The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life is the best friend of anyone studying religion (religious studies, sociology, psychology, theology, etc.) in America. You will see me citing their statistics more than once. One thing that they measure is the number of adherents the major religions have, and they measure growth in those religions as well. Something the stuck out to me the last time I read this page is how often people in the United States convert to new religions.
Large-scale religious movements fall more under the realm of sociology, and I’m really not very knowledgeable about that, but since I’ve never converted to a new religion, I’ve often pondered what it would take for me to leave my church. I think I’ve decided that it would take three major things to happen before I’d leave my church:
- I would have to decide firmly that the major truth-claims of Mormonism probably did not happen. Joseph Smith did not receive revelation from God, the Book of Mormon was a fraudulent document, the prophets leading the church don’t really receive any kind of revelation, etc.
- I would have to decide that Mormonism is not pragmatically useful. In other words, even if I didn’t believe the truth-claims, I could probably still find a lot of good in the church, and opportunities to actively serve others within it. Many of my family and friends are in the church, and I probably wouldn’t want to strain relationships with them, either.
- I would have to find another religion I believe in more strongly. In other words, even if I found Mormonism neither true (in the sense of truth-claims being accurate) nor pragmatically useful, I still think the benefits and community related to organized religion are such that I would have to find another church before I left this one.
These three numbers, I think, reveal something important about me. When I envision myself converting to another religion, it’s a gradual, methodical process. Some would probably say that they wouldn’t ever change religions unless they had some kind of Saul-on-the-road-to-Damascus experience where God or an angel appeared to them in vision, or at least some kind of intense, heavenly sighn. I simply can’t see myself converting due to an experience like that, because even if I had such an experience, I still feel I’d have to gradually move into a new religion and really internalize the contents of it in order to feel like I was really converted. Two researchers, Kirkpatrick and Shaver, did a study in 1990 that discovered an interesting pattern regarding religious conversion: the way people convert to another religion is influenced by their relationship with their parents as a child.
In order to really understand this, we need to know about the concept of attachment. Attachment Theory is a system of ideas that grew out of psychoanalysis but have been very strongly developed in modern developmental psychology. Developmental psychologists do tests on babies to see what kind of a relationship they have with their primary caregiver, and they have separated these babies into three groups: secure, anxious/ambivalent, and avoidant. You can read about the three patterns (plus another rare one that has more recently been developed) here.
You might wonder how these patterns could actually have an effect on people when they grow up, but that’s just what happens! Attachment patterns make a big difference as people get older, and have a significant effect on that person’s interpersonal relationships, romantic interests, and the way a person internalizes stress. What Kirkpatrick and Shaver found was that attachment styles can often predict the way that people convert to a new religion!
For instance, they found that people with avoidant childhood patterns were far more likely to experience sudden religious conversions than people in the other groups, who are more likely to experience conversion as a slow, gradual process. I feel like I had a pretty stable and secure relationship with my caregivers, so that partly explains why I can only envision a religious conversion happening in the slow way, for me. In The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James spoke quite a bit on religious conversion, but he focused mainly on the strong, sudden types of conversions. These sudden conversions are often quite dramatic and result in very strong behavioral or personality changes in people’s lives. However, we also find through modern research that those who have these strong, sudden religious conversions are far more likely to have them again in the future. This means that someone that has a sudden conversion experience, say, from Catholicism to Methodism one year, might suddenly convert again to Mormonism a few years later.
However, we must always remember that modern psychology deals with generalizations. We can’t say that a securely attached adult can’t have a sudden religious experience. There are always plenty of exceptions to rules. We can only say that, statistically, there is a trend in one group to have a certain type of experience over another. So don’t worry if you don’t fit the mold!
Conversion is a fascinating and important topic in the psychology of religion, so I will be writing about it quite a bit in the future. Stay tuned!