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|This article relies on references to primary sources or sources affiliated with the subject, rather than references from independent authors and third-party publications. Please add citations from reliable sources. (July 2009)|
Religious conversion is the adoption of a new religion that differs from the convert's previous religion. Changing from one denomination to another within the same religion (e.g., Christian Baptist to Methodist or Catholic, Muslim Shi'a to Sunni, etc.) is often described as conversion.
People convert to a different religion for various reasons, including: active conversion by free choice due to a change in beliefs, secondary conversion, deathbed conversion, conversion for convenience and marital conversion, and forced conversion.
Conversion or reaffiliation for convenience is an insincere act, sometimes for relatively trivial reasons such as a parent converting to enable a child to be admitted to a good school associated with a religion, or a person adopting a religion more in keeping with the social class he or she aspires to. When people marry one spouse may convert to the religion of the other.
Forced conversion is adoption under duress of a different religion. The convert may secretly retain the previous beliefs and continue, covertly, with the practices of the original religion, while outwardly maintaining the forms of the new religion. Over generations a family forced against their will to convert may wholeheartedly adopt the new religion.
Apostate is a term used by members of a religion or denomination to refer to someone who has left that religion or denomination.
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Jewish law has a number of requirements of potential converts. They should desire conversion to Judaism for its own sake, and for no other motives. A male convert needs to undergo a ritual circumcision conducted according to Jewish law (if already circumcised, a needle is used to draw a symbolic drop of blood while the appropriate blessings are said), and there has to be a commitment to observe Jewish law. A convert must join the Jewish community, and reject the previous theology he or she had prior to the conversion. Ritual immersion in a small pool of water known as a mikvah is required.
In Hellenistic and Roman times, some Pharisees were eager proselytizers, and had at least some success throughout the empire.
Some Jews are also descended from converts to Judaism outside the Mediterranean world. It is known that some Khazars, Edomites, and Ethiopians, as well as many Arabs, particularly in Yemen before, converted to Judaism in the past; today people all over the world convert to Judaism. The word "proselyte" originally meant a Greek who had converted to Judaism. As late as the 6th century the Eastern Roman empire (i.e., the Byzantine empire) was issuing decrees against conversion to Judaism, implying that this was still occurring.
In recent times, members of the Reform Judaism movement began a program to convert to Judaism the non-Jewish spouses of its intermarried members and non-Jews who have an interest in Judaism. Their rationale is that so many Jews were lost during the Holocaust that newcomers must be sought out and welcomed. This approach has been repudiated by Orthodox and Conservative Jews as unrealistic and posing a danger. They say that these efforts make Judaism seem an easy religion to join and observe when in reality being Jewish entails many difficulties and sacrifices.
Conversion to Christianity is the religious conversion of a previously non-Christian person to some form of Christianity. The exact requirements vary between different churches and denominations. The process of converting to Catholicism involves religious education followed by initial participation in the sacraments. In general, conversion to Christian Faith primarily involves repentance for sin and a decision to live a life that is holy and acceptable to God through faith in (the atoning death and resurrection of ) Jesus Christ. All of this is essentially done through a voluntary exercise of the will of the individual concerned. True conversion to Christianity is thus a personal, internal matter and can never be forced. Converts are almost always expected to be baptized.
Christians consider that conversion requires internalization of the new belief system. It implies a new reference point for the convert's self-identity, and is a matter of belief and social structure—of both faith and affiliation. This typically entails the sincere avowal of a new belief system, but may also present itself in other ways, such as adoption into an identity group or spiritual lineage.
Catholics, Orthodox and many Protestant denominations encourage infant baptism before children are aware of their status. In Roman Catholicism and certain high church forms of Protestantism, baptized children are expected to participate in confirmation classes as pre-teens. In Eastern Orthodoxy, the equivalent of confirmation, chrismation, is administered to all converts, adult and infant alike, immediately after baptism.
Methods of baptism include immersion, sprinkling (aspersion) and pouring (affusion). Baptism received by adults or younger people who have reached the age of accountability where they can make a personal religious decision is referred to as believer's baptism among conservative or evangelical Protestant groups. It is intended as a public statement of a person's prior decision to become a Christian. Some Christian groups such as Catholics, Churches of Christ, and Christadelphians believe baptism is essential to salvation.
Conversion is expected to be more than a simple change in religious identity, but a change in nature (regeneration), evidenced by a change in values. The Latin word conversio, translating the Greek metanoia, literally means "going the other way" or "changing one's mind". According to Christianity a convert is one who renounces sin as worthless and treasures instead the supreme worth of Jesus Christ; the convert sees the worth of Christ in Jesus' sacrificial death and resurrection and renounces sin.
The Christian convert is expected to believe that his separation from God cannot be overcome by good deeds done out of a desire to achieve individual moral self-satisfaction; rather, he seeks the forgiveness of his sins in the blood of Christ and wishes to be clothed in the righteousness of Christ. Because conversion is a change in values that embraces God and rejects sin, it includes a personal commitment to a life of holiness as described by Paul of Tarsus and exemplified by Jesus. In some Protestant traditions, this is called "accepting Christ as one's Savior and following him as Lord." In another variation, the 1910 Catholic Dictionary defines "conversion" as "One who turns or changes from a state of sin to repentance, from a lax to a more earnest and serious way of life, from unbelief to faith, from heresy to the true faith." The Eastern Orthodox understanding of conversion is illustrated in the rite of baptism, in which the convert faces west while publicly renouncing and symbolically spitting upon Satan, and then turns to the east to worship Christ "as king and God".
Many Christian denominations believe that proselytism, understood to be sharing the Gospel, in word or in deed, of Jesus Christ, is a responsibility of all Christians. In the New Testament, Jesus commanded his disciples to "go and make disciples of all nations"
Transferring from one Christian denomination to another may consist of a relatively simple transfer of membership, especially if moving from one Trinitarian denomination to another, and if the person has received water baptism in the name of the Trinity. If not, then the person may be required to be baptized or rebaptized before acceptance by the new church. Some denominations, such as those in the Anabaptist tradition, require previously baptized Christians to be re-baptized. The Eastern Orthodox Church treats a transfer from another denomination of Christianity to Orthodoxy (conceived of as the one true Church) as a category of conversion and repentance, though re-baptism is not always required.
The process of conversion to Christianity varies somewhat among Christian denominations. Most Protestants believe in conversion by faith to attain salvation. According to this understanding, a person professes faith in Jesus Christ as God, their Lord and savior. Repentance for sin and a holy living are expected of those professing faith in Jesus Christ. While an individual may make such a decision privately, usually it entails being baptized and becoming a member of a denomination or church. In these traditions, a person is considered to become a Christian by publicly acknowledging the fundamental Christian doctrines that Jesus Christ died, was buried, and was resurrected for the remission of sins.
This table summarizes the classical views of three different Protestant beliefs.
|Conversion||Through the means of grace, resistible||Ordinarily through the means of grace, irresistible||Involves free will and is resistible|
Much of the theology of Mormon baptism was established during the early Latter Day Saint movement founded by Joseph Smith, Jr. According to this theology, baptism must be by submersion for the remission of sins (meaning that through baptism, past sins are forgiven), and occurs after one has shown faith and repentance. Mormon baptism does not purport to remit any sins other than personal ones, as adherents do not believe in original sin. Mormon baptisms also occur only after an "age of accountability" which is defined as the age of eight years. The theology thus rejects infant baptism.
In addition, Mormon theology requires that baptism may only be performed with one who has been called and ordained by God with priesthood authority. Because the churches of the Latter Day Saint movement operate under a lay priesthood, children raised in a Mormon family are usually baptized by a father or close male friend or family member who has achieved the office of priest, which in Mormonism is conferred upon worthy male members at least 16 years old.
Baptism is seen as symbolic both of Jesus' death, burial and resurrection and is also symbolic of the baptized individual putting off of the natural or sinful man and becoming spiritually reborn as a disciple of Jesus.
Membership into a Latter Day Saint church is granted only by baptism whether or not a person has been raised in the church. Most Latter Day Saint churches do not recognize baptisms of other faiths as valid because they believe baptisms must be performed under the church's unique authority. Thus, all who come into one of the Latter Day Saint faiths as converts are baptized, even if they have previously received baptism in another faith.
When performing a Baptism, Latter Day Saints say the following prayer before performing the ordinance:
Having authority given me of Jesus Christ, I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen
Baptisms inside and outside the temples are usually done in a baptismal font, although they can be performed in any body of water in which the person may be completely immersed. The person administering the baptism must recite the prayer exactly, and immerse every part, limb, hair and clothing of the person being baptized. If there are any mistakes, or if any part of the person being baptized is not fully immersed, the baptism must be redone. In addition to the baptizer, two priesthood holders witness the baptism to ensure that it is performed properly.
A newly converted Muslim is called a Muallaf. There are five pillars, or foundations, of Islam but the primary, and most important is to believe that there is only one God and creator, referred to as Allah (the word for the name of God in Arabic) and that the Islamic prophet, Muhammad, is His last and final messenger. A person is considered to have converted to Islam from the moment he or she sincerely makes this declaration of faith, called the shahadah.
Islam teaches that everyone is Muslim at birth because every child that is born has a natural inclination to goodness and to worship the one true God alone, but his or her parents or society can cause him or her to deviate from the straight path. When someone accepts Islam he/she is considered to revert to his/her original condition. While conversion to Islam is among its most supported tenets, conversion from Islam to another religion is considered to be the sin of apostasy, and under some interpretations and in some jurisdictions is subject to the penalty of death.
In Islam circumcision is a Sunnah custom not mentioned in the Qur'an. The primary opinion is that it is not obligatory and is not a condition for entering into Islam. The Shafi`i and Hanbali schools regard it as obligatory, while the Maliki and Hanafi schools regard it as only recommended. However, it is not a precondition for the acceptance of a person's Islamic practices, nor does one sin if choosing to forgo circumcision. It is not one of the Five Pillars of Islam or the Six Fundamentals of Belief.
In sharing their faith with others, Bahá'ís are cautioned to "obtain a hearing" – meaning to make sure the person they are proposing to teach is open to hearing what they have to say. "Bahá'í pioneers", rather than attempting to supplant the cultural underpinnings of the people in their adopted communities, are encouraged to integrate into the society and apply Bahá'í principles in living and working with their neighbors.
Bahá'ís recognize the divine origins of all revealed religion, and believe that these religions occurred sequentially as part of a Divine plan (see Progressive revelation), with each new revelation superseding and fulfilling that of its predecessors. Bahá'ís regard their own faith as the most recent (but not the last), and believe its teachings – which are centered around the principle of the oneness of humanity – are most suited to meeting the needs of a global community.
In most countries conversion is a simple matter of filling out a card stating a declaration of belief. This includes acknowledgement of Bahá'u'llah – the Founder of the Faith – as the Messenger of God for this age, awareness and acceptance of His teachings, and intention to be obedient to the institutions and laws He established.
Conversion to the Bahá'í Faith carries with it an explicit belief in the common foundation of all revealed religion, a commitment to the unity of mankind, and active service to the community at large, especially in areas that will foster unity and concord. Since the Bahá'í Faith has no clergy, converts to this Faith are encouraged to be active in all aspects of community life. Even a recent convert may be elected to serve on a Local Spiritual Assembly – the guiding Bahá'í institution at the community level.
Hinduism does not advocate conversion and has no ritual of conversion. When a person becomes Hindu is ill defined as Hinduism never saw other faiths as rivals. A few Hindus hold that 'to be a Hindu, one should be born a Hindu' and 'if born a Hindu, one is a Hindu forever'; however, Indian law approves anyone declaring to be a Hindu as Hindu. According to Hinduism, there is one universal truth (ignorance of this truth or Brahman is the cause of grief and souls are caught in the eternal cycle of rebirth until realization), and there are multiple paths—including as followed by other philosophies—to "reach" the truth. The Sanskrit word for religion "Marga" literally means path. The mere notion of conversion is an oxymoron because the Hindu texts Vedas and Upanishads conceive whole world as a single family that deifies the one truth.
The earliest account of revival of faith in Hinduism is from the 8th century in the times of Shankaracharya when Jainism and Buddhism became prevalent. There is no evidence of invasion and mass conversion in Hinduism. Many foreign groups including Gujjars, Ahoms, and Hunas converted to Hinduism after generations of Sanskritization. Sanskritization throughout the 18th century in Manipur resulted in Manipuri tribes identifying themselves as Hindus.
There is a recent notion of re-converting people who had converted from Hinduism. This re-conversion has always been as a reaction to the threat of evangelization, proselytism, and conversion activities of other major religions; many modern Hindus are opposed to the idea of conversion from their religion to (any) other. Reconversion among people who were formerly Hindus or whose ancestors were Hindus has picked up pace with the growth of Hindu revivalist movements. National organizations such as Arya Samaj (India) and Parisada Hindu Dharma (Indonesia) help those wanting to become Hindus by such reconversions.
American-born Hindu guru, Satguru Sivaya Subramuniyaswami wrote a book entitled How to Become a Hindu - A Guide for Seekers and Born Hindus. In it, Subramuniyaswami offers a systematical approach to, what he calls, "ethical conversion to Hinduism," testimonials of converts to Hinduism, definitions of Hindu authorities on what a Hindu truly is, etc.
Persons newly adhering to Buddhism traditionally "take Refuge" (express faith in the Three Jewels — Buddha, Dharma, Sangha) before a monk, nun, or similar representative. Buddhists often hold multiple religious identities, combining the religion with Shinto (in Japan) or Taoism and Confucianism (in China; cf. Chinese traditional religion).
Throughout the timeline of Buddhism, conversions of entire countries and regions to Buddhism were frequent, as Buddhism spread throughout Asia. For example, in the 11th century in Burma, king Anoratha converted his entire country to Theravada Buddhism. At the end of the 12th century, Jayavarman VII set the stage for conversion of the Khmer people to Theravada Buddhism. In the 17th century, during the Edo period in Japan, Christianity - brought to Japan by the Portuguese explorers - was outlawed, and all subjects had to register at Buddhist or Shinto temples. Mass conversions of areas and communities to Buddhism occur up to the present day, for example, in the Dalit Buddhist movement in India there have been organized mass conversions.
Conversion to new religious movements (NRMs) is riddled with controversies. The anti-cult movement sometimes uses the term thought reform or even brainwashing. Often they will call certain NRMs cults. There are many different definitions for the word cult. NRMs are very diverse and it is not clear whether conversion to NRMs differs from conversion to mainstream religions. However, it is clear that for the first decade or so of any NRM's existence, the overwhelming majority of its members must be converts (because the NRM will not have been in existence long enough for a significant number of its members to have been brought up in it). It is also clear that every mainstream religion must have gone through this stage when it first emerged. See also Brainwashing controversy in new religious movements.
Research both in the USA and the Netherlands has shown there is a positive correlation between lack of involvement in mainstream churches in certain areas and provinces and the percentage of people who are a member of a new religious movement. This applies also for the presence of New Age centres. The Dutch research included Jehovah's Witnesses (though most JW's were previously religious including a number of former ministers, deacons, priests and nuns) and the Latter Day Saint movement/Mormonism in the NRMs (which was more indicative of the research)[clarification needed].
In the 1960s sociologist John Lofland lived with Unification Church missionary Young Oon Kim and a small group of American church members in California and studied their activities in trying to promote their beliefs and win new members for their church. Lofland noted that most of their efforts were ineffective and that most of the people who joined did so because of personal relationships with other members, often family relationships. Lofland published his findings in 1964 as a doctorial thesis entitled: "The World Savers: A Field Study of Cult Processes," and in 1966 in book form by Prentice-Hall as Doomsday Cult: A Study of Conversion, Proselytization, and Maintenance of Faith. It is considered to be one of the most important and widely cited studies of the process of religious conversion, and one of the first modern sociological studies of a new religious movement.
The Church of Scientology attempts to gain converts by offering "free stress tests" (see picture at auditing). Unlike other religions, Scientology requires converts to sign contracts before attending church.
On the other end of the scale are religions that do not accept any converts, or do so only very rarely. Often these are relatively small, close-knit minority religions that are ethnically-based such as the Yazidis, Druze, and Mandaeans. Zoroastrianism classically does not accept converts, but this issue has become controversial in the 20th century due to the rapid decline in membership. Chinese traditional religion lacks clear criteria for membership, and hence for conversion. The Shakers and some Indian eunuch brotherhoods do not allow procreation, so that every member is a convert.
The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights defines religious conversion as a human right: "Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief...." (Article 18). In spite of this some groups forbid or restrict religious conversion (see below).
Based on the declaration the United Nations Commission on Human Rights (UNCHR) drafted the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, a legally binding treaty. It states that "Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right shall include freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice..." (Article 18.1). "No one shall be subject to coercion which would impair his freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice" (Article 18.2).
The UNCHR issued a General Comment on this Article in 1993: "The Committee observes that the freedom to 'have or to adopt' a religion or belief necessarily entails the freedom to choose a religion or belief, including the right to replace one's current religion or belief with another or to adopt atheistic views [...] Article 18.2 bars coercion that would impair the right to have or adopt a religion or belief, including the use of threat of physical force or penal sanctions to compel believers or non-believers to adhere to their religious beliefs and congregations, to recant their religion or belief or to convert." (CCPR/C/21/Rev.1/Add.4, General Comment No. 22.; emphasis added)
Some countries distinguish voluntary, motivated conversion from organized proselytism, attempting to restrict the latter. The boundary between them is not easily defined: what one person considers legitimate evangelizing, or witness-bearing, another may consider intrusive and improper. Illustrating the problems that can arise from such subjective viewpoints is this extract from an article by Dr. C. Davis, published in Cleveland State University's 'Journal of Law and Health': "According to the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, Jews for Jesus and Hebrew Christians constitute two of the most dangerous cults, and its members are appropriate candidates for deprogramming. Anti-cult evangelicals ... protest that 'aggressiveness and proselytizing ... are basic to authentic Christianity,' and that Jews for Jesus and Campus Crusade for Christ are not to be labeled as cults. Furthermore, certain Hassidic groups who physically attacked a meeting of the Hebrew Christian 'cult' have themselves been labeled a 'cult' and equated with the followers of Reverend Moon, by none other than the President of the Central Conference of American Rabbis."
Since the collapse of the former Soviet Union the Russian Orthodox Church has enjoyed a revival. However, it takes exception to what it considers illegitimate proselytizing by the Roman Catholic Church, the Salvation Army, Jehovah's Witnesses and other religious movements in what it refers to as its canonical territory.
Greece has a long history of conflict, mostly with Jehovah's Witnesses but also with some Pentecostals over its laws on proselytism. This situation stems from a law passed in the 1930s by the dictator Ioannis Metaxas. A Jehovah's Witness, Minos Kokkinakis, won the equivalent of US $14,400 in damages from the Greek state after being arrested for trying to preach his faith from door to door. In another case, Larissis vs. Greece, a member of the Pentecostal church also won a case in the European Court of Human Rights.
Some Islamic countries with Islamic law outlaw and carry strict sentences for proselytizing. Several Islamic countries under Islamic law, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Egypt, Iran, and Maldives, outlaw apostasy and carry imprisonment or the death penalty for those leaving Islam and those enticing Muslims to leave Islam. Also, induced religious conversions in Indian States of Orissa has resulted in communal-riots.
Edwin Starbuck criticised the use of religious conversions as evidence to support religion. In 1894 and 1895, he presented two papers on his research into religious conversion. Starbuck found that the average age of a religious convert was 15.6. He also noted eight primary motivating factors in a religious conversion:
It can, therefore, be argued that sociological factors can have a strong influence on religious conversion. It has been noted that, for every year a non-Christian grows older than 25, the likelihood of them converting decreases exponentially.
James H Leuba was an American psychologist who studied religious conversion. In 1916, he started a study, intending to test the hypothesis that, the more people were educated, the less they believed in God. His studies compares undergraduates, professors and more distinguished professors; he found that, as one rises on the scale of age and culture, the proportion of unbelievers rises.
In 1997, Edward Larson and Harry Witham attempted to replicate Leuba's study. They studied a similar number of scientists, divided between physicists, biologists and mathematicians. Their results were very similar to Leuba's, in that scientists still seemed to be less likely to believe in religion than the average person. Whereas, in Leuba's study, the highest proportion of atheists were biologists, the later study revealed that physicists were now the most atheist group.
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