What science says about religious conversion
by James R Coffey
For many, religious experiences lead to religious conversion. While conversion need not stem from such an experience, per se, many convertees have cited religious awakenings as leading to a new spiritual perspective. But while science accepts a religious experience/conversion relationship, conversion alone is often attributed to other causes: preexisting psychological disturbances (as cited by Freud), bad parenting, low self-esteem, an escape from a perceived reality that has proved insupportable, or an attempt to resolve unconscious inner conflicts. And more often than not, there seems to have existed a “burning desire to know, to find answers, to embark on a kind of search . . .” which the Buddhists refer to as “great doubt.” But, this raises the question as to what spawns this desire in the first place. Does it arise from the creative imagination? Does it lie in common, human curiosity? Is it an irresistible urge spurred by the God-spot?
The Convertee Profile
Psychological data suggests that although “melancholics” and unstable introverts are most susceptible to stress and most likely to undergo dramatic religious conversion, stable extraverts and introverts are more likely to retain new beliefs after conversion. Studies show that among those with spiritual beliefs, maturity of personality goes with the attitude of religion which is undogmatic and nonrestrictive, and more interested in seeking the truth behind religious teachings. (These findings seem to support renowned psychologist Maslow’s assertion that ‘self-realization’ is hindered by involvement in religious beliefs that traditionally go unchallenged.) Therefore statistically, conversion is seen far more often among middle-aged and older adults.
Conversion and Acceptance of Supernatural Events
Historically, religion has been linked to the supernatural and the acceptance of supernatural events. So the next question of interest is whether religious individuals (especially converts and those experiencing religious occurrences) are more likely to accept the possibility of supernatural events-even if they break the laws of science. Studies show that this question may best be addressed from an examination of predisposed childhood beliefs and experiences-which set the stage for future spiritual experiences or conversions. In a study by German psychologist Friedemann Thun (a recognized expert in interpersonal and intrapersonal communication conducted) in 1959, five areas of spiritual belief were identified in children 6-10: mystical thinking, readiness for religion, capacity for religious experiences, a dependence for religious ideas upon influential others, and changeableness. Thun’s conclusions highlighted either the “road to religious maturity” or to “neurotic self-defense or indifference,” suggesting that mystical thinking is a childish way of misinterpreting the world, a form of thinking normally left behind. When it is not, the door to believing in the supernatural is left open-and sometimes supported by further religious experiences.