Why Do People Convert?

This is a question that Ana Marie Cox will be exploring on With Friends Like These over the next few weeks. In the first episode she asked social psychologist Carol Tavris what brings people to the point where conversion is an option. The answer is that we don’t really know because there is a great deal of variability in the conditions for conversion. What we do know is that at some point the person who decides to convert decides that the views or beliefs that they are converting from were for a mistake. Arguments and Twitter shaming doesn’t do the job. Facts won’t convert anyone at all. That’s rare. Somewhere in the circuits of survival instincts and emotional states is where conversion happens.

I have long thought that to convert from a certain belief needs to be prompted by a kind of discomfort if not suffering that makes continuing that belief uncomfortable. This is certainly the case for addicts. Almost invariably an addict has to undergo enough suffering in the act of addiction that it is just no longer worthwhile to pursue the next high. Interventions are designed to reveal the damage that the addict is doing not only to themselves, but also to those who are closest to them. The threat of isolation is what is so powerful to an addict who is suffering that the idea of going through it alone becomes something that is no longer sustainable no matter how strong the obsession to use and so the addict will make the first attempt at getting clean or die.

Conversion is not always accompanied by suffering. It can also be a more manageable dissonance. Often when a person with strong beliefs experiences that dissonance, they will shore up those beliefs and become more recalcitrant. But some will choose to abandon what they believe even at the expense of abandoning their current social connections and individual identities.

Maybe this has to do with conflicting values. As a young, evangelical seminarian I had to work through the conflict of my evangelical beliefs that rejected homosexuality as sin and my insistence on unconditional love for my sister who had recently came out to me. I chose my sister and decided that my beliefs would have to change because she was far more important than what amounted to faithful hypothesizing regarding the will of God.

When I decided to get sober, it was because my kids and family were more important than the chase which I had let consume my life. Sure the damage had been done by that point and my own mistakes had added up, but it was save myself to save my kids or die and never know how their lives would turn out. Being present was more important than being absent, so I got help.

About four years into sobriety I did not feel right. I felt a continual pressure to discern God’s purpose for my life, a purpose I had never clearly understood and always made me feel depressed, useless, and fairly worthless. I decided my happiness and mental health were more valuable than my beliefs in any God so I dumped them literally as I was buying dog food. I have felt better ever since.

For my own history, conversion has happened at the nexus of strong discomfort or dissonance where my values at the time and entrenched beliefs were at conflict. I chose the new path because family, love, and health were my non-negotiables. Maybe bringing people to conversion is as simple as helping them to see where values conflict with each other and helping them to find a path where one set of values overrules the others.

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