Religious conversions happen because of people’s personal relationships

I was briefly puzzled when I heard about atheist blogger Leah Libresco’s conversion to Catholicism. But I was immediately un-puzzled when I read Dan Fincke’s post on it, which reminded me that “the very premise of Libresco’s blog was that she was romantically involved with a Catholic.” Oh yeah. Duh.

Thing is, there’s a lot of evidence that religious conversions are mainly driven by people’s personal relationships. At the bottom of this post, I’ve included a long quote from sociologist Rodney Stark about this, describing research he did on a Moonie group in the US that only got converts through members’ personal connections. In the same book, Stark notes that the Mormon church keeps very good records of their missionary efforts, and has found that exploiting personal relationships to get converts is orders of magnitude more effective than the church’s famous door-knocking efforts.

(Note that Libresco split from her Catholic boyfriend at one point, and I’m not sure if they got back together, but while she was dating him she apparently got immersed in Catholic culture, going to mass, taking classes on Catholicism, etc., so the point still holds.)

You can see this with other converts. Christian apologist Lee Strobel, for example, has made a career out of pretending he converted because of a journalistic investigation he did into the truth of Christianity. But one of his first books, Inside the Mind of Unchurched Harry and Marry, makes it completely obvious that he converted to Christianity because his wife did.

Reinforcing this conclusion in Libresco’s case is the fact that her explanation of her conversion makes no sense, because the reasons she gives do nothing to justify joining the Catholic church specifically. In fact, if she’s reading this I’d urge her to recognize that the Catholic hierarchy has shown itself to be a group of evil, evil men, and all the metaphysics in the world won’t change that. As I’ve written previously (see also here and here):

Assume, for the sake of argument, that most of Aquinas’ metaphysics was actually correct. That doesn’t entail that the Catholic priesthood are God’s true representatives on Earth.

The Catholic Church’s justification for its existence is that there’s an unbroken line of authority-passing-on from Saint Peter to Benedict the XVI. And there’s scant evidence for that claim. Given all the forgeries and obvious legends in the history of Christianity, how confident can anyone be that the passing on of authority really happened as the Church claims?

Also, I understand that no one’s perfect, but don’t you think that if God really existed and He really had a Vicar of Christ, then He would take some minimal steps to make sure the organization run by His Vicar would not fall into “cartoonish, mustache-twirling evil” territory?

Now the quote from Rodney Star. This is from his book The Rise of Christianity, pp. 16-17:

As Lofland and I settled back to watch people convert to this group, the first thing we discovered was that all of the current members were united by close ties of friendship predating their contact with Miss Kim. Indeed, the first three converts had been young housewives, next-door neighbors who became friends of Miss Kim after she became a lodger with one of them. Subsequently, several of the husbands joined, followed by several of their friends from work. At the time Lofland and I arrived to study them, the group had never succeeded in attracting a stranger.

Lofland and I also found it interesting that although all the converts were quick to describe how their spiritual lives had been empty and desolate prior to their conversion, many claimed they had not been particularly interested in religion before. One man told me, “If anybody had said I was going to join up an d become a missionary I would bave laughed my head off. I had no use for church at all.”

We also found i t instructive that during most of ber first year in America, Miss Kim had tried to spread her message directly by talks to various groups and by sending out many press releases. Later, in San Francisco the group also tried to attract followers through radio spots and by renting a hall in which to hold public meetings. But these methods yielded nothing. As time passed, Lofland and I were able to observe people actually becoming Moonies. The first several converts were old friends or relatives of members who carne from Oregon for a visit. Subsequent converts were people who formed close friendships with one or more members of the group.

We soon realized that of all the people the Moonies encountered in their efforts to spread their faith, the only ones who joined were those whose interpersonal attachments to members overbalanced their attachments to nonmembcrs. In effect, conversion is not about seeking or embracing an ideology; it is about bringing one’s religious behavior into alignment with that of one’s friends and family members.

Peter van Inwagen's argument for Christianity
Catholics: why aren't you Protestant?
What arguments are popular among liberal Christians?
From the archives: Gary Gutting on Mackie, Plantinga, and the problem of evil

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