The Psychology of Religious Conversion

The modern study of conversion can be employed as a technical term, within specific limits. It also illustrates that every community develops its own definition of conversion. This contention is illustrated in the change of the definition of conversion from Paul to Luke. Paul, as well as other first century Jews, spoke of internal states in prophetic, ecstatic, or mystical vocabularies, developing several words that approximate modern terms of conversion. The one expression that Paul uses most comprehensively in his own writings to describe this experience is transformation. However, to describe his experience the term conversion is analytically helpful for understanding Paul’s experience in modern terms. Paul’s name leads and typifies the list of converts even outside religious contexts. When social scientists offer examples of sudden emotional conversion, they usually cite Paul first, along with Augustine and Luther. However, Paul’s example is neither the only description of his religious experience nor one typical of the first generation of Believers and Paul’s entrance into belief is certainly atypical of the apostles. [1] However, the analogies between Paul’s experience and modern day conversion are striking. By using the term conversion to describe Paul’s entrance into belief and despite considerable differences of opinion of modern scholarship about the definition of a convert, conversion does involve a radical change in a person’s experience.
Paul’s reported experience has been used for centuries within Western religion as a definition of conversion in general, biasing the scientific literature of the twentieth century, predisposing many researchers to see conversion as isolated, personal, psychological happenings without reference to their social context, and stylizing sudden conversions as the only important kind of conversion.
Arthur Darby Nock [2]defined the study of conversion in the ancient world by showing that conversion was a distinctly specialized and rare religious experience. Most religious rites of the time helped maintain the political order because they were civic ceremonies. Participation involved adherence, a low level of involvement, as an act of piety. Prophetic religions such as Judaism and Christianity stimulated conversion, raising commitment far above simple adherence. Conversion necessarily involved a radical change of life-style, often to a more socially stigmatized group. Nock showed that strong personal commitment of conversion was characteristic of Judaism and preeminently of Christianity. He further maintained that high personal piety was an effect of the conversion experience. Nock recognized and emphasized this as an important dynamic in the spread of early Messianic Judaism. Time has not disproved his insight, but has deepened and broadened it. Nock, however overstressed internal conversion in the later empire, dismissing the importance of Constantine and the Christian emperors’ patronage for the success of Christianity. Nock limited the experience of conversion to a radical emotional experience or a quick turning to a new way of life and a complete reorientation in attitude, thought, and practice. Nock’s understanding of conversion was also traditionally Christian and was strongly influenced by Luke’s description of Paul.
Social scientists claim that the early researchers’ attention to dramatic crisis conversion was due to stereotypical understanding of conversion in Christian society, together with a lack of attention to socially elicited aspects of crisis conversion.
It is ironic that we turn to social science to help solve problems of New Testament historiography, which must first address the social scientists’ stereotypes of Paul’s conversion. Psychological investigators having been overly influenced by Paul’s model and have idealized it as a pattern for conversion in general reducing Paul’s unique experience to a general formula. Even as early as 1924, Strickland noted that the more typical model of conversion in the New Testament is that of Peter and Andrew on the shore of Galilee.
William James brought the study of conversion to the public in 1902 in Varieties of Religious Experience. James distinguished between the once born and twice born who are compelled by their emotional and religious sentiments to realize a new faith. He defined conversion as “the process, gradual or sudden, by which a self hitherto divided or consciously wrong, inferior and unhappy becomes unified and consciously right, superior and happy, by consequence of its firmer hold on religious realities” (160). Though James allowed for gradual conversions, his most-sustained interest was in the sudden dramatic changes in religious sensibilities.
Like James, early scholars including G. S. Hall, J. H. Leubas, and E. D. Starbuck, concentrated on the psychological aspects of conversion and noted that conversions fall into two major groupings: (1) the sudden and emotional conversion in which the subject adopts a new previously foreign religion; or (2) the markedly contrasting slow journey from one faith to another, in which training and the learning of new values are the primary characteristics. Many writers mention Paul as an example of sudden conversion and thereafter concentrate on the sudden conversion experience as the most interesting psychological process. Almost all early writers noted that age is a significant factor in conversions. Rapid conversion takes place more frequently among the adolescent and young adult population, which included more than fifteen thousand persons in total, and calculated the average age of conversion to be 15.2 years.
Because empirical findings of earlier scholars have proven unstable, since the lack of a uniform definition might have affected their research results, we must look to more contemporary studies with more reliable data. Also contributing to a renewed interest and study, was a greatly accelerated new wave of revivalism in a variety of radical sects among American youth in the 1960’s and 1970’s. One of the most famous and influential studies is by John Lofland and Rodney Stark, who studied the Unification church of the Reverend Sun Myung Moon. They developed a nonempirical, informal guide for predicting a conversion, based on several interrelated variables: psychological, social, and accidental. They suggest the factors influencing conversions are (1) and experience of tension or dissatisfaction that is (2) interpreted within a religious perspective by (3) persons who perceive themselves as active religious seekers. The person is likely to convert if several environmental factors cooperate: (4) a cult is encountered at a crisis point; (5) a strong affective attachment is established with one or more committed believers; (6) minimal contact is made with non-believers; and (7) intensive interaction is made between the subject and the group. This description arises as much from logic and deduction as from the data, though it has been used as an empirical, testable model. Lofland and Stark’s model has often been criticized both for it lack of relevance and for it lack of analytic value.
In modern times, the term brainwashing has been employed to understand conversion, implying that the conversion achieved by new groups involved unethical manipulation of their devotee’s rationality through mind-altering techniques or coercive persuasion. William Sargant noted that these experiences might be stimulated by one of two contrasting techniques, which are used to varying extents in prison camps, and religious revivals. The first is sensory deprivation, best illustrated by solitary confinement and sleep deprivation, but similar to the sensory deprivation of contemplation and meditation. The second method is the opposite, overstimulation, as achieved by interrogations with strong lights and loud noises, but also in relatively benign activities such as music making, drumming, and dancing. Sargant also noted that learning acquired under stressful conditions can evince greater strength and retention. He based this observation on the mishap involving Pavlov’s dogs which were trapped in laboratory cages during a flood. After being rescued they were frightened of water and some lapsed into a state of torpor wherein their previously learned behavior (conditioned reflexes) were completely wiped out. New behaviors were readily learned in place of the conditioned reflex. So, Sargant reasoned, a lifetime of religious ideals might be wiped out and replaced by a new faith acquire under strong emotional duress.
Significant methodological questions arise from the clinical studies of maladjustment in converts; for instance, whose standards of maladjustment are proper for the judging of converts? This is a problem whenever a psychological study of conversion is attempted. The so-called maladjustment of converts are likely to be typical of all converts to the same group. Converts subscribe to the norms of the newfound groups, not to the group to which the clinical psychologists subscribe. Although a group’s converts may have its share of psychopaths, conversion to extreme groups cannot be adequately explained or predicted by psychopathology.
Data coming from cognitive psychology suggests that the emotional conversion experience has more to do with the style of conversion developed by the community than it content. The convert still needs to socialize to the values of the community, a process that takes a long period of time. Not until the resocializing process is well under way can the convert articulate fully the meaning of his or her conversion. And of course that meaning is largely mediated by the values of the group joined. Every mystical experience contains images and themes that are explicit to a single community that must be learned.
This is the case with Paul whose preconversion values were those of Pharisaism: His visions corresponded to the traditional Jewish mystical apocalypticism with the important difference that the figure on the throne was Jesus, hence the Messiah. The behaviorist insistence that only stimuli and responses lay within the scope of science has long prevented the effective study of higher mental processes of which conversion is one example. And, if we are to understand the processes involved in Paul’s dramatic conversion or less dramatic ones avoiding the mire of unevidenced psychological theorizing we must stress cognitive psychology. Why? Since, cognition is the act of knowing , and cognitive psychology is the study of all human activities related to knowledge, which activities include: attention; creativity; memory; perception; problem solving ; thinking; the use of language, and because cognitive psychology theory relates to information processes and how information is used in decision making. The need to understanding these processes, if we are to understand conversion would suggest that this is the discipline most adaptive for such a study.
Many studies show that both sudden and mixed conversion experiences eventually manifest the same change in attitudes, if enough time has elapsed. This suggests that authentic conversion, dramatic or not, involves cognitive processes, and therefore cognitive description of decision making will be helpful in understanding this process. Furthermore, we must recognize that human behavior is distinctive. Although we share a commonality with animals, unlike animals, we also share the image of God. This requires a broadening of psychology’s paradigm to include the entire range of human functioning, including man’s innate function of seeking a source outside of and superior to himself.
If we look into the scriptures themselves we see examples of characters who undramatically made cognitive decisions for choosing God and were giants in the Bible. Two examples among many are: Joshua who stated He and his household chose the God of Israel to follow and Ruth who told Naomi, your God is My God. It seems to me that the approach to understanding conversion in the context of our time is by cognitive psychology if we are to come to any understanding of the dynamics of the process.
In summary, several years ago, Zimbardo (1982, 59) [3] stated that “now that cognitive psychology has taken the head once lopped off by radical behaviorism and returned it to the body of psychology, we might in the next 10 years consider implanting a heart or a little soul in the same body.” Along these same lines in 1985, Van Leeuwen questioned the strict cause and effect assumptions of natural scientists, and instead favors the freedom of choice people exercise. She was not advocating wholesale rejection of the existing approach, but the broadening of psychology’s paradigm to embrace the entire range of human functioning, including those aspects that elude the mainstream scientific method. [4] Likewise, I favor the cognitive psychology approach for those reasons mentioned and because I believe it is the best vehicle for understanding the processes inherent in this phenomena.
The End

The major source of the information contained in this article is from a book titled: Paul the Convert, published by Yale University Press in 1990. The author of the book is Alan F. Segal a professor at Bernard College. This a a book well worth your attention.


A Psychological Study of Religion (New York: Macmillan, 1912)

Ramsey MacMullen, Christianizing the Roman Empire, AD 100-400 (New Haven: Yale University Press 1984); see also his Paganism in the Roman Empire (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1981) 94-137, for issues regarding the conversion in paganism, dynamic religions, and the decline of paganism.
Robin Lane Fox, Pagans and Christians: Religion and the Religious Life from the Second to the Fourth Century AD when the gods of Olympus Lost their Dominion and Christianity, with the Conversion of Constantine, Triumphed in the Mediterranean World (New York: Knopf, 1986).
David Balch and John E. Stambaugh, The New Testament in its Social Environment (Philadelphia: Westminister Press, 1986).
Arthur Nock, Apologetic and Thessalonians.
Bernard Spilka, Ralph Hood, and Richard Gorsuch, the Psychology of Religion: An Empirical Approach (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1985)
L. Strickland, the Psychology of Religious Experience (New York: Abingdon, 1924)
Varieties of Religious Experience (New York: Longmans, Green , 1902)
Adolescence, 2 vols. (New York: Appleton, 1904)
A Psychological Study of Religion (New York: Macmillan, 1912).
The Psychology of Religion (New York: Scribner’s , 1899).
“Conversion,” Pastoral Psychology 10 (1959): 51-56, and The Psychology of Religion (New York: Abingdon, 1959).
Bernard Spilka, Ralph W. Hood, Jr. and Richard L. Gorsuch, The Psychology of Religion: An Empirical Approach ( Englewood cliffs: Pentice-Hall, 1985) , esp. 203
Lofland and Stark, “Becoming a World-Saver,” 862-64;
J. Lofland, Doomsday Cult (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1966
N Skonoud, “Conversion Motifs,” JSSR 20 (1981): 373-85,
Most recent studies of religious defection and disaffiliation have begun to appear in journals, For Example: E. Burke Rockford, Jr., “Factionalism, Group Defection, and Schism in the Hare Krishna Movement,” Howard M. Barr and Stan L. Albrecht, “Strangers Once More: Patterns of Disaffiliation from Mormonism,” C. Kirk Hadaway, “Identifying American Apostates: A Cluster Analysis,: Joseph B. Tamney, Shawn Powell, and Stephen Johnson, “Innovation theory and Religious Nones,” all in JSSR (Journal for Scientific Study of Religion)
H.H Baer, “The Levites of Utah”, Review of Religious Research, 19 (1978): 279-84
J. Seggar and P. Kunz, “conversion: Evaluation of a Step-Like Process for Problem solving,” RRR 13 (1972): 178-84
R. J. Lifton, Though Reform and the Psychology of Totalism (New York: Norton, 1961
E. Schein, Coercive Persuasion (New York: Norton, 1971)
W. Sargent, Battle for the Mind (New York: Harper and Row, 1959).
Pastoral Psychology 10 (1959): 51-56
The Psychology of Religion (New York: Abingdon, 1959

[1] The discipleship of Peter and Andrew on the Sea of Galilee seems more typical of earliest Christian experience than Paul’s sudden dramatic conversion described in Acts. they are evangelized by Jesus himself and they become his followers as one might adopt a person as a teacher as in the Jewish tradition.
[2] Conversion
[3] Paul D. Meier, Frank B. Minirth, Frank B. Wichern, Donald E. Ratcliff, Introduction to Psychology and Counseling, pg. 25 (Baker Books, Grand Rapids, MI 2nd Edition 1991)
[4] VanLeeuwen (1985, 245-48) Introduction to Psychology. pg. 25