Is It Wrong to Try to Persuade Others to Change Their Beliefs?
by Rebecca McLaughlin
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…
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