Three years ago, I met an Iranian scientist with an incredible brain and a stunning story: He had met Jesus through the disillusionment of the Islamic revolution and the music of J. S. Bach.
In Iran my friend had witnessed the full force of religious coercion, and he’d hated it. He’d converted to a new faith partly as a reaction against that force. He knew religious coercion is wrong, but now a Christian, he was wrestling with this question: Is it wrong to try to persuade someone to change his beliefs?
My scientist friend is an expert in breast cancer diagnostics, so I asked him to imagine a scene. He’s sitting across from a middle-aged woman from a poor educational background. She believes she’s not at risk of breast cancer and doesn’t need a mammogram. How should he respond?
We believe in religious freedom. We believe in cultural diversity. We know that persuasion can be coercive or manipulative, and that religious beliefs are deeply personal. All these things make us anxious about sharing our beliefs with others.
While this anxiety should make us careful, there are at least seven reasons why seeking to change a friend’s mind is not only justified, but even a vital tenet of life together in a pluralistic society.
The right to try to persuade others—without coercion or manipulation—isn’t a violation of religious freedom, but a basic building block of a tolerant society (Elshtain). We can’t defend religious freedom without defending the freedom of believers to share their beliefs. Saying Christians are free to practice their religion, but not to invite others to join them, is like saying Jews are free to practice their religion, but not to recite prayers in Hebrew. Defending the right of atheist intellectuals to argue for atheism, while denying the right of Muslims, Jews, and Christians to advocate for theism, is equally incoherent.
Respecting others as thinking agents—rather than just a product of their cultural environment—means recognizing they choose what to believe. Agents can change their minds in light of fresh evidence. Challenging our friends’ beliefs shows we take their faith seriously: we notice the differences between our beliefs and respect them enough to think they may have good reasons for their views. We may persuade them; they may persuade us. Respect breeds conversation.
If I believe in Hinduism, I disbelieve in Christianity. If I believe in Islam, I disbelieve in Buddhism. We may recognize and even celebrate the areas of congruence between different religious traditions, but it’s intellectually dishonest and ultimately disrespectful to suggest all religions are equally true. Indeed, religious relativism—which seeks to iron out the differences between religions and relegate religious truth to the purely subjective realm—is itself making an exclusive truth claim. If relativism is true, then Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and most other belief systems are false.
It’s intellectually dishonest and ultimately disrespectful to suggest all religions are equally true.
When we place religious beliefs off limits for real and rigorous discussion, we sacrifice relational depth. Of course, attempts to persuade can make others feel attacked. But this need not be so. The person who truly seeks to persuade friends must first listen to the fullest account of what they currently believe, and understand why they come at the world from that angle. This is an intimate act that creates the kind of personally engaging and intellectually stimulating conversations we all crave.
It’s often said you don’t truly understand something until you can explain it to someone else. We won’t truly understand our own beliefs—and we certainly won’t notice our blind spots and inconsistencies—if we keep our faith to ourselves. Particularly in universities, where students should be jostling through a marketplace of ideas, keeping religious beliefs off limits for challenge and discussion is antithetical to personal and educational growth. We should all be open to adjusting our convictions in light of new information.
We tend to assume religious unity limits cultural diversity, but this view is disrupted by the reality of the global church. Christianity has been multicultural from its inception. Jesus broke down every religious, racial, and cultural boundary, and the early church pushed Jews to mix with Gentiles, Barbarians with Scythians, citizens with slaves. One of the first converts to Christianity was a highly educated African (Acts 8:26–40). Today, most of the world’s Christians live in Asia, Africa, and South America, while some of the oldest Christian communities are being eradicated in Iraq and Iran. In the States, black Americans are significantly more likely to identify as Christians than whites are. To ban evangelism in the name of diversity doesn’t empower racial and cultural minorities; it silences them.
My Iranian friend was clear: He would do all in his power to persuade the woman to have a mammogram. She is at risk of breast cancer, and it would be a failure of love on his part to let her continue in her false belief.
The world’s major belief systems make different claims on truth. The consequences are real. If we love our friends, we will seek to persuade them. To be sure, this effort can be attempted in an aggressive way that makes the other person feel like an enemy, not a friend. But persuasion, prefaced by listening—with respect and without coercion—is a deep and risky offering of love.