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Conversion Theory

Inspired by Lofland’s field research on recruitment to the Unification Church, in its earliest days sending evangelists from Korea to the United States, Conversion Theory offers a series of steps a person must go through in order to become a member of a new religious group:

  1. Experience enduring, acutely felt tensions
  2. Within a religious problem-solving perspective,
  3. Which leads him to define himself as a religious seeker;
  4. Encountering the group at a turning point in his life
  5. Wherein an affective bond is formed (or pre-exists) with one or more converts;
  6. Where extra-cult attachments are absent or neutralized;
  7. And where, if he is to become a deployable agent, he is exposed to intensive interaction (Lofland and Stark 1965).

Fifteen years after he had collaborated with Lofland, Stark worked with Bainbridge on a paper that implied that several of the steps of the model were unnecessary, and that frequency of social interaction – the last three steps – could be quite sufficient (Stark and Bainbridge 1980).  Although the process of conversion remains an important idea, the importance of social networks for conversion is the aspect of conversion theories that have had the most impact on further research.  More recently scholars have taken the focus on networks and incorporated it into religious switching, and even de-conversion.


Homans, George C. 1950. The Human Group. New York: Harcourt, Brace.

Latané, Bibb. 1981. “The Psychology of Social Impact.” American Psychologist 36: 343-356.

Lofland, John, and Rodney Stark. 1965. “Becoming a World-Saver: A Theory of Conversion to a Deviant Perspective.” American Sociological Review 30: 862-875.

Rambo, Lewis R.  1993.  Understanding Religious Conversion.  New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Scott, John Finley. 1971. Internalization of Norms: A Sociological Theory of Moral Commitment. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall.

Smelser, Neil J. 1962. Theory of Collective Behavior. New York: Free Press.

Stark, Rodney, and William Sims Bainbridge. 1980. “Networks of Faith: Interpersonal Bonds and Recruitment to Cults and Sects,” American Journal of Sociology 85: 1376-1395.

Sutherland, Edwin H. 1947. Principles of Criminology. Philadelphia: Lippincott.

The following Concepts can potentially capture some of the ideas of this theory.
"Conversion refers to shifts across religious traditions" (Stark and Finke 2000:114). This would include changing from Judaism to Christianity or Hinduism to Islam. Religious reaffiliation, changing from one style of a specific religion to another, is commonly confused with conversion. An example of reaffiliation would be changing from Southern Baptist to Methodist within Christianity or from Sunni to Shiite within Islam. Studies focusing on the growth of cults did the most to shed light on the nature of conversion and the way individuals change their religious beliefs. The popular belief before the studies of Lofland and Stark (1965) and Barker (1984) was that individuals joining religious cults were brainwashed by leaders. These studies disproved this conception of conversion showing that initiates into new religious groups converted due to changes in their social networks. Those who converted did so because they came to a point where they knew more people in the cult or religious group than individuals not a part of the group. It was only until after conversion took place that the actual beliefs of the group were cited as reasons for the conversion. Some common ways of measuring the concept of conversion is to ask individuals if they have ever experienced what they would describe as a conversion experience. Another avenue for exploring conversion is to compare a respondent's parent's religious affiliation with the respondent's current religious affiliation or stated religious identity. This method assumes that, as a child, the respondent shared his or her parent's religious views. A third possible measure of conversion is religious intermarriage. Over time researchers might find that a spouse converts to his or her spouse's religion. View related items in the Measurement Wizard:
This refers to a situation in which one person lacks what referent others have, especially if this leads to frustration and a sense of injustice.  This is a classic explanation for the sociodemographic composition of church-sect dimensions, suggesting that sects compensate people psychologically for relative deprivation.  This compensation often comes in the form of ideological exclusivity, group strictness to maintain exclusivity, and religious experiences.
One of the economic roles individuals play when engaged in religious behavior. Rational choice theorists posit that individuals weigh the costs and benefits of potential actions, choosing those actions to maximize their net benefits. Religiously active individuals seek rewards through social interaction in a world of uncertainty and deprivation (Iannaccone and Bainbridge 2009:461-462).  The application of rational choice assumptions to religious behavior remains controversial among some scholars (e.g. Chaves 1995), who maintain that assuming "rational action" in effect assumes away issues that warrant explanation.
This refers to an "individual's evaluations of competing religious goods" (Sherkat 1997:69). Religious preferences as a concept is used to explain why individuals participate in different religions or choose varying styles of religion. It seeks to answer why specific religious choices are made. Generally, religious preferences are adaptive, grow stronger with consumption, and can respond to new information. Individuals learn their preferences through socialization and past experiences; immersion in religious communities causes individuals to have particular religious understandings which give religion value (Sherkat 1997:70). Some possible operationalizations of religious preferences include how individuals view the Bible, God, or the path to salvation. Each of these are theological (and therefore cultural) issues that serve as markers to what types of religious goods individuals prefer. Worship style preference could also approximate the preferences individuals might have for religious goods. Some might desire an experiential or emotionally expressive faith, while others prefer more formalized rituals. View related items in the Measurement Wizard:  
The state of a person who is unsatisfied with her currently available religious affiliation and is carrying out exchanges in search of a more satisfying affiliation, belief system, or practice.  Roof reported that seekers are characterized by a "quest" or journey mentality regarding religion.  The term is also typically associated with those particularly interested in "spirituality" and internal religious pursuits.  Some religious organizations have begun to adopt this language and attempt to be "seeker-friendly." Citations; Batson, C. Daniel and Patricia A. Schoenrade.  1991.  "Measuring Religion as Quest: Validity Concerns."  Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 30(4):416-429. Houtman, Dick and Stef Aupers.  2007.  "The Spiritual Turn and the Decline of Tradition: The Spread of Post-Christian Spirituality in 14 Western Countries."  Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 46(3):305-320. Roof, Wade Clark.  1993.  A Generation of Seekers: The Spiritual Journeys of the Baby Boom Generation.  San Francisco, CA: Harper San Francisco. Roof, Wade Clark.  1999. Spiritual Marketplace: Baby Boomers and the Remaking of American Religion. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. Wuthnow, Robert.  1998. After Heaven: Spirituality in America Since the 1950s.  Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Also known as reaffliation, this concept refers to shifts within religious traditions. The concept of religious switching is commonly conflated with the concept of religious conversion. Reaffiliation refers to changes within a specific tradition, like changing denominations within Evangelical Protestantism. Conversion refers to changes across religious traditions, such as changing from Hinduism to Islam. 

Religious switching can be operationalized by taking into account a respondent's parents' religious affiliation and comparing it with the religion claimed by the respondent himself or herself. This assumes individuals share the religious (or non-religious) affiliations of parents. Using longitudinal data a researcher could also compare the religious affiliation of a respondent over time while married to someone who affiliates with a different denomination. Using religious identity or RELTRAD to locate respondents within a tradition is a common practice.

This refers to the religious affiliation and ideological composition of people within one's social network.  A wide variety of studies have indicated that social networks play an important role in social processes such as conversion to new ideological positions, apostasy, and the overall maintenance of worldviews.  Network influence can be examined in a variety of ways using both qualitative and quantitative methods.  In general, the closer those in one's network are to the actor, and the more the relationships are valued, the stronger their influence.  Based on this body of research, the influence of social networks on religious preference, ideology, and religiosity is one of the most established findings in the sociology of religion.
Familiarity with a religion's doctrines, rituals, traditions, and members (Iannaccone 1990:299). The degree of mastery of and attachment to a particular religious culture (Stark and Finke 2000:120).  A common practice for measuring religious human capital is to find out if individuals have been a part of a particular religion for a long period of time. This can be operationalized through respondents' self-reported religiosity at age 12, their parent's religious tradition, or their attendance levels at age 12. Presumably, those in the same religious tradition (found by comparing parent's and respondent's religious tradition), those who are highly religious or attended at high levels since childhood enjoy a greater amount of religious human capital compared to those who do not. Another possible operationalization of religious human capital is religious intermarriage. Stark and Finke (2000) and Iannaccone (1990) suggest that those with less religious human capital are more likely to religiously intermarry compared to those with more religious human capital. Church attendance and church contributions also provide a look into a person's possible level of religious human capital.
The situation when a high fraction of friendships or other social relations of members of a religious group are with fellow members rather than outsiders.  This sometimes also referred to as the "density" of one's social network.  It has been noted that social encapsulation tends to increase as a religious group's level of tension with the surrounding socio-cultural environment increases. View related items in the Measurement Wizard:
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