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Posted December 16, 2003

Book: Understanding New Religious Movements
Author: John A. Saliba, S.J.
AltaMira Press, New York, pp. 293

Excerpt from Jacket:

Discussions of any religion can easily ignite passions, but arguments tend to become even more heated when the religion under discussion is characterized as new. Divisions around the study of new religious movements (NRMs), or cults, or nontraditional, alternative, or emergent religions are so acute that there is even controversy surrounding what to call them. John A. Saliba strives to bring balance to these discussions by offering perspectives on new religions from a variety of academic viewpoints: history, psychology, sociology, law, theology, and counseling. This approach provides rich descriptions of a broad range of movements while demonstrating how the differing aims of the disciplines can create much of the controversy around NRMs. This new edition has been updated and revised throughout and includes a new foreward by noted historian of religion, J. Gordon Melton.

Excerpt from Book:

How and why does a person actually join a new religious movement?

The Psychology of Conversion

In dealing with the current controversy over contemporary fringe religions one cannot avoid discussing the nature of religious conversion, which is open to a variety of theological, sociological, and psychological considerations. The psychological study of conversion began toward the end of the nineteenth century. Research was channeled into three major areas. The first dealt with the time frame within which conversion takes place. The debate centered about sudden or gradual personality changes, sometimes called respectively “self-surrender” and “voluntary” conversions. Psychologists showed more interest in, and were fascinated by, conversion of a sudden nature that usually occurred at a crucial turning point in life. The second examined the age at which people usually experienced a religious conversion. Adolescence was found to be the most common period in one’s life when conversion could transpire, with sudden conversions tending to take place earlier than gradual ones. And, finally, the possible explanatory factors and causal antecedents that account for conversions were discussed. Although both sudden and gradual conversions result in the awareness of a transformed self, they differ significantly in several main aspects. Sudden conversions are passive and highlight the ‘converts’ experiences of being influenced by outside forces or confronted by “otherness.” Gradual conversions, on the other hand, are achieved by the individual’s active search for meaning in one’s life, a search that can take a long time before the convert becomes aware of his or her transformation. Sudden conversions are also accompanied by a feeling of self-surrender to the “otherness,” which converts immediately accept. Gradual conversions denote a continual process through which one’s faith is deepened. Sudden conversions, unlike gradual ones, are further accompanied by a sense of unworthiness, sin and guilt. They are experienced at a time of emotional upheaval during which cognition plays a minor role. In spite of the inclination of researchers to spend more time on sudden conversions, all seem to agree that the frequency of gradual conversions by far outnumber that of sudden ones.

The rise of new religious movements has rekindled, to a limited degree, psychological interest in the study of religious conversion, especially among sociologists and social psychologists. It is important, however, to bear in mind that the study of religious conversion is much broader. Lewis Rambo, for example, has distinguished between “traditional transition” (from one major religion to another), “institutional transition” (from one subgroup to another within a particular transition), and “affiliation” (conversion to new religious movements). It is probably the latter type of conversion that has led scholars both to rethink the meaning of conversion and to reconstruct models of the conversion process. This recent tendency follows to some degree the well-established psychological tradition that defines conversion as a radical, sudden shift in one’s religious beliefs, values, and practices linked with the acceptance of a new faith commitment. The conversion process itself, however, is being approached from quite a different perspective. The major change has been the adoption of an activist-oriented theory to explain how an individual ends up in a new religious group. The personal psychological state of the prospective devotee and the intense proselytization by zealous members do not by themselves explain the actual entry and involvement. The convert plays a key role in his or her own conversion process. Various sociocultural conditions also come into play to influence one’s decision. Thus the impact of one’s prior socialization and education, peer and family pressures, and stress situations should all be considered necessary for interpreting the experience of conversion.

Moreover, the tendency among contemporary psychologists is to see conversion as a process that takes place over time. Lewis Rambo has outlined this process as occurring in seven distinct stages. The first is the context, “the dynamic forces fields,” which stands for “the overall environment in which change takes place” The second is the crisis, “Te catalysts for change.” that triggers the third stage, that of the quest for salvation. The fourth stage is the encounter, which refers to the contact made between the seeker and the missionary or evangelizer. The fifth is the interaction between the converting person and the members of the other faiths, during which time the neophyte learns more about the teachings, lifestyle, and duties of the new tradition. Commitment is the sixth stage, during which the convert consolidates his new status. And finally, there is the seventh stage in which the convert assesses the consequences of his or her new commitment.

Table of Contents:

Chapter one: The new religious movements in contemporary western culture: an overview

Chapter two: The history of new religious movements in the west

Chapter three: The new religious movements in psychological perspective

Chapter four: The new religious movements in sociological perspective

Chapter five: The new religious movements in te law courts

Chapter six: The new religious movements in Christian theological perspective

Chapter seven: Counseling and the new religious movements