Notes on Conversion

Margot Adler and others have claimed that big-P Paganism is "a religion without conversion", that Pagans merely discover others who share their pre-existing beliefs. They are wrong. These writers misunderstand the nature of conversion and (most likely) do not recall their own religious journey as well as they think they do.

A religious conversion is a change of identity. If someone now says "I am a Fenarkian" and previously did not, then a conversion has taken place.

And conversion is a process, a series of events and changes that add up to that new identity. The common use of the word, however, focusses on only one (relatively minor) part of the conversion process, an adoption of new theological views.

The common use of the word is also influenced by the many Christian accounts of a sudden moment of conversion. It is true that many religious conversions do have defining moments, but many do not. And the centrality of that moment is often distorted in memory.

Sociological View

What is the conversion process then? The three basic parts of a conversion were described by William James and modern research has not improved on him--Turning Away, Suspension, and Turning Toward. Modern study lets us fill in specifics, however.

TURNING AWAY

Context. Who are you? What are your circumstances? Most people who begin the process of conversion are spiritual but unchurched, somewhat alienated, "deprived" (a technical term meaning with unfilled needs or desires), and so on.

Schismogenesis. (I love that word.) This is the crisis that causes you to make an active break with your past identity. It may be inward (such as a vision or a recognition of some pattern of failure or dissatisfaction) or outward (such as the death of a loved one or separation from your family).

SUSPENSION

Quest. The seeker looks for a resolution of the crisis. It may be an active search or an increased receptivity.

Contact. With a particular advocate (such as a person or a book) of an ideologically-compatible religion.

TURNING TOWARD

Interaction. Form the new identity. "Final conversion is coming to accept the opinions of ones friends." There are 4 aspects of the interaction.

Commitment. Make a formal decision to convert. Publicly acknowledge your conversion (for some value of "public").

Consequences. Make the expected changes in your life. Deal with society's reaction. Retcon your memories of the conversion process. "When people retrospectively describe their conversions, they tend to put stress on theology." Converts often describe their conversion as the culmination of a search for faith. In practice, it is the side effect of a search for identity, a group that reinforces, augments, and shape their worldview. Their memory of the process often becomes "Suddenly, I realized ..."

Psychological View

The process I described above is presented from the sociological point of view. I think you can see that the same general process would describe all sorts of "conversions", religious and others. For an interesting variation, you can read some of the many "Why I wear niqab (Muslimah full face veil)" testimonials available on the WWW.

What can be said about religious conversion in particular? For that, I shift to a more psychological viewpoint.

Psychologists would describe the "alienation" and "deprivation" of the sociologists as a conflict between two of our maps of reality. The process of sorting things out to resolve the conflict is called "reorganization". (This corresponds to the stages observed by sociologists pretty well, but describes them more from the inside.) The "crisis" of the process I posted is the moment when the person becomes aware of the need to change his life to resolve the conflict and decides to do so.

Four different kinds of conflict lead to religious conversion, with four different general kinds of reorganization corresponding to them.

It seems that certain types of mental disorders and certain types of religious experiences are similar attempts are reorganization. "For those undergoing spiritual reorganization, temporary mental disorders and religious experiences may indicate a healing process." But these two different coping strategies lead people in quite different directions. "Many people who are uncomfortable with their circumstances enter a long search for a religious community in which they can feel at home."

What is this seeker looking for? He is looking for a structure that promotes and maintains his reorganization. He seeks a meaning system to explain his condition and observations. He seeks a framework of practice that allows him to express the new meaning. He seeks a new social reality that supports his new choices. All this adds up to a new lifestyle and a newly-integrated self.

One of the key components of a spiritual crisis and reorganization is mystical experiences. These are surprisingly common in the general population. (Estimated 50-60% of people are aware of having them.) They don't always lead to a crisis of course, but if the mystical experience contradicts the reality accepted by society, it can be a problem. Many religious seekers are looking for people who will affirm the reality of their unseen world. And in most religions, the core members report "vivid proleptic (life-changing) experiences that cause them to see the world and their lives in a new way and to make practical changes accordingly."

A religious framework can make it acceptable to acknowledge mystical experiences, even to pursue them. I found a cool definition while reviewing to write this bit. "Receptive imagination" is "the imagination in a state of prayerful surrender and heightened sense perceptions when insights, intuitions, or visions come to an individual as if from a numinous source that is entirely separate and independent of the individual." ("As if"? Hmph. Anyway.) Religions are safe havens for receptive imagination.

Case Study: Margot Adler

I started writing this down for the PaganReaders group to amplify my observation that not only was Adler wrong about "no conversion to Paganism", but that her own story showed the process clearly. Now that I have overshared with you on the background, let me run down Adler's conversion story as revealed in the most recent edition of Drawing Down the Moon.

Page x. "Finally, remember no one converts to Paganism or Wicca. [...] bookstore, or stashed away on a friend's bookshelf. Upon opening its pages, perhaps they said 'I never knew there was anyone else in the world who felt the way I feel or believed what I have always believed. I never knew my religion had a name.' "

In other worlds, the conflict between your beliefs and the beliefs of those around you or between the inward reality of mystical experiences and outward reality has built up. You pick up a book that seems interesting. It provides your contact with the new religion.

page xiii. Adler acknowledges many associates who shaped her ideas on paganism.

page 7. Adler tells how her perception of magic was shaped by her time doing heavy labor in a commune. (And that could lead us to a discussion of brainwashing techniques, if Drew is brave enough to go there.)

pages 15-20. Adler tells her own story.

At age 12 (around puberty and associated crises), Adler was exposed to Greek religion in school. She was a spiritual, fantasy-prone child of "agnostics and atheists". She had mystical experiences associated with daydreams about the Greek mythos and gods. "Experiences filled with power, intensity, and even ecstasy that, on relfection, seem religions or spiritual." "Such daydreams did not fit into the society I lived in, and even to talk about them was impossible." "I see them now as daydreams used in the struggle toward my own becoming."

In other words, she had a conflict between her inner and outer realities provoked by mystical experiences that she intperpreted as prequel for her conversion. Even though she acknowledges that such fantasies are common among children.

"And having no place to put this experience of the Goddess nor freedom enough to continue the ancient practice I had stumbled on", she muddles onward. She has reinterpreted her mystical expereiences about the Greek Gods as experiences of "The Goddess". This shift of viewpoint had to have come much later, because she does not run into the concept until much later.

At some point she became aware of a feeling that soemthing was lacking (the crisis) and began a "quasi-religious search" (the quest). She shopped around in the traditionally-available options and found some compatible ritual forms but nothing clicked.

"Today it seems to me that I thirsted for the power and richness of those original experiences, though I found only beliefs and dogmas that seemed irrelevant or even contradictory to them. I wanted permission for those experiences, but not if it would poison my integrity or my commitment to living and acting in the world." Clearly, this is a reinterpretation of the events in light of her later reorganization.

She had a preliminary contact, a magazine article, that narrowed her search by linking environmentalism and druids. She began to correspond with some English witches--this turns out to be her critical ideologically-compatible contact. She continues to have her own "experiences with the Goddess, which still came to me, unbidden, at odd moments." Again, this has to be retconning, because at this point she has still not identified her experiences with the Goddess.

Then she listened to their taped Drawing Down the Moon ritual and had a great ::click:: of contact with Wicca. "The contents of the tape had given me permission to accept a part of my psyche that I had denied for years--and then extend it." Here she acknowledges that she "extended" her beliefs due to her contact with the English coven, although she maintains that "she never adopted any new beliefs."

And then, it seems, she ran through her four Rs while writing the first edition of DDTM. By the time she was done, she had firmly identified with Wicca, adopted Wiccan language and practices, developed Wiccan and Pagan relationships, and announced herself as Wiccan.

Some References



Last Modified 7 May 2001.
Comments to Manny Olds, oldsma@pobox.com

A leafTo the Land of Confusion