Why Do People Convert to 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.
Questions & Answers
© 2013 Thomas Swan