Monday, May 04, 2009

The Psychological Mechanism behind Conversion

One thing I've come to believe more with experience is that a person's world view, be it religious or secular in nature, is ultimately a component of their personal experiences. Specifically, certain personal experiences carry with them a certain indescribable meaning that cannot be fully conveyed to another person. It is the phenomenological portion of the experience, to put it in more formal terms. For example, you can describe a meaningful event in your life to someone else, but there is no way for you to convey the full weight of that experience. It is that part that I am going to talk about today.

So, what causes a change in world view? People are inherently biased towards their current beliefs, especially the beliefs that make up a person's world view. Disconfirming information is requisite for conversion to even be a possibility. Unless a person is lacking any sort of strong conviction, there is a good chance that any strong challenge to a person's world view will be avoided if possible.

Does disconfirming information automatically cause a conversion? No, since there is a few ways a person will try to deal with it. First, people will attempt to reinterpret it in a way that supports their world view. For example, a fundamentalist Christian may interpret the decline of church attendance as a sign that the end times are near, rather than a rejection of religious institutions and their inherent flaws.

If disconfirming information cannot be reinterpreted, a person will try to reject it. The most common method is to discredit the information or the source. Common rationale include claiming a flawed methodology, a biased source, that the information has been "spun" to present it in a certain way, or that the information is entirely fictitious.

Sometimes disconfirming information cannot be rejected. The third thing that people will do is to minimize the impact of the information. They will say it isn't as important as it seems, or that it's presented in a way that overplays it. This is done using similar rationale that people use to reject information, but in a way that acknowledges some level of correctness.

If none of the above work, a person goes through a "crisis of faith" or an "identity crisis", where their beliefs are challenged on a level that cannot be easily dealt with. This requires a person to either change their existing world view in such a way that it can handle the information, or it requires them to change their world view. If a person's world view is changed in a meaningful and profound way, this would be considered a conversion experience, which is a significant phenomenological event in itself.

So how does phenomenology and phenomenological experiences play into conversion? They are important because most conversions are due to experiences that challenge a persons beliefs, not second-hand information. A challenging phenomenological experience is the most powerful form of disconfirming information, and it is much harder to reinterpret, reject, or minimize. I will use my own conversion experience as an example to make this idea more concrete. I stopped believing in a theistic "God" not because of the facts and ideas that were hurled at me by some of the people I know. Rather, I stopped believing in God because a naturalistic point of view provided a better view of reality, and allowed me to handle personal issues that my previous beliefs couldn't.

My next post will be on what religious rituals have to do with phenomonology and creating zealous believers.

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