Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

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Conversion research has been a dominant theme in the sociology and social psychology of religion for several decades, especially in studies of the "new religions." Much of the early work on the new religions such as Jesus Movement groups, the Unification Church, Hare Krishna, Divine Light Mission, and other unusual religions focused on explaining why and how people were recruited to such groups, and how and why they decided to participate. This process is discussed under the rubric of conversion in the religious literature, a term with a more cognitive and emotional meaning and referring more to beliefs. Those who study social movements, including new religious movements, more often use terms such as recruitment , which has more of a behavioral connotation focused on participation.

The research on joining the new religions was initially derived from literature in sociology and psychology of religion that shared a common assumption of something being wrong with a person who would seek religion—what Stark (1965) called the "psychopathological" explanation of religious participation. The early literature in this psychopathological vein assumed that a person must be suffering some major deprivation or have had some major trauma in his or her life to be interested in religion—a "religion as crutch" perspective. Bainbridge (1992) uses the term strain theories to refer to such ideas within the sociological realm. This broad perspective also assumed a high degree of passivity on the part of the person being converted—he or she was defined almost as an object to be acted upon by external or internal forces—and the power to bring about a conversion was posited elsewhere than with the subject of the conversion/recruitment (Richardson 1985a, Machalek and Snow 1993).

Two Approaches to Conversion

Almost from the beginning of research on participation in new religions, that research and scholarly writing took on a dramatically bifurcated perspective. Some extended the deprivation- or strain-oriented tradition from the psychology and sociology of religion, integrating those ideas with results of studies on radical resocialization of Chinese after the communist takeover as well as research on U.S. soldiers who were Korean POWs and on the Russian purge trial under Stalin (Singer 1979). This amalgam was used to develop the "brainwashing" or "mind control" perspective that has come to dominate popular conceptions of how people are recruited to the newer religions (see discussion in Richardson and Kilbourne 1983, and critiques in Anthony 1990, Kilbourne and Richardson 1989, Richardson 1991).

The integration of the psychopathological tradition with these newer ideas focused on mysterious psychotechnologies allegedly being used by leaders of the newer religions. Supposedly, these new religious leaders had taken the ideas of the communists and were applying them to the youth of America (Solomon 1983). Those youth were assumed to be relatively helpless against such techniques, and thus were joining the new groups by the thousands.

This perception of powerful psychotechniques being used against young people has fueled much of the animosity toward the new and exotic religions and their recruitment processes. Such views also have been essential to the many legal attacks that have been launched against the newer religions (Anthony 1990, Richardson 1991).

A sharply contrasted view of conversion/recruitment phenomena, and one with important implications for understanding past research on conversion as well as for general theory on social movement participation, has been fostered through the works of a number of scholars doing studies on participation in the new religions (Barker 1984, Kilbourne and Richardson 1989, Richardson 1985a, Rochford 1985, Straus 1976, 1979). This research has led to questioning of some basic assumptions of the psychopathology model described above, especially the idea that potential recruits are being forced to do something by pressures beyond their control.

Instead, this empirical work has revealed that recruits are usually acting on their own volition, making decisions about participation based on a sometimes quite systematic and thorough analysis of alternatives, and engaged in negotiations about what must be done and believed to become a member in good standing. This more subject-centered and volitional model assumes that the person is in control of the situation, not the other way around (Kilbourne and Richardson 1989).

The battle over which paradigm to adopt in conversion/recruitment studies has been intense and has been carried on in many forums, including professional meetings, scholarly publications, legislative halls, and the legal system (see Bromley and Robbins 1992, Richardson 1991, Anthony and Robbins 1995, for updates on legal and political conflicts involving recruitment tactics).

The "World-Saver" Model

Within the scholarly arena, the issue often has been couched in terms of empirical assessments of the recruitment/conversion process used by religious groups. This work has frequently been focused on tests or applications of the famous "world-saver" conversion/recruitment model deriving from John Lofland's dissertation research on the beginnings of the Unification Church presented in two publications (Lofland and Stark 1965, Lofland 1966) and revised dramatically in later publications (Lofland 1978, Lofland and Skonovd 1981).

The world-saver model was unique in its combination of traditional ideas with more contemporary issues in this area of research. The basic elements of the model include three predisposing characteristics (perception of long-term tension, strain, and so on; possession of a religious rhetoric and problem-solving perspective; self-definition as a "religious seeker") and four situational factors (reaching a "turning point" when old lines of action no longer work, development of affective ties between preconvert and group members, weakening affective ties with nongroup members, intensive interaction with group members).

The Lofland-Stark model was important in developing an alternative paradigm because it served as a bridge between the old and the new, containing a logically complete statement of the traditional psychological predisposition perspective focused on forces that might "push" a person into conversion, but also including elements explaining why a movement might be attractive to potential recruits. This latter aspect spoke to the future of research on conversion by focusing on the process of conversion , recognizing that conversion has a definite organizational aspect and is a social event. One other key aspect of the model was the incorporation of subjects who would self-define themselves as religious seekers and take action to change by interacting with selected people and by allowing affective ties to develop with them.

Thus the Lofland-Stark model contained an implicit focus on a volitional subject, along with more traditional deterministic elements. The seminal quality of this work is shown by its being a starting point for those working in both the old and the new traditions of research on conversion. Those researchers more oriented toward predispositions have used this aspect of the model, while others find support for a more sociological and even activist starting point in the interactionist elements of the situational part of the model.

This creative eclecticism is perhaps the genius of the model and helps explain why it is the most often cited model in the history of conversion/recruitment research (see, for instance, Heirich 1977, Richardson and Stewart 1978, Snow and Phillips 1980, Greil and Rudy 1984, Richardson 1985a). Tests of the model have revealed that it has some serious empirical problems, especially in the more deterministic predisposition elements.

Lofland himself modified the model in significant ways later by stressing the volitional aspects of the process. He said (1978:22), "I have lately encouraged students of conversion to turn the process on its head and to scrutinize how people go about converting themselves." Roger Straus (1976, 1979), one of Lofland's doctoral students, has taken his advice most seriously, and his work has influenced others (such as Richardson).

Another publication of Lofland (with Skonovd 1981) also moved far beyond the initial conversion model and instead focused on basic "motifs" that seem to characterize conversions in a given time period. This view, coupled with that of a basic paradigm shift (Richardson 1985a, Kilbourne and Richardson 1989) or "drift" of conversion research interpretations (Long and Hadden 1983), has moved this area of scholarly research far beyond the more psychological and deterministic perspective dominant just a few decades ago. Now such research is likely to be more sociological in orientation (e.g., Stark and Bainbridge 1980, Bromley and Shupe 1979, Beckford 1978) and to be done from a more humanistic and interactionist perspective (Gordon 1974; Straus 1976, 1979; Downton 1980; Pilarzyk 1983; Richardson 1980, 1985a, 1985b). This latter line of research has been most succinctly presented in Dawson's (1990) discussion of the "active" conversion.

James T. Richardson


D. Anthony, "Religious Movements and Brainwashing Litigation," in In Gods We Trust , 2nd ed., ed. T. Robbins and D. Anthony (New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction, 1990): 295-344

D. Anthony and T. Robbins, "Negligence, Coercion, and the Protection of Religious Belief," Journal of Church and State 37(1995):509-536

W. Bainbridge, "The Sociology of Conversion," in Malony and Southard, q.v . (1992): 178-191

E. Barker, The Making of a Moonie (Oxford: Blackwell, 1984)

J. A. Beckford, "Accounting for Conversion," British Journal of Sociology 29(1978):235-245

D. G. Bromley and T. Robbins, "The Role of Government in Regulating New and Unconventional Religions," in Government Monitoring of Religions , ed. J. Wood (Waco, Tex.: Baylor University Press, 1992): 101-137

D. G. Bromley and A. Shupe, "Just a Few Years Seem Like a Lifetime," in Research in Social Movements, Conflicts, and Change , ed. L. Krisberg (Greenwich, Conn.: JAI, 1979): 159-186

L. Dawson, "Self-Affirmation, Freedom, and Rationality," Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 29(1990):141-163

J. Downton, "Spiritual Conversion and Commitment," Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 19(1980):381-396

D. Gordon, "The Jesus People," Urban Life and Culture 3(1974):159-179

A. L. Greil and D. Rudy, "What Have We Learned from Process Models of Conversion?" Sociological Focus 17(1984):305-323

M. Heirich, "Change of Heart," American Journal of Sociology 83(1977):653-680

B. Kilbourne and J. T. Richardson, "Paradigm Conflict, Types of Conversion, and Conversion Theories," Sociological Analysis 50(1989):1-21

J. Lofland, Doomsday Cult (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1966)

J. Lofland, "Becoming a World-Saver Revisited," in Conversion Careers , ed. J. T. Richardson (Beverly Hills, Calif.: Sage, 1978): 1-23

J. Lofland and N. Skonovd, "Conversion Motifs," Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 20(1981):373-385

J. Lofland and R. Stark, "Becoming a World-Saver," American Sociological Review 30(1965):863-874

T. E. Long and J. K. Hadden (eds.), Religion and Religiosity in America (New York: Crossroad, 1983)

R. Machalek and D. Snow, "Conversion to New Religious Movements," in Handbook of Cults and Sects in America , Vol. B, ed. D. G. Bromley and J. K. Hadden (Greenwich, Conn.: JAI, 1993): 53-74

H. N. Malony and S. Southard (eds.), Handbook of Religious Conversion (Birmingham, Ala.: Religious Education Press, 1992)

T. Pilarzyk, "Conversion and Alternation Processes in the Youth Culture," in The Brainwashing/Deprogramming Controversy , ed. D. G. Bromley and J. T. Richardson (Lewiston, N.Y.: Mellen, 1983): 51-72

J. T. Richardson (ed.), Conversion Careers (Beverly Hills, Calif.: Sage, 1978)

J. T. Richardson, "Conversion Careers," Society 17, 3(1980): 47-50

J. T. Richardson, "The Active Versus Passive Convert," Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 24(1985a): 163-179

J. T. Richardson, "Studies of Conversion," in The Sacred in a Secular Age , ed. P. Hammond (Berkeley, University of California Press, 1985b): 104-121

J. T. Richardson, "Cult/Brainwashing Cases and the Freedom of Religion," Journal of Church and State 33(1991):55-74

J. T. Richardson and B. Kilbourne, "Classical and Contemporary Applications of Brainwashing Models," in The Brainwashing/Deprogramming Controversy , ed. D. G. Bromley and J. T. Richardson (Lewiston, N.Y.: Mellen, 1983): 29-45

J. T. Richardson and M. W. Stewart, "Conversion Process Models and the Jesus Movement," in Richardson, q.v . (1978): 24-42

E. B. Rochford, Hare Krishna in America (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1985)

M. Singer, "Coming out of the Cults," Psychology Today 12(Jan. 1979): 72-82

D. Snow and C. L. Phillips, "The Lofland-Stark Conversion Model," Social Problems 27(1980):430-437

T. Solomon, "Programming and Deprogramming the Moonies," in The Brainwashing/Deprogramming Controversy , ed. D. G. Bromley and J. T. Richardson (New York: Mellen, 1983): 163-182

R. Stark, "Psychopathology and Religious Commitment," Review of Religious Research 12(1965):165-176

R. Stark and W. S. Bainbridge, "Networks of Faith," American Journal of Sociology 85(1980):1376-1395

R. Straus, "Changing Oneself," in Doing Social Life , ed. J. Lofland (New York: Wiley, 1976): 252-273

R. Straus, "Religious Conversion as a Personal and Collective Accomplishment," Sociological Analysis 40(1979):158-165.

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