How and why (some) people switch religions

by on March 18, 2013 at 2:42 pm in Religion | Permalink

And then, the pope quit. The pope! He left. He walked out on it all. I watched him fly away from Rome and I thought, “That’s it.” In the few moments of his flight, I left too. I decided I could no longer be a part of this church. It was over.

I realized I didn’t want this decision to be about leaving, but joining. I knew immediately I wanted to convert and become an Episcopalian. Why? If I were to trace this decision back, it would be to a summer I spent in Maine 11 years ago. Our closest church was Episcopalian, so I went there on Sundays. The vicar was a woman. Her sermons were eloquent, moving, compassionate and connected to the modern world. She spoke like my nuns.

There is more at the link.

Urso March 18, 2013 at 3:08 pm

Actually, the Episcopalian vicar won’t baptize her, because she’s already been baptized. She may or may not be confirmed as an Episcopalian.

prior_approval March 18, 2013 at 3:14 pm

So religion means one branch of Christianity being exchanged for another?

Frederic Mari March 19, 2013 at 9:06 am

One convert, so many losses…

As I said elsewhere, Christianity like other religions trade on Ultimate Truths. Any ‘modernized’, flexible, reading of the Bible tend to dishearten followers. They don’t go to church(es), whatever branch, to be told “look, mate, it’s all pretty fuzzy. God knows what God meant by this words”…

Millian March 19, 2013 at 11:25 am

But the Catholic Church, bastion of reaction and conservatism, is also being purged in the West. It just has greater emerging-market diversification than Episcopalians, allowing it to disregard market share and enjoy rapid population growth.

Frederic Mari March 19, 2013 at 11:53 am

I think the problems of the Catholic Church in the West are really linked to the pedophilia stuff. Otherwise, I suspect that them getting tough on ‘social values’ would/will do them more good than harm.

I think the chaotic spectacle of the CoE is another ‘warning’ for churches ignoring their own core marketing competency.

On a riskier comparison, I personally think that the similarity with Islam, especially Islam for 2nd generation immigrants in Europe (i.e. a tribal marker) but not only – popularity of extremism in a lot of African/ME/sub-Indian continent places, is, imho, striking.

A reaction to 21st centuries uncertainties and the victories liberalism did score over the last few decades is a re-radicalisation of churches.

Millian March 19, 2013 at 1:11 pm

“I think the problems of the Catholic Church in the West are really linked to the pedophilia stuff… the chaotic spectacle of the CoE is another ‘warning’ for churches”

How many declining Western churches do we need to enumerate before you’ll accept a general decline of Christianity in the West? Even so, Catholics and Anglicans are two of the biggest groups overall. You may point to high growth rates among Evangelicals, but they’re growing from tiny bases, and hardly growing whatsoever in Europe.

You have not provided a causative model explaining why, as people in the West have become more liberal, they find liberal religion less appealling. It’s probably more like a huge contraction of the demand curve: without relaxation of outdated dogmas, the Catholic Church and Anglicans would be doing even worse.

Frederic Mari March 20, 2013 at 4:56 am

Somehow, I can reply to my own post but not yours.

You say: “How many declining Western churches do we need to enumerate before you’ll accept a general decline of Christianity in the West?”
Me: Yes, there is a decline in the West, probably unavoidable but some can do quite well even in a shrinking market.

You: “You may point to high growth rates among Evangelicals”
Me: Indeed and what does their dogmas look like? Liberal or extreme?

You: “You have not provided a causative model explaining why, as people in the West have become more liberal, they find liberal religion less appealing”.
Me: All of this is IMHO. I am not a religion specialist. But I would say that liberals (by and large) just don’t seek ANY (organised) religion at all. Thus, churches should simply admit that their target market has been shrinking and concentrate on gaining maximum market share within a reduced space. For that, concentrating on traditions/conservatism seem the better option.
There’s no amount of ‘liberal religion’ that will convince an atheist or even a ‘bof, i guess i am agnostic, there might be someone out there but i doubt he or she or whatever is like the bible says it is’ to go back to weekly sermons…

anon March 18, 2013 at 3:15 pm

News at 11!

Read the article and it is clear that the author was really a Protestant before the Pope “quit”.

A Catholic friend wrote a long time ago:

“I’m a Catholic guy, and my governor thinks I’m a dolt: so what? Every politician thinks I’m a dolt. I’d rather have a governor who bellows that religion is for fools than a slippery president who parades around with a Bible. .. If you want to be counterculture, be a Catholic.”

Roy March 18, 2013 at 3:48 pm

Episcopalianism sounds like it will be a good fit for her, they have very pretty churches.

anon March 18, 2013 at 4:42 pm

Oscar Wilde said:

“The Catholic Church is for saints and sinners alone. For respectable people the Anglican Church will do.”

K書中心 March 18, 2013 at 3:48 pm

Christianity is a single religion.

Nick March 18, 2013 at 10:00 pm

Well except there’s a lot of things the Catholics believe that the rest don’t, like…

Well there’s…

Hang on…rebooting…

Nevermind, they’re all exactly the same.

prior_approval March 19, 2013 at 12:53 am

Non-Christians tend not to care in the least – much like Christians is general have no interest in (and generally no knowledge of) the difference between Alawites and Alevis.

AC March 18, 2013 at 3:49 pm

Yes, because the way to find theological truth is for people to shop churches until they find something intuitive and appealing. Just like the way to find scientific truth is to shop “scientists” until they stop talking about that weird quantum mechanics thing and tell something more comforting. Like heliocentrism.

AC March 18, 2013 at 3:56 pm

In fact, I don’t think we’d have moved past *geocentrism* using this algorithm.

JL March 18, 2013 at 4:13 pm

Somehow I was reminded of this sketch.

j r March 18, 2013 at 5:58 pm

This is interesting. I do not believe that I have ever seen anyone equate objective religious truth to objective scientific truth while simultaneously being smug about it. It is impressive.

Millian March 18, 2013 at 6:22 pm

Heliocentrism has been disproved, because the large balance of evidence is against it. Sir/Madam, where is your religion’s balance of evidence?

DocMerlin March 19, 2013 at 2:33 am

“Heliocentrism has been disproved” I am assuming you mean geocentrism.
geocentrism was never disproved. People stopped believing it in because the models were uglier.
As a matter of fact, general relativity + modern cosmology is like geocentrism on steroids. Those models make the observer *always* the center of the universe (true for each observer). (yes I know it sounds strange, but it works, more or less.)

AC March 18, 2013 at 3:50 pm

Funny how a persistent low-level amount of pedophilia is great for undermining the church but doesn’t make a dent in the sacralization of public schooling. Almost seems like the conclusions were written beforehand.

Thursday March 18, 2013 at 4:02 pm

Why don’t more people do this? This is the great puzzle of secularization. If people felt angry or oppressed by religion in the past, they joined or made up a new one or they reverted to a sort of sincere paganism. Now they just leave and . . . nothing.

Emily March 18, 2013 at 5:19 pm

They’re not leaving now because they feel angry or oppressed, they’re leaving because they feel bored, unconnected, and like they’re not getting anything they need from it. But there’s still something – there’s always some system of values based on assumptions that followers don’t attempt to falsify. For an increasing number of people, it just looks less obviously like a religion.

Millian March 18, 2013 at 6:27 pm

I think the evidence of the last two hundred years is against this supposition, as per Tyler’s article about economists and liberalism this weekend. People are less and less believing in pre-ordained social categories, and more and more believing in agnostic priors, be that in religion, politics, or even science (look at vaccine/fluoride/climate scepticism).

TMC March 19, 2013 at 11:55 am

Funny you use climate beliefs as a counterpoint – just about the most religious based movement going on.
I’ll add another – physicists overwelming respond as non religious but most believe in dark energy/matter.

(I’m less scepitical about the dark matter, but it’s funny that they believe BECAUSE they can’t account for it anywhere else.)

Millian March 19, 2013 at 1:14 pm

Something isn’t a religion just because it involves beliefs that can’t conclusively be proved. Liberalism, continental drift, the auteur theory of filmmaking, rule utilitarianism and socialism all involve non-provable beliefs. Can we avoid using language loosely in this topic?

mrwiizrd March 18, 2013 at 7:05 pm

Why don’t more people do this?

Because Darwin published ‘On The Origin of Species” in 1859.

Nickolaus March 18, 2013 at 4:08 pm

I switched religion from Catholic to Nothing because I found out that god isn’t real.

Rich Berger March 18, 2013 at 4:16 pm

How did you find that out?

Orange14 March 18, 2013 at 5:56 pm

Because God died at Auschwitz.

Andrew' March 19, 2013 at 5:48 am

The best evidence for why god isn’t real is that other people tell you he is. That’s also the best evidence for why is real.

Edward Pierce March 18, 2013 at 4:17 pm

Can someone please explain the squishiness of it all? Of swapping religions like a new pair of pants?

FTA: “The church’s positions on contraception and abortion were not for me, but for a long time, I felt able to ignore them.”

This makes no sense to me as a strong atheist. Either abortion and contraception *are* against God’s laws, or they are not. If the former, then the Catholics have the right of it. If not, then His Holiness clearly doesn’t speak from an infallible position with regard to God’s laws, and the whole thing is probably a sham. Time to see of Martin Luther can do any better (“Got 95 problems, but a Pope ain’t one”).

asdf March 18, 2013 at 4:30 pm

For many people religion is just a social club. You join because it does something for you. Like most things you get something out of there will also be things you don’t like. If you get more then you give then its worth it.

Eventually she decided that this particular social club wasn’t worth it, and that joining a new social club would be better. This could have because the resigning of the Pope lowered the social value of being Catholic. In this case Episcopalianism (progressive yuppie christianity) seems to offer her more. If atheism offered more, she would be an atheist.

Ed March 19, 2013 at 5:04 am

Yes, I get that, but I still get amazed the most people treat religion that way. Also that most people, including myself, just stick with whatever they were told when they were children.

All churches, sects, and religions tell people things that may be more or less true, or more or less plausible. But they can’t all be right. Really, switching religions or between sects wtihin a religion should be no more difficult than switching between schools of economics. If you are a Christian and agree with papal infallibility, become a Catholic. If you accept the apostolic succession but not papal infallibility, then the right churches for you are Anglican/ Episcopalian, Eastern Orthodox, or maybe Lutheran (and here it does make a difference where you grew up since these all at least started as state churches). Reject the apostolic succession and there are lots of Protestant churches. But bishops are either a good way to organize a church or not, and having one senior bishop who can issue infallible teachings at times is either a good idea or not. EIther Jesus was the one person who returned from the dead, or no one has returned from the dead (its possible that someone did return from the dead but not Jesus, but apparently no one believes that).

However, I’ve noticed in the US that increasingly political views too are entirely a function of who raised you and where you live.

Illa March 27, 2013 at 6:01 pm

Changing one’s minds on things other than religion might not always be easy for everyone, either. And I might have changed my mind after thinking (among other things) that while believing something is true because I’ve been raised to believe it, I can’t have an outside perspective on whether it’s really true.

Perhaps some parents raise their children to believe what the parents have told them their whole lives? Anyway, I’ve heard that some parents want their kids to choose their own religious beliefs when they’re grown up, but until then, to follow their parents’ beliefs or not think about religion at all. If their kids obey this, then can they be said to switch religions like teeth: a temporary set in childhood, and a possibly permanent set in adulthood? :-)

Millian March 18, 2013 at 6:31 pm

The Catholic positions on abortion and contraception are not based on Papal infallibility. The over-reliance on Papal infallibility is a common mistake in the English-speaking world, which has always preferred to ascribe obscurantism and despotism as Catholic traits instead of getting the facts right, in the finest Whiggish tradition.

prior_approval March 19, 2013 at 3:46 am

I recommend reading this link before actually claiming anything about Church teaching in this subject –

Though you have a point that it is not precisely papal infallibity that is being claimed. Probably, it would be best to call the claim of infallibility in this case to be essentially universal – I suggest reading section I, ‘PROBLEM AND COMPETENCY

Millian March 19, 2013 at 8:48 am

Ah, now. The infallibility of certain claims under the Magisterium is a very different idea to Papal infallibility, comparable to the difference between bureaucracy and despotism (and it’s not even universally accepted within the Catholic Church that Humanae Vitae is an infallible teaching in that sense).

Dan March 19, 2013 at 1:23 pm

Conversion is more like switching families then it is switching social clubs. You can always abandon your family and try to find or create a new one. However, the chance of finding the perfect family is slight. Except in extreme cases, most people recognize that their family is flawed but love them anyhow. Same deal for churches. At least, for me.

Evan Harper March 18, 2013 at 4:35 pm

For goodness’ sake, commenters, stop talking about Theological Truth and God’s Laws and papal infallibility and so forth. Have you not ever known an actual religious person? Laws and The Truth are basically not relevant to the faith of the vast majority of these people; they adhere to a religion for social reasons, and perhaps out of a vague, wooly sense of Something Beyond, not because they have well-defined and internally consistent ideas about God’s Laws and eternal salvation and so forth. I mean, did you read the article? There was a (literally) glittering generality about the truthfulness of all religions that, while obvious nonsense from the perspective of serious comparative religion — let alone theology! — does capture the idea nicely.

TL;DR: You can’t logically argue somebody out of a position they were never logically argued into in the first place.

Ricardo March 19, 2013 at 12:10 am

They aren’t relevant to the vast majority of adherents but these things are taken very seriously by religious leaders. The Catholic Church just recently changed its creed so that the old phrase that describes Jesus as “one in Being with the Father” is changed to “consubstantial with the Father.”

This is easily recognizable as theological jargon and while I am sure you are right that very few practicing Catholics care very much about this terminology, it is evidently a big deal to the church’s leadership. As devout Catholic Stephen Colbert put it, “It’s the creed! It’s not the SAT prep.”

ChacoKevy March 18, 2013 at 5:02 pm

I’m encouraged by the new pope though. Mostly because I hope it brings Marquette luck in the tournament… while somehow not helping out Georgetown…
or the Zags….
… Saint Louis….

Turing Test March 18, 2013 at 5:07 pm

Who cares?

anon March 18, 2013 at 6:18 pm


Neal March 18, 2013 at 5:19 pm

The impact on marginal Catholics?

Nick March 18, 2013 at 5:59 pm

“If my experience of Catholic women leaders has been overwhelmingly positive, I cannot say the same for our male leaders. Who could? The hypocrisy we have been exposed to has been overwhelming.”

So let me get this straight…she criticizes the Pope for quitting Catholicism, then does the SAME THING herself and becomes Episcopalian?

So that makes her not a hypocrite how exactly?

Urso March 18, 2013 at 6:23 pm

She also waxes eloquent about how much she respected the nuns who ran the school she attended, then 2 paragraphs later harrumphs that altar server is the highest position of authority a woman can have in the church. Like Boon said, “forget it. He’s rolling.”

Nick March 18, 2013 at 6:27 pm

Ha nice! Look, I’m all for equality amongst the sexes in every Earthly realm, including the Catholic Church, but she sounds more to me like a whiner and a complainer that hasn’t always gotten her way at every turn in life instead of what she wants us to think she is (at least if you judge her by this article), which is some sort of crusader for womens’ rights.

Dismalist March 18, 2013 at 6:24 pm

Echoing Turing Test, since when has religion become a public matter in the United States? Yes, I know people have killed each other over religion, but not here yet. Believe what you please, but for God’s sake, don’t tell me about it. In return, I promise not to tell you about my religious beliefs.

Millian March 18, 2013 at 6:35 pm

You are confusing politics/”church and state” with public life/”culture”. Religion has, of course, been a key determinant of white people’s experience in America since before the beginning.

Cambias March 18, 2013 at 8:49 pm

I’m curious why you limit it to “white people” only. Black churches have been and remain incredibly influential, Hispanics are strongly Catholic, and American Indians have the lowest atheism rate of any group in the country.

prasad March 19, 2013 at 1:33 am

I was gonna say, ‘white’ wasn’t adding anything to the argument. And it’s not even PC or un-PC or anything, just strange in that place in the reply. Like saying religion has been key among Iowans or blondes or baseball fans.

Millian March 19, 2013 at 8:52 am

I write that because religion wasn’t a motive behind black people’s movement to America. That was slavery. It wasn’t a motive for American Indians either, as far as we know. Whereas we know that freedom of personal religious expression was a major motive for white people’s movement to America.

The Anti-Gnostic March 19, 2013 at 8:13 am

Religious are the ones having the babies.

FE March 18, 2013 at 7:07 pm

The Church of England has offered itself as an alternative to Christians who can’t quite embrace Roman Catholicism since 1534. Talk about a slow news day.

John March 18, 2013 at 8:01 pm

Andrew Sullivan said he’d rather be a Muslim than an Anglican. Eddie Izzard said you can’t have people devoted to a religion founded on one man’s desire for a divorce. But the best defense of Catholicism comes from Penn Jillette.

anon March 18, 2013 at 10:14 pm

After Benedict was elected in 2005, James Taranto wrote:

“If you’re not Catholic, and especially if you’re an atheist or agnostic, then it makes sense to regard the church as just another worldly institution. After all, you don’t believe in papal infallibility or the guiding hand of the Holy Spirit. But if you do believe in these ideas, what could it mean that you oppose the new pope and his adherence to tradition, other than that you’re disappointed in or angry at God for not changing his mind?”

Boxthorn March 18, 2013 at 8:42 pm

If the Anglican Church has to rely for converts on Catholics who write for the Grauniad, then it really is doomed.

DH March 18, 2013 at 8:52 pm

from the article: “It is extraordinarily hard to bring your children up in a community with an entrenched tradition of pedophilia.”

Is she referring to public schools or the Catholic church? I’ve seen reports that the rates of pedophilia are similar between the two institutions.

NAME REDACTED March 19, 2013 at 2:29 am

Not similar. Goverment schools are far, far worse. They aren’t even in the same ballpark. Crazily enough priests are much safer for kids than teachers. The difference is that teachers have the apparatus of the state and political power backing them up, so they get a lot less flack.

Brian Donohue March 19, 2013 at 9:40 am

First I’ve heard of this. Cite?

Chris Durnell March 19, 2013 at 1:26 pm

It’s one of those statistical figures that should be readily available, but seems impossible to find. The only source I’ve ever found was in Pyschology Today:

For those who don’t want to view the link, the relevant text is this: “According to the best available data (which is pretty good mostly coming from a comprehensive report by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in 2004 as well as several other studies), 4% of Catholic priests in the USA sexually victimized minors during the past half century. No evidence has been published at this time that states that this number is higher than clergy from other religious traditions. The 4% figure appears lower than school teachers during the same time frame and certainly less than offenders in the general population of men.”

This isn’t very surprising. Pedophiles are predators. In order to obtain the victims, they will look for jobs with several things in common. First, they will seek a job that puts them in contact with children during the normal course of the day. Second, they will seek a job that has trust or authority of the common population. This makes it both possible to have time alone with children as well an provide protection if someone challenges them. Third, they will seek a job that provides them a lot of autonomy so they are unsupervised.

Guess what? Very few jobs are like this, but among them are religious leaders and school teachers. Scandals break out at schools all the time, but it’s kept hidden for the same reason it was kept hidden in the Catholic Church for such a long time. The authorities in charge want to prevent a scandal and protect the reputation of the organization so they make a decision to remove the problem for their immediate concern, but only pass the buck to someone else. In the Catholic Church, this meant another church. In the school system, it’s another school. People refuse to believe this, but it’s true.

I used to tell people this all the time, and no one wanted to hear it. They were too busy making a few easy hits on the Catholic Church for having priestly celibacy or make some other bigoted remark, rather than realize the problem is universal. In the past year with huge sex abuse scandals elsewhere (at Penn State and the BBC), the public perception still hasn’t changed. We saw the same exact same behavior and cover up at these institutions that we saw in the Catholic Church, but people still are unable to realize the problem was not unique to the Catholic Church but has to do with what pedophiles look for and the reasons for institutional failure to protect children.

Nick March 18, 2013 at 9:29 pm

She also fails to mention, or perhaps realize, that Episcopalianism is an offshoot of the Anglican Church, which has done a pretty good job of persecuting members of her former faith in Northern Ireland ever since, oh, the dawn of Anglicanism.

Millian March 19, 2013 at 8:55 am

One may as well blame Catholicism for the Spanish and Portuguese invasions of Latin America, or blame any other religion for what was actually a clear manifestation of ethnic supremacy.

Alan March 18, 2013 at 9:49 pm

I often think that a just god is the noblest creation of the human race. Then I meet someone who thinks Ayn Rand was an apostle of a just god and a niggling doubt creeps into my mind.

Replier March 18, 2013 at 9:52 pm

If you were offered pleasant aesthetics, beautiful music, a vibrant social community and eloquent sermons from one organization, and eternal salvation from another — what would you do?

Willitts March 18, 2013 at 10:03 pm

I changed religions because the love of my life inspired me into believing that the God who made her was a God worth praising. I have never regretted it. I’m a stronger Catholic than I ever was a Jew, but the interesting thing is that I became more attached to and in touch with my own religious heritage by teaching my children about the Gospel inclusive of all the testaments of God. We enjoy Passover the way Jesus enjoyed Passover, without having to carry the cross he bore.

8 March 19, 2013 at 12:18 am

The rate of creative destruction in Protestant religions is quite high. The Episcopal church itself is splitting because it cannot resist the force of modernity. Those who want tradition are being called back to the Catholic church. The modern branches will either collapse or emerge as fundamentalist churches.

Millian March 19, 2013 at 8:56 am

“Those who want tradition are being called back to the Catholic church.”

Often written but rarely sourced. I know it’s a religious debate, but the rest of us would like evidence with our spiritual claims.

The Anti-Gnostic March 20, 2013 at 8:59 am

There’s the Anglican Ordinariate, and Orthodox conversions but no, I don’t have the numbers. It is a real phenomenon however. As mainline protestantism continues to fragment, some conclude that the Romans and Byzantines were right all along.

The trend in the other direction is the “denominational-less” churches, culminating in the home-church movement and, of all things, “messianic judaism.”

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