Thomas Swan has a PhD in experimental psychology. He specializes in the cognitive science of religion.
The Psychology of Religious Conversion
Some scholars suggest negative emotional states are the most common cause for religious conversion. Indeed, religion can provide comfort during times of depression, anxiety, or hardship. However, the academic community is divided on the issue, with many arguing we have a biological disposition for religious belief that has nothing to do with prior mood. The cognitive biases that form this disposition have been explored elsewhere, and include the need to attribute agency to certain types of events (e.g. gremlins in broken machines) as well as a curiosity for stories that violate our expectations about the world (e.g. gods that are everywhere at once).
It would be difficult to dispute our universal attraction to religion. However, if we all possess this disposition, why do some people never become converted? Why do some lose their faith while others gain faith in adulthood? Clearly, there are individual differences that require explanation. To this end, we return to the argument of comforting faith, not as a competing theory, but as an added component that explains the diversity of attitudes towards religion.
Religious belief can offer many rewards including an afterlife, a purpose, moral righteousness, the protection of a loving god, and a path for growth towards an ideal. These rewards could appeal to individuals with an elevated fear of death, feelings of social ostracism, elevated anxiety about danger or failure, or those without a direction in life. These states of mind could be prompted by any number of experiences, including bereavement, NDE, drug addiction, incarceration, conflict, or unemployment. They could be prompted by periods of vulnerability in our life cycle, such as youth, pregnancy, or old age; or by genetic and developmental conditions such as trait anxiety or repressive tendencies. Indeed, women are known to be more religious than men, and this can be attributed to greater intersexual risk, and the female tendency for risk aversion.
Psychologically, we are attracted to the rewards that religion offers, and this attraction will be heightened for particular individuals at particular times. Once a desirable religious proposition is encountered, we give it our attention and employ biased reasoning to prove it true. Those who desire the reward most will display the greatest attentional and motivational biases. With these ideas in mind, we turn to the most common types of religious conversion.
1. Conversion of Youth
Throughout history, religious leaders have recognized the value of schools for propagating their faith. A child’s mind is often incapable of rationally scrutinizing religious claims; making it more susceptible to the magic and miracles in holy books, and to the explanations offered for the child’s plethora of unanswered questions about the world. The human ideal encapsulated by figures such as Jesus, Muhammad, and Buddha provides a formula for growth and maturation that will be especially appealing for a child’s psychology. Finally, the existence of an overwhelming authority figure that rewards good deeds will fulfill the child’s need for positive reinforcement, and provide a parental influence that, in some children more than others, may be lacking in reality.
Conversion by Missionaries
2. Conversion of the Poor
In undeveloped countries, and poorer areas of developed countries, the standard of education is low. This precipitates an inability to scrutinize religious claims on a rational level. However, the most significant reason for conversion in poorer countries is the lack of welfare. Cross cultural studies have shown that countries spending less on welfare will be more religious. Indeed, without security against tumultuous events such as redundancy, high levels of anxiety could cause people to become receptive to the comforts of religion. Missionaries recognize this pattern, and travel to poorer countries to convert people under the guise of charity.
Conversion in hospital
3. Conversion of the Ill
The next habitat for conversion is the hospital bed. All life on Earth shares a fear of death that becomes temporarily intensified by illness or injury. This existential anxiety will motivate us to search for ways to support religious claims about an afterlife. Indeed, mortality salience experiments show that artificially stimulating a person’s fear of death causes them to display greater religiosity. Religious believers often take advantage of this temporary state of vulnerability by pushing their faith onto hospital patients. Furthermore, fear over which partition of the afterlife one will occupy could provide an incentive for subsequent worship once injuries are healed.
4. Conversion of the Depressed
Bereavement can cause people to seek the advice of a priest. The loss of a loved one fosters concern for the location of their life essence, and reminds us of our impermanent existence. As with illness, there is greater motivation to believe in an afterlife.
However, depression has numerous causes that could subsequently motivate religious belief. Depression attributed to failure can cause people to re-evaluate their methods for achieving success in life. It may be far easier to follow the teachings of a religious prophet if one can be convinced of the reality of the rewards. Depression related to apathy or aimlessness could motivate belief in a purpose espoused by religion. Furthermore, the sociality of religious communities could suffice to provide a support network to overcome depression, making one more receptive to the claims of those in the network.
5. Conversion of Inmates
Inmates will be aware of their rejection from society, motivating a search for moral and social norms that could mend relations. The moral reputation and self-discipline attributed to the pious demonstrates the utility of religion for this purpose. Thus, those inmates who recognise the need for change will be drawn to religion. Additionally, fear of other inmates could elevate anxiety levels, making one equally receptive to the comforts of faith. The poor level of education for prison inmates provides a third avenue for religious conversion.
6. Conversion of Addicts
The history of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) is drunk with religious conversion. The AA asks members to pray to a deity for power and help, and involves the religious practice of confession. As with other types of conversion, the individual is required to acknowledge their weakness and vulnerability. Their character must be broken before a religious formula for growth and reward can be accepted. They must be made to feel incapable of existing without the guidance of religion, and to do this they must realise the futility of pursuing their prior methods of achieving satisfaction. In this way, they replace one addiction with another, and the individual’s susceptibility for superficial rewards actuates the conversion process.
7. Conversion Through Delusion
There are two common types of spiritual experience. The first involves witnessing beauty on a scale unmatched in one’s prior experience. The source is seen as magnificently benevolent or complex, such that it can only be ascribed to a being that shares this absoluteness. One must assume that nature is incapable of the feat, which is curious because only a god could understand the boundaries of nature. Thus, the experience comes with a sense of superiority over people who have not felt the revelation, and a sense of growth towards the perfection embodied in the gods. Once again, vulnerability or depression would precipitate and increase the likelihood of constructing such an experience.
The second type of spiritual experience concerns communication with the divine. This could stem from a sense of loneliness, although it more likely comes from a desire to feel special and important. Prophets elevate their public and personal importance by telling others they are divine messengers. Those with the greatest need to feel special will be those who are unable to extract this feeling from everyday life. Furthermore, divine communication often involves instruction, and this transference of decision making may stem from insufficient confidence in one’s own ability to make decisions. Both theories suggest a depressed or anxious state of mind, characteristic of that which is receptive to religion.
8. Conversion Through Fear
The human mind is skeptical of that which is too good to be true. That which threatens us receives far less investigative scrutiny.
Fear of hell is a common motivation for religious conversion that may be particularly effective in children and agnostics. However, belief is a spectrum of perceived probability at which faith is one extreme. As there is no way to disprove most deities, even the most adamant atheist is agnostic to an extent. A rational mind must consider all possibilities, and assign some value to the words of billions of believers.
It is difficult to justify the intentions of the believer, but one can assume their absolute faith makes it an appropriate method of conversion. Nevertheless, an instruction to convert upon threat of pain and suffering will only elicit antipathy in a strong mind. Indeed, this abhorrent conversion technique could only be endorsed by an imperfect god. Given that murderers can go to heaven and doctors can go to hell depending on whether they accept Jesus, perhaps the Christian god is immoral. The irrelevance of prior deeds and the ease of divine accomplishment expose Christianity as the polar opposite of Darwinism, and a bastion for the weak, sick and depraved.
Religious texts are saturated with instructions to fear gods, hell, and prophecy. This creates a desire to please the gods by emulating their actions. Given the death, rape, genocide, war, and incest within these texts, this can lead to justification for atrocity. The problem lies in hell's undisclosed location: how can one know what is right when it is unclear who is punished in the afterlife? Did the crusaders and inquisitors make it to heaven?
Preying on the Weak?
Believers see themselves as helping hell bound souls get to heaven, and if they are faithful to their beliefs, we cannot dispute their intentions. However, would a permanently high drug addict ever renounce their drug? When Saint Bernard of Clairvaux wrote that the path to hell is paved to good intentions, perhaps he had this in mind. While we cannot dispute their intentions, it is fairly clear that believers seek out people who are vulnerable to their claims. Depending on your point of view, this could be interpreted as preying on the weak, or helping those in need.
© 2013 Thomas Swan
Samuel on June 21, 2018:
Articles like this always annoy for a number of reasons. The first is the idea, one which seems to permeate throughout so many atheist communities, that people never actually choose what they believe. All beliefs, especially religious ones, must be either a psychological crutch or a creation in a moment of vulnerability such as alcoholism or mental illness. As someone who grew up in a secular liberal household and is now a Lutheran, this is always the most insulting of the claims. Not only does it discount the idea of people being free and responsible agents at all (Something atheists also often do by denying free will with their flimsy claims of a mechanistic, determined, or entirely random universe), it starts off from the assumption that religious beliefs are inherently wrong, and that they need to be "picked apart" to find out where they've gone so wrong.
That last point ties into the second idea, which is that religious belief is never a philosophical conclusion. Ask any serious Christian academic about their faith, and they'll give you a whole plethora of reasons to why they hold their beliefs. "I guess it's just a matter of faith" is not an answer you'll hear anything close to the majority of Christians believe. Along with that,the idea that a belief adopted during a time of crisis is automatically intellectually bankrupt is another one pushed by the CogSci and NeuroSci pseudo-intellectuals (Of which there are many. The false intellectualism in these fields is only matched by those in physics). As a Christian, I believe that faith is an actual force, and that it isn't contrary to reason, but another force all together. Someone who came to belief under such circumstances would certainly be able to intellectually defend their beliefs later on (See acts17apologetics on Youtube).
In short, you seem to be an average CogSci/NeuroSci/Psychology "intellectual" atheist of the modern age; you look down upon belief in such a way so you can analyze its claimed "Ridiculousness" from a false stance of neutrality, all while giving awful arguments and points about its so-called "Predatory" nature along the way. STEMlord is an appropriate term here, and unfortunately, it is often an appropriate term to describe your type nowadays. From Cognitive "Science" to Neuro"Science" (Science in quotation marks on the second, because like you, neuropseuds often draw stupid conclusions about belief from fMRI scans, which are nowhere near something that should allow for that) to Psychology to Physics and theoretical "Physics", your kind is an intellectual plague. Best wishes, and I hope you've come to some sense of reason since you wrote this article. God bless you.
Laura Stone on November 05, 2016:
Hello Mr. Swan. Your article is helpful. But, I have two questions, I hope you answer. Do you belong in any religion? And, why do people stick in their beliefs and doesn't convert at all?
Travis Wakeman on June 15, 2014:
A suggestion: You seem to have forgotten conversion through rational examination of the truthclaims of religion, as in through apologetics or theology. Do you think that you could add this section in?
Thomas Swan (author) from New Zealand on August 14, 2013:
Cheers jkahlou! I agree that it's sad when people become dependent on religion. Despite the altruistic claims, it's an inherently selfish mindset because of its use in elevating one's emotional state. At least that's what the evidence tells me. I'm glad you're interested in the psychology of religion; more people should be! There are so many atheists spouting their contentious ramblings on the internet, yet few of them try to understand what they're criticizing. Psychology/Neurobiology is the only way to understand what makes religious people tick.
jklahlou on August 11, 2013:
Brilliantly written article with lots of accurate and interesting info!
I feel you are correct on every point you mentioned on the hub, and in your comment. I find it extremely disconcerting that people will blindly follow a faith (and many to the extreme) with no logical basis whatsoever: a religion that although has many good values, is often taken to the point of violence.
I am very interested in the cognitive and neuropsychological basis of religiosity, as it seems so ingrained in our race.
Tara Carbery from Cheshire, UK on March 28, 2013:
It's my pleasure! You made my day! Knowing i'm not the only one feeling like this is such a relief. There seems to be nowhere else to go for alcoholics and everyone says 'Have you tried AA'. Not everyone wants to be brainwashed or maybe some do? I'm lucky in that I have supportive friends who understand my situation.
I was brought up as a Catholic. my Irish Mum's family all attend mass, do the rosary blah blah blah... No one has ever questioned why they do, they just do! I'm glad i've got my own mind. Thanks again.
Thomas Swan (author) from New Zealand on March 28, 2013:
Thanks for commenting peanutritious! I just wish academics in the field would actually talk to religious people, and ask how they became converted, rather than sitting in their armchairs speculating. Those not converted in youth nearly always have some calamitous experience that precipitated their faith.
I didn't want to mention it in my hub, but I've also found a lack of intelligence in the writing of many Christians. I would suggest the importance of God in their lives decreases the relative importance of education. It is a transference of goals from Earthly success to divine fulfillment.
The AA is an absolute travesty, and your experience of them is a common one. Hooking vulnerable people to religion as part of a health and judicial program... it just breaks my heart because it is also a blatent disregard of the need to separate Church and state. I think getting members to talk to a crowded room is part of their strategy of empowering people in the hope they'll attribute this new-found confidence to religious enlightenment.
Thanks again for your insightful comment, vote and share!
Tara Carbery from Cheshire, UK on March 28, 2013:
This hub really struck a chord with me. I have always felt that church goers seem to be either indoctrinated from an early age where one doesn't question anything or particularly vulnerable members of society.
Where I work, most of the fervently religious all have learning difficulties and mental illness!
You really hit the nail on the head when you discussed AA. I've written about it too when discussing my hellish fight with alcoholism. I attended AA for a time but could stand the 'religious cult' feel no longer.
When I stopped going (despite not drinking) all ties were severed other than the odd 'we are all praying you will return to the rooms'. It seems they only want to know you when you are in their cliquey group and if not you no longer belong. I found it all rather sinister and many of the members extremely patronizing.
The cliches drove me mad 'It's the AA way or the high way', 'Let go and let God', 'one day at a time' etc
Each meeting I would be scolded by members to 'share, let it all out', like a catholic confession but instead of one priest listening, a room of maybe 60 odd people!
The only reason I ever went to AA was because I was desperate and on the verge of suicide, I woke up in a police cell covered in blood not knowing how I was there and I felt they would understand. Once I came to my senses I was horrified by the 12 step system, prayers to a higher power and readings from 'the big book'
I still struggle with sobriety but would rather do it my way than become addicted to the 'fellowship' as they call it.
Excellent hub, voted up and shared!
Thomas Swan (author) from New Zealand on January 26, 2013:
Thanks tobusiness. It took a lot of research, observation, and listening to first hand accounts of conversion, so I'm glad you appreciate it.
Jo Alexis-Hagues from Lincolnshire, U.K on January 26, 2013:
This is wonderfully illuminating, eloquently written with much truths.