The Born Again Experience

This is from Part 4 of 6: The Born Again Experience in the series called Christian Belief Through the Lens of Cognitive Science over at the HuffingtonPost. This next article in the series talks about the conversion process and gives some insight as to why people would believe the stories and tall tales found in religion. Valerie says “the born again experience doesn’t require a specific set of beliefs. It requires a specific social/emotional process, and the dogmas or explanations are secondary.” This tells me that the religious experience is much more experience than actual religion. Once again I’ll quote the more interesting passages from the article.

When asked about whether Evangelical Christianity might fit the pattern, Conway and Siegelman were reluctant to say yes. Today they admit, “In America today, increasingly, that line [between a cult and a legitimate religion] cannot be categorically drawn. . . Our research raised serious questions concerning the techniques used to bring about conversion in many evangelical groups.”(p. 37).

Conversion is a process that begins with social influence. As sociologists like to say, our sense of reality is socially constructed. We will come back to this later. Suffice for now to say that missionary work typically begins with simple offers of friendship or conversations about shared interests. As a prospective converts are drawn in, a group may envelope them in warmth, good will, thoughtful conversations and playful activities, always with gentle pressure toward the group reality.

In revival meetings or retreats, semi-hypnotic processes draw a potential convert closer to the toggle point. These include including repetition of words, repetition of rhythms, evocative music, and Barnum statements (messages that seem personal but apply to almost everyone — like horoscopes). Because of the positive energy created by the group, potential converts become unwitting participants in the influence process, actively seeking to make the group’s ideas fit with their own life history and knowledge. Factors that can strengthen the effect include sleep deprivation or isolation from a person’s normal social environment. An example would be a late night campfire gathering with an inspirational story-teller and altar call at Child Evangelism’s “Camp Good News.”

These powerful social experiences culminate in conversion, a peak experience in which the new converts experience a flood of relief. Until that moment they have been consciously or unconsciously at odds with the group center of gravity. Now, they may feel that their darkest secrets are known and forgiven. They may experience the kind of joy or transcendence normally reserved for mystics. And they are likely to be bathed in love and approval from the surrounding group, which mirrors their experience of God.

The article talks about the evils of the religious and cult conversion process that you can read for yourself. I agree with this view but I want to skip that and highlight the article’s conclusion that explains why conversions work.

The conversion process as I have described it sounds sinister, as if manipulative groups and hypnotic leaders deliberately ply their trade to suck in the unsuspecting and take over their minds. I don’t believe this is usually the case. Rather, natural selection is at play. Over millennia of human history, religious leaders have hit on social/emotional techniques that work to win converts, just as individual believers have hit on spiritual practices they find satisfying and belief systems that fit how we process information. Techniques that don’t trigger powerful spiritual experiences simply die out. Those that do get used, refined, and handed down.

With few exceptions the evangelists, from mega-church ministers to “friendship missionaries,” are unaware of the powerful psychological tools they wield. They are persuasive in part because they genuinely believe they are doing good. After all, they have their own born again experiences to convince them that they are promoting the Real Thing. Consider, for example, the Apostle Paul, whose Damascus Road event (possibly a temporal lobe seizure) transformed his moral priorities and sustained a lifetime of missionary devotion. What decent person wouldn’t want to share the secret to healing and happiness? The challenge is trying to figure out exactly what that secret is. As I say to my daughters, it is not enough to be well intentioned–even joyfully, generously so. We also have to be right.