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The Psychology of Religious Conversion
Lewis Rambo, San Francisco Theological Seminary

delivered at the
International Coalition for Religious Freedom Conference on
"Religious Freedom and the New Millenium"
Berlin, Germany, May 29-31, 1998

Converts are passionate. They are, in many cases, arrogant. They have the truth. They know exactly what should be done, or should not be done. Therefore, the issue of conversion is a very controversial topic, because quite often it does in fact disrupt peoples’ lives. It does disrupt families. Even though we may give a theology of conversion that can soft pedal all those issues, the truth is, the issue is controversial because it is disruptive. This has been evident in many of the people I’ve interviewed over the years, as well as people who have had family members convert. In many of my courses at the Graduate Theological Union, many people take the courses because they’ve had family members who have converted to various religious groups that they consider to be esoteric, destructive, cultic or whatever. They want to understand the dynamics because it has been so destructive.

I think that an initial part of the discussion about conversion in this kind of context is to recognize that it is a disorientation, a disruption, and something that has caused a lot of complications in many peoples’ lives. As a result, it’s the kind of topic that rarely, if ever, elicits rational, calm discussion. I have been dealing with these kinds of issues since the late seventies. I was involved with members of the Unification Church, the Hare Krishna movement, and others in the Bay Area of San Francisco. These cases between “anti-cultists” and the “pro-cultists” involved great animosity and conflict. I’m surprised that nobody threw chairs at one another. In the United States—and I understand that this is going on as well in Europe—the issue often focuses on the issue of so-called “brainwashing.”

When we step back a bit from the issue of what is a proper way of understanding conversion, we see that most people do not convert. At least the studies that I’ve seen of sociologists in the United States and Europe show that most people remain in the religion into which they were born. The exceptions are people who were born to parents who had a mixed religion. Often, they will change. So, we can begin with the premise that most people stay in the family religion. Those that do change were in situations with a bit of conflict, and were perplexed about the issue.

No matter what the group, if it is deviant vis-a-vis the larger society, most people will raise the question of how is it possible for someone to believe something that ridiculous. For example, if you are living in Nashville, Tennessee, and you convert to being a Catholic, Southern Baptists will scratch their heads and wonder how in the world could you become a Roman Catholic, a Papist, and believe in the Virgin Mary, and so on. They’re perplexed. Whereas, if you’re in another context, and convert to the Baptist Church, people will think you’re weird. Throughout the United States, and perhaps throughout most of Europe, converting to almost any of the new religious movements—Jehovah’s Witnesses, Hare Krishna, Unification Church, etc.—is considered deviant. So, the question is a perplexing one. How is it possible? Why would someone change to something so odd, so peculiar? How can you possibly believe that? How can you possibly do those things?

I wish that I could say that the psychology of conversion had a unified, sophisticated, coherent theory that I could give you today, and you could all walk out and say, “Ah, now I understand the psychology of conversion.” Unfortunately, what we have in fact are psychologies. There are multiple orientations in the field of psychology. There are also so many different kinds of conversion that it’s very difficult for a scholar to say exactly what conversion is.

Until the mid-seventies or early eighties, I think it would be fair to say that the exclusive franchise on conversion, the word and the idea, was with evangelical Protestants. To most people in the United States, conversion meant a born-again experience in something like a revival meeting, or Billy Graham, or some sort of organization such as that. For many people, everything else was simply brainwashing, or manipulation, or whatever other term people chose to use.

What I’ve tried to do in my work is to orchestrate psychology, anthropology, and sociology to look at the diverse possibilities of what conversion is, and how it takes place. I have several handouts, but the most important one is a very brief presentation entitled “Converting Processes.” By the way, let me make it very clear that the hat I am wearing today is as a psychologist. I don’t happen to be a reductionistic psychologist, who believes that psychology is the truth. I think it is a set of theories and techniques that, in some cases, are illuminating and helpful. I do not reject the theological language that I, or other people, use to explain or interpret conversion. So please understand, I’m taking a very narrow definition of what I’m trying to do.

There’s much more that can be said of the difficulties in the psychology of conversion that are, I think, hindering the field. Unfortunately, psychologists have tended to be psychiatrists, clinical psychologists, and so forth, who have worked primarily with people who, to one degree or another, are suffering from some kind of mental illness. Therefore, if you read the literature on conversion by psychologists, with rare exceptions, it has to do with people who have written an article because they’ve had ten people in their private practice who’ve been mentally ill, and have had a conversation experience, or they have been psychologists who have made it a point to go and talk to a few people, but in general their data base is very narrow.

The exceptions are people in the so-called anti-cult movement in the United States. I’m not sure how this works in London, the UK or Europe, but my impression is that most of the psychologists in the so-called anti-cult movement have done therapeutic work with people who have either been deprogrammed, or have left one of the new religious movements and, therefore, have a lot of deep traumas, real or imagined, that they have experienced in these groups. The point of saying this is that you can see how the database is skewed for most psychologists. The result is that it’s very difficult to find a psychologist who writes about psychology without framing it as a pathology or a deviance. It is for this reason that a number of us in the field are working very hard to create a new psychology of conversion that would be adequate.

I think that in the United States the best work that has been done on conversion in the social sciences is done by sociologists. With few exceptions, most of the sociologists who talk about conversion have either done some form of intensive interviews with members of particular groups, or have done participation/observation research with various new religious movements, whether it be Jehovah’s Witnesses or Unification Church, or other religious groups. Therefore, sociological literature tends to be much more sophisticated. However, most sociologists, like psychologists, believe that they’re interpretative method is the truth, and so they tend to be relatively reductionistic in their interpretation of the phenomenon. Furthermore, most sociologists—not all, there are exceptions to this—are people who also are reductionistic vis-a-vis psychology, and therefore, the field is still struggling to find a voice.

What I’ve tried to do in my work is to take into account the complexity of the phenomenon. Since I am a psychologist and not a theologian, when I talk about conversion, I begin with the assumption that conversion is what a group says it is. This helps us to avoid the long debates begun by people like William James. Is it sudden? Is it gradual? Is it active? Is it passive? And so forth. Many of these debates are very interesting, but I think that we must start from the point of view: What does a particular group say conversion is? What are the expectations of peoples’ experiences? What behaviors or rituals must they enact? Start from that database.

Fortunately, because of the sociologists of religion who have done a lot of this, we’re now building up enough data to begin some comparative studies of the various groups. My hope is that some of us who have a more psychological orientation will then work with sociologists and anthropologists, as well as with people who are theologically oriented, to increase our understanding of how people change in a particular milieu. Rather than debate whether it’s sudden or gradual, let us examine what the expectation is.

One of the rather striking things we find is that the expectations vary from group to group. Some groups expect that the conversion process be largely cognitive and intellectual. In some groups, they expect it to be largely emotional and passionate. In others, it involves much more doing particular things, and acting the rituals. Some groups will even say, we don’t care what you believe. That’s irrelevant. Do the practice and see what happens—a very different approach.

Unfortunately, the psychology of religion has probably been influenced too much by the Protestant—and perhaps to some extent the Catholic—ethos which emphasizes the priority of belief. Many social scientists are saying that, in many cases, it is belief that follows practice, and not practice that follows belief. There’s always a debate about the sequence, but I think one could argue that, in many groups, learning to behave in certain ways, and to affiliate in certain ways, often takes priority over some sort of belief system. The belief system is often something that people acquire much later, at least in its more sophisticated terms.

More and more people who are studying the actual religious movements in question are coming to the realization that most people who become involved are in fact active agents, and not passive victims. I will presently say something about passive victims, because I think one of the difficulties in this discussion has been the polarization between pro-cult/anti-cult, which tends to simplify the discussion. I think that many people who are pro-cult are unwilling to acknowledge that there are methods that are used at times that, if they were used by other groups, would be deemed to be disgusting. What I’m arguing for is an approach to these issues that is fair and honest to both sides, and has the courage to say that there are some methods that we as religious people need to debate among ourselves. Are they legitimate? Do they respect the sacred status of an individual, or a human being who should not be manipulated?

I do not, by the way, buy the brainwashing argument. Yet, the people who argue that brainwashing occurs make a point that religions often do manipulate people. Religions often exploit people. I think that we gain credibility if we are honest about those things that are wrong in religions, rather than playing a game in which we minimize the bad and maximize the good. This simply adds fuel to the fire of those who say that new religious movements are cultic or sectarian. We cannot deny that there are things that go wrong. Someone earlier today was talking about money, sex, and power. These are a problem for all of us, not just sectarian groups. We, who study and are participants in new religious movements or sectarian religious groups, need to recognize that we should be critical on these issues as well.

Psychologists have been working on what are the roots of human motivation, or the springs of action that drive us. The motivational structures to experience pleasure and pain, to have conceptual systems, to enhance self-esteem, and to establish and maintain relationships, are fundamental human needs. I stress this because, when people ask me why people convert, my response is, “Let me count the ways.” There is usually no single motivation that drives people. What does happen, I think, is that each of us has different predispositions. Therefore, some of us lean into new religious options in different ways. I suspect that a lot of us in this room are intellectuals, and so we probably go into religion through our head. Some other people go through their heart, and through their emotions. We enter new religious options by different avenues.

Beckford, in his work, wants to add to this the motivation for power. Now, this is something that rarely has been talked about, until relatively recently in the social scientific literature. Once I read this article, however, it made me realize, even when I watch American religious television, that one of the most popular words used by Christian ministers in television shows is “power.” There is even the “Hour of Power,” for those of us who are blessed to live in Southern California and Arizona. We can get this every week from our beloved Dr. Schuller. . . .

My next point concerns the encounter. I’ve already said a little bit about this in terms of the relationship between the advocate and the potential convert. I believe that this is a discussion in which we need to engage. What are the ethics of proselytization? I think that mainline religions need to discuss this. Evangelical Protestant groups need to discuss this. People involved in new religious movements—and those of us who are friends of these movements—need to discuss this. What are the appropriate methods that we could say, with no doubt, that all groups can engage in? That’s legitimate. We should also be able to say that there are boundaries that should not be crossed. I think that one of those, is that there are people in different stages in their life who are extraordinarily vulnerable. No religious group should seek to exploit the vulnerable, whoever they are. We can minister to the vulnerable. We can provide services to the vulnerable. But, I know groups that very consciously—I’m talking about Evangelical Christian groups—target vulnerable people.

For example, in some churches in large urban areas, they focus on ministries to divorced people. They know that, within the first six months or year after a person’s divorce, they are much more open to a new religious option. Now, I think that these churches minister to those who are going through a divorce, but if it’s a calculated, proselytizing tool, I would argue that that’s illegitimate. I think we need to have the chutzpah to say that across the board, whatever the group is, and not simply say that any method and all methods are OK.

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.

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