Science on Religion

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The varieties of religious conversion

Conversion BibleConversion is a life changer. Converts can gain new social groups and family ties, different symbols and narratives that give life meaning, and new and better behaviors from the religion’s morals and, sometimes, from the way they feel emotionally because of the conversion. This is even true when it’s not a change from one religion or denomination to another but a change in degree of belief or commitment from little or none to firm and deeply held. It's no wonder that the psychology of religion has been fascinated with conversion from the start, and there are a slew of theories that claim to explain what goes on during a conversion. Most of these theories are built on qualitative studies, but can an empirical investigation support any of them?

The are a couple of problems that such a study must overcome. First, conversion is as unique and varied as humankind. There’s nothing universal about it. Second, the study of conversion has been primarily theory-driven. What empirical studies there are have not risen to the level of creating typologies, or general categories, of conversions. However, the Slovak Academy of Science's Peter Halama has taken the first steps to correcting this oversight.

Halama's work is cut out for him. Scientists thrive off of precise definitions, but just in his brief introduction, Halama cites three definitions of "religious conversion," outlines four theories of conversion’s stages, and covers five theories of how people experience their conversions. His solution was to combine the leading theories with the available scientific studies, and he called what he came up with the Religious Conversion Process Questionnaire (RCPQ). It asked about what each major theory thought is important in order to test them. For example, the RCPQ’s questions covered social influences that could influence a person, how the conversion affected their stress and coping, and how healthy and unhealthy relationships affected them. Learning from empirical studies, the RCPQ asked if the conversion was a quick or long process and what their emotional states were before, during, and after their conversions.

Halama gave the RCPQ to 179 self-identified converts. He analyzed the data using a technique called hierarchical cluster analysis. This looks at the subjects’ answers and grouped the questions according to the similarities in how people answered them compared to the other “clusters.” It’s a quantitative way of doing what you do when you sort seashells you picked up at the beach. You group them by color, size, shape, texture, and other characteristics. What you’ll end up with is a bunch of piles where each shell is more similar to the other shells in its pile than to those of any other pile. What’s good about using cluster analysis is that it lets the data sort itself into groups. In principle, then, the process of splitting the RCPQ’s questions into groups should be bias-free. This analysis gave Halama fourteen groups of questions. Examples include “positive emotions” and “negative emotions,” "parents as a positive influence" or something to be "compensated" for, and a "long-term" process or a "sudden and mystical" one.

In the second stage of analysis, Halama used a two-step cluster analysis to derive five types of religious conversion. In a sense, he looked for patterns in how people answered the “clusters” from the first round of analysis, and what he found was five “typologies” of religious conversion. He named them (1) extended struggle to be religious, (2) sudden personal faith intensification, (3) compensatory conversion, (4) no specific conversion experience, and (5) socialized conversion. Type 1 converts said that they felt a lot of negative emotions and little positive emotions during the conversion, but they weren’t left with a sense of relief afterwards. Type 2 conversion typically happens to people with positive family influences and a previous acquaintance with the religion. Of course, it’s also sudden. Type 3 describes one of the classic archetypes. A person has a sudden, mystical experience, feeling very sinful, and feels emotionally relieved after the conversion. People who experience a Type 3 conversion usually are seeking to compensate for their poor relationships with their parents. Type 5 is a long-term process, usually well supported by a convert’s family and community. Type 4 is the difficult one to make heads or tails of. People in this group didn’t score high in any of the RCPQ’s fourteen clusters.

Three of the five typologies seem to correspond to current psychological theories. Types 3 and 5 fit with attachment theory. One part of this theory says that a relationship with God can stand in for poor relationship a convert has with her parents. This is Type 3. Another part of attachment theory is positive. With a strong relationship to a social group, a person will grow to share and embrace her religion. This is Type 5. Also, Type 2 matches Mary Jo Meadow’s and Richard Kahoe’s reintegration theory. In this type, people are inspired to reconnect with the religious community that they were once a part of.

Types 1 and 4 don’t neatly match any theory in the psychology of religion. Provided that the RCPQ is at least a decently trustworthy measure, Halama’s identification of a group that experiences an extended struggle to be religious (Type 1) suggests that theorists might have overlooked a whole group of religious converts. And it’s no surprise that Type 4 doesn’t match any theory. It has no distinguishing characteristics, other than its lack of characteristics. Halama suggests two explanations. First, these people didn’t really convert. They may say and outwardly act as if they did, but in their hearts they didn’t. Or, perhaps their community’s definition of conversion is so broad that even small changes count as a conversion. Of course then the major changes seen in the four other typologies don’t show up in these people’s RCPQ answers. Second, the RCPQ is in its first edition. It may require new or different questions that probe into different aspects of conversion that for one reason or another were left out.

This study is a good illustration of theoretical and empirical psychology working together to increase our understanding of religion. Using a carefully crafted survey, Halama was able to group his subjects in ways that matched some current theories and that also challenges theorists by showing that there are whole groups of converts who don’t match current theories’ criteria. Halama’s Type 4 in particular highlights how much there is to learn about conversion. That such a group exists challenges theoretical and empirical psychologists to refine their theories and their tools.

For more, see “Empirical Approach to Typology of Religious Conversion” in Pastoral Psychology.

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