Inner Experience and Conversion
Michael D. Langone,
therapy is similar to religious conversion in that both are associated with
changes in a person's fundamental assumptions about the world, self, and others.
These fundamental assumptions derive in large part from experience, rather than
rational deliberation. In some conversions, powerful inner experiences, whether
manipulated ("outer generated") or not ("inner generated"), may cause a person
to adopt new fundamental assumptions. Sometimes, a new set of experiences can
cause a convert to reject the new assumptions and leave the group. The resulting
disillusionment may cause serious adjustment problems. The impact and
implications of inner experiences should be considered when trying to help
former group members.
Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary
defines conversion as “the action of converting or fact of being converted to
some opinion, belief, party, etc.” (p. 546). This definition makes a useful
distinction between “converting” and “being converted,” what I have sometimes
referred to as “inner-generated” and “outer-generated” conversions.
associate conversions to cultic groups as “outer-generated”; that is, as being
in large part the product of manipulation and deception. But not all conversions
are manipulated, not even all cultic conversions. As Zablocki has pointed out,
what many of us would call cultic environments are characterized more by the
difficulty people have getting out than by the diverse ways through which they
get in (Zablocki, 2001). Hence, conversion to cultic groups cannot always be
explained by theories of manipulation. We need other models that take into
account, but are not limited by, factors of manipulation.
In this brief
paper, I will propose another way to look at conversion. What I will discuss
does not rise to the level of being a “theory.” I hope, however, that it points
the way toward a more useful theory than those we currently have.
all conversions—manipulated and non-manipulated—presume that one’s way of
viewing and relating to the world has changed in some fundamental way. (I don’t
use the term “conversion” here to refer to changes of religion that are made,
for example, to maintain marital harmony. I use the term only to refer to
genuine and significant changes in worldview.)
for such dramatic change? Nobody really knows. There are many theories of
conversion. Indeed, the disciplines that study conversion—psychology, theology,
religious studies, anthropology, and sociology—embrace many competing theories.
I prefer and
will discuss here a cognitive psychological approach, which assumes that human
beings tend toward logical consistency in their beliefs and behaviors. I say,
“tend toward” because only a fool would deny that we human beings aren’t nearly
so logical as we think we are. Indeed, one of the more widely respected
psychological theories—i.e., the theory of cognitive dissonance (Festinger,
1957)—addresses the ways in which people resolve inconsistencies between and
among their beliefs and behaviors. Nevertheless, that we are bothered by logical
inconsistencies testifies to our tendency to seek logical consistency.
approach (Beck, 1979) assumes that people have a limited set of core assumptions
about the world, the self, and others, and that numerous peripheral beliefs
derive from these core assumptions. These beliefs—core and peripheral—have
action consequences. When the beliefs are disordered or out of touch with
reality, psychopathological behavior may ensue. Thus, Alfred Adler, Freud’s
first dissenting disciple and the first modern cognitive psychologist, talked
about the individual’s “private logic” (Ansbacher & Ansbacher, 1979). Neurotic
individuals, according to Adler, are neurotic because their private logic
includes beliefs about the world, self, and others (e.g., “I must be perfect in
all that I do or I am nothing”) that cause them to come into conflict with or
withdraw from other people. According to Adler, the individual’s faulty private
logic develops not from how he or she handled childhood sexuality, as Freud
maintained, but from how he or she handled the inferiority that is the natural
condition of all children. To Adler, the key factor in development is not that
children are sexual, but that they are little and weak.
fundamental assumptions about world, self, and others develop from how they and
their environments respond to the unavoidable starting condition of weakness and
dependence. In normal development, little, weak children are typically raised in
loving, secure homes that reward their small steps toward maturity, thereby
enabling them to develop a healthy self-esteem and learn how to manage in the
social world that all but hermits inhabit. In neurotic development, children are
typically raised in an emotionally stunted and psychologically unsafe home in
which their small steps may be disparaged or ignored, causing them to develop
assumptions about life that may lock them, for example, in defeatist (e.g., “I
am a loser who will fail in all that I attempt”) or pretentiously compensatory
(e.g., “I must be perfect in all that I do”) patterns of behavior. (Needless to
say, some individuals can respond to deficient childhood environments in ways
that lead them to become healthy adults, despite the environment in which they
were raised. But the odds of healthy development in such an environment are, to
say the least, less than in a loving, secure environment.)
point to keep in mind is that our fundamental assumptions about life emerge in
large part from our experience, not from our rational deliberations.
cognitive therapists, though rarely acknowledging Adler, say much the same
thing, only more systematically. Aaron Beck, the father of modern cognitive
therapy, calls the individual’s core assumptions “schemas” (Beck, 1979); Albert
Ellis, founder of Rational Emotive Therapy, talks about the irrational
assumptions that troubled people hold (Ellis & Harper, 1975). Indeed,
psychologists have even developed instruments for assessing the ways in which a
person’s thinking may be out of whack. One such measure, for example, is called
the “Dysfunctional Attitude Scale.”
therapists believe that they can more effectively help distressed people by
teaching them how to recognize and challenge the core assumptions that generate
conflict, and how to try out and practice assumptions and behaviors that are
likely to have more desirable consequences. Hence, the perfectionist operating
on the assumption that “I must be perfect in all that I do” is tactfully guided
(although in Albert Ellis’s case, the individual may be bluntly directed) to the
realization that this belief is irrational and produces unhappiness. Of course,
helping a client get to this realization is no easy task to accomplish and
requires much more tact and skill than this summary statement implies. Making
such a fundamental change in one’s life doesn’t result only from rational
discussion, although this can be an important factor. The change results in
large part from personally experiencing the consequences of behaviors associated
with other fundamental assumptions—however tentatively and even reluctantly one
may have attempted these new behaviors, typically with the support and
encouragement of the therapist, family, and friends.
Now, what does
all of this have to do with conversion?
as in cognitive therapy, a person’s fundamental assumptions change, and he or
she tries out new behaviors consistent with the new assumptions and finds them
to work, at least temporarily. Sometimes, before the conversion, the convert,
like the therapy client, is troubled and unhappy with how his or her life is
going. But sometimes the convert’s life is working just fine. What causes the
There is no
simple answer to this question because there are many types of conversion,
involving many types of people, coming from many types of circumstances. Hence,
in what follows, I make no claim to explain all conversions. I merely hope to
I believe that,
as with the cognitive-therapy client, personal experiences, particularly
compelling inner experiences, are often the dominant factor in changing
fundamental assumptions. These inner experiences may be engineered, as is
sometimes the case with certain large, group-awareness trainings or the classic
Moonie Booneville weekend. They may sometimes be a reaction to seemingly
paranormal actions of a guru or other person claiming some kind of divine
mandate, such as Sai Baba’s appearing to make objects materialize out of thin
air. Sometimes, the process of reevaluating one’s fundamental assumptions may be
stimulated by the experience of meeting a person who operates under a radically
different set of assumptions and who appears to have achieved an enviable level
of happiness or inner peace.
experiences cause us to reorder, or begin reordering, our fundamental
assumptions, the natural human tendency to be logically consistent drives us,
over time, to reconsider and, if necessary, rearrange our peripheral beliefs and
behaviors to make them more consistent with the new assumptions we are
embracing. Such a process may be intellectually and emotionally challenging, so
it is not surprising that we will reach out to others for support and guidance.
In highly manipulative groups, somebody is always waiting in the wing to make
sure that one draws the “correct” conclusions from the compelling experience
that elicited the reevaluation process. In less high-pressure, more ethical
groups, members may encourage a prospective convert to think carefully about the
new belief system in private and over a period of time. A Franciscan priest, for
example, once told me that novices were encouraged to spend a year “in the
world” before taking their vows, to make sure that their vow-taking truly
reflected an inner calling and wasn’t merely a superficial response to
In some cultic
groups it is not unusual for a person to go through the following stages:
Prospective converts perceive the leader as having some special ability or
charisma (he reads minds; he heals people; he induces altered states of
consciousness in people) that triggers a powerful inner experience (e.g., of the
leader's spiritual "presence"), which in turn causes them to reconsider their
assumptions about the world, self, and others.
The leader’s minions, who become aware of prospects' openness to their belief
system, will, frequently with much genuine concern and sincerity, do what they
can to ensure that they make the “correct” interpretation of those experiences.
Prospects come to accept, at least provisionally, the fundamental assumptions,
what I have sometimes called the “ruling propositions” on which the group is
based—e.g., guru is God incarnate, pastor Bob is a modern-day prophet, Sister
Veronica is God’s messenger. The leader and/or group thus come to have a high
level of credibility and authority for the prospect.
Prospects yield to these pressures, whether they be mild or strong, and reach a
point at which they implicitly if not explicitly declare, “I believe!” The
initial declaration is usually directed at the ruling propositions, e.g., "guru
is God incarnate." Prospects are now converts.
Converts rearrange their peripheral beliefs and behaviors to make them more
consistent with the new set of assumptions and their derivative peripheral
beliefs and behaviors. Again, these actions frequently are accompanied by
varying degrees of social guidance and/or pressure. For example, accepting that
"guru is God" implies obeying guru, even if his orders make no sense ("Whom am I
to question God?").
Converts become comfortable with the new set of beliefs and behaviors and begin
to live according to them.
Other group members, sometimes without realizing it, provide rewards and
punishments that tend to strengthen new converts' loyalty to the group.
Converts become aware of inconsistencies, contradictions, abuses, or failed
predictions within the group or organization.
Normal cognitive dissonance processes combined with group pressures cause the
member to search for rationalizations to explain away these disturbing
So many disturbing discrepancies accumulate that, as one ex-member put it, the
shelf of rationalization on which they were placed collapses.
Members once again begin to reconsider fundamental assumptions; only this time
they reconsider the assumptions, the ruling propositions, of the group to which
they had claimed allegiance, sometimes for many years. Support from family,
friends, or professionals can sometimes facilitate such reevaluation and a
decision to leave the group.
can sometimes be painfully disillusioning to group members or former group
members, who may be reluctant to "trust," to attribute credibility to future
spiritual experiences (Lucas, 2003). Although models that stress manipulation
may apply to some such cases, they do not necessarily apply. And even when they
do, the individual's inner experiences, which affect what he or she believes,
are likely to have had a profound impact. This impact and its implications
should be addressed when trying to help former group members adjust to life
outside the group.
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was originally prepared for a presentation at AFF’s annual conference, June
14-15, 2002, at the Crowne Plaza Hotel, Orlando (FL) Airport.