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How conversion works


The Christian tradition offers many accounts for how conversion, the acceptance of a life-changing and radical alteration of worldview, takes place.  One is the story of Saul on the Damascus road (pictured above), instantly blinded into transformation, as “suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him” (Acts 9:3).  Conversion in this sense is the aha moment of dawning realization, a mystical experience and singular event often of revelation, the startling awareness that one has been living or believing a lie, the realization of enlightenment or betrayal, a complete transformation from old to new.  Another is the story of Saint Augustine, told autobiographically in the Confessions.  The Augustinian account is a story of conversion but not of the sort that happens in a moment, but rather in progressive stages.  Augustine’s transformation is more intellectual than emotional, something not perhaps recognized in the instance of blinding light but made sensical afterwards in the narrative retelling.  His transformation is one that emerges from within as a process of self-understanding; Augustine, unlike Saul/Paul, needs no Ananias to restore his sight, nor disciples to help him make sense of his experience afterward.

I am interested in this topic for reasons both personal and professional.

The personal reason is not especially connected to my experiences of Christianity, although my religious views have changed over time.  In some senses I cannot say I was actually converted to Christianity, since I can’t recall a time in my youth when I didn’t already believe.  Rather, over the last two decades it is my political views that have changed completely.  Raised in a conservative family against which I never rebelled, I don’t remember any situation where I was indoctrinated; I knew my family’s political views and have always found them intelligent and reasonable, and shared them, but political arguments or discussions were infrequent growing up.   My politics as a teenager were Republican/libertarian:  as a teen and then a college student, I found Ronald Reagan’s optimistic conservatism attractive and eloquent, and I was persuaded by his strong articulation of anti-communism and his indictment of the decrepit lumbering oppressiveness of the Soviet system.  But, and lacking any specific Damascus Road experience, over the last twenty years my politics have swung sharply left, and now, despite the attractiveness of John McCain’s life history and his commitment to honorable public service, I’m enthused about the prospects of a Barack Obama presidency.

Episode after episode slowly redirected my thinking:  the ugly GHW Bush campaign, whose “Willie Horton” racism and loaded “card carrying member of the ACLU” rhetoric repulsed me; the posturing moralism of the Clinton impeachment trial; the blundering disasters of Iraq and Katrina and Guantanamo and the barbaric political uses made of Terry Schiavo and gays and torture and immigrants by a Republican party that has given itself wholly over to the agendas of charismatic Christians and corporations.  My viscerally negative reaction to George W. Bush hasn’t helped, for despite his sincerity he is everything I despise in a politican:  incurious, inarticulate, actively anti-intellectual, opposed to practices of public/democratic deliberation, hostile to traditions of learning ranging from economics to earth science, ideologically extreme, never wrong.  He is unworthy of the office.

But how did I change when so many others did not?  Why was I unpersuaded by the never-ending defenses of Republicanism offered by Fox and Limbaugh and others more intelligent, like Will and Buckley and Krauthammer?  Why wasn’t I simply led to turn against particular politicians as opposed to the broader conservative philosophy?  How is it that I went from agreeing with Ronald Reagan that the “best welfare program is a job” to nearly wholesale agreement today with John Edwards’ warnings against “Two Americas”?

The issue also has professional salience given my training in rhetorical studies.  Scholars of public persuasion often find themselves vacillating between the classical view that eloquent speaking can sometimes induce radical attitudinal shifts and the more postmodern sense that radical changes, when they infrequently occur, are more a function of systemic forces that determine individual behavior than of persuasion per se (and so radical behavioral change is thought to arise from the system contradictions and upheavals of capitalism or the psychic crises theorized by Freud and Lacan or the desperate longing for identification with others explicated by the literary critic Kenneth Burke).  Within rhetorical theory, concepts that simultaneously name the persuasive process as both intellectual and mystical, words like charisma and conversion and the classical terms kairos and pistis remain sources of interest but do not typically trigger systematic investigation.  And in the broader humanities, despite the much noted linguistic turn, conversions apparently induced by eloquence are still dismissed as naively mistaking the epiphenomenon of speech for the more likely underlying material forces of historical transformation like technology and war and nature and money and disease.  All this made more interesting by the pervasiveness of personal transformation talk in American culture today — in one committed dose of passionate effort, one can have a new body, identity, profession, house, or partner.

The issue of conversion is not simply, then, a topic of interest for the religiously motivated, but has salience for social and anthropological theory as well, and in literature is today just as interested in Wittgenstein’s philosophical conversion as that of the apostle Paui.  In taking a look lately at the mammoth research literature on conversion experiences, a number of interesting ideas emerge.

Much work in literary studies focuses on conversion narratives, which are intriguing because story-telling is a coherence-making exercise while conversions mark radical ruptures that cannot easily be sutured or logically explained.  As Anne Hartle put it, “character is stable and enduring, whereas conversion denotes radical change, and specifically change of character…  Conversion… raises the question of how the narrative account can claim to be about the same self, for conversion seems to mark the beginning of a new self.”  This is a problem perhaps best seen in the Confessions, which begin narratively but, when the Old Man dies (at Augustine’s conversion to Christianity) the prose abandons story and rather abruptly turns philosophical and propositional.  Such narratives long ago transcended religion to underwrite literary genres like romance and quest tales; Chaucer scholars have long noted, for example, how Troilus and Criseyde juxtaposes alternative accounts of psychological conversion.

Within the sociological tradition, the model first elaborated in 1965 by Lofland and Stark has had enduring influence even when under siege.  L&S offered a motivational model which postulates that conversion results when individuals move through a series of events, including the experience of enduring and acutely felt tension, that arises in the context of a religious problem-solving perspective, which leads an individual to see him or herself as a “seeker,” where an alternative (cult, religion, political creed, philosophy) becomes available at a perceived “turning point,” where an affective bond is formed with other new converts and extra-group connections are absent or neutralized, and where interactions within the New Way are intensive.  This perspective seems influenced by William James’ (1902) emphasis on crisis and discontent but lacks any explicitly religious content.

The Lofland and Stark model has been much debated.  Some criticize it for its lack of empirical specificity, others for its implicit individualism.  One influential test, done by Snow and Philips of a Buddhist group, ended up agreeing with the view that intense interaction is required for conversions to “stick,” but completely disagreed that personal crisis and a seeking personality were prerequisites.  Other studies have called into doubt whether one need embrace a problem-seeking perspective or be segregated from outside influences.  And, countering the individual-centered account first offered, Greil argued that people become seekers when their social networks fail them, when identity is spoiled.  For Granqvist, the best way to mediate the conflicting impulses of the Pauline and Augustinian accounts is to connect them to differing levels of preexisting attachment (those whose attachments are insecure are prone to sudden flashing transformation; those whose connections are more secure are prone to slower rationalized change).  Meanwhile, rational choice scholars see conversion as an elaborate cost-benefit assessment, where the high costs of abandoning one’s existing worldview may be finally outweighed by the allures of a new one.

As much as all this, the historical accounts often seem the most nuanced and subtle.  Rodger Payne, relying on a Foucauldian sense of historical and epistemic determination, sees conversions made among early American Protestants as serving certain social functions; in this case conversion narratives enabled the emergence of a new social self ideologically in tune with industrial modernization.   But speaking of the emergence in the American South of a fairly quick and widespread conversion in the late 1700’s from Anglicanism to the Baptist faith, Jewel Spangler has argued that one cannot simply attribute this upheaval to economic or class-based dissatisfaction, but must rather also attend to the felt need for emotionally intense experiences that were otherwise lacking in rural Virginia and elsewhere.  Two centuries later a more common narrative was the white southern conversion narrative renouncing racism.

The historically frequent instances of coerced conversions provide other intriguing test cases.  The often brutal efforts to convert the colonized and native populations of distant locales deployed every imaginable tactic:  death threats (such as Charlemagne’s offer to the Saxons that they either accept baptism or the sword), the manipulation of ritual and space, aggressive efforts to win over opinion leaders in the hope that new beliefs would trickle down, and mass spectacles aimed at inducing awestruck confessions.

It is hard to know whether these accounts, taken as a whole, which often seem to offer hyper-rationalistic accounts of psychological transformation, wholly capture the dynamics of the sometimes capricious decision to convert or the sudden (opposed) awareness that this is not working, the lingering doubts that long shadow one’s slowly forming new philosophy, the manner by which conversion seems to vary based on gendered experiences, the sense of dawning recognition that this change feels right and even the possibility of Damascus Road blinding light awakenings.  Accounting for conversion is complicated by the wide range of experiences traveling under the name, and the contrary problems posed by the often unreliable testimony of new converts and the fact that conversion may actually be constituted by those very accounts.

SOURCES:  David Snow and Richard Machalek, “The Sociology of Conversion,” Annual Review of Sociology 10 (1984): 167-190; John Lofland and Norman Skonovd, “Conversion Motifs,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 20.4 (1981): 373-385; Patrick Riley, Character and Conversion in Autobiography:  Augustine, Montaigne, Descartes, Rousseau, and Sartre (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2004); Dabney Anderson Bankert, “Secularizing the Word:  Conversion Models in Caucer’s Troilus and Criseyde,” Chaucer Review 37.3 (2003): 196-218; J. Lofland and R. Stark, “Becoming a World-Saver: A Theory of Conversion to a Deviant Perspective,” American Sociological Review 30.6 (1965): 862-875; William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature (New York:  New American Library, [1902] 1958); Henri Gooren, “Reassessing Conventional Approaches to Conversion: Toward a New Synthesis,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 46.3 (2007): 337-353; Pehr Granqvist, “Attachment Theory and Religious Conversions:  A Review and a Resolution of the Classic and Contemporary Paradigm Chasm,” Review of Religious Research 45.2 (2003): 172-187; Rodger Payne, The Self and the Sacred: Conversion and Autobiography in Early American Protestantism (Knoxville:  University of Tennessee Press, 1998); Jewel L. Spangler, “Becoming Baptists: Conversion in Colonial and Early National Virginia,” Journal of Southern History 67.2 (May 2001): 243-286; James Muldoon, ed., The Spiritual Conversion of the Americas (Gainesville, Fla.: University Press of Florida, 2004); Richard Fletcher, The Barbarian Conversion: From Paganism to Christianity (New Holt: Holt, 1998); Fred Hobson, But Now I See: The White Southern Racial Conversion Narrative (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1999).

1 Comment

  1. You might like to read my testimony on my blog A Son Off the Edge. Then feel free to ask any questions, I will try to answer them. James

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