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!
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.

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.
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.


Ampersand said...

That's very illuminating, and fascinating, seeing all those changes and their self-reinforcement so accurately described.

I can totally see myself in that description.

Rebecca C. said...

So, Julie (or Ampersand, sorry, I forget your name -- I'm terrible with names even on the Internet!) do you see your recent changes of belief as a conversion also?

This is an interesting area to me. I have recently read a couple books by Rodney Stark, who studied conversion from the viewpoint of sociology for a couple decades. I've been reading his more historical works but he goes over much of the sociology also.
I can certainly see the role that personal relationship plays in my own recent religous journeying.

R. Michael said...


I have been thinking along similar lines lately. Questions like "What makes a person a Christian and one not, or what makes a person who has been a Christian walk away from the faith?"

Observing human behavior can tell us a lot about what motivates us religiously (or politically). First, our need of community or belonging is one of the greatest motivators of human behavior. It has nothing to do with intellegence or social status. I have seen this evidenced over and over again.

Secondly, our need of significance (i.e. to be something bigger than ourselves) is just as important. We want to think our lives are greater than just the sum total of the parts. You can see evidences of these needs in the secular world too.

Because of the need for community and signficance we are willing to hold onto the ideology of group that provides these needs so that even when truth, contrary to the beliefs of the group, smacks us in the face our needs tell us to ignore it or simply accept another "truth" that salves the unanswered question.

julieunplugged said...

Rebecca it's interesting that you should ask that. What prompted my conversation with Scot McKnight is that he is writing a chapter about the anatomy of apostasy and what "pattern" there might be in loss of belief.

I don't see loss of belief as similar to conversion. Conversion for me was much more clearly defined by the factors described in this article. Community was a huge factor as was being offered a whole new interpretive grid for how I looked at my own life etc.

Loss of faith has felt much more lonely, I have wished for a group to give me a sense of comradery, I've missed the community I came from and I don't feel I have the same ability to lay a template over my life to help it make sense or fit a worldview.

It doesn't mean that I haven't adopted certain terms of philosophies (I'd be the first to admit that postmodernism has shaped much of my process). But I don't find that I'm bound to a leader, a community or a vocabulary that manages my life's experiences in the way I was when an evangelical.

So there is probably a pattern a sociologist could find, but it's not this one.

Ampersand said...

I'll echo pretty much everything Julie said and amplify her point about the loneliness.

I have wished, too, for a group to belong to, but I find that I don't entirely fit anywhere. Although I am no longer one of the faithful, I still understand and appreciate the merits of faith, and even long for it sometimes.

Yet that appreciation, and even affection for faith, does not carry enough weight for me to return.

As I have write this, I am realizing that my loss of faith does seem to me to be kind of a conversion, although one that came slowly and with the removal of many layers. When first converted to Christianity, I saw everything through those new eyes, and everything that I saw reinforced my newfound truth. As though it had been there all along and I just never saw it.

Now, I look at those same events, and I can't see it through faith anymore. It just seems like one big story, a sort of a belief in a spiritual Santa Clause. seems that I have had a reverse metanoia.

The thing that frustrates me, in this spiritual limbo, is that while I can certainly appreciate and even affirm the faith of others, I cannot receive the same in return. I understand that is the function of the beliefs and faith others hold, that they cannot reciprocate my understanding. But it sure creates a lonely place to be.

Ampersand said...

A postscript:

As in, no one says, "yay, you lost your faith. way to go!"

They mostly just offer solutions on how to get it back or why it happened.

Rebecca C. said...

Coming as I do from the outer reaches of the idea of a 'faith community' I'm not sure I'm seeing this as you two do. Bear with me a bit as I mull it over.

There certainly are social ties and reinforcements for becoming secular aren't there? They may, in your lives, be less personal then the evangelical ties you came from but they are there. Isn't watching reality TV being part of something? Just because it is a more mainstream culture doesn't make it not a culture.

Academia is a culture, right? I mean, if the social reinforcements run toward the Jesus Seminar isn't the natural thing to take a more positive view of that? (Reminder here -- I LIKE the Jesus Seminar folks!)

Also, I am very familiar with people who make a community of questions; who bond quite easily over the ideas that they share that we cannot know the answers and can only celebrate the questions. So 'conversion' to agnosticism is possible. There are longstanding UUA congregations where the majority of the membership are avowed agnostics and atheists.

BUT, these communities never reach the closeness that Evangelical and Fundamentalism fosters so easily and maybe that is why your new positions seem lonely? Or maybe they never reach the certainty? I don't know. I was born into the UUA, not converted to there, and I only know Evangelical culture from the outside (though I have a good vantage place in someway since I homeschool.)

I do know that my own journey toward a more orthodox position had an excruciating amount of loneliness associated with it.

julieunplugged said...

Rebecca, I'm not sure what you're saying.

I wouldn't for a minute say that I haven't found the answers that were provided in the JS or academia more satisfying than those I held before. That's how I got where I am.

And there is certainly a sense in which regaining identification within the larger culture through a change perspective is also affirming.

But this article details conditions of "conversion." I don't feel like I converted, but that I lost something. The five parts were these:

1. Conversion occurs through social networks (often intense) through personal contact.

2. A strong relationship with the leader(s) of the group combined with enormous affection within the group, to the point of using familial terms for each other.

3. Rhetoric changes, particularly in a totalistic way. All of life interpreted through a categoric grid.

4. Role - the feeling of having a specific place and function within a larger mission or context.

If you can see how these apply to me now, I'd be interested.

I didn't have personal contact with those "de-converting me," there was no leader or family I joined, I lost an interpretive grid for my life (you might claim I adopted a secular one, but it is not prescriptive and changes all the time - I don't have that sense of having to use certain words as keys to unfold my experience for others), and what role? In what context?

I know I've gone through a change that might be able to be categorized and described - it's just this description fits my conversion to evangelicalism, not my de-conversion, it seems to me.

Rebecca C. said...

Sorry, Julie. I was thinking of conversion in a broader context, not following that list down the line (my bad. That is what comes of reading, posting, talking on the phone and pushing papers.)

No. Your experience does not fit that framework of conversion. For that matter, MY journey does not fit that framework of conversion. Of course, I think Stark does not regard it as 'conversion' if you are moving within the same general religion.

Dave said...

Another element that Rambo (not the Stallone character, I was relieved to discover) touches on in this article is how religious groups target "the vulnerable." I think this is another huge aspect of how/why conversions happen. Especially in American society, where marketing and the scientific pursuit of expanding one's base of customers have been refined so precisely. As participants in American society, I think we are being "hustled" all the time, by advertisers, politicians, activist groups and numerous other trend-setters all trying to enlist us into their demographic pool. Religion does this quite effectively and intensely by turning our attention and to some degree exploiting the deeper/awesome/mysterious/terrifying aspects of life (& death), stirring up anxieties or aggressively addressing those that are already there. To some extent, I think they can provide an important and needed service but too often, religious groups seek to establish and maintain a tenacious grip on their adherents that wind up paralyzing or suffocating the people they're trying to help.

I like to see conversion as part of our individual and collective developmental processes. In my own experience, I had in some ways overshot the mark when I was a young man, arriving at a kind of universalistic insight for which I was ethically and morally unprepared for, so I had to "regress" to some extent to re-establish my fitness to participate in conventional society. Having gotten my developmental act together, I was then eventually able to transcend the "group-think" aspects of common religion that I see now as holding me back and introducing unnecessary inhibitions and fear-based bugaboos into my thinking. I think people who leave fundamentalism behind are often doing so for good reasons, as they are pursuing an outlook and a set of beliefs that are more clearly consistent with the highest ideals of the world's great religions. But to those who are primarily focused on maintaining group cohesion and respecting old taboos, we can appear as "apostates" or "infidels."

It's an old problem that will not be resolved in this generation, and probably not in the short-term either! :o)

r. michael said...

Dave...interesting that you say that we are "hustled" even by the religious. I can't help feeling that when I attend church the goal of the preacher is to sell me Jesus in the short time that he has. I feel rather uncomfortable with that b/c that makes me think that he doesn't believe half of the things he is saying.

In most christian churches that I have been involved in I find a severe lack of honesty, but those of us who want to cry "the emperor is naked!" get labeled as malcontents or infidels as you called them. I don't want to lead someone astray from what they believe...I just want an honest dialogue about the real issues of life.

Cheryl said...


I love reading your thoughts here and on Jesus Creed. I think we are sisters of the mind. :)


mariam said...

As a fairly recent convert I don't really see myself at all in this description:

1. changing to a new religious orientation takes place through what the sociologists call kinship and friendship networks of one sort or another.

This was not my case. I went looking for a spiritual home and more or less stumbled into it. I didn't know anyone there and still do not see the people there socially outside of church. This is partly because my family situation is such that I don't have a lot of time for an outside social life. It is also because I am part of the perhaps 5% of the congregation that is under 60, so I am at a different point in my life than they are. I do discuss spiritual matters with friends at work, but those friends come from various faiths - including quite a few Muslims so while we agree on what I think are the basics we can only go so far on the details before we respectfully agree to disagree. Quite frankly, I prefer things this way. My husband is strongly an atheist and I think it would be a source of conflict if I spent all my time around church folk.

2. 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.

Again, not my experience. The rector has a role obviously they have both been very consensis oriented. Maybe this is because they were women. The congregation tends to be a fairly democratic group, with shared leadership but socially reserved. I don't mean to imply they are cold or unfeeling - not at all. One of the things I like about it is that people are there for you when you need them but they also leave you alone. As to the leader of the Anglican Communion - a nice fellow but not exactly someone who inspires celebrity worship. The shared rituals are important, though. Perhaps we are substituting to some extent our collective participation in ritual for more more open-ended personal interaction. As one women in my church said "If we were extroverts, we'd be Baptists."

Perhaps I haven't seen some of the changes/behaviors in myself that are described in recent converts because I am straddling the fence. My faith is, for me, intensely personal, and not something I share with those closest to me because of their antipathy towards it. I deliberately set out to find a place where I could explore my spiritual beliefs privately and at my own pace.

julieunplugged said...

mariam, your conversion is much more likely to be profound and beneficial, I think. Your interest in the faith reminds me more of Rebecca C. It seems that those drawn to the faith as adults after years of an alternate point of view are much more likely to move slowly, deliberately and with their minds engaged.

And perhaps those walking away exhibit similar changes? I don't know, but perhaps there is something here that relates to maturity.

Thanks for posting!