their refusal to go quietly, who were historically responsible for most of the liberal rights we take for granted. Long before mass democracy, or party politics; it was non-conformist Christians — Congregationalists, Baptists, Quakers, and others — relentlessly demanding the right to preach, to worship and organise in their own communities, that eventually extracted those rights from the dominant Establishment. 

Religious and political freedom are overwhelmingly a feature of historically Christian societies

Not particularly because the Establishment wanted to give them, but through sheer bloody perseverance that could not be ignored. Fortified by a profound religious faith and the especial Protestant emphasis on individual faith and conscience, between the 16th and 19th centuries, these groups simply could not be repressed. The culture of religious pluralism, debate and tolerance, itself then became the essential prototype for the political culture of pluralism, debate and tolerance, that followed it in the latter 19th and 20th Centuries.

England had a parliament since shortly after the Magna Carta (itself drafted by Stephen Langton, the Archbishop of Canterbury, drawing on the Bible), but it was only the addition of Protestant individualism in the 16th Century that radicalised that representative structure and led within a century to parliament actually overthrowing the king and (temporarily) abolishing the monarchy! The government that followed, in turn, tried and failed to control the religious situation, and the English-speaking world would be permanently, crucially marked by both religious and political pluralism and debate. An inheritance that went on to powerfully influence the American revolution, in turn, and then our fundamental, global ideas about democracy, liberalism and pluralism.

This is not a cultural environment that can be taken for granted worldwide. Even today, religious and political freedom, and hence even “progressive” reforms like same-sex marriage, are overwhelmingly a feature of historically Christian societies. In the rest of the world, whether in the Middle East, North Africa, Central Asia, Indo-China, or China, political and religious oppression go hand in hand. Evangelical Christians, with their irritating habits of self-organising into communities, seeking converts from any social or ethnic background and maintaining links with Christians elsewhere, are consistently the canaries in the mine of civil-society, wherever governments tend towards authoritarian control.

This distrust regularly takes the form of laws putting tougher and tougher restrictions on people freely organising, preaching, and converting others. In Central Asian dictatorships, laws are described as protecting the State from “cults”; in Islamic countries for preventing “apostasy” and “blasphemy”. This is proclaimed to be consistent with a theoretical freedom of religion, but one that only involves freedom within the “few cubic centimetres inside your skull”.

Even somewhere like India, with its history of democracy, elites share the growing dislike of proselytising, arguing that it can amount to “preying on the vulnerable” and “indoctrination”, insisting that even where Christians offer free education, or healthcare, or child care; these are really evil tricks to secure conversion. Eight Indian states now have laws, nobly phrased to prevent such outrages, but which in reality, are routinely used to threaten and suppress minorities, and prevent the free sharing of beliefs and ideas. 

The Hindu nationalism behind this approach inevitably lacks respect for political dissent as much as religious difference. The reality is rather different: conversions in India from Hinduism disproportionately come from previously oppressed and disadvantaged Dalit (historically known as untouchable) and tribal peoples. For these people, conversion means an escape from a pre-ordained social structure, both political and religious, that placed them at the bottom.

Even the most jaded secularists should be able to see that respect for the right to organise and convert is essential

In Western societies you also see secularists complain — with arguments oddly identical to those heard from the Hindu Nationalists — not only when Christians, or other religious communities, engage in direct proselytism, but when they teach about their religion alongside providing other services, like education, childcare, youth groups, healthcare, debt support, etc. Secularists often argue that if the religious want to do good, they should do it without mentioning their faith at all. The sense of entitlement here can be astonishing. Even when these services are free, open to all, and clearly labelled as religious; people who show no sign of getting off their own backsides to organise help for those in need, still somehow feel justified in looking down on people who do. For Christians, as some other religions, their faith is not only the thing that inspires them (itself no small thing, when doing nothing is always the easiest option) it is an intrinsic good-in-itself, and so an essential part of any help they can offer.

Even the most jaded western secularists should be able to see that respect for the right and desire to organise, preach and convert, which is what proselytising amounts to, is essential to a pluralist political environment as much as a pluralist religious one. They do not like Christian proselytising, for example, because they do not think Christianity is true, but they should respect it nonetheless, as a crucial gadfly, proving whether the western commitment to tolerance and diversity is real, or just so much lip-service. Echoing Christ’s great command to love our enemies: if you only respect the diversity of people and ideas you agree with anyway, what good are you doing? And if that is not enough, they should remember: If freedom of speech and assembly can be denied to one peaceful group, because they’re annoying, then it can be denied to anyone.

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