People ask me, “What it is that changes when a person converts?” I’ve struggled with that over the years. Drawing upon my own observations, as well as the literature, I’ve tried to put together four major things that happen in a conversion process.I can't seem to get very far beyond this need to keep thinking about what has happened to me and why... like all the time.
One of the few things that sociologists and psychologists agree upon is that, almost without exception, changing to a new religious orientation takes place through what the sociologists call kinship and friendship networks of one sort or another. Sometimes they’re very intense. Sometimes they’re minimal. In any case, people who convert or change religions usually do so through personal contact, and not through impersonal methods of communication, although that happens sometimes.
Secondly, what is very clear is that virtually all religious groups emphasize the importance of relationships with the leader of the group, and with members of the group. One of the things that is very striking when you go into a religious group is that there is enormous affection. People in some groups will even address one another as brother and sister, or other terms that communicate that relationships are very important. Living in the kind of society in which we do, with the need for relationships with other human beings, it’s no wonder that this is one of the most important attractions, as well as consequences of a conversion process.
I think that, perhaps because of the Protestant bias in the founding of psychology, we have denigrated the role of ritual. But, it’s very clear from the work of people like Victor Turner and others, that what we do has a powerful impact on what we believe, and what we experience. These things just don’t drop from heaven, but rather are engaged in actively. I use a term, which I take very seriously, that rituals are the “choreography of the soul.” It seems to me that they invite people into a new way of being.
The third thing that happens when people become converts, is that the way in which they interpret life—their rhetoric—changes. Now, this varies from group to group obviously. It varies, both in the content, and the degree to which they apply it to different aspects of their life. In some cases, for people who are very totalistic in their conversion, they now have an interpretative system that applies to anything and everything. This is one of the things that is very disruptive to families.
For instance, if I had an automobile accident and somebody asked what happened, I might reply, that the crazy guy was drunk, and he hit me. However, a religious convert may say it was the will of God. That infuriates some people, because it’s an interpretative system that is very discordant with the way in which the average secular person, at least in the United States, operates to interpret life. For some families and other people, it’s like a fingernail scratching on the blackboard. When a person converts, their whole strategy of attribution has changed.
The fourth thing that changes is the notion of role. Social psychologists and sociologists have talked about this for a long time, and it’s really in some ways rather a mystery. For example, if I were sitting in this audience as an auditor, the likelihood of me asking a question in this group is probably one in a thousand. Because my role is to be a presenter, I get nervous about it, but I can do it, and I would probably talk too long. Role is very powerful in shaping peoples’ perceptions and behaviors. When people become a member of a new religious movement, or when they become a passionate Roman Catholic, they have a new perception of themselves that often empowers them to do things, to believe things, and to feel things that they have not have been able to prior to that time.
Let me wrap it all up. I will speak now about the consequences. Suppose person X has become a member of the Mormon Church, and someone asks me, “Are they better off or worse off?” You can imagine that in many of the contexts that I work in, this is usually a loaded question. As a psychologist, I do not want to judge someone by some absolute ideal, but rather to consider what their life was like before they became a convert. Suppose someone had been a drug addict, and now they’ve really reformed their lives. They may still not be a very good person. They still don’t know much about the theology. They still have some habits that I consider atrocious. They’re still people that I probably wouldn’t go out and have a drink with. Nevertheless, I would say their life has been made better, psychologically speaking.
But, I also want to argue in terms of what I’ve been pushing for, and that is honesty. There are some conversions in which one could argue that the convert has psychologically regressed. Now, in some cases, converts temporarily regress, psychologically speaking, but as they are involved in a group over a longer period of time, through the structure of the group, through new disciplines, through new behaviors and so forth, they shape a new personhood. So, it has a lot to do with when the person is evaluated, and how far they’ve come from where they were before. Also, in considering this issue of consequences, I think one of the most important questions to ask ourselves is, on what basis am I evaluating this person? It’s very rare that people will come clean and say, “I am evaluating this person from the point of view of . . .” and then say an orthodox Evangelical Christian, or a psychoanalytically oriented psychologist, or whatever. We just make blanket judgments that are, in my opinion, usually useless, unless we understand the person who is making the assessment, and their evaluation of what is taking place.
Monday, July 30, 2007
Rambo's Understanding Conversion
Scot McNight put me onto Rambo's Understanding Conversion when we got into a discussion about patterns related to walking away from faith. I googled and found the page linked above. Here's a salient portion which I found provocative!