Address to the Association of Moral Philosophers
St. Charles Seminary
Conversion did not originally mean a change of religious community. Conversion means metanoia. It is not a change of religious affiliation but an invitation to accept the good news that God’s government of love on earth was brought by Jesus Christ. Conversion implies a change, a change from a closed outlook to openness to the presence of God in our lives, a change from all that dehumanizes and divides us, a moving away from anything and everything that diminishes the power of God’s rule among us. No one is really born a Christian or made a Christian. One becomes a Christian by free choice.
The right to practice, proffer, and propagate religion is guaranteed in the present interpretation of the Indian Constitution. The Supreme Court of India has stated that propagation of a religion does not connote the right to convert to it. Therefore, legal restrictions can be imposed on conversion.
An attack on Article 29 of the Indian Constitution has been made by Arvind Sharma in his book, Hinduism and Human Rights: A Conceptual Approach, published by Oxford University Press, 2004. He proposes certain amendments and additions to the Indian Constitution on the basis of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. He says the Abrahamic religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are exclusivistic. They deny the right to change from one religion to another and they teach that to be a member of one religion precludes being a follower of any other religion.
The Hindu religion, on the other hand, takes another approach, an inclusive one, and permits the addition of a new deity or deities into one’s worship, and into its existent belief structure. Sharma asserts that the common Sufi worship of Hindu and Muslim communities and the penetration of Hinduism and Buddhism into South East Asia without conflicts or conquering of the peoples involved are examples of this inclusiveness.
Sharma goes on to suggest an amendment to the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights to include the Hindu view. He does not want a change to the existing formulation about the right to change one’s religion but he wants added the right not to change one’s religion. Does this make sense? Sharma says yes if the right not to change was enforced by a totalitarian or a theocratic state. Islam does not permit conversion emanating from its assertion that there is a right not to be converted. But at the same time it asserts its duty to propagate its religion and to convert others.
Hinduism, on the other hand, asserts the right not to change one’s religion, not to accept conversion, because Hinduism is potentially inclusive. It depends on the freedom of conscience of the individual Hindu.
Sharma coins a new word, “multiversal”, not universal, which is the Hindu worldview. He asks whether at the international level a framework for cultural equality among all groups could promote attitudes of mutual respect among cultures and religions. This would entail working toward higher levels of new possibilities from which flow rights to identity without depriving the individual of free choice. This higher level of reciprocity, might I suggest, in living in a pluralistic society is in dialogue and in the promotion of harmonious living. This way of living which Jesus called abundant life is, in sociological or secular language, integral sustainable, human development. When we work toward food, clothing, shelter, education for work and education to keep work, sufficient leisure for reflection (religion), some part in the making of decisions that affect their lives, and cultural liberty, we are doing in our time and place what Jesus did in his.