Philosophy of Religion – additional notes on conversion for the Edexcel syllabus

Extract from the Edexcel specification:

2.1 The nature of religious experience   a) Context of religious experience across religious traditions, range of definitions related to belief in God and/or ultimate reality, theistic and monistic views, ineffability, noetic, transience, passivity.   b) Types: conversion, prayer, meditation, mysticism, numinous. Relationship between religious experience and propositional and non-propositional revelation.   c) Alternative explanations, physiological and naturalistic interpretations, objectivist and subjectivist views.

How is clear-cut conversion, when it occurs, to be explained? Here it must immediately be noted that the academic community is far from having reached agreement about what could be taking place and theories abound. Starbuck’s well-known contribution is therefore just one amongst many.

Another problem is that there is a lack of evidence which either counts for or against particular claims. Plus, it may well be that conversion can be accounted for by a number of different explanations, depending on the circumstances.

What follows, then, is best thought of as a series of different scenarios. All bar one of them – the culturally popular brainwashing ‘theory’ – could be true.

St Paul’s Conversion Experience (taken from the King James version of Acts 26)

9.  I verily thought with myself, that I ought to do many things contrary to the name of Jesus of Nazareth.

10 Which thing I also did in Jerusalem: and many of the saints did I shut up in prison, having received authority from the chief priests; and when they were put to death, I gave my voice against them.

11 And I punished them oft in every synagogue, and compelled them to blaspheme; and being exceedingly mad against them, I persecuted them even unto strange cities.

12 Whereupon as I went to Damascus with authority and commission from the chief priests,

13 At midday, O king, I saw in the way a light from heaven, above the brightness of the sun, shining round about me and them which journeyed with me.

14 And when we were all fallen to the earth, I heard a voice speaking unto me, and saying in the Hebrew tongue, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me? it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks.

15 And I said, Who art thou, Lord? And he said, I am Jesus whom thou persecutest.

16 But rise, and stand upon thy feet: for I have appeared unto thee for this purpose, to make thee a minister and a witness both of these things which thou hast seen, and of those things in the which I will appear unto thee;

17 Delivering thee from the people, and from the Gentiles, unto whom now I send thee,

18 To open their eyes, and to turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan unto God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins, and inheritance among them which are sanctified by faith that is in me.

19 Whereupon, O king Agrippa, I was not disobedient unto the heavenly vision:

20 But shewed first unto them of Damascus, and at Jerusalem, and throughout all the coasts of Judaea, and then to the Gentiles, that they should repent and turn to God, and do works meet for repentance.

  • Conversion happens because at its heart is a genuine religious experience

According to this view, people convert because they are experiencing a genuine encounter with a mystical or spiritual realm which truly belongs to the natural order of things. However, from an academic point of view, it may not be considered possible to study that spiritual realm. However, this is arguably what Dr Sam Parnia has taken steps towards in his study of Near Death Experiences (see the post Edexcel Course Notes on Life and Death/The Soul for more information on this). And it is a characteristic feature of NDE’s that they radically transform the individuals who experience them in very many cases. For example, psychiatrist Bruce Greyson found that some of the patients he studied converted from atheism to a broadly spiritual outlook, though one not typically anchored in traditional religion following on from an NDE. More specifically, they consistently abandoned a materialistic outlook on life and no longer placed an emphasis on the gaining of or attachment to wealth and acquisitions, preferring instead to focus on doing whatever they could to help others. Sometimes what resulted were profound career changes. So undergoing an NDE may, in certain circumstances, be regarded as a conversion experience for those who had no prior spiritual beliefs or held religious beliefs that were contrary to this profoundly redefining event.

  • Conversion is an intellectual choice

According to this view, maintained by John Lofland and Norman Skonovd, conversion is ‘intellectual’. The potential convert privately investigates what is on offer by doing things like reading books, watching television, attending lectures or viewing websites. In the course of this reconnaissance, some individuals convert themselves in isolation, without even having any contact with devotees of the respective religion. As Lofland has put it ‘people go about converting themselves’. However, it could be argued that the use of intellect alone can only account for a small number of religious conversions. This is simply because – as Paul Heelas has pointed out – we cannot choose intellectually to be spiritual. For example, I might read about any number of religious teachings and might even participate in religious events. But unless something happens to or within me over and above intellectual operations, nothing much is going to occur.

  • Conversion is a social event

James Richardson has argued that ‘the vast majority of conversions…involve people joining new communities and coming to agree with their friends’. In other words, people experiment with groups before deciding whether or not to stay, though it must be emphasised that the choice to remain may only take place if an arresting experience actually happens to the participant. Heelas goes on to elaborate on this point. First of all, he states that involvement with a religion might serve to generate an unusual or powerful religious experience. This experience then gets interpreted in terms of the immediate environment (e.g. by the followers around the potential convert) as an indication that a genuine spiritual event has taken place which in turn leads on to conversion. Heelas points out that ‘there is…considerable experimental evidence that people tend to make sense of the unusual by drawing on those interpretative schemes that are closest to hand.’

  • Conversion happens because the convert is already primed for it

This describes a situation where there are already existing similarities between what the person believed prior to conversion and what they are moving on to. For example, potential converts who are concerned about the environment might want to hear that nature really is sacred making it easier for them to then convert to a religion that claims this.

  • Conversion is not really conversion. It is brainwashing.

Many controversial New Religions have been accused of using brainwashing or mind control techniques to bring about conversion e.g. Scientology. Unfortunately, there is no evidence to suggest that brainwashing is a genuine phenomenon. Firstly, no psychologist has ever been able to devise a test to distinguish a brainwashed person from someone who isn’t. Secondly, if brainwashing implies impaired mental functioning and having a robotic personality, this does not seem typical of members of the more notorious New Religions. For example, as Heelas has pointed out, ‘Scientologist John Travolta’s performance in Pulp Fiction does not appear to be robotic.’ Finally, as academic researchers like Paul Heelas and Eileen Barker have confirmed through their research, the most controversial cults are often spectacularly poor at retaining their converts.