The Problems and Possibilities of Defining Precise Criteria to Distinguish Between Ethical and Unethical Proselytizing Evangelism

Cultic Studies Review, Volume 5, Number 3, 2006, pages 374-389.

The Problems and Possibilities of Defining Precise Criteria to Distinguish Between Ethical and Unethical Proselytizing/Evangelism

Elmer J. Thiessen, Ph.D.

Medicine Hat College, Alberta, Canada


This paper explores some of the problems that I have encountered in trying to define precise general criteria to distinguish between ethical and unethical proselytizing or evangelism. Another objective is to explore ways to overcome these problems. I examine the notion of a “continuum” of persuasion or proselytizing techniques as a way of overcoming, at least partially, the problem of vagueness. A continuum of persuasion, ranging from obviously noncoercive to obviously coercive, does at least help us to identify clear examples of ethical and unethical proselytizing at either end of the continuum. I then suggest that examples that fall in between these extremes are best treated in terms of a case by case analysis. Finally, I suggest a multi-level approach to ethical thinking, which allows for different levels of precision in criteria to distinguish between ethical and unethical proselytizing.

This paper grows out of my manuscript on the ethics of proselytizing/evangelism, which is currently being sent to publishers. My three main objectives of this hopefully to-be-published book are (a) to answer objections that are frequently raised against proselytizing; (b) to defend, and discuss the possibility of an ethical form of proselytizing; and (c) to develop criteria to distinguish between ethical and unethical proselytizing or evangelism (I use the terms proselytizing and evangelism interchangeably). Throughout the manuscript, I illustrate my arguments by referring to three religions: Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, the latter used as an illustration of a supposedly nonproselytizing religion. I also refer to “cults” or new religious movements, but I am not assuming that only they are guilty of unethical proselytizing. One reason I do not focus on the proselytizing activities of cults is that doing so risks making cults a scapegoat, thereby hindering critical scrutiny of proselytizing in other so-called “benign religious groups” (West 1990, 126). Various writers have drawn attention to the existence of “cult-like” behaviour in conventional religious groups (Young and Griffith 1992, 91-93; Sawatsky 1986). I believe unethical proselytizing or recruitment practices that are often associated with cults also occur in conventional religious groups. Further, as various writers have noted, there are problems with defining “cults,” and the distinction between cults and “benign” religious groups is not as clear-cut as is usually assumed. So I try to avoid making any assumptions about where unethical proselytizing is occurring.

My overall aim in this book is to provide a philosophical defense of proselytizing, showing that an ethical form of proselytizing is indeed possible. However, my intent is not to provide a blanket defense of all proselytizing. Indeed, another central thrust of this book is to clarify the distinction between ethical and unethical proselytizing. Thus, toward the end of the book, I devote two chapters to defining some criteria that can be used to distinguish between ethical and unethical proselytizing.

This paper focuses on the problems I have encountered in attempting to define some of these criteria. I also explore ways to overcome the difficulties that arise in trying to define precise general criteria to distinguish between ethical and unethical proselytizing.

Problem of Vagueness

What then are some problems inherent in trying to distinguish between ethical and unethical proselytizing? The fundamental problem is that many criteria used to make this distinction suffer from vagueness.

Consider, for example, the dignity criterion, which in fact appears quite often in literature that deals with the ethics of communication, persuasion, and proselytizing.[2] I maintain that ethical proselytizing should always be done in such a way as to protect the dignity and worth of the person or persons being proselytized. Proselytizing becomes unethical when it reduces the proselytizee to the status of an object or a pawn in the proselytizing program of any religious institution or religious organization.

The problem with the dignity criterion, however, is that it is very broad; it is in fact difficult to determine exactly when someone’s dignity has been violated. Immanuel Kant has given us a classic formulation of the dignity criterion—to treat persons with dignity entails that they must be valued as ends in themselves.

Anthropologist and long-time Christian missionary Jacob Loewen, in reflecting on his life’s work, draws attention to a specific way in which a violation of the principle of treating persons as ends in themselves can occur when proselytizing. He refers to what is often called “friendship evangelism” in Christian evangelical circles, an approach to evangelism wherein church members befriend nonchurchgoing individuals with the goal of bringing them to church. What worries Loewen about friendship evangelism is that it can so easily be subverted to become a “bated hook” approach to evangelism (2000, 90). If friendship is merely a way of luring the unsuspecting into the Christian fold—hence, the label “bated hook”—then the person being befriended is not being treated as an end in himself or herself. The problem here is that it is very difficult to determine the genuineness of a friendship. Indeed, Kant would admit that even in a friendship, persons are treated as a means to an end to some degree. Only if a person is “simply” being used as a means to an end has something gone wrong. But here again, it is difficult to determine if in fact a person is being used simply as a means to an end. This problem also applies to friendship evangelism.

I move on to consider a second criterion that can be seen as growing out of the dignity criterion. I refer to this second measure as the “coercion criterion.” The freedom to make choices is central to the dignity of persons. Moral proselytizing will therefore allow persons to make a genuinely free and uncoerced choice with regard to conversion. Coercive proselytizing is immoral. It is rather easy to articulate the essence of the coercion criterion as a basis for distinguishing between moral and immoral proselytizing. Difficulties quickly emerge when it comes to describing exactly what is meant by uncoerced choice. Indeed, it is necessary to distinguish between several quite different understandings of coercive proselytizing.

I begin with a mark of noncoercive proselytizing that would seem to be the easiest to identify—the absence of physical coercion or the threat of physical coercion. Clearly, if I hold a sword over you while you are in a supine position, and then tell you to convert, I am being coercive in my proselytizing efforts. But even here questions can be raised as to whether this action is necessarily coercive. After all, there are many examples in history of persons who refused to convert to whatever religion, even under such “obvious” conditions of physical coercion. So even the physical coercion criterion is not as tight as is often assumed. However, I suspect that most of us will still maintain that the use of physical coercion when proselytizing is coercive and hence immoral. Surely ordinary people typically find themselves incapable of resisting the pressures of physical coercion. Therefore, we generally understand the application of physical force to be an extreme expression of coercion, and hence immoral.

I move next to a consideration of psychological coercion, a charge frequently made against the influence techniques that cults use. Edgar Schein, who first introduced the notion of coercive persuasion in his study of prisoners, talks in terms of subjection to “unusually intense and prolonged persuasion” that prisoners could not avoid; thus, “they were coerced into allowing themselves to be persuaded” (1961, 18). But how intense must a persuasion technique be for it to be deemed coercive? And how prolonged is “prolonged persuasion”? This kind of vagueness extends to other attempts to define extremes in persuasive techniques.

Richard Ofshe, for example, suggests that a key factor that distinguishes coercive persuasion from other training and socialization schemes is “the reliance on intense interpersonal and psychological attack to destabilize an individual’s sense of self to promote compliance” (1992, 213). But how intense must this attack be to be coercive? We must also keep in mind that conversion that results from proselytizing will necessarily involve some degree of destabilizing an individual’s sense of self—after all, the person is undergoing a serious re-evaluation of core beliefs that he or she may have held for a long time. So we need to be careful not to be too hasty in identifying the destabilizing of an individual’s sense of self as coercive.

Another attempt at defining coercion in cults is to introduce the notion of a coordinated program of a variety of techniques, the combination of which can be seen as psychologically coercive (Ofshe and Singer 1986). But how coordinated does a program of influence have to be to be coercive? Another problem here is that we find coordinated efforts at influencing beliefs and behavior in other contexts that are generally considered to be quite acceptable. For example, as Singer and Addis point out, sales programs, recruitment programs, and political campaigns all include “planned influence procedures” (1992, 171). But unless one can identify a difference between these coordinated programs to influence beliefs and behavior and proselytizing programs, one is being inconsistent in calling one kind of program coercive and the other noncoercive.

In fact, Singer and Addis try to identify a difference in terms of the “intense and frequent” attempts cults make to control and manipulate the social environment of the proselytizees in various ways (1992, 171). The purpose of such environmental manipulation is to undermine people’s confidence and judgment, to cause them to re-evaluate themselves, and to isolate them from previous social contacts where disconfirming information and nonsupporting opinions might be expressed. Social, psychological, and spiritual threats and punishments are used to bring about compliance (171).

The problem here again is the vagueness inherent in the notion of “intense and frequent” attempts to undermine a person’s capacity to make genuinely free choices. It is also all too easy to exaggerate human vulnerability. Surely, as Robbins points out, three weeks of “indoctrination,” presuming that brutality and torture were not used, are not sufficient for an adult to actually “lose capacity” to make choices (1984, 252). Indeed, as various studies have shown, the high rates of defection from cults and NRMs would suggest that some of these individuals have not at all lost their capacity to make choices.[3] There is also a problem with the idea of contrived and manipulated environments. If ever there was an institution that can be characterized as a contrived environmental setting, complete with isolation from previous social contacts, it is the state-maintained public schools of Western societies. If we accept control over a person’s social environment here, should we not also accept it in the religious context? I will not pursue this point here because I have argued it at length elsewhere (Thiessen, 1993, ch. 7). We must also be very careful not to rule out the possibility that recent converts will have a natural tendency to disassociate themselves to some degree from previous social contacts. A degree of isolation can be a result of uncoerced individual choice.

If we had more time, I could show that the problem of vagueness also surfaces in other criteria that have been proposed to distinguish between ethical and unethical proselytizing; for example, in reference to social coercion, inducement when proselytizing, truthfulness, and the need for humility, tolerance, and motivation. This problem of vagueness leads some writers to dismiss some of these criteria, while others are tempted to suggest that the entire enterprise is doomed to failure. For example, Thomas Robbins says this about cult critics who appeal to the psychological coercion criterion: They appeal to “a broad and only tenuously bounded concept of ‘coercion’” (1984, 243, 247). More generally, it is this kind of elasticity in its meaning and nonspecificity in its applicability that make Young and Griffith reject coercive persuasion as a useful way to distinguish between moral and immoral methods of proselytizing (1992). But we must not give up too soon. Surely we can’t simply dismiss these criteria because they succumb to the problem of vagueness. Surely there must be some point at which we can agree that psychological coercion has been taken to an extreme and hence must be viewed as immoral. This point also applies to other criteria that we have considered. So is there any way to rescue these criteria from the problem of vagueness?

Continuum of Influence and Persuasion

Social scientists might be of some help in overcoming the problem of vagueness. For example, social scientists connected with ICSA have developed a Group Psychological Abuse Scale (GPA) (Chambers et. al. 1994). Although this scale does not specifically address the issue of proselytizing, the category of mind control does include such descriptors as coercive persuasion, which could be applied to proselytizing. However, the precision offered here is quite deceptive, I believe, and rests on some questionable assumptions. For example, the study focuses on cults as the paradigm of psychological abuse (Chambers et. al. 1994, 90), thereby assuming a distinction between cults and mainstream religions, a distinction that I have already called into question.

I therefore move on to what I consider a more promising approach to dealing with the problem of vagueness. Various scholars have introduced the notion of a “continuum” of persuasion or proselytizing techniques. For example, Richard Perloff, after pointing out that the relationship between coercion and persuasion has long been of interest to philosophers and communication scholars, seems to suggest that there may not be a sharp difference between these two terms (1993, 11). He then refers to another writer who places various modes of social influence on a continuum that ranges from relatively “noncoercive” to “highly coercive.”

Margaret Battin introduces the notion of a continuum by first reviewing a series of examples of unethical proselytizing (1990, ch. 3). These examples are carefully chosen for the purpose of developing “an overall, composite scale of aggressiveness in religious convert seeking” (140). It needs to be underscored that Battin’s scale of aggressiveness in proselytizing also serves as “a scale of ethical repugnance”—“the more aggressive a practice, the more morally problematic“ (147).

At the lower, milder end of the scale is “invitational convert seeking,” where missionaries represent themselves as models or examples of faith by doing good, engaging in social activist projects, and thereby hoping to spread the faith by contagion," although no overt attempt is made to make converts (142). The opposite end of this aggressiveness continuum includes overt proselytizing that is manipulative, deceptive, and exploitive (135). Other approaches to proselytizing fall in the middle of this aggressiveness scale. Here, in the middle of the scale, outright coercion is avoided, but proselytizing is still aggressive in that it is confrontational, uninvited, and manipulative. This mid-range also includes the offering of inducements to convert (146).

Michael Langone applies the notion of a continuum to the influence that psychologists and mental heath professionals have on their clients (1985, 378-82; 1989). At one extreme of this continuum lie nondirective techniques such as reflection and clarification. At the other extreme are physical restraint and punishment. The methods of the first extreme are obviously ethical, while the use of physical restraint in counseling is obviously unethical. Difficulties arise, of course, in assessing the methods that lie in between these extremes. Langone goes on to introduce a more general notion of “climates of influence,” which can be applied specifically to proselytizing. Here again climates of influence can be seen as on a continuum ranging from healthy to unhealthy, from ethical to unethical. Langone identifies four methods of influence and places them on this continuum (educative, advisory, persuasive, and coercive) (1985, 378-80). The first two methods are classified as choice-respecting, while the latter two fall under a compliance-gaining mode, and hence are seen as increasingly unacceptable.

How then do we assess these various attempts to distinguish between ethical and unethical proselytizing in terms of a continuum? Clearly, we have not eliminated the problem of vagueness entirely—to assess proselytizing activities in the middle of the continuum will still be difficult. But it would seem that we have gained something with this approach because cases that fall on either extreme of this continuum should be clearly identifiable as moral or immoral. However, a problem emerges here with the writers I have referred to above who use the continuum approach.

A major concern I have with all of these writers is that they beg the question by tending to assume that all attempts at persuasion or influence are at least somewhat coercive or aggressive, and hence morally problematic. In other words, they fail to clearly identify one extreme of the continuum as nonaggressive or noncoercive and so morally acceptable. For example, Battin’s scale moves from mildly aggressive to very aggressive, and all proselytizing is located on this scale of aggressiveness. Given that her scale also functions as a scale of moral repugnance, the possibility of finding a moral form of proselytizing is by definition ruled out. Now I am sure that Battin would be opposed to the use of arbitrary definitions; in fact, at one point she tries to avoid the same by holding up her preferred invitational approach to proselytizing as one that “can be wholly nonaggressive” (1990, 142). But her analysis is confusing because at times she describes invitational evangelism as a convert-seeking activity, and, as such, still coercive, though only mildly so (141, 142).[4]

Langone seems to avoid the problem of a question-begging definition and seems to allow for a healthy noncoercive approach to proselytizing by starting his continuum with a choice-respecting method of influence. Unfortunately, a problem surfaces in that persuasion is classified in the second category of methods of influence (i.e., compliance-gaining), and hence is understood to be problematic. I would further suggest that Langone commits a category mistake when he classifies his first two methods, education and advising, as choice-respecting and hence as not including any element of persuasion. I would argue that degrees of persuasion already exist in the first two methods, and, if so, they too should be seen as belonging to the compliance-gaining mode of methods of influence. Therefore, these two methods should be seen as unacceptable, at least to some degree. Interestingly, in a later treatment of this subject, Langone adds a third “persuasive” category to the choice-respecting methods (1989,18-19), admitting that some forms of persuasion are acceptable. Langone’s position, like that of Battin, is simply not clear

I would suggest that the reason for this confusion and hesitancy in clearly allowing for a noncoercive and moral type of influence or persuasion is that these writers share a widespread suspicion about persuasion itself, a perspective that various writers on communication ethics have pointed out (Genevieve McBride 1989, 14; Jaksa & Pritchard 1994, 76). Sonja Foss and Cindy Griffin, in an article revealingly entitled “Beyond Persuasion: A Proposal for an Invitational Rhetoric,” provide a blistering attack on persuasion, arguing that the traditional conception of rhetoric “is a rhetoric of patriarchy, reflecting its values of change, competition, and domination” (1995, 4). While this article is written from a feminist perspective, I believe it reflects a more general and deep suspicion about persuasion that in fact has a rather long history. This suspicion about persuasion is extended to proselytizing. Thus, for example, David Novak describes proselytizing in terms of “cajoling” the adherents of other faiths to cease being what they have been and to change their identity by becoming what the missionaries are (1999, 43). And Battin uses terms such as “accosting,” “buttonholing,” and “haranguing” to describe proselytizing/persuasion and finds these strategies to be morally problematic because “they invade privacy and characteristically involve a deliberate attempt to disrupt a person’s previously held framework of belief” (Battin 1990, 137). Time constraints preclude exploring the interesting question about the deeper historical reasons that lie behind seeing persuasion in such a negative light.

I believe that the long-standing and negative connotation given to the notion of persuasion is completely unwarranted. Persuasion is not in and of itself a bad thing. Indeed, persuasion is an expression of our social nature. We depend on persuasion to gain knowledge. As Henry Johnstone has noted, a human being is, among other things, “a persuading and persuaded animal” (1981, 306).

Of course, persuasion can become manipulative and coercive. Such persuasion should generally be condemned as immoral.[5] Indeed, I would argue that rather than interpreting persuasion that follows moral guidelines as an encroachment on the other person, a better approach is to interpret it as an expression of care and respect for the other person. It is indifference that violates the dignity of the other person. If I attempt to persuade you, I show that I care about you. Healthy persuasion in fact contributes to a climate that fosters human dignity.

Returning to the idea of a continuum of persuasion, what is needed is a continuum that clearly begins with an unqualified notion of a noncoercive or nonaggressive method of influence or persuasion.[6] At this end of the continuum we would therefore have moral proselytizing, while the other extreme of the continuum would involve aggressive and morally repugnant proselytizing. Clearly it will be easier to identify and locate certain activities of proselytizing on either extreme of a continuum of coercion, and therefore as being either ethical or unethical. So it would seem that we have gained some precision in identifying moral and immoral proselytizing.

Unfortunately, some vagueness still remains for all the activities that fall in between these two extremes. This vagueness is, I believe, inescapable. So caution is in order with regard to declaring any proselytizing activities located between these extremes as either ethical or unethical. But I do believe we have still gained something with the notion of a continuum of influence or persuasion.

Case Studies vs. Generalizations

I want to make a couple of further suggestions with regard to overcoming the difficulties of defining precise criteria to distinguish between ethical and unethical proselytizing. The focus of this paper has been on defining general criteria to make the necessary distinction concerning proselytizing. An assumption underlies this exercise that needs to be brought to the fore. Perhaps we are being overly optimistic about the possibility of making generalizations concerning the distinction between ethical and unethical proselytizing. A better approach, perhaps, is to engage in a case-by-case analysis.

Let me illustrate this point by providing an example of psychologically manipulative proselytizing that I hope all will agree is excessive and hence immoral. Margaret Battin describes the practice of “flirty fishing” introduced around the end of 1973 by the leader of the Children of God, David Berg, known as Moses David or “Mo” (1990, 135-6). Mo would send his second wife or mistress, Maria, out onto the dance floor at a London dancing school as “bait.” At Mo’s urging, Maria struck up a relationship, which quickly became sexual, with an Englishman named Arthur. Once Arthur was firmly “hooked,” he was passed on to one of Mo’s other wives. Maria was then commissioned to catch another “fish.” Flirty fishing became a regular practice of this group, and “was developed and refined practically into an art form.” In his annual statistical newsletter for 1979, Mo reported that “Our dear FF’ers (women engaged in flirty fishing) are still going strong, God bless’m, having now witnessed to over a quarter-of-a-million souls, loved over 25,000 of them and won nearly 19,000 to the Lord” (Battin 1990, 136). This is an obvious and extreme case of an immoral form of psychologically coercive proselytizing.

I move on to what I consider to be some positive examples of proselytizing. Let me introduce these examples in the form of questions, drawing on the use of pejorative language often associated with proselytizing. Is the Jehovah’s Witness, quietly standing on a Denver street corner, holding out a Watchtower Magazine for any passer-by to take, really being coercive? Is it really fair to talk about stalking and pouncing and coercion when a “sinner” has responded to an advertisement on a billboard for a Billy Graham Crusade and freely walks into the arena to hear him speak? If as a Christian, at some point in my long-standing friendship with a Jewish colleague, (a) I suggest to her that my religious position is “the highest truth and the greatest good” (to use Novak’s terms); (b) I even go on to argue the same and seek to persuade her to adopt the better religion; (c) she then rejects my argument and my appeal; and (d) despite all this, our friendship continues to flourish, am I cajoling her? And if, in giving aid to the many who are starving in various parts of the globe, the Mennonite Central Committee puts on each sack of grain shipped overseas the words “In the name of Christ,” with nothing more said when the grain is distributed, can this really be described as coercive? The answer to all of these questions is, surely, "No!" But all of the above scenarios are obviously cases of proselytizing, although the latter example is perhaps better classified as a case of covert proselytizing. (I will grant that there may be some readers who might not agree with my assessment of these examples, but I would suggest that such disagreement rests on a negative view of persuasion generally which I have already critiqued.)

I hope these questions and examples illustrate that we might get further in our attempt to distinguish between ethical and unethical proselytizing if we focus on specific cases rather than the development of broad ethical principles. I believe we will more easily achieve consensus if we focus on case studies rather than general criteria.

At the same time, being able to clearly differentiate these underlying principles will surely help highlight differing aspects of what is or is not objectionable about proselytizing. Indeed, any consensus concerning case studies will be, at least implicitly, a result of some underlying general principles. So I cannot give up entirely my efforts to define criteria to help us to distinguish between ethical and unethical proselytizing.

This commitment brings me to a final suggestion, which has to do with the nature of ethical principles: We must be careful not to mistakenly assume that all ethical principles are, like the Ten Commandments, specific and precise. Christian and Jewish ethics consist of various levels of principles that range from broad to specific. For example, at one point Paul describes the Great Commandment—love God and love your fellow man—as summing up the more specific Ten Commandments (Romans 13:8-10). Arthur Holmes has encouraged us to think of different levels of ethical principles (1984, 50-56). Similarly, as we try to define criteria to distinguish between ethical and unethical proselytizing, we must allow for differing levels of specificity.

Thus I am not willing to give up trying to define general criteria to distinguish between moral and immoral proselytizing. I also believe that we should try to be as specific and practical as possible in developing such criteria. But we must be careful not to carry the twin demands of specificity and practicality too far—it is impossible to account for all the unique details of concrete, everyday situations. We must use good judgment as we apply any proposed ethical criteria. We must avoid generalities that do not help the observer or individual decision-maker; at the same time, defining moral criteria for proselytizing is not a precise science. Here we need to heed Aristotle’s wise counsel to seek only as much precision as the subject matter allows (Ethics, Bk.1, Ch. 3).


Cultic Studies Review, Vol. 5, No. 3, 2006, Page

[1] Paper presented at ICSA 2006 International Conference, Denver, Colorado, June 22–24, 2006.

[2] See, for example, Greenway (1993); Johnstone (1981); Langone (1985; 1989); Lewis (1985).

[3] For example, in her detailed study of the Unification Church, Eileen Barker found that one-third of those who had initially joined the group left of their own accord after four months, and few lasted more than two years (1984, 144-48, 259). Another study of a more diverse array of groups found that two-thirds of the most highly involved members eventually left (Dawson 1998, 119).

[4] Battin simply is not clear as to whether or not invitational evangelism is convert-seeking. Indeed, I believe the label is quite misleading. Her invitational model of proselytizing is best understood as "Church-sponsored social work" (Baber 2000), and when giving an example to illustrate this approach, she describes it in terms of precluding the aim of "seeking to convert these people to a new set of theological doctrines" (143).

[5] Clearly, there might be some exceptions here; for example, the need to coercively persuade young children concerning dangers they are unable to understand. But we must be careful not to view persuasion as inherently immoral.

[6] Steven Hassan seems to avoid the problem I have identified in these writers when he admits that some social influence programs are positive, some are benign, while others are hurtful. He also introduces the notion of a continuum of influence and locates cult mind control on the destructive extreme of this continuum (2000, 113-14).


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About the Author

Elmer Thiessen (B.Th., B.A., M.A., Ph.D.) has recently taken early retirement after having taught philosophy and religious studies at Medicine Hat College (Alberta, Canada) for over 30 years. His official position now is that of a “roving philosopher,” open to short-term teaching and research positions anywhere in the world. At the present time he is alternating between contract teaching at Medicine Hat College and teaching overseas. In 2005 he taught at the Evangelische Theologische Faculteit in Leuven, Belgium. This past winter he taught at Lithuania Christian College in Klaipeda, Lithuania. He has published numerous articles and book reviews, both in professional journals and religious magazines. His research specialty has been the philosophy of education – here he has published two books, Teaching for Commitment, and In Defence of Religious Schools and Colleges (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1993; 2001). His present research interest is in the philosophy of religion, and he has just completed another manuscript, “Making Converts: The Ethics of Proselytizing,” which is being sent to publishers.