Religious Conversion: Who Goes Where? And Why?

Infidel, n. In New York, one who does not believe in the Christian religion; in Constantinople, one who does.”

Ambrose Bierce

It would be great to have reliable numbers on religious migration: how many people change religions each year, how many become new adherents, how many drift away, never to return?

Increasing the ranks

Different religions have different ways of increasing their ranks: birth rate (e.g., all fundamentalists, Christian, Jewish, and Muslim), proselytizing (Mormons; Jehovah’s Witnesses; Lubavitcher Hasidim – ultra-Orthodox Jews who actually go around in a bus), forced conversion (Islam; Christianity in some eschatological versions).

The birth rate factor should not be underestimated.  Years ago, I read a Wall Street Journal article entitled “Our Fundamentalist Future.”  Fundamentalists will dominate 21st century societies because there are so many of them. 

Wait a minute, inbreeding is not good – science has proved that.  Tribalism and coerced intermarriage are bad for the gene pool, increasing hereditary diseases and mental instability.  But social concerns take precedence, and people keep marrying their distant cousins.  Oh, well.   One more way humanity is going downhill.

Retention strategies

Religions seem to have the same retention strategies: guilt, fear, ostracism, social cohesion/support, censorship of conflicting ideas (gotta keep everybody on-message), promise of an afterlife.

Tribalism figures high among retention strategies.  Thus, as American Jews became more affluent and educated, Judaism evolved successively more liberal versions, until the ultimate hollowed-out incarnation, Humanistic Judaism: we can say we’re Jews even though we deny the existence of God and the literal truth of the Bible.  They’re stories, but they’re OUR stories. 

The tribe, get it?  We get to say we’re still in the tribe. 

But not all Jews saw it that way. For the first years of its existence, Detroit’s original Humanistic congregation, The Birmingham Temple, was not included among institutions whose services and activities were reported in the Detroit Jewish News

I remember telling a professorial colleague that I was in Rabbi Wine’s congregation, and he said, “Oh, the crazy man.” 

“I am”

This all leads to the “I am” question.  What is your answer and what do you have to do to be included?  For Evangelical Christians, all you have to do is accept Jesus as your personal savior (which then entails certain behaviors: talking about your new Imaginary Friend, going to church, etc.) 

Jews are pickier.  Israel has long wrestled with the question of “who is a Jew?”.  Are you a Jew by virtue of birth?  Or conversion (an arduous process; you have to be really motivated)?  Indeed, Jews themselves have wrestled with it.  Answers have been extremely complex, as even a brief Internet check will show. 

“Jewish womb” test

For simple thinkers, there was the “Jewish womb” test – the baby’s mother had to be Jewish.  But don’t mention that to my Mom, because it would mean that because of her gentile daughter-in-law, all succeeding offspring, all her grandchildren and great-grandchildren, are not Jewish.

Religious conversion means changing the answer to the “I am” question.  I am, of course, most interested in the “I am an atheist” answer.  People leave religions for all sorts of reasons, as I found out when I took part in a Center for Inquiry group for people leaving religion.  Some participants felt that God let them down; they couldn’t resolve a loving God that makes things come out all right…with the pain and suffering in their lives or in the world.

Sometimes people leaving religion actually practiced…rational thought! Yes! 

An article by Becky Perlow, CNN News Service, entitled “Study: Analytic thinking decreases religious belief,” is in fact not an April Fools article written by pranking college students and planted in the news…but an actual, serious report of an actual, serious study published April 27 in the journal Science: “Researchers from Canada’s University of British Columbia used subtle stimuli to encourage analytical thinking…[and] found that analytical thinking could decrease religious belief.”

“Duh!” Award

Wow.  I nominate this study for the “Duh!” Award of the Century (so far).

Let’s see..if I just stop for a moment and ask whether 600,000 Israelites could have been slaves in Egypt for 400 years but there’s no record of it…or wandered in the desert for 40 years and never left a trace…or how God impregnated a woman and took human form…or just how it is that after death I am reborn as someone (or something) else…if I just thought about the nuttiness of that for a minute, might it not weaken my faith?  Indeed, faith requires constant reinforcement, as any good cleric can tell you.

And “there’s much more instability to religious belief than we recognize,” said one author of the study.

Ya think?

I would stipulate that it helps to have a liberal way-station from which it’s easier to make a final exit, rather than defy orthodoxy.  Jews have several.  But it’s not an option open to everybody.  Some pathetic Orthodox Jews are secretly agnostics or atheists but cannot possibly come out of the closet. 

The liberal wing of Islam is much smaller proportionally than those of Christianity or Judaism, so I would expect a much more modest exodus. 

(I have no idea what form proselytizing and out-migration take in the Asian part of the world.  Buddhism and others are already close to secular religions, despite all the ritual, costume, and even prayer that have accreted to them.  That’s why so many Jews became “Jew-Bu’s.”)

Rock bottom

The only place I can think of where people spontaneously move towards religion is prison.  They’ve hit rock bottom, and they badly need a moral compass and a role model (Jesus).  They weren’t atheists before.  They had no philosophical position.  They were criminals and psychopaths. 

In the rest of the world, people leave and adopt religions as the outcome of a complex of forces – the individual personality, the particular pull of this or that religion, and much more.

Atheist conversion makes big news.

But when an atheist ADOPTS religion, well, that makes news.  Leah Libresco, with an enviable blog following, announced her conversionfrom atheism to Catholicism.

Sorry, not impressed.  Too bad it makes such big news.  She said she talked to some “smart Christians.”  Hah??  That’s an oxymoron.  People who can reconcile Biblical BS with modern thinking are GLIB Christians.  But to the extent that they cling to childish fantasies, they are not smart; they are not even fully developed adults, I don’t care what “divinity” school they attended.

Religion and morality – again?

Leah says she’s found a moral compass in religion. Gimme a break.  Whatever her reasons for finding religious morality superior, she apparently ignored centuries of philosophical work to build a moral foundation without God (she names-drops impressively but apparently hasn’t learned anything).  I think people have done a damn good job.  There’s a rich array of alternatives. 

But if we keep morality simple and real (we couldn’t be moral if it were too complex), it comes down to a few simple workaday principles (with harder thinking required for more subtle issues) that people employ to create viable, complex societies governed by law, trust, and good behavior – and lots of cops, prosecutors, judges and jails for those who don’t get it.

The “facts”??

As for the substance of religion, Libresco seems completely muddle-headed.  She seem to think the “facts” are on the side of Christianity: “the Catholic Church doesn’t need to and shouldn’t be afraid of [analytical thinking]* because if you’ve got the facts on your side, you hope they win.”

(*The very thing that weakens religious belief, as noted above.)

A more mealy-mouthed defense of religion I never hope to see.   Virgin birth, god in human form, and resurrection are FACTS?  What about the FACT that the Jesus story bears a striking resemblance to dozens of other Middle Eastern demi-gods, who were born of a virgin, nailed to a tree or cross, resurrected, etc., etc.  When I first read about Mithra, I was astonished at the similarities.

Her story holds great power for religious people.  Despite the facts that the trends are in the opposite direction and she’s more of a one-off (as noted by Muslim atheist Hemant Mehta), religious people cling to the occasional conversion, just as they cling to miracles and relics.  The power of faith!  Just gimme ONE example and I’m in!

Facts, schmacts.  Libresco doesn’t care about facts.  She’s got a whole new set of friends, and some of them are imaginary.  To me, that’s not progress.

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Comment by Pat on July 9, 2012 at 8:25am

Hell, a candidate who espouses humanistic principles, even in the context of spouting religious beliefs, is vilified.  Remember the booing at the Republican primaries when a gay soldier was mentioned, or when the US foreign/militaristic entanglements were challenged?

Comment by Alan Perlman on July 8, 2012 at 5:04pm


And can you imagine what would happen if an outspoken atheist/humanist ran for high office?  Believers truly hate and fear unbelievers because they cannot tolerate the slightest challenge.   

Comment by Pat on July 8, 2012 at 12:08pm

One thing Tonya said that I do agree with is the idea that there is "no choice to escape." I would expand this beyond just children. This includes adults, also. Alan, you make a good point about the tribalistic nature of Judaism. But, it's not just Judaism. This model of keeping people within the "in group" has been copied, one way or another, by many other religions. Announce your conscience to the world, and risk ostracism; ostracism from friends, family, associates, and in many cases, the only community and way of life you've ever known. Jews will ceremoniously say Kaddish for an ostracized member of their group. In many Muslim societies, the prayer is actually over a corpse; death being the punishment for apostasy. Christians just ignore you, slander your reputation, cause job loss, and alienate your family - though death threats are becoming more common, i.e., Jessica Ahlquist. 

Comment by Alan Perlman on July 8, 2012 at 10:54am

@B Good...Thanks for the support.  I like "Rand/Galt Syndrome."  Years ago, I dismissed Rand's ravings as not worthy of a thoughtful libertarian/atheist.  Not long after, I wearied of the arguments about her.  Enough already! 

Comment by B Good on July 7, 2012 at 3:34pm
It's okay, Alan. It is true that a minority of nonbelievers suffer from an emotionally debilitating form of Rand-Galt Syndrome. However, most of us understand that societal problems effect everybody, and therefore it is everybody's responsibility to help.

@tonya - for centuries there was no cure for smallpox. No cure for polio. Where would we be today if scientist had said "I don't see a cure. Searching for one must be a waste of time "
Comment by Alan Perlman on July 7, 2012 at 2:52pm

@Tonya...That's a harsh existential and nihiistic judgment on those of us who want to understand this mental disease that enslaves billions, persists in the face of scientific refutation, threatens to take over the society we live in, and would make hated pariahs of those who dare to disbelieve.  

Anything that anybody says is wasting time IS wasting time, from that person's viewpoint.  Prayer and ritual are a waste of time for me, because nobody's there.

I'm a social atheist.  I'm well aware that religious people enjoy social and even health benefits from being around like-minded people.  Why should unbelievers not do the same?  That's not a waste of time.

Other commentators?  Is A/N just a colossal waste of time?



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