I asked yesterday for topics on religion. I got an interesting one. Is proselytizing a moral act? Are there times when proselytizing is moral, and times when it is not?
The first step, obviously, is to distinguish what proselytizing is. The Wikipedia article is a pretty good overview, especially as it includes thumbnails on the attitudes of several of the main religions. The short version is that it is the attempt to convert someone to your religion. (Note that evangelism is a synonym of proselytizing unique to Christianity, though with shades of meaning separating the two.)
Is that moral? Well, it largely depends on the kind of proselytizing involved (as many of the religions and legal statutes indicate). A "soft sell", in which you are simply exposing someone to your ideas, is perfectly fine. (Which is comforting, as that is arguably what I am doing with these very blog posts.) A "hard sell" is not. I think that the difference between these is fairly obvious. Either pressuring or bribing someone into joining your religion is a terrible thing. Not only is it immoral to treat another person that way, but you are likely to taint the fellowship with members who are there only out of fear or greed.
But I think we need to unpack this a bit more. It's a fine thing for me hand out Gold Stars of Moral Rectitude. But there really should be some justification. What separates a soft and hard sell? Is there a distinction between proselytizing and teaching? Can it be moral even when it's really frakkin' annoying?
The line between a soft and hard sell can be most easily described as the difference between allowing someone to convert, and compelling her to convert. Presenting the basic tenets of your faith is acceptable. Acting as a good example of the expected practice is highly encouraged. Browbeating someone for not following your faith is not acceptable. Threatening her, even with theoretical divine disfavor and eternal hellfire, is highly discouraged. And just like any form of salesmanship (and don't be fooled, proselytizing is sales), the fine lines in the middle have far more to do with tone and persistence than any checklist of topic or approach. Two missionaries could give the exact same speech, and one could be a gentle teacher offering to show the path and the other a brutal drill sergeant kicking your butt down the path.
There is a distinction between teaching and proselytizing, though there is also much overlap. Teaching is simply informing the student of the precepts of the faith, and helping her come to the truths on her own. Even those who are devout members of a faith are still students, and still require a teacher. A teacher can also speak to those outside the faith, with no intent of converting them. Teaching is obviously a moral act. We are never the worse for having learned something new. However, teaching is often a component of any attempt at proselytizing. When it is used in this way, it is important to note that it can exceed the bounds of morality.
The primary reason that people object to proselytizing (leaving aside the terrible abuses that can happen) is that it's often something that we endure. Most of us are quite comfortable with our current faith (or lack thereof). We don't want to hear about the other options available to us. And we certainly don't want to get ambushed by an attempt to get us to upend our spiritual journey. Jehovah's Witnesses showing up on our door, Hare Krishnas passing out pamphlets at the airport, or even something as simple as a Catholic priest speaking the pater noster before a secular meeting is nothing but annoying. Especially when their opening gambit is often that we are wrong for the choices we have made. But can we really decry something as immoral for no better reason than it irritates us?