Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Religious Conversions


Imagine working for a private security firm. You get a call to head off to a local park where there’s a protest. You’re armed and ready to take ‘em out. POW! Out of nowhere a truck slams into your SUV. The airbag busts you in the face. You fumble, slump in your seat, and discover you’re blind. Your plans have changed. You hear a voice. ZAPPED! You mumble, “omg.” And SHE says, “Yeah? I am here. So what are you up to?” And just like that your whole life has changed. 

The prototype for conversion studies had been the conversion of the apostle Paul who was struck by God on his way to persecute Christians (Acts 9). The sudden and dramatic change of life was studied by psychologists like William James who interviewed converts following the American revival meetings in the late 1800s.

In preparing a lesson related to religious conversions (Chapter 8, Hood, Hill, & Spilka, 2010) I find the field is still long on ideas but short on an empirically based model that offers significant explanatory power. The fact is of course, people do convert to religious faiths. And others deconvert. Still others report a spiritual transformation. Literally billions of humans hold some sort of religious faith.

  So what happens when people convert?

The old conversion, "Saul-Paul-model" looked like this
1. The process was emotional
2. The convert is a passive agent
3. The conversion results in a dramatic transformation
4. Behavior change follows belief change
5. Conversion occurs once and is permanent
6. Conversion occurs during adolescence
7. Conversion occurs suddenly

But many grow up in religious homes. And they report a gradual process of change.
1. It may be more rational than emotional
2. The convert may be actively seeking
3. There is a sense of self-realization
4. Belief change may follow behavior change
5. The changes may not be permanent but recur
6. The transformation begins in early adulthood and continues
7. No one experience is prototypical.



From Paul to Saul*

People drop out—lose their faith. But the data are limited. Heinz Streib’s Bielefeld Deconversion Project is housed at the University of Bielefeld in Germany. Some findings suggest four types of deconversion narratives (read more on their website).

1. Pursuit of autonomy: Younger persons leaving behind the tradition in which they were raised to find religious self-determination or a secular path.

2. “Barred from Paradise:”  a process of leaving a group to which they converted as a younger person when they became disillusioned e.g., feeling disappointed or deceived.

3. Finding a new frame of reference: an experience like conversion but in this case, they may leave a faith group that does not meet their needs for a highly structured group like a fundamentalist group.

4. Life-Long Quests: Those seeking truth and meaning later in life after having tried one or more traditions. They are usually looking for a group with lower tension and a more liberal atmosphere.


Last year, James Bielo published an article titled, Belief, Deconversion, and Authenticity among U.S. Emerging Evangelicals in Ethos, (the Journal of the Society for Psychological Anthropology).

 He discusses the common tendency to view religious groups- especially American Christian groups—in terms of their belief systems. He reviews some of the debate among his colleagues about ways to replace the focus on the traditional idea of belief as key in understanding Christian groups. He admits to difficulty
identifying emergent evangelicals since there are no easy ways to count them. Many remain within existing congregations, whilst others have formed house churches.

Bielo sets the cultural context of the late 1990s American relgiouscape. People like Rick Warren are rising to prominence. And the first Leadership summit is held at Willow Creek Community Church (1995). The Promise Keepers meet on the Washington Mall in October 1997.

In contrast to these evangelical events, a variety of leaders emerge in the form of authors of thought-provoking texts.

George Lindbeck, The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postliberal AgeThomas Oden, After Modernity…What? Agenda for TheologyNancy Murphy, Beyond Liberalism and Fundamentalism: How Modern and Postmodern Philosophy Set the Theological AgendaPeter Rollins, How (Not) to Speak of God… and more like Brian McLaren, Donald Miller

            Bielo cites other leaders and the rise of a discontent with the doctrinal foci of traditional Christian groups, which seemed more and more irrelevant to contemporary life—or perhaps even destructive. Lesslie Newbigin, a British Anglican Priest opined that the West’s rejection of Christianity was not just a move toward secularism but rather toward paganism that resists the gospel.

            Enter Bielo as a researcher. He collects data within a few American cultures and offers us some conclusions along with two case examples. He uses the term, “Emerging Deconversions” to describe what I would call a transformation. Nevertheless, Bielo describes the consistent process of emerging evangelicals as people who “create distance from their former selves.” He finds they seek a faith characterized by deep and personal relationships and an authenticity that’s missing in their former tradition.

            I found Bielo’s reference to four points from John Barbour helpful at least as hypotheses for analyzing Deconversion narratives (think, testimonies):

1. Doubt or denial that the former belief system is true
2. Moral criticism of the former approach to life
3. Emotional upheaval
4. Rejection of the former Christian community


            After all this input I’m wondering if the ideas of conversion and deconversion are just different names for the same process of transitioning from one group to another. Or, perhaps it is part of that life-long quest as noted above in the Bielefeld project. Here’s what I mean, if you converted to Christianity then you likely converted from some previous way of life or belief set—no matter how fragmentary it was and no matter if the conversion was sudden or gradual. Then, if you became disenchanted with several key aspects of the Christian group you were in, you may have gradually explored other alternatives or suddenly found a new way of life. Either way, you orient yourself (I got orient from Bielo) by protest against the old way and invest in the new way. For the emergent evangelicals, the new way is not defined by belief systems but rather by a way of authentically relating to others in Christian community.

            Referring back to a former post on fundamentalism, one way to view the conversion-deconversion process for those changing from one form of Christianity to another might be to consider the fundamentalists and closely related evangelicals in terms of their text focus. Conservative evangelicals and fundamentalists might be viewed as text-belief content-behavior focused Christians and those in the emerging evangelical movement as text-belief principle-relationship focused Christians.

            Spiritual or religious conversions, deconversions, and transformations will probably continue as long as humans exist. The emerging church movement may fizzle or influence existing groups in some yet unknown but lasting way. It’s too early to tell. And all this analysis probably won’t mean much to believers who are quite happy worshiping God and sharing life with family and friends in their church community. Then there are the other Christians, mostly young (see my post on Millennials)...

   Those Christians who have become dissatisfied with Christian groups that seem

      more about political power than humble service

more about hate than love

            more about doctrine than life

                        more about position papers than care

                                    more about soul counts than relationships

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As usual, I welcome constructive comments.

*From Paul to Saul- great quip by Andrew Parks

Bielo, J. S. (2010). Belief, deconversion, and authenticity among U. S. emerging evangelicals. Ethos, (40), 258-276.
Hood, R.W., Jr., Hill, P.C., & Spilka, B. (2009). The psychology of religion: An empirical approach (4th ed). New York: Guilford.
Hood, R.W., Jr., Hill, P.C., & Williamson, W.P. (2005). The psychology of religious fundamentalism. New York: Guilford

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