The above is a 25 minute video of a PBS series called “I Believe” which covers different religions. The host is Dennis Wholey who is interviewing Randolph Dobbs, a Baha’i from the Los Angeles area.
Most of the interview is softball questions about the general principles and serves as a good introduction for someone who doesn’t know anything about the Baha’i Faith.
For me the interesting part is at the 21 minute mark (to which you can jump to by clicking and dragging chiclet) where the host asks,
“How do you attempt to grow the Faith?”
To which Mr. Dobbs responds,
“You know the message of the Baha’i Faith is shared from heart to heart. We talked about your mother and how she recognized the spiritual truth, that it resonated in her heart. We believe that people recognize truth when they hear it. And although we don’t proselytize, we don’t go from door to door teaching the Baha’i Faith, we do invite people to Baha’i meetings. We invite people to children’s classes, to study circles, to devotional meetings.”
The bold is my own emphasis to draw your attention to the excerpt.
It jumped out at me because lately I’ve been thinking about the difference between the two: proselytizing and teaching. I suppose for everyone it depends. We draw the line at different points and the behavior which you may categorize as teaching, another Baha’i may see clearly as proselytizing.
Although in the Baha’i writings we are prohibited from proselytizing, it isn’t really defined nor clearly delineated. The need for such clarity is vital since we are asked to teach the Faith.
In current Baha’i culture teaching and proselytization can be blurry. For example, did you know that in contrast to what Mr. Dobbs says above, Baha’is have started to go from door to door?
That is, actually knocking on doors and starting to speak to people about the Baha’i Faith? They may not “teach” directly or in the same pushy style as Jehovah’s Witnesses but they are going up to strangers with the intention of converting them to the Baha’i Faith.
So although the actual action is to invite you to participate in say, children’s moral education classes organized by the local Baha’i community, or a devotional event, the intention is teaching. So is that then proselytizing?
In talking with Baha’is about this one person told me that for them proselytizing is when you force someone to change their religion. Or promise them some kind of reward. In other words, bribe them. Anything short of that is ok.
However this definition of proselytism is not correct. In actuality proselytism is “the practice of attempting to convert people to another opinion, usually another religion.
The word proselytism is derived ultimately from the Greek language prefix ‘pros’ (towards) and the verb ‘erchomai’ (I come). Historically in the New Testament, the word proselyte denoted a person who had converted to the Jewish religion. Though the word proselytism was originally tied to Christianity, it is also used to refer to other religions’ attempts to convert people to their beliefs or even any attempt to convert people to another point of view, religious or not.”
Clearly, by this definition, what Baha’is are doing is proselytizing, and any assertion to the contrary is really a semantic game, rather than a genuine distinction.
Of course, Baha’is are not the only ones trying to pin down this concept. According to Wikipedia, here are the differences between what some consider to be legitimate versus illegitimate proselytism:
- No attempt to convert others unless they specifically ask about one’s religion
- Providing physical benefits in hopes that recipients will be open to listening
- Providing physical benefits only to those willing to listen
- Providing physical benefits only to proselytes
- Forcing people to become proselytes
What about you? What do you consider to be the the difference between these two? How can they be recognized? How are they defined?
If a friend starts up a conversation with another friend and it leads to religion and they end up talking about the Baha’i Faith is that teaching or proselytizing? What if instead of a friend it is a stranger? What if the Baha’i flat out says, “You know, you should become a Baha’i. Here’s a card.”
What if a Baha’i goes door to door in a neighborhood to invite people to a fireside? to a children’s class? to some other Baha’i inspired and organized meeting or event? Is that proselytizing or teaching?
Where does one begin and the other end? Can you provide specific examples from your own experience or imagination?