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?


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9 thoughts on “The reasons for religious conversion”

  1. Somehow I missed this comment, Hannah. Would you be willing to share more of your almost-conversion story? It sounds really interesting.

  2. Hi Beth

    whilst at university I almost converted to Anglican Christianity , albeit the evangelical part of that denomination , hence my email address: I just can’t be bothered to delete it and get a new Google account, plus it must confuse the heck out of people! . For me the decision to remain where I was wasn’t so much as theology , but the approach of how the religions contrasted in what I’d call Hashkafa .

    To my mind Christianity seemed incredibly dogmatic , although my Christian friends would call Judaism incredibly exclusive and ritualistic- which was bad . I’m told because “good work” isn’t as good as faith . Whilst orthodox Judaism has a framework , there didn’t seem the leniency or appreciation not just of different viewpoints , but that there are automatically going to arguments about those viewpoints and that should be appreciated.

    Even when Judaism is apparently uniform in practice , there’s a million and one different views, which are acceptable. I’m thinking like the command to put a mezuzah on the front of the house : should it be vertical/horizontal (there’s a difference in Sephardic and Ashkenazi custom) ? Why do we do that ? Is it because it’s in Torah ? Because it grants mystical or physical protection? Is it simply cultural? I just didn’t feel that vibe of engaging in debate to learn truth in Christianity, it felt like it is about being right and everyone else is wrong or being spoon fed.

    The crunch was the attitudes to homosexuality (I’m a lesbian , yes I have a partner and no neither of us are butch) , but that’s a story for another day.

  3. “Perhaps it would be more productive to move away from the idea that science and faith are diametrically opposed; that one must be either reasonable or emotional in decision-making, when likely both qualities are at play.”

    100% agreed.

  4. Interestingly, I hear this a lot, especially from friends I grew up with that have walked away from Christianity. I’ve been told I only believe what I believe because I grew up with it, or that I believe what I believe as some sort of emotional crutch to cope with what I’ve been through. These friends make the assumption that I haven’t examined the evidence (predominantly scientific) since I haven’t arrived at the same conclusion they have. Oddly, I make the opposite assumption about them: that they have examined the evidence, and they’ve just arrived at a different conclusion. Frankly, it’s insulting to be told as a fully-functioning adult that I base any decision on strictly emotional reasons; that any decision must be illogical and irrational if another adult doesn’t get it.

    Along with pursuing a film degree, I spent a significant amount of time studying physics in college (enough where I actually considered changing my major at one point). I don’t know that it’s possible to examine ALL of the evidence out there, but I have learned over the years that there are skeptics in science, too.

    Perhaps it would be more productive to move away from the idea that science and faith are diametrically opposed; that one must be either reasonable or emotional in decision-making, when likely both qualities are at play.

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