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.

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  • Jon H

    I have to say, since my deconversion none of the intellectual arguments for Christianity have caused me any trouble, but I have to say when I spend time with happy Christians, especially sexually attractive Christians, I find myself feeling a certain pull. Sometimes I even think about converting just for the community aspect.

    • Peno Malaputo

      Hah! “Community aspect”, what a great euphemism.

      BTW, Halq, Still some typos left. “Rodney Star.”, “Harry and Marry”…

    • Jamie

      I don’t agree with all of what Leah is doing, but your smearing of her is just personal attack and a sexist attempt to marginalize her.

      She is Twice the person you are, Hallq.

      You dumb bitch.

      • Chris Hallquist

        Seriously considered disemvoweling this comment. “Sexist… you dumb bitch.” Poor attempt at humor?

  • Thomas Lawson


    I made kind of a snarky comment on Blag Hag about how great it was that Leah could get back with her boyfriend, and she replied that the boyfriend was now seeing a “nice evangelical girl.” My initial thought was that after a two-year relationship he sure bounced back quickly…

    Also, I’ve made some comments somewhere about Francis Collins’ conversion, which, from what I’ve heard, may have been induced by a need to stay on speaking terms with members of his family. All of this is quite comprehensible. What’s incomprehensible are the reasons that these two subjects have given for their newfound beliefs. It doesn’t appear they are trying to convince us, but rather themselves.

    • Leah @ Unequally Yoked

      Well, I should hope so! I don’t know what purpose is served by pining for something that is impossible. I might really want to get to fly without mechanical assistance, but if I couldn’t bounce back from that desire, I’d live my life unhappy to no purpose. What kind of friend would want someone they love to languish? That would imply I valued the ex-bf for the feelings for he produced in me, not for his own goodness.

  • Suido

    Good post.

    Also, fyi, There are numerous typos in the quote that look like they’ve been caused by OCR… cl changed to d (dose), h changed to b (ber, bave) and spaces within words.

    @Jon: I have numerous friends and colleagues who attend church for the community aspect. Seems to be very common among immigrant communities, where church provides a meeting point for families, and my friends/colleagues have grown up in that system. They may not have deeply thought about their own theological viewpoints, but they are happy and comfortable with the community aspect.

    • Chris Hallquist

      Ack. I caught some of those when I made the post, but apparently not all of them. I think they’re all gone now.

      • jamessweet

        Nope. Unless the Moonie converts all knew each other from taking LSD together:

        Subsequent converts were people who formed dose friendships with one or more members of the group.

  • Childermass

    In addition to conversion to get in line with friends and family, there is also those who convert after their life gets shattered in some way.

    • Leo

      Sure, and would you agree that they likely convert to something of which a close friend is a member?

  • cheryl

    My sister-in-law converted to Mormon because of a boyfriend, who – once she had converted – subsequently dumped her. She stayed Mormon – my husband thinks that was because her conversion caused such a stink in her Catholic family she didn’t want to lose face – and eventually found herself a Mormon husband. Out of four kids, one stayed Catholic, one went Born Again and the other went Mormon. Only one – my husband – drifted away from religion altogether. He’s an agnostic, rather than an atheist, because he can’t quite let go of the idea that there might be ‘something’. He just no longer claims to know what ‘it’ is.

    What *is* interesting, to me at least, is that none of them remained Catholic.

    • Leo

      What *is* interesting, to me at least, is that none of them remained Catholic.

      Ummm…I am confused.

      Out of four kids, one stayed Catholic

  • J. Quinton

    The self-designation catholic is pretty strong evidence that the Catholic church is secondary to whatever original Christianity was. Just like there had to be individual, unrelated states before there could be a United States.

    • Chris Hallquist

      *sigh* Again why I’m hiring a professional to proofread the book.

  • scrutationaryarchivist

    I’ve been wondering for some time how the social pull of religion relates to what a lot of active atheists do.

    We tend to focus on promoting and protecting science and evidence-based thinking, and we criticize religion when it gets these things wrong. And it seems that some atheists think this alone will cause people to leave religion. But in light of these observations about religion and human relationships, is the science-advocacy only half of the strategy?

    Is it enough to defend science and reason, and let people join what groups they want so long as those groups don’t lie about the physical world?

  • mnb0

    I don’t like the implication “thus we don’t have to take this conversion seriously” very much. So I bothered to read a few of LL’s articles. It appeared to me that her atheism never was well founded. She was searching for some world view that matched her ethical beliefs. It didn’t occur to her that she might think those over a bit.
    Now I don’t have a problem with that. I have a problem with her intellectual dishonesty. “I chose catholic denomination because I don’t want make it easy for myself”. Yeah, right. Just admit that catholicism satisfies your emotional needs. We all know from psychology that rationalization comes a posteriori. Same for me – I am not an Abrahamist because since I was 13 or 14 I have a huge emotional problem with the theodicy. All apologetical attempts just leave me with disgust.
    If I feel like I will check how she is going to deal with say Elizabeth Fritzl. Blinkers perhaps?

  • David Marshall

    Dr. Stark is exagerrating. Christian missions have been highly successful, spreading around the world to people in thousands of cultures who initially had no connection with the missionaries.

    Stark does not say there is no intellectual component to conversion. After all, Stark later became a Christian himself, and told me he did so largely through his research.

    One shouldn’t underestimate the importance of relationships in conversion, this Stark and his colleagues show quite effectively. I think that often includes conversion to secular ideologies, like secular humanism or communism. This is why many secular conversions occur in college, where one is cut off from one’s family, and forced to develop new social ties. That’s how Karl Marx himself became an atheist, then a communist. But there was also an intellectual element, as there often (usually?) is in conversion.

    So it is simplistic to suppose that if Lee Strobel, or anyone else, converts in part through social influence, his or her claim that that conversion was also intellectual, is untrue.

    • D

      Only post worth reading in this entire exchange.

    • josh

      One only has to read Lee Strobel to rule out the claim that his conversion was intellectual.

    • Leo

      I do understand your point, yet…two things.


      We also found it instructive that during most of her first year in America…

      It would seem that the leader of the group Stark infiltrated was, in essence, a missionary. Did she initially have any connection to her converts? It would seem that she did not. So your point that, “Christian missions have been highly successful, spreading around the world to people in thousands of cultures who initially had no connection with the missionaries,” is actually in line with Stark’s story. I don’t see, then, how he is “exaggerating.”

      2. I suppose this one can be brushed off because you did say an intellectual “element.” I just find it odd that if atheists and Christians alike have intellectual “elements” to their de/conversions, then why are they coming to different conclusions? (And as I suggested, the answer is likely because these de/conversions are not purely intellectual.) Yet, I didn’t get the impression* that Chris was suggesting that Strobel didn’t convert for no intellectual reasons at all (even though he used the word “pretending”); but rather that Strobel exaggerates the extent to which his conversion was for intellectual reasons.

      * I realize that you didn’t explicitly say that Chris’s comments about Strobel were “simplistic,” but I felt the need to address this in case anyone thinks you were trying to imply as much. (Were you?)

  • David

    “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.”

    Please quote from “Inside the Mind of Unchurched Harry and Marry” where Lee Strobel states he converted to Christianity because his wife did.

  • David

    Still no reply from Chris to support his claim that Lee Strobel “converted to Christianity because his wife did.”

    It was his wife’s conversion to Christianity, and the subsequent positive changes in her character and values, that intrigued Strobel enough to conduct his journalistic investigation of Christianity. He didn’t convert because his wife did. He was prompted to check out the facts behind the faith because of how her life changed after her conversion. It was the evidence for Christianity, particularly for the resurrection of Jesus, that caused Strobel to conclude Christianity is true and thus prompted his conversion.