Learning about the processes that deal with spiritual conversion and religious transformation is a goal central to the development of religious and psychological studies of modernity. This is because many scholars are concerned with learning how human beings change and develop effective methods to change them. Indeed, the study of learning, development, attitudes and persuasion, motivation, psychotherapy is at the core concerned with some aspect of human change. It is understandable, therefore, that the study of the particular change called spiritual or religious conversion was one of the first psychological topics ever studied scientifically (Allport 1999, 67). However, in contrast to learning, development, and maturation, conversion is a more distinct process by which a person goes from believing, adhering to, and/or practicing one set of religious teachings or spiritual values to believing, adhering to, and/or practicing a different set. The transformative process in conversion may take variable amounts of time, ranging from a few moments to several years, but it is the distinctiveness of the change that is its central identifying element (Allport 1999, 69). In contrast to someone arriving at a point of belief through the process of socialization and other developmental mechanisms, the convert can identify a time before which the religion was not accepted and after which it was accepted. This paper, by referring to a number of scholarly articles and sources, studies and analyzes the phenomenon of spiritual conversion, centering on the beliefs, social, and moral factors having the major impact on the persons deciding to convert to a different religion.
Until now the search on spiritual conversion was limited. Each individual piece of research occasionally was guided by a particular theoretical orientation, but these interpretative frameworks were for the most part separated from one other and what few efforts there were to integrate them did not last. The one comprehensive review of the research on religious conversion did succeed in organizing the research around one core question, namely, ?Does religious conversion cause personality change?? (Allport 1999, 69) Although this degree of synthesis of the findings is good as far as it goes in answering one outcome question, it was not done within a framework that can explain the findings in an integrated way. The need for an intellectual device that could do this has been an obvious one since the first empirical study of conversion over 100 years ago (Baumeister 2001, 34-35). Fortunately, the recent introduction to this area of research of the concept of spiritual transformation may together emerge as the intellectual device that has been needed.
The review by Ullman (1982,184-185; 1989 45) concluded that some aspects of personality seem to change following religious conversion and some do not.
The data do not support the idea that a religions conversion results in an overall change of the whole person. In particular, there is little evidence that core personality traits are different because a person changes from one religion to another or from no religion to a religion. Instead, core traits remain fairly stable throughout adulthood so that what changes following a religious conversion is the particular form that expression of the traits will take, not the traits themselves (Costa and McCrae 1994, 27).
However, something changes in religious conversion. The data suggest that it is more basic and global-level aspects of personality that are affected by conversion (Baumeister 2001, 43). Basic personality functions that often change following religious conversion include such factors as the broader or narrower purposes toward which one strives, specific goals, or values and attitudes expressed as new ways that one may wish to be. Global-level functions that may change with conversion include overarching life guides such as self-definition and identity, overall purpose, a new life narrative that highlights the importance of this turning point in the story and its consequences, and that which serves as the ultimate concern (Baumeister 2001, 43).
The finding that it is a person's purposes, goals, values, attitudes and beliefs, identity, and focus of ultimate concern that change, and not his or her core traits, means that what becomes different about a person who converts are those expressions of the new religion that reflect what the new religion means to him or her, not ?what the person is like? in some basic sense (Costa and McCrae 1994, 39-40). Those aspects of the whole person through which conversion shows its effects are those that relate to whatever is inspiring to the person?that is, what is spiritual relative to him or her (Costa and McCrae 1994, 35). For this reason, a religious conversion can be properly understood as one type of a larger category of phenomena called ?spiritual transformations? (Costa and McCrae 1994, 35).
There is correspondence between the aspects of a person that show change from before to after religious conversion and spiritual transformation and the elements within the person's social system that together reflect what the person is committed to. These elements would reflect whatever is spiritual for that person, and their arrangement and relative weights and positive or negative valences would make up a unique system of meaning. This means that because religion is about meaning, the thing that undergoes transformation in a religious conversion is the persons meaning system (Miller and C?deBaca 2001, 89).
In a substantial portion of the literature, the concept of spirituality has increased in use in recent years but has not replaced the concept of religion.
Altemeyer and Hunsberger (1997, 89-94) suggest that the concepts of religion and spirituality overlap but are not synonymous. Religion often but not necessarily brings a belief in a faith system, whereas spirituality denotes those values, ideas, or goals and purposes that surpass a person and to which he or she is committed. Both religion and spirituality involve commitment to something that surpasses the individual person. At a psychological functional level, each one seems to imply the other and there may be little difference between them other than personal preference for which language one uses to describe transcendent values and ultimate concerns (Miller and C?deBaca 2001, 93). Whichever terminology one employs, the functional dynamics among the components of the meaning system seem to be the same.
People have individual preferences for which terminology they prefer. A large proportion of the people prefer to call themselves spiritual but not religious, and in the population as a whole a number of interesting combinations of spiritual and religious are used to represent an individual's own orientation (Altemeyer and Hunsberger 1997, 12, 102). To continue, it is better to proceed on the assumption that even though people may use either or both of these terms to describe their own orientation, there is a common psychological process by which they function (Altemeyer and Hunsberger 1997, 12). In fact, this assumption would be the only valid basis for expanding the research on religious conversion to overlap with the topic of spiritual transformation of a meaning system.
The argument of Zinnbauer and Pargament (1998, 162-165) is based on the idea that spiritual transformations occur, that a model for such transformations can be described and tested empirically, that spiritual transformation partially overlaps with religious conversion, and that a spiritual transformation constitutes a change in the meaning system that a person holds as a basis for self-definition, the interpretation of life, and overarching purposes and ultimate concerns. In other words, religious conversions constitute one variety of spiritual transformation and are so described because traditional language and concepts are used. However, other life changes occur that are based on the same fundamental psychological mechanisms but are not necessarily touched in traditional religious language (Zinnbauer and Pargament 1998, 162-165). These changes may invoke the alternative terminology of spiritual transformation.
Some implications of this argument are that (1) there must be pressures on the system?doubts, cracks, breaks, or strains of some kind?prompted by the discrepancies between the implicit or intended expectancies about how an aspect of meaning would be expressed or a need associated with it would be met; (2) the traditional type of spiritual transformation that has been studied in the psychology of religion has been religious conversion; (3) the concept of spiritual transformation is broader than the concept of religious conversion because people can be spiritual in ways that they do not regard as religious; and (4) spiritual transformation constitutes a change in the person's meaning system (Altemeyer and Hunsberger 1992, 124). Therefore, Zinnbauer and Pargament (1998, 166-169) take the approach that religious conversion and spiritual transformation are functionally equivalent and that religious conversion is one among a larger category of phenomena called spiritual transformation. In order to explore the implications of this model to its limits, Zinnbauer and Pargament (1998, 175) suggest to do the following:
1. Present a working model of religious conversion as spiritual transformation.
2. Identify research on religious doubts, strain, and other pressures on the system in order to illustrate how they may contribute to the process of transformation.
3. Briefly summarize research on religious conversion with a particular emphasis on recasting it into the meaning-system model as a framework for understanding spiritual transformation.
4. Assess how well the existing research fits the model, and set the agenda for future research and theory.
The overall process can be summarized in the following way: spiritual transformations, religious and otherwise, occur because people are confronted with discrepancies in life that require them to build a new meaning system because the old one no longer works. Some changes in a meaning system may be partial and may not result in objectively identifiable outcomes, since some changes in people are not expressed in overt behavior. However, when spiritual transformations occur in their fullest form there will be measurable changes in self-perception and identity, life purpose, attitudes and values, goals, sensitivities, ultimate concerns, and behavior (Barker 2004, 33-35).
Traditional literature on religious conversion placed great emphasis on the idea conversion involves a change in the self. Allport (1999, 23) said that a ?hitherto divided? self becomes unified. Zinnbauer and Pargament (1998, 170) document that other writers referred to ?a transcending self,? a change in the ?core identity construct,? and a change in ?identity consolidation? to describe what a religious conversion is. Such terminology places the emphasis on self-transformation at the core of the process. The general pattern of research is consistent with this and shows changes in aspects of self in a number of ways. For example, Ullman (1989, 34-39) found that converts to Judaism, Catholicism, Bahai, and Hare Krishna showed that sense of self increased and perception of stress decreased with conversion.
Zinnbauer and Pargament (1998, 173) found that self-definition changed in converts as evidenced by reports of greater personal competence, lower post-conversion stress, and more spiritual experiences. Much of the research done within the framework of attachment theory found that converts report a perception of a new relationship with God, a sense of a different identity, and a feeling that a solid base of love and sense of security has been found (Barker 2004, 33-35).
A change in the focus of ultimate concern would constitute a transformation of the most global aspect of a person's meaning system and would likely be the most difficult element to change. This implies that the dramatic, total, or radical conversion that serves as a stereotype of conversion is actually the least common form of conversion. Miller and C'deBaca (2001, 78) point out that although most people do not show dramatic conversions or total spiritual transformations, some scholars nevertheless chose them as their main interest. In general, the greater the difference between the religious-overloaded context of an individual's past life and the newly adopted religion, the more the change to the new focus of ultimate concern can be regarded as total or extreme.
It is clear that some research on religious conversion has focused on each element of a meaning system. The concept of spiritual conversion within a meaning-system framework seems to be useful for describing past research on religious conversion and as a conceptual framework to guide future research (Baumeister 2001, 90).
Many things are not clear, however, and each of them points directly to one or more research hypotheses. For example, we do not know how tightly each element of a meaning system is connected to each of the others, how many of them must be under pressure of what amounts and of what specific nature, or for how long and within what social or environmental context this must occur for a spiritual transformation to happen. To some degree we can guess, but do not know based upon solid data, what the relative strengths of positions of the elements are in a system of priority (Baumeister 2001, 90). Scholars point out that so far, each piece of research was done in order to focus primarily on one facet of the change process (Oksanen 2004, 67). No research has been done that would assess changes in all or even most of the components of a meaning system, nor to assess combinations of them. The most frequently studied component of a meaning system in the context of religious conversion has been the self, either self-definition or perceptions of various aspects of self-functioning and well-being. The potential to widen this research domain within the meaning-system framework is significant.