QueenTiye, on Oct 21 2003, 09:04 AM, said:
In summary, and I hope that Christopher chimes in with objections if my summary is incorrect, religious conversion is a process mostly undertaken by the converted, not by the people attempting the conversion.
Yep, that's exactly the Richard Eaton thesis that I was elaborating upon (or rather attempting to generalize, since his work was focussed on Islam in South Asia and I saw parallels elsewhere in world history). And this idea really pretty much fits into a general trend in historiography these days, to question the old assumption that only an elite, powerful minority was making history and the masses were just passively following or being acted upon. A lot of modern historical research is about showing how the groups once overlooked by history exerted varying forms of power over their own lives rather than just being pawns -- to acknowledge their "agency," to use a bit of jargon (i.e. they are agents, active parties, rather than purely passive ones).
So - when in my early adulthood, I converted to Islam - I converted because my beliefs had shifted, and Islam fit the bill most closely (but not entirely). Notwithstanding - I very early on simply gave up on the notion of going to the Mosque - the social settings simply didn't "fit." In spite of some Islamic interpretations that music was against Islam, I nonetheless continued to enjoy gospel music - including even joining choirs whenever the opportunity presented itself.
And - that hasn't changed, now that I've embraced Baha'i faith. Baha'i faith, being an outgrowth of Islam, basically addressed the majority of the issues I had with Islam - and hence - was a natural switch. And - the faith actively encourages the arts (there's a pretty good Baha'i Gospel choir! LOL!). So - again - in my own experience, the change from one faith to another was not that much of a change - rather, it was more an adaptation of something that fit the paradigms I had already established.
It seems that people generally are inclined to stay with their religion even when they disagree with parts of it. Why is that? Is it that nothing else you've heard of addresses your concerns? Is it that you believe that your faith is "right" and will eventually work out the bugs? Or - is it just more comfortable?
This fits the thesis very well. The religious institutions like to think that they tell everyone else what to believe and the flock follows. But in practice, all individuals interpret and adapt their faiths to fit their own needs, and hold their own distinct beliefs, no matter how much they go along on the surface. Sometimes one group will turn their variant practices into a distinct institution or organized faith, and thus a new sect or even new religion will be spawned; but most of the time they still define themselves as part of the main religion's community, even when their practices differ profoundly from orthodoxy.
And this is one of the points I touched on in the paper -- to many people, religious identity is more about your sense of community than it is about orthodoxy. As I wrote in the paper:
In a Muslim community one may find at least two kinds of people: those who define Muslim custom in terms of Islamic law, and those who define it in terms of the rituals of their own community, regardless of those rituals' ultimate origin.
Okay, my own story: My mother was very religious, and I was raised to believe in God, but it was something I only believed because I was told it was true. I lost my mother when I was young, so that influence was gone, and my father always left my sister and me free to choose our own paths. As I learned about science and logic, I questioned my childhood assumptions and found them wanting. I was also rather influenced by the humanist and skeptical viewpoints of people like Carl Sagan, Arthur Clarke and Gene Roddenberry.
When I questioned, I found a (to me) surprising and aggravating closed-mindedness on other people's part when it came to religion. Like when in a classroom I raised the hypothetical possibility that God was some really advanced alien being that watched over the universe, I was met with unexpected anger and responses like "God isn't a being!" I always wondered about that one, because a being is literally just "something that exists." It seemed to me that most people didn't examine or think about their beliefs any more than I had as a kid. So I became convinced that religion was just superstition, a product of the failure to think, observe and question.
But in college I made friends who were deeply religious, but hardly thoughtless about it. They believed for their own personal reasons, not just because they'd been told to. I didn't agree with their interpretations, but I recognized that they were smart people whose reasons for belief were sincere and had personal meaning. Also they didn't judge me for my lack of faith. (Well, one of them did to an extent, and it caused tensions between us for a time, but we finally worked it out and came to a better understanding.) Through them, I came to recognize that religion isn't just about explaining how the universe or humanity came into being or what causes lightning to strike or whatever -- that it's about one's personal relationship with the universe, about finding spiritual hope and meaning and comfort. It still wasn't something that held personal meaning to me, but I learned to respect it in others.
I also stopped calling myself an atheist. Because I realized that by calling myself an atheist, I was defining myself only by what I didn't believe, and saying nothing about what I did believe in. It's not enough to be against something. If that's your sole motivation, then your existence is hollow and pointless. It's more important to be for something. Besides, if you define yourself only as the opposite of something, then you basically become an extension of it, an outgrowth of the same core assumptions and approaches. Atheism is really just another faith, and taken to the extreme it becomes just as intolerant and blind as any other faith taken to its fanatical extreme. So these days I think of myself as a humanist. Because, although I still don't believe in supernatural beings, that's not the defining aspect of my beliefs.