What Is Religious Conversion?

Is “Convert” Derogatory?

I was led to think about this word when a friend, part of a missionary organization, bridled at being asked not to “try to convert” people at a particular social function. This person said that, (a) they don’t try to convert people, they just tell them about Jesus, and (b) the word “convert” is derogatory.

I sort of understand (a). It’s not so different from what advertisers say when they are challenged as being manipulative. They claim they are simply neutrally presenting information, and that they have no control whatsoever over what people do with it. It all might be completely wasted, after all! Only if folk truly prefer the product after their advertisement brings it to their attention will there be a purchase. This is a defensible position, based though it is on an idealized version of the consumer – the utterly rational homo economicus.

Thanks to the work of Daniel Kahneman (author of Thinking Fast and Slow), among many others, we know that homo economicus is a very small and weak part of real-life human beings. Myself, I subscribe to the “post-hoc justification” school of free will. That is, decisions we make are quickly-made subconscious impulses, and then we afterward craft a word-poem describing our choice, which we then assume represents the “reason” for the action. There’s an interesting Wikipedia article on Social Intuitionism that mentions this.

But I’m more interested in claim (b), that “convert” is a derogatory term. The first definition in Merriam Webster is, “to bring over from one belief, view, or party to another.” Clear enough. Nothing especially derogatory about that, except maybe the word “bring” implies a lack of agency on the part of the converted. Getting rid of that would lead to this revised definition: “to persuade one to change from one belief, view, or party to another.” The premise being that you can only convert yourself. This has the ring of truth – even in cases of forced conversion, with a sword to the throat, the victim has to declare that they change their allegiance. If that were not the case, no violence would be necessary – the powers-that-be would simply declare that everyone has been converted.

I don’t know if that has ever happened, historically. Are the Khazars an example? The story as I’ve heard it (mythical? I don’t know. Wikipedia says it is supported by records) is that the king decided he wanted to bring his people over to one of these wonderful new Abrahamic religions. So he listened to presentations from a rabbi, a priest, and an imam, and decided to go with the oldest one, Judaism. He did then convert all his people, and they all (*poof!*) became Jewish.

So, the question here is whether “convert” is transitive (i.e., is something that can be done to someone) or intransitive, like “sneeze.” You can’t “sneeze someone.”

Let’s go with the most generous definition of “convert,” as intransitive. In that case, it really would be inappropriate to tell someone, “don’t try to convert people,” not because it’s derogatory, but because it’s nonsensical. One could say, “don’t talk about religion; it’s impolite.” The backstory of that would be that you believe they are like the manipulative advertiser, whose claim of neutral, expectation-free, information disseminating seems disingenuous. Of course they are trying to persuade people to buy the product – why else would they spend so much money? This gets iffy. The advertiser would have to claim that they are doing no such thing – they have such confidence in their product that they don’t need to persuade anybody. The product does all the persuasion. They just want to present it, make it visible – be in the marketplace of ideas. They expect an ROI because they believe in the product.

Okay, that discussion could go on forever, because it has to do with motivations, and these are fundamentally unknowable. We can only know actions. Of course, we do try to know people’s motivations, that’s a big part of what goes on in courtrooms every day. And we assume people’s motivations are in line with their actions. But this is a subtle difference. And taste comes into play. I might say that no person in their right mind would drink Bud Lite, so the advertising must take the credit of manipulating people into drinking it, despite competitive products that taste so much better. But that’s just me – others may genuinely prefer it. Hey! Could happen.

There are also social mores at play – it is considered impolite (or merely tedious) to discuss money at a social event (though we do it all the time), and religion and politics are considered off-limits as well, because of the chance of strife. This is a matter of politeness. Some folk don’t care about politeness, they consider it “political correctness.” But these standards are malleable and ever-changing. It used to be one wouldn’t dream of using foul language in society, but now it’s common. For better or worse? Up to you.

Why Convert?

If we overlook these cavils, and accept the intransitive “convert,” we get to the next question: how do you know if someone has converted, and why do people convert? Second question first: here’s a preliminary list (these can be true in any combination) of preconditions to conversion:

  1. The other belief system truly represents the physical reality of the world
    i.e., it would be delusional not to convert
  2. The other belief system promulgates a moral scheme that they find more in accord with their instincts
    i.e., converting is the right thing to do
  3. The community of the other belief system is comforting and sympathetic; you actually like them better than your original community, or perhaps you felt that you didn’t have a community before, and this one accepts you
    i.e., you’ll be lonesome if you don’t convert
  4. The community of the other belief system is well-liked, and being part of it will make one better liked
    i.e., you’ll be a pariah if you don’t convert
  5. The community of the other belief system will only do business with its own members, and you want to do business with them
    i.e., you’ll be poor unless you convert
  6. The other belief system offers protection from danger
    i.e., you’ll be dead if you don’t convert

There’s a lot of wiggle room around each of these. Number 6 encompasses converting at sword point, and less imminent danger, even imaginary danger. It might also include someone finding religion to save themselves from, say, drug or alcohol addiction: “If I hadn’t become religious, I’d be dead today.” That might go along with number 3, because you stay sober in part to be in the community, and they offer support, encouragement, and a new community that doesn’t push the same buttons as the old one.

Number 5 includes my great-uncle Rudolf, the self-declared “Baked Bean King of Boston.” I know, that sounds grand – he used to sell little pots of beans, prepared at home, to commuters at the train station in the morning, and collect the empty pots in the evening. Apparently, he did well enough to retire to Hollywood, Florida, where I met him in 1964. He gave me and my sister each a shiny new 50-cent piece. He claimed that he started with number 5, but came to number 3, because after he retired, he stayed involved in his local Episcopal church, and (I heard) bequeathed his property to them. Certainly we never saw a penny! At least, not past that first 50 cents. By the way, thanks to my wonderful sister for that history.

Number 5 is common, I think, where there is a majority religion. Minorities may be excluded from certain benefits – education, jobs, social interaction – unless they declare themselves to be of the majority belief system. You might call that bigotry, or you might call it wholesome community togetherness, giving more weight to those closer to you than to others. In different cultures, different norms prevail. In modern America we see that struggle all the time, most recently in the insistence that corporate religious beliefs ought to, or ought not, determine whether the company needs to comply with the rule to provide health coverage including contraception services.

I have no evidence for this, but I suspect that Number 3 is the most common. If you find a community that welcomes you and provides needed solace, it’s the most natural thing to do things with them, and religious practice would be an important part. So would other things. You’d start to speak like them (interesting research on Jews who become Hasidic adopting speech patterns mimicking those who are born into the community and grew up speaking Yiddish; I read something about this in The Forward – if I find it, I’ll link to it).

Then, after you’re immersed in your new community, you start to find their moral standpoint more logical, and you may find their vision of the universe more compelling. But I suspect these are post-hoc rationalizations. It has more intellectual heft to say that you studied the alternatives (much like the Khazar king) and selected the most intellectually coherent belief system, than to say you were lonely and needed a sympathetic, supportive community.

How do you know if there is a Conversion?

Sometimes, it’s so obvious the question seems idiotic. The individual declares their intention, then undergoes a series of rituals and training. Perhaps they change their mode of dress, and even move to a new location. They become part of a new community. Perhaps they pass through a symbolic gate, often with water. So baptism, immersion in a mikveh, these are pretty inarguable signs. I doubt that anyone would do that, and then claim they haven’t “converted.”

You might get an argument from a Reform Jew who decides to join a Hasidic community. Everything in their life will change – mode of dress, community, daily rituals. They may also subsume their will to that of an authority figure, a Rebbe, who, in exchange, finds them a job, a wife, a home, and tells them for whom to vote. I don’t know enough to know if they’d be expected to undergo a conversion ceremony. But they might claim that they’re not converting, they’re just fulfilling the requirements of Judaism, which they had heretofore ignored. In other words, they might say that they were unobservant before, now they’re observant. No conversion, just a change in level of commitment. The actual God remains the same, they’re just listening harder.

That’s an interesting argument. To my eyes, such a person has obviously converted. Their belief system has changed from one in which observance was optional to one in which it is mandatory. But I can see that the word “convert” here is arguable, if one wishes to argue it. Sure, it looks, acts, walks, and quacks like a duck, but maybe it’s a mallard. I don’t know.

[I’ve been writing this in part to avoid doing my taxes….  back to it.]