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Conversion--Under the Microscope and Under the Gun - Neil T. Duddy

Conversion to new religions seems to have the same effect as placing magnets in a box of iron filings: it polarizes. Acrimonious exchanges are common among social scientists, theologians, concerned individuals, and the new religions. Perhaps conversion is controversial because, while it takes place in an unknown mental territory, it emerges through the personality, setting bold new boundaries of behavior, and advertises an overthrow of former beliefs. Conversion changes people who then offer that change to society, sometimes insistently. Conversion, says sociologist Jim Beckford, is something of a political event. It announces new religious values, often demands creation of a new social order, is occasionally politically active, and at the same time is a declaration of rejection. It is a change of such magnitude that it influences every aspect of the convert’s life. Sometimes other people respond favorably to those converts; at other times the response is persecution or apathy, either of which can extinguish the life of a movement.

When religious conversion is favorably received by society, the religion is perceived as contributing constructively to social goals. It is no surprise, then, that the Arminian theology of Wesley, Finney, Campbell, and the New Lights resulted in large numbers of religious conversions on America’s expanding Western frontier during the 1800s. Arminian theology emphasizes individualism and free will in the act of coming to faith. That is in contrast to the double predestination message of Calvinism which prevailed on the East coast in the 19th century. Certain individuals, like Charles Finney, also emphasized the earthly perfection of the believer who labors in rigorous piety, another break from traditional Calvinism. The Arminian emphasis on individualism in religion easily translated into positive social values that supported and enhanced the vision of pioneering Americans. The Arminian revivals did not go uncriticized, however, and one Calvinistic denomination lopped off a third of its membership in protest against their "western-style" conversions. But the mavericks prevailed. Today’s new religions are also struggling to prevail, but most will not survive. Their host societies do not perceive the new religions as a promise of revitalization but regard them as evidence of social discord. Even under the weight of rejection, limited social relevance, and unattainable goals (for example, a one-world family, a one-world theocratic government) the call of conversion rings true to some, and they go. Why they go and under what circumstances is a topic of debate.

One critic of the new religions is Richard Delgado, law professor at the University of California in Los Angeles. He argues that recruiters for new religions often lead converts through a series of steps he calls "segmentation of the joining process." Says Delgado, information is metered out to converts on the basis of their longevity in the movement, not their desire to know about the group. Delgado cites instances where important obligations of membership--termination of family relations, arranged marriages, extensive financial giving--are slowly unfolded to recruits after their firm commitment has been tried and tested. One leader in a new religion has responded to that line of criticism saying, "Christians don’t unfold the whole Bible when witnessing to people at a bus stop, particularly in the first five minutes. They’re just trying to be friendly without scaring people off. Is that deception?" The Delgado school maintains, however, that a fully informed member may later discover that information delivered during the recruiting stage does not represent the heart of the movement’s beliefs and practices.

The question is therefore clearly raised, in the art of religious persuasion, How much information is necessary for a fair conversion? In his book, In Two Minds, Os Guinness suggests that a sparcity of theological information in Christian conversion leads to high defection rates because intellectual doubt begins to occur. Consequently, he recommends a full theological disclosure to potential converts. In discussing the new religions, however, many sociologists suggest that converts join for social reasons and leave for the same motives. Guinness’s perspective, with regard to new religions, is considered by sociologists to be a weak approach; they would recommend disclosure of a movement’s lifestyle rather than its doctrine.

The question of disclosure is more than simply a review of truth in the advertising practices of new religions. It hints at the moral character of certain proselytizing patterns. To avoid the charge of a hidden "esoteric gap," some groups, like Rosicrucians, openly admit to reserving deeper truths for their more mature disciples. In that instance, recruits are informed of the existence of esoteric truth that awaits them for a later time. Both the recruiter and the convert acknowledge the situation for what it is: the conversation is religious sport. That recruiting technique is analogous to trying to land a large tarpon fish on a 12-pound fishing line--the material of persuasion is limited, and the line often breaks. Moral?, yes, but in a qualified, teasing way. An appropriate method for a religion?, perhaps not. Groups who withhold information in their recruiting practices might do well to develop an innovative catechetical approach. Such an approach would allow potential members to become fully acquainted with the movement and cautiously decide about their participation in it.

The need to protect consumers in the religious marketplace is ironic, bringing to mind the caveat emptor--let the buyer beware. And, in a manner befitting economic enterprise, the buyers and sellers of, along with reporters on, new religions are settling their disputes in the courts. Critic-theologian Fritz Haack of Munich, whose books have sold over 500,000 copies, has been sued more than 20 times for pointing to esotericism and controversial doctrines in new religions. He has not lost a case yet. On the other side, some new religions have been sued by former converts who claim the movement did not provide the benefits that were promised in the recruiting process. The greatest legal indicator of the confusion about conversion, however, is in the large number of suits that focus on brainwashing and deprogramming. The courts may condemn or approve a recruiting technique for its legality, but they do not offer religious approbation. Innocence of a charge nay not readily mean purity of heart. With regard to one new religion, an American court ruled that a religious movement could avoid liability for misrepresentation during recruitment only if the group presented itself as religious.

Social scientists have also taken a strong interest in conversion to new religions. The Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, Society, and Archives de Sciences Sociales des Religions frequently carry articles by sociologists, psychologists, and anthropologists who, for reasons germane to their respective disciplines, discuss religious conversion as a social phenomena, omitting spiritual considerations altogether. Polarization among those observers is also evident. Some, like John Clark, M.D. of Boston’s Center on Destructive Cultism, claim that many new religions recruit members through techniques that are hard to resist and put converts in a vulnerable state of mind. The Center, founded in 1981 by the American Family Foundation, asserts that a well-orchestrated combination of controlled environment and intense psychological pressure by a cult can cause dramatic changes in a recruit. Those changes, adds the Center, can also lead a recruit to jettison customary social responsibilities for a restrictive life in a cult. Among observers who share that perspective, terms like thought reform, mind control, psychological kidnapping, and brainwashing are used to explain how such unusual behavior comes from such unlikely people. For the main, responsibility is cast onto the cult. Those terms call to mind prisoners of war in Korea and China and imply the use of physical restraint. Physical restraint, however, is rarely found within new religions. Drs. Thomas Robbins and Dick Anthony, both of Berkeley, California’s Center for the Study of New Religions, reply that the use of such language is a thin reed to lean on. They suggest that "brainwashing divorced from physical restraint is generally in the eye of the beholder." As applied to new religions, Robbins has called the brainwashing theory of conversion a jazzed-up version of Little Red Riding Hood and Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Adds noted psychologist and author Thomas Szasz, "Brainwashing is a metaphor. A person can no more wash another’s brain with coercion or conversion than he can make him bleed with a cutting remark."

Not so, replies Margaret Singer, professor of psychiatry at the University of California in Berkeley. Singer, whose current research includes more than 900 interviews with members and ex-members (both non-deprogrammed and deprogrammed) of cults, says that cults are using a new model of thought reform that is different from the l950s’ model in substance but not in effect. Singer’s model, "the manipulation of systematic social influence," proposes that some cults pace recruits through a well-timed (perhaps non-stop) series of events that may not be registered as more than surface events. The specific structure of a day’s events is likely to go unnoticed. For example, notes Singer, group activities may include a sequence in which a bewildering task or game is immediately followed by a situation where only simple conformity is required. Thus an active outdoor game in which only members know the rules brings disorientation to recruits who are expected to play without knowing those rules and are thus pushed into stilted, confused participation. Disorientation is relieved when the game is followed by a simple event or discussion in which the rules are easily discernable. Recruits are eager to regroup, and receive large doses of approval for their participation. The glitch for Singer is that participation in the simple event involves direct affirmation of the group’s religious beliefs. Singer also cites a number of other social influences that help induce conversions, among them strenuous schedules and minimum rest, separating recruits from one another, persistent companionship with little or no privacy, regulating sexual behavior, and introducing unusual doctrine after a jovial event. Says Singer, "Organizing all the recruit’s time is more effective (for inducing conversion) than holding a gun at the head."

Singer’s conclusions are pooh-poohed by Herb Richardson and Darrol Bryant who are intimates of the Unification Church. As theologians, though, their interest is to protect spiritual and religious pursuits from invasion by critics. They have been particularly successful in sponsoring conferences for sociologists and theologians interested in the Unification Church. Those conferences have, in turn, generated literature in response to the criticisms of Clark, Singer, and others. One such book is New Religions and Mental Health, edited by Richardson. It provides alternative studies to critical reviews but does not give in-depth assessments of the data that have led Clark and Singer to be critical.

Though the new religions host social scientists and occasionally benefit from publication of their research reports, their interests are rooted in other fields. They do not see themselves as social phenomena, as evidence of a cultural crisis, and, least of all, as an experiment in alternative society. New religions see themselves as religious, emphatically. All the values and symbols of each movement provide members with religious meaning. Members do not see converts as people who have changed social roles, or as romantics who are sacralizing utopian notions. Members, most of whom have acted as recruiters during their commitment, receive converts as the newly redeemed, as new pairs of hands who will provide more power for the work of God. Converts are the raw stuff of a divine vanguard and are, as it were, continued proof of God’s blessing on the movement. The movement itself does not see its history as a revival but as something totally other, a new era. Most Christian theologians are not as enthusiastic and, at best, the gracious ones hope that conversion to a new religion will be a transitory passage in a spiritual search that will end in a stable experience within a Christian tradition. At worst, speaking about the new religions as pagan or heretical is not uncommon.

Theologians who investigate the theological properties of new religious movements operate from a variety of traditional biases and commitments. It is almost axiomatic that theologians, though irenic, are not objective. Some sympathetic theologians, such as Harvey Cox of Harvard Seminary and Thomas McGowan of Manhattan College, describe conversion to new religions in terms of a spiritual journey toward self-realization in God. In their thought, conversion becomes a moment of recognizing human finiteness and a transcendent otherness. Conversion, among other things, reorganizes values and meaning around religious realities that may manifest themselves in a broad variety of theological constructions.

Other theologians, like Lutherans Phillip Lochaas in America and Fritz Haack in Germany, have commitments to a biblical world view that roots their perspective on conversion in a definitive view of the person and work of Jesus Christ. That narrows their view of which religious beliefs provide a genuine spiritual conversion. In their view, true spirituality is the domain of historic Christendom, not the new religions. "The testimony about spiritual experience during conversion to a new religion," says Haack, "is the interpretation that the movements teach converts to believe about themselves. There is conviction and change but not a real spiritual conversion." Others have a more confrontative, if not ominous, view. Author Dave Hunt and the Spiritual Counterfeits Project hold other-worldly perspectives on conversion. Their work suggests that a conspiracy is operating among the new religions and some old ones, too. While they do not cooperate with one another, the new religions are eschatological portents of the final days, a time of high-handed counterfeit religion motivated by Satan and his minions. Conversion experiences that include visions, dreams, and spiritual comfort are the provisions of a fallen Angel who masquerades as light. In his critical review of the Spiritual Counterfeits Project (Journal of Ecumenical Studies, Summer 1981), John Saliba notes, "But the insistence that Satan is responsible for the rise and growth of religious and spiritual movements cannot be accepted at its face value. For one can legitimately ask why it is necessary to bring in the devil at all when it is likely that human elements--sociological, psychological, and religious--are the main factors which lead people to join cultic groups.... if the cultural conditions are ripe for a resurgence of cults, why insist so strongly on diabolical intrusion?" Although the claim of Satanic influence has its exegetical defense in several Bible passages, others, along with Saliba, suggest that that view should be reserved for special occasions. As one long-term observer of spiritualism, Latin psychologist-theologian Bonaventure Kloppenburg, has said, it is only when all natural explanations fail to explain the unusual that, one may begin to consider "the dread infestation."

It is evident that the study of conversion raises a chorus of dissident voices. In spite of the din, however, two broad suggestions are worth considering--one for new religions and one for theologians. Movements so unfortunate as to have incurred persistent legal complaint because of their recruitment practices would do well to adjust those methods. Such an adjustment would obviously result in better public relations for the movement and, in general, help relieve the pressure religion faces in a sceptical age. Second, though the work of social scientists performs an invaluable role in identifying the material aspects of conversion, their work is not a substitute for theological reflection. Theologians need to be more active in the discussion. Even when social scientists favorably interpret conversion, the convert’s experience is described as a behavioral change, not as the discovery of ultimate truth. Unless the scientists acknowledge personal religious conviction (which is rare), they generally hold that conversion gives converts meaningful but only symbolic reference points that guide day to day affairs. The instruments sociologists and psychologists use do not allow them to suggest that conversion is either a turn to the living God or a sincere but misguided commitment. Nonetheless, theologians would benefit from familiarizing themselves with those behavioral observations. Such knowledge would allow them to understand the social implications of the religious texts that guide the mew religions. Janes Bjornstad’s article in this issue presents a worthy exhortation to the theologically inclined. The religious texts and beliefs of a movement influence the conversion process. Taken together, both behavioral and theological studies provide a wholistic approach to conversion that then becomes a point of contact for Christian apologetics.