by Marco Corvaglia
§ 1. Introduction
On the topic of religious conversions, seen from a scientific perspective, many studies have been published since the beginning of the twentieth century.
Following the classification developed by Lofland and Skonovd we can identify, among others, two contrasting conversion modes: the intellectual mode, that generates from an experience of personal reflection, and the mystic mode that happens suddenly [see John Lofland, Norman Skonovd, "Conversion Motifs", Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, Vol. 20, No. 4 (Dec., 1981), pp. 376-378].
As to the predisposing psychological factors, there is consensus among researchers:
The psychological viewpoint searches for a predisposing character. The picture that emerges from the literature is one of a certain weakness or vulnerability.
[Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi, Michael Argyle, The Psychology of Religious Behaviour, Belief and Experience, Routledge, London-New York, 1997, p. 117]
In the case of sudden conversions, vulnerability and anxiety seem to be more pronounced:
Spellman, Baskett, and Byrne (1971) administered the Taylor Manifest Anxiety Scale (MAS) to three groups in a Protestant town: those who had a sudden religious conversion, those who had a more gradual religious development, and those who were not religious at all. The nonreligious and gradual religious development groups did not differ from each other on manifest anxiety, but the sudden conversion group scored significantly higher on the MAS than the other two groups combined.
[Scott Atran, In Gods We Trust. The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion, Oxford University Press, 2002, p. 167]
Moreover, it is perfectly natural that a religious movement, characterized by its own specific and distinctive form of spirituality, attracts those who are sensitive to that form of spirituality and therefore causes conversions. The birth and existence of the now so-called "new religious movements" or "marginal movements" is founded upon such a basic principle.
In the case of Medjugorje, where pilgrims are convinced that Our Lady has been appearing for a long time, the distinctive element is the expectation of a personal experience of the Madonna.
It goes without saying that Medjugorjan proselytising is greatly facilitated by the fact that the phenomenon is presented as internal to Catholicism, which is reassuring for many people and ensures good attention by the media.
§ 2. How you can believe implausible things
In the rest of article we will use as main reference the serious and thorough study on the conversions to new religious movements published in France by Romy Sauvayre, entitled Croire à l'incroyable. Anciens et nouveaux adeptes (Presses Universitaires de France, 2012), wiping out some commonplace misconceptions on the subject.
The author is a member of the CNRS (Centre national de la recherche scientifique) and assistant professor at the Polytech Clermont-Ferrand and at the Clermont Auvergne University.
The researcher, in addition to referring to existing scientific literature, collected data through direct contact with 48 former members of 40 different and variously inspired movements (Christian, Buddhist, philosophical, spiritualist, for the development of human potential, healing, up to UFO). She used two standardized research methodologies: a thorough biographical interview and the evaluation of doubt, with the aim of establishing a psychological profile and reconstructing the evolution and the intensity of the beliefs of these people over time (the subjects in 51% of cases attended University or other post-secondary courses of study).
The paper sets out the purpose of answering this articulated question:
How to explain, by means of a unified theory, how an individual can rationally adopt "implausible" beliefs, then "resist the change" of these beliefs, and eventually break up with his belonging to the movement and the beliefs he had previously accepted within it?
[Romy Sauvayre, Croire à l'incroyable, Presses Universitaires de France, Paris, 2012, p. 26]
Interest and curiosity...
Typically, a person gets closer to the movement hoping that it could be a solution to his existential problems and the fulfilment of his aspirations. Also, sometimes there are famous or well-known people who have already joined the movement. All this leads to a curiosity, an interest, that however "does not cause the acceptance of the spread beliefs" [Sauvayre, Croire à l'incroyable, p. 174]
At this stage, the person typically remains skeptical, even if he gets closer to the movement.
As a matter of fact, contrary to what is commonly believed, the adept-to-be is not malleable, uncritical and willing to accept the beliefs that are proposed to him without due process. His first steps during the accession, until his full conversion, are characterized by a recurrent skepticism. The adept-to-be also will look at his fellow disciples with a critical eye and their practices will seem to him so strange that he will judge them irrational and insane. [...] But this is not enough to see the adept breaking up with the movement, because he perceives some positive aspects offsetting the disturbing elements and pushing him to maintain his membership.
[Ibid., pp. 183-186, passim]
The power of large numbers
Human beings, in coming to their opinions, let themselves to be influenced by the opinions of the others: that is well-known to everyone and has been scientifically proven more than once (the experiment conducted in 1955 by the US psychologist Solomon Asch remains famous).
Seeing so many people participating in the movement is fundamental and decisive to mitigate skepticism, as it is clear from the testimonies of former followers recorded by the French scholar.
So, the "power of large numbers" will have a probabilistic influence on the member-to-be, who will reason this way:
If a significant number of people adhere to "implausible" beliefs and, moreover, these people seem to be intellectually experienced, then these beliefs are probably true.
[Ibid., p. 195]
Of course, it is fallacious reasoning: even the most implausible beliefs, such as astrology, are held by many people, some of whom are educated (and the very same people who now believe in them very probably started believing because they too, in turn, were influenced by the power of large numbers: it is like an endless chain where everyone leans on someone else).
However, the person begins to consider the possibility that the belief could be true. Probably, he will try and learn more about the experiences of the members of the movement by reading and hearing testimonies, that represent a "mediated" (or "indirect") evidence [see ibid., pp. 203-207].
It's the partial adhesion stage, in which the person "familiarizes with some 'implausible' beliefs [...] and, in so doing, begins to see more and more the world through the cognitive framework proposed by the movement. [...] The field of possible increasingly expands and the adept accepts some ideas that he would not have accepted before his first steps within the marginal movement" [ibid., pp. 331-332].
Try it and see!
Those who already adhere to the belief, maybe friends or relatives of the newcomer, also wish him to adhere, being convinced that they are taking the side of good and are helping him.
However, he remains skeptic, although less than earlier.
The answer is unanimous and common to all movements: the adept-to-be is answered that he must try and experience for himself, so he will be able to "understand".
Why marginal movements push adepts to experience for themselves so much?
[Ibid., p. 200]
Romy Sauvayre notes that "experience is a polysemic word, which refers to multiple realities" [ibid., p. 208].
From this starting point, we can observe that if "experience" means the feelings someone gets, these can obviously be influenced by his wishes. So, in many cases, he, being influenced by the appropriate framework conditions, will experience the feelings that he wishes to experience. Paradoxically he will consider this to be the most conclusive and granitic evidence leading to unconditional adhesion (if he does not experience this inner confirmation, he will be told that "his heart was closed": the house always wins).
So, all subjective and individual personal experiences will assume a value of absolute truth because, by definition, they are first-hand and not mediated by a third party. Experiential evidence also involves an important emotional dimension: since the adept subjectively experiences the truth of what he has been proposed - something he internally and individually lived and experienced, without mediation or intermediary - he believes he possesses categorical and incontestable evidence that could not admit of any contradiction.
[Ibid., p. 208]
At this stage, the subject is sincerely convinced that he has every reason to embrace the vision of reality, the cognitive framework proposed by the movement.
There will be little room for doubt:
The movement will give a new meaning to the expression of these doubts: they will be attributed to the devil or to evil spirits, to temptation, to the failure of the expected devotion, etc.
[Ibid., p. 274]
However, if he perceives inconsistencies these will find an acceptable explanation by appealing to his fellow or drawing on the cognitive framework that has now become hegemonic.
At this stage of the accession process, all questions and reflections will be answered exclusively by prescriptions, precepts, beliefs, dogmas or information coming from the movement or from some members the adept absolutely trusts
[Ibid., pp. 334-335]
When doubts can not be strangled at birth, their importance will be limited:
When you submit to a committed adept, who unconditionally adheres to a marginal movement, any form of mediated evidence (documents, arguments, etc.) that goes against his beliefs, no change seems to happen in his beliefs. This kind of factual denial has little or limited effect on the adept's beliefs, whereas an outside observer would expect a total abandonment and a disruption of membership. [...]
Factual denials will produce a change in the adept's system of beliefs, but such change will be minimal because he will revise only the directly contradicted beliefs, as if they are impermeable or segmented. As a matter of fact, one might reasonably assume that between two beliefs there is a link of logical implication leading to this type of reasoning: "A implies B. If A is false then it follows, by logical implication, that B is false". But the logic of beliefs does not follow the path of pure logic. [...]
This does not mean that logical links are permanently deleted from the adept's system of belief, but that they become secondary to the experiential evidence that generates a primary link with the belief that feeds it. The nature of experiential beliefs therefore explains the seemingly static beliefs and the lack of disruption of membership following unequivocal factual denials.
[Ibid., pp. 369-371]
To make the change of mind possible, it is necessary that, over time, evidence and clues accumulate and stratify:
As a result of the first or the second major doubt, all the interviewed people maintained their adhesion to the movement they belonged to. [...] However, although there was no disruption of membership, this does not mean that there was no change in beliefs: beliefs were only outwardly static.
The dynamic dimension highlights that, beyond a certain threshold, the belief shatters and the first cracks appear. [...] Committed adepts needed six doubts on average to break up with the movement they belonged to. [...] This breaking doubt will be preceded by a hesitation doubt, which most often coincides with the third doubt. [...]
The hesitation doubt triggers a condition in which the committed adept begins to rediscover a form of skepticism: the absolute confidence granted until then falls apart, he no longer draws only upon the answers given by the movement, which had been hegemonic until then. Since that time [...] the adept will address a fresh look at the world around him and will be again attentive to the smallest inconsistencies, as he was in the period of his integration.
[Ibid., pp. 294-299, passim]
Published on 2 January 2016