The reasons for religious conversion

51pkElRrjCLI stumbled across this blog post yesterday: When People Change Religions, Logic and Reason Aren’t Always in the Picture, inspired by Susan Jacoby’s new book, Strange Gods: a secular history of conversion. Jacoby writes:

People generally think about conversion only in terms of a spiritual journey, when in fact, there are a lot of secular factors involved. Sometimes it is simply that the political winds have shifted. Another factor is discrimination against minorities. That was a huge factor in my father’s family because of anti-Semitism — people perceived being a Jew as a disadvantage. Also, the history of conversion is rife with people who adopt religion or another religion because they think it will help them overcome a personal failing or some compulsion like alcoholism, and in many cases, it does. But the most powerful secular factor promoting religious conversion is religious inter-marriage.

I’m not sure if I’ll read the book, but it sounds interesting, even though Jacoby’s conclusion doesn’t shock me at all. In fact, I recently learned that I’m not the first convert in my family. My great-great-great uncle (I think that’s the right number of “greats”) converted to Christianity around the turn of the 20th century, though it appears to be a business move over a spiritual conviction: Jewish businesses were considered less trustworthy, and a fresh-off-the-boat immigrant couldn’t risk falling into poverty. So there’s a bit of Caplin Trivia for you.

When I joined Campus Crusade for Christ in college, many students were excited at the evangelism prospects I offered: I could use the Old Testament to bring Jews to Jesus. It sounded like a sure plan, except…it wasn’t biblical prophecies that lead me to Jesus. I didn’t start reading the Bible with serious intent until after conversion (for the full conversion story, see my memoir. Or this post, Why I’m not a Messianic Jew). Oh, how disappointing this was for people to hear.

To this day, I’m still not interested in using biblical exegesis to “win” people over. I’m nowhere near knowledgeable enough to say with any degree of certainty or authority what the “proper” interpretations of the prophecies are. I’ve had much better luck explaining the real reasons: my fascination with saints and a personal god meeting us in human form, a radical Jesus who flipped social mores upside down, the promise of redemption from pain and tragedy.

That last point is especially important, because once I left my abusive relationship and started going to counseling for rape trauma, I gave serious consideration to ending my life. I thought my chances of having a healthy, normal relationship were ruined. I couldn’t stand the thought that my ex boyfriend would never see justice, that it could be my fault if he hurt someone else because I never reported him when I had the chance. So when I say the promise of redemption saved my life, I am not kidding.

Clearly, you can’t find a more emotional motive for conversion than that. I wish I could say, as Lee Strobel does in The Case for Christ, that I studied all the evidence pointed to Christianity being true. Nope.

I wish I knew more converts. I find conversion stories fascinating even if I don’t always agree with the motives behind them. If you’re someone who changed religions in adulthood, I’d be interested in featuring your story on this blog. Or feel free to share in the comment section.

A parting question for my religious followers: do you agree with Jacoby’s premise that emotion influences conversion more than “facts and reason”? Why or why not?


Like this post? Check out Confessions of a Jew-ish Skeptic, now available on Amazon.

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