You can force people to do many things, with the right amount of “persuasion,” be it threats of violence, death, or harm to loved ones. The notion of forced religious conversion gained prominence during the Twentieth Century, and despite its illogical nature, has actually come to be an accepted truth.
In truth, “forced conversion” is essentially a myth. You can force someone to do many things, but it’s quite fantastic to believe you can govern their thoughts, faith, or beliefs. Forcing someone to say something, is not even close to actual “forced conversion.” Simply saying, “I worship ____,” is very different from participating in the actual worship of that deity. Likewise, visiting a religious facility likewise in no way constitutes worship by itself. The same could be said of participating in religious festivities.
This is most often used by individuals in modern religions as a reason why humanity flocked to Christianity. It wasn’t because they wanted to, but because of threats of some kind. It wasn’t because the faith placed nobles on the same spiritual level as they were. It wasn’t because they no longer had to sacrifice to distant and hateful gods and their perpetual thirsted for blood. It wasn’t because a light had come to a very dark world.
In a nutshell, no government, no religious body, no group of people, no community, and no nation has ever had the resources to survey each and every resident, member, or participant, to ensure a religious conversion.
Judaism is the most notable example. In the thousands of years they’ve been persecuted, they haven’t converted. Huguenots of France, German Palatines, the Puritans, just about every group attacked in the name of a religion didn’t convert.
“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” -Matthew 11:28-30
How Does a Religion Grow?
With the idea of a forced conversion out of the way, what urged people to move in Christ’s direction? How could a faith spread without coercion? It’s quite simple. Christianity spread because the “common people” embraced it. They were sick of the violent and hopeless old ways, of the cruel nobility that was “descended from gods,” and could not be questioned. They were tired of giving their loved ones as sacrifices to deities, for causes that only benefited nobles. Above all, they were tired of worshiping beings they had to bribe with blood, just to hear a single request.
Christianity wasn’t just about worship, either. It urged people to see the value in human life, to strive for decency and charity. With it came the hope of education, intellect, the desire to rise above an abject animal life. The faith forbade the butchery of human sacrifice. It brought community structure and organization where there had been none before.
Had the people not chosen the faith, it would not have spread or lingered for any real length of time. It doesn’t matter what nation adapted it, or who had the biggest army. Rome is often blamed with “forcing Christianity” on “peaceful pagans,” but Rome fell millennia ago. When Constantine died, the people had opportunity to revert. As a matter of fact, the Emperor Julian reverted the empire to the old paganism after Constantine. The people didn’t embrace it.
Charlemagne “forced” Christianity on Europe, but Charlemagne died a millennium ago. Christianity did not. The Spanish brutally invaded South America centuries ago, and then their control vanished. The faith they introduced did not.
Lastly, superstition does not constitute religion, although many today make the claim. Many of these irrational beliefs linger from ignorant times. A number of people today believe these illogical fears mean practitioners really “remain pagan.” Perhaps it would be more appropriate to say a portion of humanity really remains ignorant.