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Religious Change and Conversion - Johannes Aagaard

The New Age Cosmology as the Decisive Factor in Religious Change



Professor Kirsten Haastrup in her article: „Mission and Murder, The Christianization of Iceland in the Year 1000“ (Jordens Folk 4/1987), concludes in the following way: „Religious change in the year 1000 was something entirely different from conversion from one faith to another. It was not the Christian message that was the central theme in the religious change. It was rather the recognized need for a new „code“. The new era was coloured by the Christian worldview much more than the faith“.

A new code of interpretation


The distinction which she raises here between religious change and conversion has much significance as a model for an understanding of the situation in Europe in the ’90s. While conversion in the biblical sense is concerned with faith and personal relationship between God and the human person, religious change is a process which revolves about the „decoding“ of existence, that is, with cosmology. Cosmology in this sense is not a matter of science or knowledge as much as a question of the explanation and interpretation of the world (yet cosmology often professes to be a kind of science).

Conversion in a time of cultural transition


Conversions occur at any time, but when they take place in a time of cultural transition to a new era the phenomenon of conversion as religious transformation becomes a decisive act. This happens when two cosmologies are in conflict and the one overcomes the other. During such a movement a change in the understanding of life’s meaning takes place which will colour a personal conversion in a decisive way. The conversion includes a change in one’s whole religious outlook and not simply a personal metanoia.


Now it is not to be assumed that a certain number of conversions gradually create a religious change and the adoption of a new code, nor that religious change is the precondition for conversions. We are speaking of two distinct but related phenomena.

Religious change is complex


The religious change of a human grouping, i.e. a culture, whether it includes a whole people or a local community, is a very complex process, and on a large scale it is not carried out consciously. This does not mean that it happens without awareness, but it is not necessarily understood as religious change, for its simple elements are not seen as part of the whole which they really are.


A religious change deals specifically with that orientation without which people cannot live. When a culture loses its orientation and is confused about its values it has little chance to survive unless it is buttressed by very strong external supports. All cultures are religiously oriented but not in the same way.

A society is the expression of a religion


There are various religions, and they are the expression of the common cultural orientations which hold together human life. It is religion that holds together that social totality which the religion includes. For this reason one religion confronts another just as one society confronts the other.

Individuals are religious, but society has religions. It is „my religiosity“ but it is „our religion“. When confusion arises in a society, so that it is disoriented in its understanding of life, then it loses its religion; yet the members of society are still religious, though there may be much vagueness about the significance and meaning of that religiosity, for the significance and meaning of religiosity derives from a religion.

Religiosity in conflict with religion


Religion then, is something we have in common, but religious is what a person is as a human being. Secularization may be understood as the disorientation which arises when religion loses its grip on people; one can therefore understand that secularization and religiosity are by no means necessarily in contradiction to each other; indeed, one can find religious forms of secularism, a phenomenon which must arise where people’s religiosity has come in conflict with society’s religion.


If a society has many different religions within its borders, this will not only lead to rivalry and the possibility of mutual antagonism; it can at its worst lead to religious war. But there can also develop attempts at neutralization, so that a „civil religion“ arises which combines elements of the various religions in a sort of secular Erzats-religion.

Pseudo-religions in competition with traditional religions


We recognize secular pseudo-religions in nazism, fascism and communism, because these ideologies have developed as systems that appropriate, or seek to appropriate and mold the citizens’ religiosity in competition with the traditional religions. It is interesting to see how badly they have failed, for they are so boring that they cannot inspire, much less attract to themselves the people’s true religiosity.


This is due in part to the fact that they have not taken people’s need to understand the meaning of life seriously. Only honest religions have dealt with the problem of the meaning of life in such a way that the religious passion expresses itself in a full interpretation of life and death.

Pseudo-religions are boring


The secular pseudo-religions are bankrupt not least because they are boring. Humankind has three great problems: death, boredom and love, and only religions which take all three seriously can make a go of it. Boredom is perhaps the most serious illness which can attack a culture. When time becomes something that one „kills“ then the culture itself is moribund. The religions are largely concerned with making life exciting and attractive and fanciful.


With respect to love it is important to observe that the eternal conflict between sexuality and religion is not by chance. A very important part of any religion’s integration of culture is to defend the values and rules that give a certain orderliness to human sexual lives. To propose that religion has nothing to do with morals is to discard an essential element of religion - or to recognize that that side of religion has already been disowned.


But if we acknowledge that death, boredom and love are decisive elements in any culture we must also recognize that the various religions offer very different models for dealing with these three elements. And realize that these various models may be in mutual opposition.


The mutual relationships among religions are determined by the way people evaluate their various ways of dealing with death, boredom and love. Within a given cultural system these models may lose their power, and a new religion becomes accepted precisely because of the attraction of its alternative models.

The new era is not marked by faith


The quotation with which we began dealt with Iceland in 1000 a.d. If we should apply it to Europe in the year 2000 it might read as follows: „The religious change to an oriental religiosity in the year 2000 was something quite different from conversion from one faith to another. It was not the content of the hindu-buddhist faith that was central in the religious change. It was rather the recognized need for a new code. The new era was marked by the oriental world-view much more than by faith.“

"It has nothing to do with religion and faith"


With this understanding of what is already happening in 1991 but which may well find its culmination at the end of this decade we can explain why the confrontation between Christianity and Hinduism-Buddhism which is now taking place is denied by so many of those who are in fact engaged in it. They do not experience it as a question of their faith; they see it rather as a question of a new world-view, and for them it has nothing to do with religion or faith or conversion.

The pioneers of the new era wish to remain Christians


The truth in this skewed understanding is that obviously it has nothing directly to do with conversion. The pioneers in the coming religious change have no desire to undertake a conversion to Hinduism-Buddhism. They do not wish to become Hindus of Buddhists, much less to be considered Hindus or Buddhists. Many of them indeed wish to stay in the church and be reckoned as Christians. Some believe furthermore that they have become better Christians by accepting that new world-view which the new understanding of life includes.

The distinction between religious change and conversion is a kind of key to the situation; for there can be no doubt that in Europe in 1991 there is taking place a comprehensive religious change, but there are only a limited number of conversions to oriental religiosity. It is also clear that the content of the religious change is discussed in terms of what is seen as a new vision of the world.

Religious change without conversion


The process of religious change is most apparent in the religious education in schools. The debate now raging is marked by a group of educators who have undergone religious change, although they have not been converted to anything at all. Of course they will not admit this, for it is characteristic of the process of change that is not recognized. There are to be sure some prominent representatives of the process who honestly admit that there is a „conspiracy“, but most will not participate in such a thing and many do not see it.

The intolerance of the tolerant New Age


It is typical of the situation that the precondition for this „re-coding“ is a tolerance which holds that in the religious world all religions have the same goals, with no distinction between true and false, no taking of a stand. This tolerance is especially intolerant toward all those who do not share these opinions but hold that in the world of religion there is both the best and the worst. Such a critique of religion is rejected by the proponents of tolerance as intolerance and it cannot therefore be tolerated.


The process of religious change, which initially and primarily functions as a cosmological re-coding, is decidedly neither neutral nor objective. It operates in close relationship to the limited number of converts, who in fact guide the process.

The change is not noticed by the old religion


In this process of religious change a number of conversions normally take place, and such converts functions as catalysts in the process. A really comprehensive and popular conversion and the consequent establishment of a truly Hinduist-Buddhistic religion in the Western world will depend naturally on the progress of the process of religious change, and this progress will therefore occur in a manner appropriate to the process of conversion. One must acknowledge in 1991 that this progress is taking place in a consistent and determined way. This is especially due to the fact that it is not noticed by the old religion and its representatives. Perhaps it is especially because popular religiosity which has previously been the basis of the folk churches, is now essentially separated from the churches, or perhaps rather that the folk churches have systematically separated themselves from popular religiosity. But when the church is unwilling to be the force that forms popular religiosity, others will take up the unfulfilled task.

Popular religiosity resent Christianity


Popular religiosity has developed a certain resentment toward the churches, and Christianity, which have abandoned it. People whose religiosity is free of ties will inevitably seek a religion which can give their religiosity meaning, and it seems that oriental religion can do this, first and foremost because of its vision of the world, its cosmology


Together with the churches’ rejection of popular religiosity’s need for structuring, for a form, there is a consistent opposition in the churches to cosmology. This word means that an explanation and interpretation is given to the cosmos which it not intrinsically present in it. The cosmology means a comprehensive system of symbols through which the meaning of existence receives structure and order. This requires a conscious development of rituals and symbols which people can use in their religious search and experience. This is exactly what people seem to find in the new religious movements. They find - at any rate to some degree - a new code for the understanding of the world and the human existence.


To live at random makes in the long run life intolerable. Without any meaning and direction life dies. And even a code which is really unbelievable is better that disorientation and bewilderment.

What shall we then conclude?


If, from what has been said above, a conclusion is possible at this point of history, it is that the churches relate to the present processes of religious change and conversion with almost total incomprehension. They do not understand what is happening and consequently (with few exceptions) they do nothing about it. Some even seem to resent it if attempts are made to do something.

History moves and we move with it


The first requisite, of course, is to make a serious attempt to understand the historical movement of which we are a part. History moves and we with it. It acts on us whether we like it or not, whether we realize it or not. We are not able to stop it. But we can at any rate re-act more or less responsible, depending upon the clarity of our analysis and interpretation of the historical date.


When in the middle of the next century some historian gives an account of the last part of the 20th century, one chapter title could well read like this: „The period when the most decisive religious change took place, without the churches noticing it.“ But it could also read like this: „The period when the most decisive religious change took place, and the churches finally came back to reality“.