Contrast gradual religious socialization and a "conversion" experience

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caledon | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Senior Educator

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In comparing these two experiences, the key influential factor is time.

During gradual socialization, the individual has the opportunity to raise questions, test limits, conduct experiments and research, and essentially to change their mind. A conversion experience will, in contrast, happen very quickly, impart a strong emotional impact, and may generally leave the individual less likely to consider the experience from a variety of perspectives. Because the experience occurs rapidly, and is not something the individual can revisit or empirically test, it retains its initial character; if that character is something like an emotional or religious epiphany, the individual may be more likely to see it as a genuine spiritual experience.

Gradual socialization is more likely to influence the individual's social behavior than their religious faith, because the individual is participating in a predominately social environment, and all religious material is filtered through this environment. For example, the individual may experience;

  • religious material that is inappropriate or confusing for their age, maturity or faith, leading to doubts. This can be counteracted by;
  • strong social conditioning, such as prayer or church services, in which acceptable behaviors are demonstrated and engaged in by all, leading to the association of religious ritual with group acceptance
  • the use of religion as a "power grab". This can range from priests infamously abusing their authority to molest children, to more mundane and petty instances; for example, I once observed a very young child declare to another that "Jesus wants you to open your heart", and share half of her cookie.

All of this leads to a very deep, strongly social religious experience, where the way that religion is treated by the community is at least as influential as the religious experience itself, if not moreso. The individual may find that participating in the religious ritual, even if they do not agree with it, is better than losing the social approval that participation bestows. This may also lead to a very "shallow" faith wherein one's reasons for faith are not based on true personal experience but upon conditioning and ritual, as occasionally demonstrated via tests such as a bishop who disguised himself as a homeless man.

"Conversion" experiences are different in that they largely rely upon individual circumstances. For example, one may not even be aware of an emotional crisis that predisposes them to conversion, or they may simply be a person who is more willing to accept a faith-based explanation for a given experience. There is, of course, the possibility that a spiritual "intervention" actually occurred, but this premise is difficult if not impossible to test, and is nevertheless controversial; Thomas Paine famously rejected testament from personal experience, because the relation comes from the human and is therefore not a direct contact with God. This criticism can conflict with a deeply-held belief in one's experience, making that belief more resilient. In addition to conversion, this can also lead to fragmentation of belief; for example, if a person believes that they have spiritually communed with God and have received instructions contrary to those of the faith, they may have a difficult time rejecting what seems to be a direct revelation from God.

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