An ongoing concern for international religious freedom advocates is the existence of laws banning conversion from one religion to another. For example, it is illegal to convert a Muslim to Christianity in Pakistan, to convert a Buddhist to Christianity in Myanmar, and to convert a Hindu to Christianity in some states in India.
In Canada, with its Christian roots, we understand that while faith includes outward observance, Christianity is ultimately a matter of the heart, a matter of Whom we love and trust. From that springs the understanding that the civil government cannot compel belief by force or law, and it is fruitless to try. At least, that is how it used to be.
As nationalism rises, religious freedom falls
Meghan Fischer, writing of this phenomenon in the Penn State Journal of Law & International Affairs, explains the international consensus that there is (or ought to be) a right to change one’s religious beliefs. There is also an internationally recognized right “to try to convert others by means of non-coercive persuasion.”1
But Fischer suggests that there are growing nationalist impulses in Southeast Asia such that “conversions away from the majority religion… are [seen as] a threat to the country.” Laws banning religious conversion are then selectively enforced only to ban conversion from the majority religion to a minority religion.
Heiner Bielefeldt, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief from 2010 to 2016, notes that violations of the right to convert have “become a human rights problem of great concern.” He explains that religious freedom is abused
…in the interest of promoting national identity or protecting societal homogeneity, or under other pretexts such as maintaining political and national security… In addition, the rights of converts or those trying non-coercively to convert others are sometimes questioned in principle.2
Such bans on religious conversion result in stories such as this one,
Three Christians were arrested in the village of Vadi in [India] on December 16th after fellow villagers accused them of practising illegal medicine. They spent 11 days in jail before being released on bail. Pastor Mukam Kiraad, along with two members of his church… were shocked to learn they were charged with medical malpractice after praying for physical healing.
This story of Christian prayer resulting in criminal charges reminded me of the conversion therapy bans that have been proposed or passed in Canada at all three levels of civil government. And I wondered:
Are bans on conversion therapy a species of religious conversion bans?
In order to answer this question, we need to investigate and understand:
- what the majority religion in Canada is
- what true conversion is and how it is brought about in Christianity; and
- what conversion therapy bans in Canada are actually proposing to do.
When we put these three things together, we can answer our question.
1. Canada’s established religion
While Canadians follow many gods (theistic or material like money, sex, or sports), there is one dominant religion. And it isn’t Christianity or Islam.
To understand what it is, we can look to the opening chapter of Nancy Pearcey’s excellent book Love Thy Body, where she explains the “radically fragmented, fractured, dualistic view of the human being” that has developed in Western culture. She calls it personhood theory.
Personhood theory says the true “you” – the actual person – is not the body you have but what you feel you are, your sense of self. If you feel you are mostly female but have a male body, the important part of you is that inside sense of who you are. The body is secondary, and so it can be mutilated and chemically altered to conform to the “real” you. This type of thinking slips into Christianity too, where some well-meaning Christians have embraced the idea that your soul might be female while your body is male, for example.
This is a dualistic understanding of the human person that, instead of viewing our mind and our body as an integrated whole, sees them as two separable pieces. It declares: you are your mind; you are not your body.
It’s also a deeply religious view, isn’t it? You can’t prove in a science lab that the “soul” or your “internal sense of self” is actually female when the biological body is genetically and anatomically male. You have to accept it on faith.
And yet the idea that the human person – who you really are – is something wholly different from the human body is taken as an article of faith by the legal, political, academic, journalistic, and (increasingly) economic leaders of our Western culture.
Take, for example, the argument that the pre-born child is “human” but not “a person.” That’s a religious claim. It takes blind faith to agree (as most pro-choice advocates do) that the pre-born child is a complete and a unique living human being, but not a person deserving rights. A Christian would respond that the pre-born child is a person because they are human – an observable, provable, biological fact – and therefore should be afforded the same protection in law as any other human.
Or consider the British Columbia Court of Appeal in the A.B. v. C.D. case: the court assumed and adopted the language at the beginning of the hearing that a biological female was, in fact, a boy, despite this being contested by the father of the child.
Philosopher Robert P. George, in a long-form article titled “Gnostic Liberalism,” explains that this separation and elevation of the mind or the soul over the body is actually the outworking of the millennia-old heresy of Gnosticism, back in new clothes. It sees the soul as a “ghost in a machine.” George says that in this new version of the Gnostic religion, “the body serves at the pleasure of the conscious self, to which it is subject.”
Your religious view on the nature of the body and the soul has implications for all kinds of social, legal and moral issues, like transgenderism and sex-changes. The Christian view, says Robert George, is that “respect for the person demands respect for the body, which rules out mutilation and other direct attacks on human health… Changing sexes is a metaphysical impossibility because it is a biological impossibility.” Pearcey agrees, writing, “Christianity holds that body and soul together form an integrated unity – that the human being is an embodied soul.”
Robert George concludes that this Gnostic view of the human being (he also describes it as “expressive individualism”) is now the dominant orthodoxy among Western cultural elites. It…
…provides the metaphysical [i.e. religious] foundation of the social practices against which Orthodox Jews and faithful Christians… contend today: abortion, infanticide, euthanasia, sexual liberation, the redefinition of marriage, and gender ideology.
There should be no doubt in our minds: Canada has a dominant religion. That religion has various names, but biblical Christianity is not one of them. Neo-Gnosticism, secular humanism, expressive individualism, or moral therapeutic deism; all describe the dominant religion, a belief system with a destructive view of mankind that stands in sharp contrast to the beautiful truth of the biblical view of man: human beings created as either male or female – body and soul, an integrated whole – in the image of God.
Now let’s explore the concept of true conversion and then apply it to this dominant religion.
2. The true conversion of man
In a word, conversion is change. Theologian Steven Lawson explains,
In the biblical sense, conversion means a turning—a spiritual turning away from sin in repentance and to Christ in faith. It is a dramatic turning away from one path in order to pursue an entirely new one. …The entire person—mind, affections, and will—is radically, completely, and fully changed in conversion.
The true repentance or conversion of man, explains the Heidelberg Catechism (Q&A 88-90), “is the dying of the old nature and the coming to life of the new.”3 The dying of the old nature “is to grieve with heartfelt sorrow that we have offended God by our sin, and more and more to hate it and flee from it”4 and the coming to life of the new nature “is a heartfelt joy in God through Christ, and a love and delight to live according to the will of God in all good works.”5
So, for those who convert to Christianity from Hinduism or Islam or atheism (and there are plenty of biographies describing these conversions), there is a radical break – emotionally, intellectually, spiritually, volitionally – from the ideas and practices of the previous religious system to love and embrace and follow Jesus Christ as Lord in every aspect of life. This pattern of conversion is also true for those who convert to Christianity from the mainstream religion of Canada: the secular humanist and Gnostic religion. A convert will come to reject the ideas, practices, and affections of the false religion and embrace instead the person and work of Christ Jesus. They will change.
Now, total change might not be immediate and will involve struggles of various kinds. Fellow Christians must love and walk alongside a new convert, encouraging them day by day to engage the struggle and embrace their newfound freedom in Christ. And the change will result in changes of lifestyle, of identity, of affections, turning away from the Gnostic religion’s view of humankind and embracing the Christian understanding.
What is also important to know is how conversion is brought about. It is not forced; it cannot be. The Canons of Dort (at ch. 3/4, art. 16) puts it beautifully:
this divine grace of regeneration does not act upon men as if they were blocks and stones and does not take away the will and its properties, or violently coerce it, but makes the will spiritually alive, heals it, corrects it, pleasantly and at the same time powerfully bends it (Psalm 51:12; Philippians 2:13).
Conversion is a wonderful work of God, by His Spirit, begun usually through the sharing of the gospel “which God has ordained to be the seed of regeneration and the food of the soul” (Canons of Dort, ch. 3/4, art. 17). The gospel is spread by word and example, not by sword. When the Church fulfils her calling to go and make disciples of all nations, preaching the gospel to all people, the Spirit is at work changing hearts.
3. What conversion therapy bans in Canada do
Across the country, in various provinces and municipalities, and in Parliament as well, conversion therapy bans have been proposed (and most have passed), outlawing so-called “conversion therapy.” As ARPA Canada explains in our policy report on conversion therapy, the devil is in the details: how one defines conversion therapy determines how bad such a ban would be. And it also determines whether it might rise to the level of a religious conversion ban.
Kristopher Wells, an outspoken activist on conversion therapy, defines conversion therapy this way:
Conversion “therapy” (also known as “reparative therapy,” “reintegrative therapy,” or “sexual orientation and gender identity change efforts”) is any form of treatment, including individual talk therapy, behavioural or aversion therapy, group therapy treatments, spiritual prayer, exorcism, and/or medical or drug-induced treatments, which attempt to actively change someone’s sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression.
Notice what this very influential activist has done. He intentionally and deceptively combines prayer and talk therapy with long-discredited and generally unacceptable practices like aversion therapy (think electric shock therapy). And yet his definition has been used in modified forms in both the City of Calgary’s recently passed bylaw and in Bill C-8, the federal government’s proposed criminal ban on conversion therapy. ARPA Canada’s ongoing concern with both laws is that the definitions of conversion therapy are incredibly broad and misleading. At the Calgary City Council deliberations over their bylaw, multiple lawyers, pastors, and citizens (same-sex attracted and otherwise) expressed grave concern that the bill would prohibit the advertising, teaching, or application of parts of the gospel: the Christian understanding of man, including sexual ethics, sense of self, the effect of sin on human nature, and so on. Yet the bylaw passed with no real opposition within city council.
When asked, some defenders of these bans, like federal Justice Minister David Lametti, explain that anyone who has “non-judgemental” or “open-ended” conversations about identity would not be captured by such prohibitions. But who judges what is “non-judgmental” or “open-ended”?
Another troubling aspect is that many conversion therapy bans only prohibit “conversion” in one direction: they ban reducing homosexual activity or desire and reducing gender dysphoria. That is the explicit language of Bill C-8. This raises huge practical questions: if a teenager is consuming an inordinate amount of pornography, can they be told to “reduce” this behavior only if involves heterosexual pornography? A plain reading of the proposed law would prohibit an experienced counselor from helping a child struggling with gender dysphoria to be comfortable with their body. And there are enough documented cases of school teachers encouraging children to “explore” or question their sexual identity. Why should that be permitted, but not vice versa? These one-directional prohibitions are steeped in the neo-Gnostic religion.
So, are bans on conversion therapy banning religious conversion?
Conversion therapy bans do not outright ban religious conversion from neo-Gnosticism to Christianity in the same way that converting someone from Hinduism to Christianity is banned in parts of India.
But these conversion therapy bans definitely impede the ability of the Christian community (whether pastors or counselors or even parents or friends) to persistently teach the Christian sexual ethic and to explain how the good news of the gospel applies to all of life. Banning advertising or defining businesses to include churches in the context of conversion therapy bans are examples of the civil government limiting the reach of the gospel to people within the LGBTQ+ community. “How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?” (Romans 10:14). If bylaws and criminal prohibitions make the Christian community think twice about sharing the gospel with someone who currently embraces the Gnostic religion, then conversion therapy bans seem to be a sub-species of religious conversion bans.
This said, it is helpful for us, as Christians, to remember the approach we take to conversion. Nancy Pearcey says it well:
As we work through controversial moral issues, it is crucial to bear in mind the main goal. It is not first of all to persuade people to change their behaviour. It is to tear down barriers to becoming Christian. No matter who we are addressing, or what moral issue the person is struggling with, their first need is to hear the gospel and experience the love of God. (Love Thy Body, p. 260)
When we start with that, and pray and trust the Spirit to do his work, we should be confident that God will convert those whom he wills, no matter what the Gnostics plan to ban.
1 Meghan G. Fischer’s “Anti-Conversion Laws and the International Response” in the Penn State Journal of Law & International Affairs, Volume 6, Issue 1
2 United Nations, General Assembly, Elimination of all forms of religious intolerance: Interim report of the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, A/67/303 (13 August 2012), at para. 15, available from undocs.org/en/A/67/303
3 Rom 6:1-11; 1 Cor 5:7; 2 Cor 5:17; Eph 4:22-24; Col 3:5-10
4 Ps 51:3, 4, 17; Joel 2:12, 13; Rom 8:12, 13; 2 Cor 7:10
5 Ps 51:8, 12; Is 57:15; Rom 5:1; 14:17; Rom 6:10, 11; Gal 2:20
André Schutten is the Director of Law and Policy for ARPA Canada.