Saturday, March 19, 2011

Religious Conversion

I'm still reading Moojan Momen's book The Phenomenon of Religion. A Thematic Approach (Oneworld Publications, 1999), and blogging about what I find interesting in the book. This time the issue is conversion. Here's how Momen describes the basic requirements for religious conversion to occur:

When a religious conversion occurs, whether this be in an individual conversion, the mass conversion of society or a religious reform, many of the same features arise. The first necessity is for a sense of dissatisfaction with the old religion. There must be important, 'toublesome' questions that the old religion is either unable to resolve or over which it cannot agree. [...]

An alternative religious viewpoint must be available which addresses these issues (or at least some of them) coherently and in an illuminating manner. [...] One important point of note is that there must be some degree of overlap between the old religious worldview and the new one. [...] A modern European is extremely unlikely to understand, let alone adopt, the religious worldview of a Papual head-hunter, but there is a considerable overlap between the Christian-based European worldview and those of communism, Islam or the Baha'i Faith.

Those who represent the old worldview, in particular the priests or the religous professionals of the established religion, will put up resistance to the new viewpoint. Among other measures, they will adapt the old worldview so as to make it more compatible with the new questions that have arisen [...].

Those who adopt the new religious worldview are, in effect, making a leap of faith. The change from one worldview to another cannot be solely justified on rational grounds, for each worldview is wholly consistent and coherent within itself.
(Pp. 152 - 153.)

This seems reasonable, for the most part. I'm especially glad that communism was counted as a religion here, for it certainly seems to be a religion to some (as are movements like veganism, the Zeitgeist Movement, and the ideology of the free market system).

There are only two squabbles I have with the above. First is that it doesn't necessarily apply to what is often called "deconversion", i.e. the discarding of religion without turning to a new one. But then I suppose this is just about the conversion from one religion to another, and "deconversion" can be dealt with elsewhere.

The second issue is somewhat more serious. It's the claim that all worldviews are internally consistent and coherent. I seriously doubt that is the case. The whole idea that conversion could never be rational, is highly suspicious. Here it may be that the writer's own religion (which is somewhat relativistic, AFAIK) may be influencing how work a little too much. Certainly it cannot be just assumed that all worldviews are consistent and coherent -- they must each be examined on a case by case basis.

Momen then analyzes the causes and requirements of conversion in more detail as follows:

MARGINALITY. Individuals who are at the margins of society (in terms of being connected to the sources of power or being involved in the culture) are more likely to convert to a new religion that is presented to them.

SOCIAL OR CULTURAL CRISIS. Individuals from cultures and societies that are in crisis are more likely to convert than those from stable cultures and societies. [...] A high degree of cultural and conceptual dissonance will inhibit conversion.

INDIVIDUAL CRISIS. Just as social and cultural crises serve to highlight the breakdown of the old order and lead to a search for a new basis for society, so an individual crisis may destroy the old framework of a person's life and open up the possibility of a new worldview. Apart from the usual personal crises in health, finances or family that individuals may experience, mystical experiences, intellectual doubts, leadership crises in their present religion, or dissatisfaction with life can all lead to individual crises that leave a person open to conversion. [...] Of course, both with individual crises and social and cultural crises, the new religion must offer some new vision or a means of interpreting the current situation that offers a better resolution of its problems than the existing religion.

INDIVIDUAL BACKGROUND. Research has shown that those who do convert to a new religion have a much greater likelihood of having had a long history of emotional problems in childhood, adolescence and in the period immediately before conversion (often resulting in problems in making relationships), when compared to those who remain within a religion.

KINSHIP AND FRIENDSHIP NETWORKS. Religious conversion is much more likely to occur within networks of families and friends. The conversion of a friend or relative whom one knows to be trustworthy opens on up to the possibility of converting oneself, especially if one observes a change for the better in that individual. [...] A close personal relationship helps the potential convert to feel accepted; it increases self-esteem and enables the potential convert to overcome conflicts and uncertainties that may block the path to conversion. Of course, those who have experienced emotional and social deprivation in their earlier years will be more attracted to the new religion by the formation of a close personal relationship with a member of the religion. It should be noted that just as frequently, kinship and friendship networks may be a constraint upon conversion. If the family and friends of a potential convert are strongly against the potential conversion, this may be a decisive factor in his or her withdrawal from the process.

CHARISMATIC ATTRACTION. Many converts report that what initially attracted them to a religious movement was the charisma of the leader of the group. The perceived power, energy, and authoritative exposition of the leader can be an important catalyst that opens a person up to the possibility of change.

ENCAPSULATION. I noted above that human beings are constrained in their choices by their background, their culture, family, friends, social roles and so on. [...]

Encapsulation may be of different kinds and degrees. [1.] Physical encapsulation may be achieved by removing a person from all contact with his or her normal daily life. This would usually be achieved by going to a remote location or a physically surrounded building such as a retreat. [2.] Social encapsulation means restricting the access of the potential converts to all normal social interactions. This may be achieved in some groups by filling up all free time with group activities. Christian missionaries usually insist on indigenous converts changing their names to Christian names and frequently even changing their style of dress, thus making the conversion public and, often, isolating the convert socially. [3.] Ideological encapsulation means the creation of a state of mind that resists consideration of alternative religious options. This may be achieved by teaching that the group's doctrines are the only pure and redeeming path and that the outside world is irredeemably evil and corrupt.
(Pp. 154 - 156.)

The above are mostly understandable and only somewhat problematic (for example the idea of following a charismatic leader makes me nauseous), but clearly the last one, encapsulation, is something questionable. It is obviously a technique use by various evil cultists to brainwash people into joining their cult or to remain in it. In other cases it might be used in a less obvious manner, for example as more subtle uses of the ideological encapsulation, but even then it is at least intellectually dishonest. So, encapsulation certainly looks like a harmful feature of religion that just has to go. I will never consider as acceptable a religion that utilizes it.

People often like to depict things like conversion rituals as something wholly good, but they should realize that they exist for reasons that might not be completely nice, when you think about them. This is what Momen writes about them:

The process of conversion is often sealed by a ritual, such as the Christian baptism or confirmation. This serves to give public testimony of the event that has occurred in the convert's life; it sets the boundary between the new and the old and it serves to burn the convert's bridges, thus making it less likely that the convert will return to his or her previous allegiance. [...]

[H]owever enthusiastic the convert may be, a considerable proportion of converts do leave the religion again.
(P. 156.)

Such rituals as baptism are actually used (besides whatever other meaning they might have, also) to bind the convert more strongly to the new religion (and the religious organization, and the religious group). This can be a form of encapsulation. In any case, it is nice to know that people who do convert, are likely to convert again, so perhaps they tend to be thinking individuals, seeking something real?

Although it is convetional to think of a conversion as being a complete rejection of the past and a turning to a new way of life, in fact there is rarely such a complete change. [...] Inevitably, each convert brings into the new religion something of his or her previous religion.
(P. 158.)

This is one reason for the evolution of religions. They don't remain unaltered, especially their everyday practise, which is most likley to change slightly with new converts bringing their own previous customs, values and opinions within the sphere of the new religion.

Moving on, Momen analyzes the experience of conversion as follows:

The experience of religious conversion is reported differently by different individuals. This experience is partly moulded by the expectations of what conversion will be like [...]. John Lofland and Normal Skonovd have described six patterns or motifs of religious conversion.

  1. INTELLECTUAL. This involves an intesive study of a religion, using books, lectures, television, the Internet and other media that involve little interpersonal contact. Social pressure is usually avoided and belief precedes participation in the community.
  2. MYSTICAL. The prototype of this is the 'Road to Damascus' experience. It occurs suddenly and dramatically and may be associated with dreams or visions.
  3. EXPERIMENTAL. This involves an active exploration of different religious options with the potential convert assessing whether a religion 'works' and what benefit it brings. This motif is gradually worked through over a long period of time and participation in the community precedes belief.
  4. AFFECTUAL. This involves the creation of a direct, personal bond with members of the religious group over a period of time, thus giving the potential convert the experience of being loved and nurtured.
  5. REVIVALIST. This is the type of conversion that occurs in a revivalist meeting. It uses crowd conformity and a high degree of emotional arousal to achieve the conversion.
  6. COERCIVE. This is the type of conversion that involves brainwashing, coercive persuasion and thought programming. Although many new religious movements are accused of using this method, it is, in fact, probably rare and is often reversed if the coercive pressures are removed.
(P. 158 - 159.)

Of these different experiences of conversion, I really accept only the first, intellectual conversion. I understand this as meaning rational conversion. It is also what should be (but isn't) the common type of "deconversion", i.e. the discarding of religions altogether.

No comments: