OPINION: Students have a right to spread their faith, within limits

There are more than 80 religious organizations on USC’s campus, each offering a different experience for students of faith. From the outside looking in, religious practices can seem strange. Perhaps one of the most peculiar and contested practices is the attempted conversion to one’s faith, also known as proselytizing. Religious groups sharing their faith in public or trying to convince students to join them can be an uncomfortable experience, but it is necessary to freedom of thought and expression. Though there are many ways proselytizing can go wrong, it is ultimately an essential part of creating a diverse, supportive campus for religious and nonreligious students alike.

Students less familiar with religious practice may not understand the reasons behind proselytizing. The answer is simply that it is required by their religious doctrine. In Islam, proselytizing is called Dawah (the call toward God) and is encouraged throughout the Quran. One of the principal texts of Mahayana Buddhism reveals that anyone can achieve enlightenment and that bodhisattva, those who are permitted to achieve nirvana, should devote their time to helping others achieve enlightenment, although  most Buddhist sects are generally discouraged from aggressive proselytizing. In Christianity, spreading belief in Christ is called “the great commission”; Matthew 28:19, NIV, instructs the faithful to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name, of the father, and of the son and of the holy spirit.”

In a culture that increasingly values the pursuit of individual freedoms, sharing religious beliefs can be uncomfortable. College serves as an echo chamber for ideas, which often circulate within like-minded groups, causing colleges to be breeding grounds for ideological and cultural uniformity. Challenging that homeostasis isn’t easy and can lead to proselytizers using more aggressive tactics to get their points across, such as forcing students to take religious literature or not letting them leave after they say they are not interested. Doctrines and ancient texts don’t mean much to a student trying to get to class on time. An unplanned encounter with a proselytizer can be irritating at best and draining at worst.

It can be tempting to say proselytizing should be banned outright, but that can be problematic. Religious students may feel unsafe at school if a ban is too broad. Since “proselytizing” is a term that can encompass a broad set of religious speech, students may find that their speech is increasingly policed. An outright ban also prohibits an important exchange of ideas. There are some students who do not know what they believe until someone in college shared their faith with them. From that point on, they’ve gained a valuable support system to anchor them throughout their education. The National Alliance on Mental Health describes how religiosity can lead to an increased sense of purpose and help people deal with difficult life situations.

With that in mind, religious students need to be mindful of how they share their beliefs with other students. The University can address this by outlining protections for students who feel they cannot escape an uncomfortable conversion experience. Proselytizers need to be held to standards that prioritize the needs of the students they approach, such as letting them exit a conversation the second they feel uncomfortable. Instead of approaching students with judgment, they can focus on sharing a message of love that keeps the other person safe from pitfalls of bigotry.

Religious conversations are rarely easy. However, as a salient part of many students’ identities, they are a necessary part of a vibrant campus community and should be protected. Like all speech, there needs to be regulation to ensure the majority of the student body can have a safe learning environment. A prime example is Georgetown University, which worked with religious student groups to refine a 2007 ban on proselytizing on campus, eventually landing on an open policy for religious groups to spread their faith, as long as they do not practice in ways that “depersonalize” other students. If USC can get to a place where both religious and nonreligious groups of students feel heard, it may be able to love instead of anger.