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The Ethics of Evangelism and Cult Recruitment

ICSA Today, Vol. 4, No. 3, 2014, pages 8-10

The Ethics of Evangelism and Cult Recruitment

Elmer Thiessen

In my writing on the ethics of religious persuasion, evangelism, or proselytizing,[1] I have always been concerned to bridge the divide that often exists between religious believers and those who are skeptical of religion. My book on the subject (Thiessen, 2011)[2] addresses both those who are strongly opposed to proselytizing and those who are committed to the same. Skeptics need to hear a defense of evangelism, and religious believers need to be told that not just anything goes in trying to bring about conversions. In a world that seems to be characterized increasingly by religious hostility and conflict, I hope that my work—including this article—will provide some necessary background for creating an environment of greater tolerance and harmony.

In doing the research for my book, I discovered that very little had in fact been written on the ethics of proselytizing. Although I found a few articles on the topic and discovered that the issue of cult recruitment had been discussed more extensively in the literature on cults, there was in fact no book-length treatment of the ethics of evangelism prior to the publication of my book. (I provide a 15-page review of relevant literature in Appendix II of my book.)

Here it needs to be stressed that I quite deliberately did not limit my book to the ethics of cult recruitment because I believe immoral proselytizing occurs in noncultic religions, as well. I worry about the tendency among evangelicals, for example, to think that unethical proselytizing is prevalent in cults but not among evangelicals who are committed to evangelism (pp. 24–25, 249). My objective in the book—and this article—is to identify and condemn unethical evangelism wherever it occurs. This certainly includes, but is not limited to, cult-recruitment practices.[3]

One problem that comes to the fore immediately when we approach a topic such as the ethics of evangelism or cult recruitment is the ethical framework from which we address the question. I appeal to the principle of dignity and care of persons as foundational to ethics. Immanuel Kant, in the eighteenth century, gave us the modern and secular version of an ethical theory based on the dignity of persons. Kant repeatedly appeals to the absolute worth of human beings who are rational and free. This perspective leads him to argue that we should always treat human beings as an end in themselves, never simply as a means to an end.

It is also possible to provide a religious grounding for valuing human dignity. From a theological perspective, the most fundamental reason for respecting the dignity of the human being is that each person is created in the image of God. My hope is that all (or at least most) people will accept the dignity of persons as foundational to ethics. Historically, this emphasis on the dignity of human beings has led to an ethics formulated in terms of rights and duties. Some feminist writers have reminded us, however, of the limitations of rights-based ethics. I therefore believe a better approach to ethics is to combine an emphasis on the dignity and worth of persons with an emphasis on love and care for persons. This combination gives rise to two foundational principles for dealing with an ethics of evangelism or proselytizing:

Dignity criterion: Ethical proselytizing is always 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 (p. 234).[4]

Care criterion: Ethical proselytizing must always be an expression of concern for the whole person and all of his or her needs—physical, social, economic, intellectual, emotional, and spiritual. To care only for the salvation of the souls of persons is unethical. It involves an objectification of a part of the person and as such violates that person’s dignity (p. 234).

Many today, including quite a few scholars, would condemn most or even all proselytizing as immoral. Indeed, I believe that a close inspection of the condemnation of cult recruitment will reveal that it sometimes rests on a more general condemnation of all proselytizing. We can divide objections to proselytizing roughly into two categories.

First, some of the objections are empirical in nature. For example, one may argue that efforts at proselytizing have had harmful consequences for individuals and for society as a whole. Some critics argue that proselytizing leads to resentment, hatred, religious persecution, disunity in society, and even holy wars (pp. 114–8). Sadly, there is some truth to these empirically based objections. But we need to be fair. All too often, claims about the harmful consequences of proselytizing involve sweeping generalizations with little or no concern about concrete evidence.

The second and more common kind of objection to proselytizing is conceptual in nature. It is often argued that certain characteristics of proselytizing make it immoral by its very nature. Some critics feel that persuasion is in itself immoral. Others focus more specifically on religious persuasion and argue that this is immoral because of the uncertainty or irrationality of religious claims. Still others maintain that proselytizing is arrogant and intolerant. Some critics question the motivations behind proselytizing. Then of course there is the charge that proselytizing is coercive by its very nature. I argue that each of these objections against proselytizing is unsound, based on problematic assumptions and questionable definitions, as I illustrate in the following pages with respect to coercion. Blanket condemnations of all proselytizing, or claims that evangelism is inherently bad, are simply unwarranted. My response to the more radical claim that proselytizing by its very nature is immoral also weakens claims to the effect that most or much proselytizing is immoral. While I agree that some evangelism is immoral, I believe oft-repeated generalizations about the frequency of immoral evangelism are sometimes exaggerated.

I also defend proselytizing by arguing that we are by nature proselytizing animals. Much of our conversation involves persuasion, and our efforts to persuade cover a wide variety of issues, including religion. Persuading others about our convictions is an essential part of our own dignity. Indeed, to try to persuade other persons of the error of their ways is in fact a way to honor others. Indifference is in the end an insult to the other person. John Stuart Mill, in his classic defense of liberty, specifically introduces the topic of religious proselytizing. Mill argues that, without proselytizing, human beings may be deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth. To silence the proselytizer because he or she may be in error is to make the very questionable assumption of one’s own infallibility. Proselytizing is a healthy phenomenon, according to Mill, because it encourages controversy and discussion on “subjects which are large and important enough to kindle enthusiasm,” and which therefore enable even ordinary persons to rise “to something of the dignity of thinking beings” (Mill, 1978, p. 33).

My defense of proselytizing is not meant to rule out the possibility of there being unethical methods of proselytizing. We can neither approve of proselytizing generally nor condemn it outright, as is done sadly all too often. Instead, we need to pay more attention to developing criteria to distinguish between ethical and unethical proselytizing. In my book, I devote two chapters to analyzing and defending 15 criteria to help us evaluate proselytizing activities from an ethical point of view. Here I will limit myself to those criteria that are more relevant to cult recruitment.

Three of my criteria have to do with coercion, which is a charge often made against recruitment activities of cults. Let me say at the outset that I believe there are some cases of cult recruitment that are obviously coercive and hence immoral. However, I believe the charge of coercion is not as easy to substantiate as is often assumed. Of course, if one starts with the assumption that all human actions are determined, it follows that all cases of cult recruitment are coercive and hence immoral. But this assumption begs the question (Thiessen, 2011, pp. 80–4). Besides, a deterministic worldview precludes moral evaluation. I prefer to talk about degrees of human freedom, and hence degrees of human responsibility. But as soon as one admits to degrees of human freedom, it becomes more difficult to define what is coercive. Indeed, the problem of vagueness pervades charges made against cult recruitment.[5] This does not mean that one can never justify the charge of coercion. I argue that it is better to deal with cases of suspected coercive religious recruitment on a case-by-case analysis. However, I believe we can identify some broader classes of coercive proselytizing.

It is helpful here to distinguish between four categories of coercion: physical, psychological, social, and inducement—specifically, the problem of inducement to convert. These four categories lead to four criteria for distinguishing between ethical and unethical proselytizing. Physical coercion is the easier criterion to define. Some vagueness is unavoidable in definitions of the other criteria, although in each case there are extremes that we obviously should see as morally offensive. For example, I cite a sad case of sexual inducement, “flirty fishing” it was called, advocated by cult leader David Berg as he used the dance floors of London to lure people to the Children of God in the 1970s (p. 172).

Physical-coercion criterion: The freedom to make choices is central to the dignity of persons. Ethical proselytizing will therefore allow persons to make a genuinely free and uncoerced choice with regard to conversion. Proselytizing involving the use of physical force or threats is immoral (p. 234).

Psychological-coercion criterion: Ethical proselytizing avoids excessive psychological manipulation. Proselytizing can be (excessively) psychologically manipulative in various ways: (a) Proselytizers should avoid intense, repeated, and extremely programmatic approaches to bringing about conversions. (b) Proselytizers must take care to avoid exploiting others’ vulnerability. This principle becomes especially important when one is dealing with children, young people, vulnerable adults, and individuals facing personal crises. (c) Proselytizers also must avoid excessive appeals to emotion and fear (p. 235).

Social-coercion criterion: While I acknowledge that some degree of power and control is inescapable in proselytizing, excessive expressions of power, or the exploitation of power imbalances when one is proselytizing is unethical (p. 235).

Inducement criterion: Proselytizing accompanied by material enticement such as money, gifts, or privileges is immoral. In situations in which the provision of medical care, humanitarian aid, or education is in some way linked with proselytizing, the greater the need, the more sensitive the proselytizer must be to the danger of exploiting that need, and thus of inducing individuals to convert. In situations in which recipients’ physical needs are overwhelming, one should keep one’s proselytizing entirely separate from the activity of responding to these physical needs (p. 235).

Another set of criteria has to do with epistemic concerns, such as rationality, truth, and the way in which one presents one’s claims to truth:

Rationality criterion: Proselytizing involves persuasion to convert. Ethical persuasion includes providing information in order for the recipient to make such a decision. It also includes giving reasons to the recipient for the proposed change of heart and mind. Proselytizing that attempts to sidestep human reason entirely is unethical (p. 235).

Truthfulness criterion: Ethical proselytizing is truthful. It seeks to tell the truth about the religion one is advocating. It is truthful also with regard to what it says about other religions. Integrity characterizes the ethical proselytizer. Proselytizing accompanied by hidden agendas, hidden identities, lying, deception, and failure to speak the truth should be condemned as immoral (p. 236).

Humility criterion: Ethical proselytizing is characterized by humility. Proselytizing becomes unethical when it becomes arrogant, condescending, and dogmatic in the claims one is making (p. 236).

Sadly, religious organizations, including cults, are not always exemplary in displaying the epistemic virtues of rationality and humility. They are also not always honest in portraying events intended to be evangelistic in nature. Sometimes identities are hidden, as the Reverend Moon skillfully did after he arrived in America in 1971, when he used a series of front organizations to hide his identity. The Unification Church has defended these practices by appealing to the doctrine of heavenly deception, claiming that it is legitimate to lie to individuals about the group’s identity in order to provide them with the opportunity to hear about the church’s teaching. Such deception when one is proselytizing is morally culpable, and further, not very heavenly (p. 194)!

A criterion that deserves to stand on its own has to do with motivation. Of course it is difficult to assess someone else’s motivation, so perhaps the application of this criterion is best left for self-assessment. However, sometimes even this might be difficult. In some cultic groups, proselytizers’ motivations may be genuine, but they have been duped by leadership, which has hidden agendas (e.g., making money for the group). Theirs, then, is motivation manipulated by somebody who may not even be present.

Motivation criterion: The primary motivation for ethical proselytizing is love for humanity. Ethical proselytizing is other centered. It grows out of genuine concern for the other person’s well-being, and his or her assumed need to hear the truth as understood by the proselytizer. With immoral proselytizing, in contrast, egocentric motives such as personal benefit and reward, personal reassurance resulting from being able to convert another person to one’s own position, personal domination over another person, and personal satisfaction about growth of one’s own church, become dominant (p. 236).

Another stand alone criterion having to do with identity is fairly self-explanatory:

Identity criterion: Ethical proselytizing will take into account and show some respect for the communal identity of the proselytizee. Proselytizing that completely disregards the dignity of the individual as rooted in his or her social (or religious) attachments is immoral (p. 237).

I conclude my analysis of criteria to distinguish between ethical and unethical proselytizing with two criteria that have a liberal orientation:

Tolerance criterion: Ethical proselytizing treats persons who hold beliefs that differ from those of the proselytizer with love and respect. While this does not preclude fair criticism of other religious or irreligious beliefs, ethical proselytizing treats the same with respect, and avoids hostile attitudes or the use of insulting and abusive language against other religions and worldviews (p. 236).

Golden Rule criterion: Ethical proselytizing operates under the assumption that the other has the right to proselytize as well. It is immoral to assume or to work toward a monopoly of the proselytizing enterprise (p. 237).

I believe the Jehovah’s Witnesses have something to learn from the above two criteria. While I acknowledge the contribution that Jehovah's Witnesses have made toward religious freedom in various countries of the world by defending their right to proselytize, I would suggest that they function too much like special-interest lobbies, looking out only for their own rights and essentially ignoring the rights of other minority religious groups (p. 210).

In the final chapter of my book, I examine some ways in which we can encourage ethical proselytizing. Legal enforcement is of course one means that can be used, but I caution against the use of legal sanctions to reinforce ethical proselytizing because these can so easily be misused (pp. 226–30). A better approach is for us to draw on the resources of proselytizing religions themselves in order to accomplish this goal. We should encourage each proselytizing religion to develop an ethical code that governs its proselytizing activities. Unfortunately, there will probably be resistance to such an approach in cults engaged in unethical recruitment practices. Thus, we are left with methods of social reinforcement. We can privately and publicly name and shame violators of ethical norms in evangelism and recruitment. I believe ICSA provides an invaluable service in regard to disseminating information about groups that may violate ethical norms when they are engaged in recruitment activities. One problem with ICSA, however, is that it tends to focus only on cults. I see this as problematic because unethical proselytizing is not limited to cults, and it needs to be condemned wherever it is found. I believe ICSA is becoming aware of this problem and has been broadening its focus in the past few years.


Mill, J. S. (1978/1859). On Liberty. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett.

Thiessen, E. J. (2006). “The Problems and Possibilities of Defining Precise Criteria to Distinguish Between Ethical and Unethical Proselytizing/Evangelism.” Cultic Studies Review Vol. 5, No. 3, pp. 374–389.

Thiessen, E. J. (2011). The ethics of evangelism: A philosophical defense of proselytizing and persuasion. Milton Keynes, UK: Paternoster, and Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic.

About the Author

Elmer Thiessen is a semiretired philosopher, having taught at Medicine Hat College (Alberta, Canada) for 36 years. He also has taught overseas at the Evangelische Theologische Faculteit in Belgium, Lithuania Christian College, and Meserete Kristos College in Ethiopia. Although Elmer is not an expert in cults, he has been very interested in exploring various contexts of religious influence, such as the home or religious schools. He has published widely in the area of the philosophy of religious education, including two books, Teaching for Commitment, and In Defence of Religious Schools and Colleges (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1993 and 2001, respectively). More recently he has turned his attention to the ethics of evangelism and proselytizing. In 2011, Paternoster Press and IVP Academic published his book, The Ethics of Evangelism: A Philosophical Defense of Proselytizing and Persuasion. His preparation for writing this book included participating in an ICSA conference held in Edmonton, Alberta in 2004, and studying relevant literature on cult recruitment. In 2006 he published an article on the ethics of proselytizing in ICSA’s Cultic Studies Review. He also attended the 2012 ICSA conference held in Montreal, where he presented a paper and participated in a panel discussion.

[1] In this article, I am treating these terms as synonyms, with a focus on communication that tries to bring about religious conversion. I realize that these terms have different meanings in some contexts.

[2] All page references in this article refer to my book except where otherwise noted.

[3] I give three other reasons for not drawing extensively on the literature on cults in my book (pp. 248–9): (a) Scholarship on the cults is largely descriptive in nature, and as such cannot do justice to the ethical question that I am concerned with. (b) The literature on cults is not that useful for my purposes because it lacks the conceptual precision philosophers strive for. (c) Finally, significant differences of opinion exist with regard to cults. Some researchers are more sympathetic, while others are more critical. So whom should I draw on? As a philosopher, I must go where the wind of the argument carries me (p. xii).

[4] I provide a summary of 15 criteria of ethical evangelism or proselytizing in Appendix #1 of my book. All the criteria listed in this article are taken from this Appendix (pp. 234–7).

[5] For an expanded treatment of the problem of vagueness, see Thiessen, 2006.