Why Do People Convert?
Anytime we ask a question about why people do what they do it is a question of human behavior and therefore Psychology comes into play. This question of why people convert to different religions is a complicated one because there are many different reasons behind why so many different types of personalities are attracted to one religion or another and therefore the scenarios are primarily subjective. However what I want to do is utilize some concepts from Social Psychology to narrow down some of the reasons people convert to religions with an attempt to focus on Islam.
One of the most common reasons people convert to a religion is due to what Psychologists call “peripheral route to persuasion.” This is when a person is influenced by incidental cues, such as a powerful speech, a speaker’s attractiveness or eloquence, a beautiful recitation of the Qur’an, a striking call to prayer (the Adhan), meeting really nice people in a congregation, the aesthetics behind Arab or Pakistiani culture, or maybe even a combination of all of these things. The unconscious part of the mind absorbs all of these things and therefore a person might not even be aware of the fact that they are being inspired to the extent that they actually are. One example in Islamic history of a person falling to this peripheral route to persuasion is Umar ibn al Khattab who was on his way to bring harm to Muhammad and yet he found his sister reciting the Qur’an and he immediatly fell for the new religion. On the basis of Psychology the peripheral route to persuasion is altogether a bad reason to adopt a whole new elaborate belief system which one has not tested or thought about in depth. However there are so many people who find themselves converting because of it.
Perhaps related to the peripheral route to persuasion but not entirely are subjective spiritual experiences. In other words one is not depending on evidence that is objective rather a beautiful experience one had in a Church or Masjid, a vision or dream, someone elses vision or dream or experience or desire to convert, an intuitive feeling or emotion that is often derived from a peripheral route etc.
One example of this in Islamic history is the story of Imam Abu Hasan al-Ashari who was a Mu’azili or proponant of Islamic rationalism at first. Originally he depended on the Aql or rationality and rejected the Sunnah that was being reported by the followers of the Fuqaha. In a document entitled “How Imam Ashari Left the Mu’tazilah” by Ibn Asakir, Imam Ashari’s account is recorded. In that statement which can be found online Imam Ashari has multiple dreams where Muhammad appears to him and tells him to follow the Fuqaha and the Sunnah being reported by them. Imam Ashari says he has strong arguments against what is being reported but the Prophet (in his dreams) insisted that he follows the Sunnah (tradition) anyways. So Imam Ashari gives up on Kalam (speculative theology) and embraces the Sunnah. The following dream Imam Ashari tells the Prophet he has given up Kalam and has embraced the Sunnah, only for Muhammad to tell him that him that he did not want Imam Ashari to give up on Kalam and only instructed him to follow the Sunnah. Now one can say alot of different things about this scenario.
I think the Salafi would have problems with this conversion (from one school of thought to another) simply based on the Salafis strict rejection of Kalam. They view Kalam as a terrible innovation and can never imagine that the Prophet would ever instruct anyone to follow it as in this case. They must inevitably hold firm to the position that Imam Ashari’s dream where Muhammad tells him not to abandon Kalam is anecdotal and therefore his personal dream cannot have implications on the Ummah as a whole. Additionally what can we say about dreams in terms of Psychology? We know that dreams and visions have a special place among both religious and spiritual people. However at the same time, without dismissing the importance of dreams to any individual experiencing them, we do know from a Psychological perspective that dreams are often a product of repressed thoughts, emotions, desires, fears and speculations. Perhaps Imam Ashari had many debates with Sunni Muslims and for anyone who is involved in debating religion it is natural to consider the other person’s perspective, at least unconsciously, even if the ego does not allow one to consciously consider the adversaries argumentation. Last but not least, spiritual or inspirational experiences, dreams, visions etc. occur throughout humanity. We have Hindus, Christians, Buddhists, Bahai’s, Sikhs, and basically people from every religious background claiming to have had spiritual experiences and positive dreams involving the founder of their religion. I for one accept their claims but the point is that their visions and spiritual experiences do not prove anything. The conclusion is that anecdotal scenarios and subjective experiences cannot be sufficient reasons to adopt any elaborate theology.
Another reason people may convert to a religion is because of their disdain for the religion or culture they were brought up in. Due to negative experiences in America or Somalia, for example, or with Roman Catholicism or Islam, a person might begin to look elsewhere to find comfort, meaning, purpose and value. Hence they are vulnerable and might easily be convinced by the first or second alternative they come across. If it remotely sounds logical in any sense of perceiving sensibility, they may begin to indulge in that newly found way of life. At this point what Psychologists call the “confirmation bias” might kick in, where individuals dig themselves deeper and deeper into their beliefs. This occurs with people who originally were brought up in any particular religion and with people who convert. People purposely look for information that supports their preconceived notions.
The search for identity especially begins to happen during adolescence. What Erik Erikson calls “identity vs. role confusion?” This period of experimenting could possibly continue until a person is able to find some type of identity they are content with. We often go through many phases in terms of identity. But religion and culture is certainly a huge part of that for many people. People try different sub-cultures and eventually find a place where they might find people they relate to or a place where they are most accepted or understood by others. So for example due to negative experiences in the Roman Catholic Church they might go to the Muslim Community Center and find people who accept them, are nice to them, they relate to a particular person better and through these experiences a person finds “reason” to convert. This goes beyond religion of course, many people adopt all kinds of sub-cultures such as “emo”, skater, hip hop, athletics, gangs, dance crews, nerds, etc. There are several routes a person might take to find themselves a place where they recieve the attention, support, acceptance and identity they need.
It is very rare that we find a person who did intensive research and found any particular religion to be true. Rather gradual knowledge after conversion based on peripheral routes is usually how it happens. The confirmation bias takes over from that point on. In Philosophy you have what is called “the principle of belief conservation” which states that if you have a belief you should not give up that belief until you have good reasons to give up that belief. Therefore one should reflect, think, pray, and test their beliefs before giving them up for new ones. For me, I gradually started to move toward rationalism and began to give up on traditionalism altogether. I literally spent two years of studying, contemplating, conversing, and praying before I officially changed my beliefs and evolved past Islam and into Agnosticism. Two years was enough for me, maybe other people need more or less time. In any event I hope that people who have converted or will convert in and out of belief systems do so with all of this in mind.
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