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                                     Prepared by
                                Dr. Brenda E. Brasher
                                     Prepared for
                              SO3017 Religion & Society

Lecture Plan
 Introduction to conversion
   – Definitions and theoretical context
   – Theories:
       • Lofland & Stark
       • McGuire
 NRMs and Conversion
   – Contemporary Theoretical Debates
   – Psycho-social v. Sociological
   – Role playing

Questions you should be able to answer at the end of lecture two
 What are the social sources of religious conversion?
 Who converts to New Religious Movements?

 Conversion: A traditional part of religion.
 IF modernity undermines religion (secularisation theory), why would anyone change
  her/his religious membership, or join a new religion?
 If inertia keeps people in religion, why would conversion happen at all…at least in the
  modern West?

Famous Converts
 Islam
       • Shabbetai Tzevi

       • Malcolm X

       • Muhammad Ali

Famous Converts
 In Judaism, converts have played notable roles.
   – Jethro a Midianite priest, consul to Pharaoh and father-in-law to Moses (credited
      with founding Jewish judicial system).
   – Ruth whose story is told in the biblical Book of Ruth (ancestor of David).
   – Rabbi Meir (helped compile the Mishnah or oral law).

Famous Converts
 Christianity:
   – A religion composed initially of converts.
   – Saul to Paul
   – Emperor Constantine making Christianity the legal religion of Rome
   – Still emphasizes conversion as a practice
Conversion and Agency
 Religious affiliation:
   – Not always voluntary!
   – Not always under the control of an individual.
      • Structural factors: gender, age, class
   – An act to achieve „social cohesion‟
      • Religious rights as a global issue

 „Conversion‟ presupposes agency.
Does not always attend to structural factors.

Neitz on Conversion
 The gradual building up of a new „root reality‟ at the same time an old one is being
   – People tested faith claims against everyday experience to see what made practical
 From strong to weak involvement also needs to be explained.

Kinds of Conversion
 According to McGuire, there are KINDS of conversion
   – Radical Transformation
   – Consolidation
   – Reaffirmation
Tradition Switching
 It is important to distinguish conversion from tradition switching.
 Tradition switching: movement of people amongst religions systems that occurs due
   – Political Circumstances
   – For socio-economic mobility
   – Personal/Romantic: Marriage, friendship, family (Roof)
 In the USA, tradition switching is common (amongst denominations)

The Paradox of Pentecostal conversion
 Improves `quality of life`
 Conversion based on belief

 Conversion literature at times assumes rather than clarifies identity conceptually.
 Conversion: A lens to consider identity construction issues.
    Sociologically, we assume there is some sort of reciprocal relationship between self
    and society.
     – Societies shape selves; selves influence society.
        • Reflexivity constitutes the core of selfhood (considering oneself as a self)

Conversion: McGuire
 Conversion: “a transformation of one‟s self concurrent with a transformation of one‟s
  basic meaning system.
 Changes:
   – Sense of self
   – Social belonging
   – One‟s view of society
Conversion as a Process
 Five Steps: (McGuire)
   1. Predisposition: the seeker
       • Crisis Driven: Can be an after-the-fact interpretation
   2. Initial Interaction: checking it out
       • Mainly seekers taken to groups by family, friends
   3. Proselytization: Group attempts to convert
       • Resocialization, redefinition of self, world
   4. Symbolizing the Conversion:
       • Clothing, food, rituals
       • Conversion narrative
   5. Commitment: Keeping the group going
       • Final step most problematic.
       • Most converts leave within 1 – 2 years.

The 7-step model
 Lofland and Stark
 Pre-disposing:
   – 1. Experience enduring, acutely felt tension
   – 2. Within a religious problem-solving perspective (as opposed to a psychiatric or
      political problem solving perspective)
   – 3. Which leads them to think of selves as religious seekers
 Situational:
   – 4. Encounter the cult to which they convert at a turning point in their lives
   – 5. Form an affective bond with one/more cult members
   – 6. Reduce or eliminate extra-cult attachments
   – 7. Exposed to intensive interaction with other converts
 “It is the cumulative affect of all of these that produces converts.” [Dawson, 118]

The social construction of a convert
 Initial exposure via pre-existing social networks
 People with fewer, weaker social ties
 Form affective bonds with (some) members
   – Intensive interaction with other members is necessary not only for initial
      conversion but also for its maintenance.

Explaining Conversion by Converts
How much identity change is involved in a religious conversion?
   – Converts reinterpret past events based on present choices.
   – The groups receiving converts group can play an important role in the
      reinterpretation process [structural factors]
 Groups emphasize and encourage converts toward certain styles of accounts/rhetoric
  of conversion (McGuire).
   – Rhetoric of Choice
   – Rhetoric of Change
   – Rhetoric of Continuity

Explaining Conversion by Others
 People other than the convert and the convert‟s group, [others], also give accounts of
  conversion, often emphasizing one element over others.
   – Socialization
   – Ideological
   – Psychological

Conversion to?
 In the sociological literature, the question most often raised is, why would someone
  get involved with a marginal religious group?

Who Converts to an NRM?
 It can vary.
   – Sectarian groups from the late 19th/early 20th centuries (Jehovah‟s Witnesses,
      Seventh Day Adventists) drew disproportionately from the economically deprived
   – Other NRMs from the same period attracted the elite (e.g. Theosophy)
   – Post 1950‟s West: Privileged baby boomers and their offspring. NRM members are
      disproportionately young (20-25), better educated than average, middle/upper
      middle class
 Question for reflection: Why these differences?

“Brainwashing” and “Drift” Models of NRM Conversion
 Why join unconventional religious groups?
 Two sociological/psychological models:
    – Brainwashing (psychopathological)
       • Deprivation/strain.
       • Person is ACTED UPON.
    – Drift (socialisation):
       • People act of own volition and are in control.
• Each relies on problematic theory of socialization, tending to treat it as internalization
  (Long and Hadden).
Conversion as Socialization
 Religious „conversions‟ would be better analysed if treated as incidents of group
  socialization (Long and Hadden).
   – The nature and requirements of membership
   – The participants in the socialization process
   – Creating and incorporating activities.
Acting Like a Convert
 Robert Balch: Role theory.
   – Goffman‟s dramaturgic model of social behaviour:
   – “The first step to conversion…is learning to act like a convert” (142).
 Much literature on conversion misleads because “writers don‟t know enough about the
  routine features of everyday life in cults”
 Conversion is not necessarily the same as conviction
 Interesting Contrast: McGuire/Balch on conversion

Converts as Ideal Types
 D. Martin: Converts tend to act as “ideal types”
 Brasher:
   – Converts involved in acting as `ideal type‟ can be mobilized by religious leaders
      • For reform
      • For acts of terrorism

Can you answer these questions?
 What are the social sources of religious conversion?
 Who converts to New Religious Movements?

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