Conversion 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 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 discarded. – People tested faith claims against everyday experience to see what made practical sense. 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 to, – 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 Identity? 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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