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The Conversion of Saint Paul, a 1600 painting by Italian artist Caravaggio (1571–1610).

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Religious conversion
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Religious conversion is the adoption of a new religious identity, or a change from one religious identity to another. This typically entails the sincere avowal of a new belief system, but may also present itself in other ways, such as adoption into an identity group or spiritual lineage. "Conversion" occurs not only from one religion to another, but also between different denominations within the same faith, when this involves a felt change of identity rather than other reasons such as convenience.

Types of religious conversion include:

Christianity and Islam are major religions which emphasize the desirability of conversion. Buddhism has done so historically, and still witnesses modest levels of missionary activity. Judaism and Hinduism allow in-conversion, but generally do not encourage it.

Proselytism is the act of attempting to convert another individual from a specific religion or belief system. (See proselyte).

Apostate (n.) is a term with pejorative connotations used by members of one church or religion to refer to someone who has left that church or religion.

Conversion to Christianity

The Augsburg Confession divides repentance into two parts: "One is contrition, that is, terrors smiting the conscience through the knowledge of sin; the other is faith, which is born of the Gospel, or of absolution, and believes that for Christ's sake, sins are forgiven, comforts the conscience, and delivers it from terrors."[1]

Conversion to Christianity is the religious conversion of a previously non-Christian person to some form of Christianity. The exact understanding of what it means to attain salvation varies somewhat among denominations. It primarily involves repentance of sin, baptism in the name of Father, Son and Holy Spirit (see the Great Commission), and a decision to live a life that is holy and acceptable to God.

Within the Christian faith, conversion is intended to involve more than a simple change in religious identity. In fact, the Latin word conversio, translating the Greek metanoia, literally means "going the other way." The convert, therefore, is expected to renounce sin and personally commit to a life of righteousness as described by Paul of Tarsus and exemplified by Jesus. In some Protestant traditions, this is called "accepting Christ as one's Savior and following him as Lord."[2]

In another variation, the 1910 Catholic Dictionary defines "conversion" as "One who turns or changes from a state of sin to repentance, from a lax to a more earnest and serious way of life, from unbelief to faith, from heresy to the true faith."[3] In this older usage, the term "pervert" was occasionally used to mean transition in the opposite direction. For example, the Encyclical of Pope Gregory XVI promulgated on 27 May 1832 entitled Summo Iugiter Studio (On Mixed Marriages) included the following: "the Catholic party must not be perverted, but rather must make every effort to withdraw the non-Catholic party from error."[4] See also Cafeteria Catholicism.

The process of conversion to Christianity varies somewhat among Christian denominations. Most Protestants believe in conversion by faith to attain salvation. According to this understanding, the person professes faith in Jesus Christ as Savior. While an individual may make such a decision privately, usually it entails being baptized and becoming a member of a denomination or church. In these traditions, one is considered to become a Christian by publicly acknowledging the reality of the death, burial and resurrection Jesus for the remission of sins, and thereby receiving Jesus as their personal Savior.

A person converting to Christianity often chooses to experience believer's baptism as a sign of their conversion. It is required by some Churches and denominations as a prerequisite to membership. Catholics and some Protestants believe that baptism is essential for salvation, though most Protestants do not; however, at least for Catholics, this Baptism does not by itself ensure salvation, and it is also believed that, for some, a heartfelt desire for conversion/Baptism without actual ritual reception is possible, since the sacraments, although communicating the grace and powers of God, are not a limit on His own power to bestow grace.

Catholics, Orthodox and many Protestant denominations encourage infant baptism, welcoming children into the Christian faith before they are aware of their status. Baptized children are expected to participate in confirmation classes as pre-teens and affirm their faith by personal choice.

Transferring from one Christian denomination to another may consist of a relatively simple transfer of membership, especially if moving from one Trinitarian denomination to another, and if the person has received water baptism in the name of the Trinity. If not, then the person may need to be baptized or rebaptized to become incorporated into the new Church. Some denominations, such as those in the Anabaptist tradition, require previously-baptized Christians to be re-baptized before being accepted into their respective religious community.

According to most branches of Christianity, sharing the message or Good News of Jesus Christ and his gospel is a responsibility of all followers of Jesus. According to the New Testament, Jesus commanded his disciples to "go and make disciples of all nations" (Matthew 28:19), the so-called Great Commission. Evangelism, or "spreading the Good News," has been a central part of the life of Christians since that time. This command by Jesus is known as the Great Commission. Conversion means also to turn from sin and start a new life in joy with God.

Conversion to Hinduism

Labels (of a distinct religion) would imply division of identity, which is in contradiction to the vedas, that includes the label of a community.Revival of faith in hinduism began way back in the 15th century in the times of Adi Shankaracharya. In more recent times, due to the conversion of Hindus to other religions, it was found necessary by some Hindu thinkers such as Maharishi Dayanand Saraswati to bring back people into the Hindu fold, practices such as "Shuddhi" (purification) were introduced. This is not to be confused with "Dhiksha" or initiation which was given to serious seekers, as initiation into a yogic life (life of ascetism and pranayama).

The modern view of conversions into Hinduism is influenced by the demise of caste system combined with the persistence of age old ideas of Sanathan Dharm. Hindus today continue to be influenced by historical ideas of acceptability of conversion. Hence, many Hindus continue to believe that Hinduism is an identity that can only be had from birth, while many others continue to believe that anyone who follows Hindu beliefs and practices is a Hindu, and many believe in some form of both theories. However, as a reaction to perceived and actual threat of evangelization, prozelyzation, and conversion activities of other major religions many modern Hindus are opposed to the idea of conversion from (any) one religion to (any) other per se.[5]

Reconversion among people who were formerly Hindus or whose ancestors were formerly Hindus has picked up pace with the growth of Hindu revivalist movements.[6] National organizations such as Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (India) and Parisada Hindu Dharma (Indonesia) actively facilitate such reconversions. Reconversions, in general, are well accepted within Hindu society since conversion out of Hinduism is not considered valid in the first place. Conversion through marriage is well accepted within Hinduism and often expected in order to enable the non-Hindu partner to fully participate in their spiritual, religious, and cultural roles within the larger Hindu family and society.

Conversion by Hindus have taken place as well, in Southeast Asia the merchant, sailor, and priestly class accounted for much of the spread of the religion.[7] Many foreign groups including Gujjars, Ahoms, and Hunas converted to Hinduism after generations of Sanskritization.[8] In the 18th century, Manipur was evanglelized by Hindu priests. In India and Indonesia today many groups still convert to Hinduism on a large basis.[9]

Famed American-born Hindu guru, Satguru Sivaya Subramuniyaswami wrote a book entitled How to Become a Hindu - A Guide for Seekers and Born Hindus. In it, Subramuniyaswami offers a systematical approach to, what he calls, "ethical conversion to Hinduism," testimonials of converts to Hinduism, ques and clues of Hinduism, definitions of Hindu authorities on what a Hindu truly is, etc.

Conversion to Islam

A newly-convert Muslim is called Muallaf. There are five pillars, or foundations, of Islam but the primary, and most important is by believing that there is only one God and creator, referred to as Allah (the word for the name of God in Arabic) and that Muhammad is his messenger. A person is considered converted to Islam from the moment he or she sincerely makes this declaration of faith, called the shahadah.[10]

It is common belief among Muslims that everyone is Muslim at birth [derived from a single source and brought into being by the single entity] but sometimes chooses to take steps to revert to their origins. While conversion to Islam is among its most supported tenets, conversion from Islam to another religion is called apostasy (from Islam), and is considered to be a sin punishable by death.

According to Sheikh Ahmad Kutty, a senior lecturer and Islamic scholar at the Islamic Institute of Toronto, Canada, it is highly recommended that one's conversion be documented. New converts should obtain a certificate of conversion from a reputable Islamic centre, organization or mosque, which has been registered for this purpose. Sheikh Kutty writes that such a certificate might be absolutely necessary for the purposes of pilgrimage, marriage, etc.

In Islam, circumcision is a Sunnah custom not mentioned in the Qur'an. The primary opinion is that it is not obligatory and is not a condition for entering into Islam. The Shafi'i and Hanbali schools regard it as wajib, while the Maliki and Hanafi schools regard it as only recommended. However, it is not a precondition for the acceptance of one's Islamic practices nor does one sin if they forego circumcision. It is neither one of the Five Pillars of Islam nor the Six Fundamentals of Belief. Advocates often quote a hadith in which circumcision is mentioned as one of the five characteristics of fitra (natural state of disposition), however there is another version which does not mention circumcision and yet another hadith which names ten characteristics, circumcision not being among them.

A new Muslim is expected to familiarize himself/herself with the practices of Islam. 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 for prophetic example, in the form of the hadith and sunnah of Muhammad.

"Al Mu'allafun kulubuhum" means those whom hearts need company or affection. So they receive a part of the zekat (due religious alms) and friendship from already and well established Muslims. The aim was to help these new converts to restart a new life as they were banned of their families and tribes not only in the early times of Islam, but also in contemporary times.

Conversion to Judaism


Jewish law guidelines for accepting new converts to Judaism are called "giyur." Potential converts should desire conversion to Judaism for its own sake, and for no other motives. A male convert needs to undergo a ritual circumcision conducted according to Jewish law (if already circumcised, a needle is used to draw a symbolic drop of blood while the appropriate blessings are said), and there has to be a commitment to observe the 613 mitzvot and Jewish law. A convert must join the Jewish community, and reject the previous theology he or she had prior to the conversion. Ritual immersion in a small pool of water known as a mikvah is required.

The Reform and Conservative movements are lenient in their acceptance of converts. Many of their members are married to gentiles and these movements make an effort to welcome spouses who seek conversion. This issue is contentious in modern Israel as many immigrants from the former Soviet Union are not considered Jewish.

Orthodox Jews tend to discourage conversion, urging the person to find their path to God through being a righteous Gentile and observing the Noahide laws and living a life of kindness, but they will accept conversion if they insist. Controversially, some Syrian Jewish communities are reluctant to accept the validity of new conversions.

Conversion to Judaism in history

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 people all over the world 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.

In recent times, members of the Reform Judaism movement began a program to convert to Judaism the non-Jewish spouses of its intermarried members and non-Jews who have an interest in Judaism. Their rationale is that so many Jews were lost during the Holocaust that newcomers must be sought out and welcomed. This approach has been repudiated by Orthodox and Conservative Jews as unrealistic and posing a danger. They say that these efforts make Judaism seem an easy religion to join and observe when in reality being Jewish entails many difficulties and sacrifices.

Conversion to Zoroastrianism

Zoroastrianism, A Dualistic religion, founded approximately 1700 BCE by Zarathushtra, is a universal religion. It emphasizes individual judgment and responsibility based upon the grasp of the eternal and universal Truth by the divinely endowed Good Mind to implement the Righteous Order in existence. The religion is free to be chosen by whosoever desires it.[11] Zarathushtra's Daena Vanguhi (the "Religion of Good Conscience", another name for Zoroastrianism), is a universal belief system for all, regardless of gender, nationality, race, or class.[12]

The religion of Zarathushtra is open to all persons of moral goodness and goodwill who would accept the Gathic Revelation. Zarathushtra preached a religion which demanded of individuals responsibility for reflective moral living, and transformed human existence from social abrasion to social harmony.[11]

The Parsis in India do not accept converts, contrary to the above facts and Zarathushtra's own writings.

Conversion to Dharmic religions

Sikhism is not known to openly proselytize, but accepts converts.

It does not appear to be possible at present to convert to Jainism. However, according to Indian law one has the right to assert him/herself as a follower of any religion which also includes Jainism.

Buddhism often engages in proselytism. The current Dalai Lama discourages conversion without ruling it out altogether.[13][14] New Buddhists traditionally "take Refuge" (express faith in the Three Jewels — Buddha, Dharma, Sangha) before a monk, nun, or similar representative. Buddhists often hold multiple religious identities, combining the religion with Shinto (in Japan) or Taoism and Confucianism (in China; cf. Chinese traditional religion). Some Himalayan groups are ambiguous as to their status as Hindus or Buddhists.

According to Gampopa's Jewel Ornament of Liberation, taking refuge in the Buddha precludes one from worshiping gods and nature spirits. Other traditions take the position that a lay Buddhist can pay respects to, and give gifts to, gods or spirits, but should not regard them as a refuge. This position is generally practiced in the Theravada Buddhist tradition.

Conversion to the Bahá'í Faith

Though it actively seeks converts, the Bahá'í Faith prohibits proselytism and does not pursue "missionary" work. In sharing their Faith with others, Bahá'ís are cautioned to "obtain a hearing" – meaning to make sure the person they're proposing to teach is open to hearing what they have to say. "Bahá'í pioneers," rather than attempting to supplant the cultural underpinnings of the people in their adopted communities, are encouraged to integrate into the society and apply Bahá'í principles in living and working with their neighbors.

Bahá'ís recognize the divine origins of all revealed religion, and believe that these religions occurred sequentially as part of a Divine plan (see Progressive revelation), with each new revelation superseding and fulfilling that of its predecessors. Bahá'ís regard their own faith as the most recent (but not the last), and believe its teachings – which are centered around the principle of the oneness of humanity – are most suited to meeting the needs of a global community.

In most countries conversion is a simple matter of filling out a card stating a declaration of belief. This includes acknowledgement of Bahá'u'llah – the Founder of the Faith – as the Messenger of God for this age, awareness and acceptance of His teachings, and intention to be obedient to the institutions and laws He established.

Conversion to the Bahá'í Faith carries with it an explicit belief in the common foundation of all revealed religion, a commitment to the unity of mankind, and active service to the community at large, especially in areas that will foster unity and concord. Since the Bahá'í Faith has no clergy, converts to this Faith are encouraged to be active in all aspects of community life. Indeed, even a recent convert may be elected to serve on a Local Spiritual Assembly – the guiding Bahá'í institution at the community level.[15][16]

Other religions and sects

Conversion to new religious movements (NRMs) is riddled with controversies. The anti-cult movement sometimes uses the term thought reform or even brainwashing. Often they will call certain NRMs cults. There are many different definitions for the word cult. 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 the Netherlands has shown there is a positive correlation between lack of involvement in mainstream 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 centres.[17][18] The Dutch research included Jehovah's Witnesses(Though most JW's were previously Religious including a number of former Ministers,Deacons,Priests and Nuns) and the Latter Day Saint movement/Mormonism to the NRMs ( Which was more indicative of the research).

The Church of Scientology attempts to gain converts by offering "free stress tests" (see picture at auditing). In contrast to other religions, which ask everyone to sign a card or membership book (e.g. Unitarian Universalism) or be baptised (e.g. Roman Catholic Church), Scientology requires converts to sign contracts before attending church.

On the other end of the scale are religions that do not accept any converts, or do so only very rarely. Often these are relatively small, closely-knit minority religions, like the Yazidis, Druze, and Mandaeans.

Chinese traditional religion lacks clear criteria for membership, and hence for conversion. Several ethnic religions — including the Yazidis, Druze, and Mandaeans — appear to refuse all applicants for conversion. The Shakers and some Indian eunuch brotherhoods do not allow procreation, so that every member is a convert.

Religious conversion in international law

The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights defines religious conversion as a human right: "Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief...." (Article 18). Though this is controversial because some groups either forbid or restrict religious conversion (see below).

Based on the declaration the United Nations Commission on Human Rights (UNCHR) drafted the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, a legally binding treaty. It states that "Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right shall include freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice..." (Article 18.1). "No one shall be subject to coercion which would impair his freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice" (Article 18.2).

The UNCHR issued a General Comment on this Article in 1993: "The Committee observes that the freedom to 'have or to adopt' a religion or belief necessarily entails the freedom to choose a religion or belief, including the right to replace one's current religion or belief with another or to adopt atheistic views [...] Article 18.2 bars coercion that would impair the right to have or adopt a religion or belief, including the use of threat of physical force or penal sanctions to compel believers or non-believers to adhere to their religious beliefs and congregations, to recant their religion or belief or to convert." (CCPR/C/21/Rev.1/Add.4, General Comment No. 22.; emphasis added)

Some countries distinguish voluntary, motivated conversion from organized proselytism, attempting to restrict the latter. The boundary between them 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."[19]

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, certain criteria are often mentioned 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.

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[20] 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 for trying to preach 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.

Some Islamic countries with Islamic law outlaw and carry strict sentences for proselytizing. Several Islamic countries under Islamic law, Saudi Arabia,[21][22] Yemen,[23] Afghanistan and Pakistan,[24] Egypt,[25] Iran,[26][27] and Maldives[28] outlaw apostasy and carry imprisonment or the death penalty for those leaving Islam and those enticing Muslims to leave Islam.

See also


  1. Augsburg Confession, Article XII: Of Repentance
  2. Commentaries » Matthew 16 » The Cost of the Kingdom
  3. New Catholic Dictionary: conversion
  4. Pope Gregory XVI - Summo Iugiter Studio - On Mixed Marriages - [[27 May 1832]
  5. Omar, Rashid (August 2006) (PDF). The Right to Religious Conversion: Between Apostasy and Proselytization. Kroc Institute, University of Notre Dame. pp. 3. 
  6. [1].
  7. Curtin 101
  8. Rawat 106
  9. Ramstedt 275
  10. Converts to Islam
  11. 11.0 11.1
  14. Dalai Lama opposed to practice of conversion
  15. Smith, P. (1999). A Concise Encyclopedia of the Bahá'í Faith. Oxford, UK: Oneworld Publications. ISBN 1851681841. 
  16. Momen, M. (1997). A Short Introduction to the Bahá'í Faith. Oxford, UK: One World Publications. ISBN 1851682090. 
  17. 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
  18. Stark, R & W.S. Bainbridge The future of religion: secularization, revival and cult formation (1985) Berkeley/Los Angeles/London: University of California press
  19. Joining a Cult: Religious Choice or Psychological Aberration?
  21. Saudi Arabia-Christian Persecution in Saudi Arabia
  22. Currently undergoing maintenance Amnesty International
  23. Yemen: Torture/prisoner of conscience/death penalty: Mohamed Omar Haji Amnesty International
  24. Document Information Amnesty International
  25. Document Information Amnesty International


  • Barker, Eileen The Making of a Moonie: Choice or Brainwashing? (1984)
  • Barrett, D. V. The New Believers — A survey of sects, cults and alternative religions (2001) UK, Cassell & Co [2]
  • Cooper, Richard S. "The Assessment and Collection of Kharaj Tax in Medieval Egypt" (Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 96, No. 3. (Jul – Sep., 1976), pp. 365–382.
  • Curtin, Phillip D. Cross-Cultural Trade in World History. Cambridge University Press, 1984.
  • Hoiberg, Dale, and Indu Ramachandran. Students' Britannica India. Popular Prakashan, 2000.
  • Ramstedt, Martin. Hinduism in Modern Indonesia: A Minority Religion Between Local, National, and Global Interests. Routledge, 2004.
  • Rawat, Ajay S. StudentMan and Forests: The Khatta and Gujjar Settlements of Sub-Himalayan Tarai. Indus Publishing, 1993.

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