Mahadev, Neena. 2014. Conversion and Anti-conversion in Contemporary Sri Lanka: Pentecostal Christian Evangelism and Theravada Buddhist Views on the Ethics of Religious Attraction. In Proselytizing and the Limits of Religious Pluralism in Contemporary Asia (ARI Springer Asian Series, vol. 4), pp. 211-235.
Abstract: Over the last decade Buddhist nationalist activists have pursued various measures to curb proselytism by Christians who strive to “unethically convert” Sri Lankans born as Buddhists. Sri Lankan Buddhist nationalist discourses reveal suspicions that the act of becoming enculturated into Christianity is detrimental to the person and to the nation in a number of ways. What can such nationalist discourses about “unethical conversions,” and about the instruments used to engender religious attraction, tell us about the politics of perception that inflame antipathies over proselytism, conversion, and apostasy? Analysis of ethnographic material reveals that Buddhist protectionists tend to regard two forms of Christian “gift” to be operative in securing conversions. First, gifts of Christian charity are perceived to be material “allurements” that serve to induce conversions and religious patronage among vulnerable Sri Lankans. Comparatively examining Christian and Buddhist forms of giving (charity and dāna respectively), which engender radically different types of ethical sensibilities about the use of gifts and care as modalities of conversion and religious attraction, helps to illuminate why charity is a significant point of contention between these religious communities. Secondly, Pentecostal Christian charisma—or the notion that God’s Grace is a gift which can be evidenced through miracles of healing—appears to Buddhist skeptics as dubious and harmful means of manipulating Sri Lankans into committing apostasy. Using ethnography to depict how adherents and detractors alike have made spectacles out of charismatic Christian promises of miracles, this essay describes how recent controversies have played out between Buddhist nationalists and Christian evangelists within the Sri Lankan public sphere. Focusing on charity and charismatic miracles as modalities of conversion, this paper illuminates key aspects of the anxieties over new Christian forms of religious propagation, proselytism, and devotion as they have entered into a milieu marked by ethno-religious nationalism, religious protectionism, as well as established ethical sensibilities and religious conventions.