Conversion


Introduction

by Yvonne Aburrow

 

There are two aspects to conversion, being converted oneself, and seeking converts. Pagans never actively seek converts. If someone expresses an interest in Paganism, they would not be turned away, but would probably be lent a book in the first instance, or perhaps invited to a moot (Pagan social) or a seasonal celebration. On the other hand, most Pagans also seek to help people find the right spiritual path for them, so if someone was to mention to a Pagan that they were interested in Buddhism, then the Pagan person would be likely to try to help them with that also. Whether or not the process of becoming a Pagan can be described as conversion, however, depends on one's model of conversion.

 

Most Pagans do not identify with the term "conversion", seeing it as something that happens to adherents of "revealed religion", and preferring to talk about how they have always been Pagan really, and when they found Paganism, it was like coming home. However, there is a process of socialisation that occurs after someone first identifies as "Pagan". They read books, they talk to other Pagans, they learn where the boundaries of the discourse are (consider the scorn poured upon "fluffies" and "wanna-blessed-bes" if you don't think there are boundaries in Pagan discourses). Many theorists have observed that our understanding of the world is socially constructed; why not our understanding of religion?

 

Unfortunately, the psychology of religion has probably been influenced too much by the Protestant — and perhaps to some extent the Catholic — ethos which emphasizes the priority of belief. Many social scientists are saying that, in many cases, it is belief that follows practice, and not practice that follows belief. There's always a debate about the sequence, but I think one could argue that, in many groups, learning to behave in certain ways, and to affiliate in certain ways, often takes priority over some sort of belief system. The belief system is often something that people acquire much later, at least in its more sophisticated terms. -- Lewis Rambo

 

 

Most contemporary Paganisms tend to focus on practice rather than belief, preferring to talk about how we do ritual rather than why we do ritual. So Pagans (who often arrive at their understanding of the world in relative isolation, and are then delighted to find others who think similarly) often do not notice the subtle process of socialisation that occurs when they join a Pagan group or tradition.

 

Lewis Rambo's model of conversion is more complex than the "road to Damascus" experience that most people think of when they think about conversion. In phase one, he says, people go through some kind of crisis (could be dissatisfaction with their current belief system, or a mystical experience). In phase two, they go on a quest to find something that fits their new model of the world. The third phase involves interaction (learinng how to do their chosen religious practice). The fourth phase is commitment ("rituals that create a new identity, a new set of relationships, a new set of roles that lead to a new and different kind of life"), and the fifth stage is consequences - the transformation effected by the commitment (which could be lifelong development in the chosen faith, or it could be disillusionment and going back to phase one). It is easy to recognise the process of identifying as Pagan in this model.

 

If you're a researcher, however, it is probably not worth asking your Pagan respondents about their conversion, they generally won't feel that the term applies to them, so the outcome of the research could be seriously skewed. Though it might be worth introducing them to Lewis Rambo's model of conversion and seeing if they can relate their own experience to the five stages.

 

One of the best secular analogies to conversion is falling in love, because falling in love is such a wonderful experience. It is dramatic; it is intense. The world looks different; you feel different. For many converts, that early phase is a wonderful liberation that comes of being in love with God or the Church or the Jewish community or whatever you are now in love with. But just as in marriage, sometimes there is a letdown once you start seeing the realities -- that not all Jews or Catholics are nice people. Then the reality of what you have done begins to take effect. -- Lewis Rambo

 

I wish someone had told me. In the beginning we are so naïve and so awed by everything. We combed through every Wiccan book we could find and stayed up studying until the wee hours of the morning, searching the Internet for every piece of Wiccan information available. For most of us, it's like coming home. We try to do ritual but it doesn't necessarily feel right. We buy expensive, elaborate tools, hoping they might help. They don't, so the next step is finding a mentor. So that wise old grandmother-type figure pops into your head, and the journey begins. -- Ariana Athena Firedragon

 

Further reading