10 Nov Why People Change Religions
Recently I’ve been wondering what goes through someone’s head when they decide to change religions. I grew up Baptist, so I have my own experiences to draw on, but it’s been a few years since I became a Baha’i. I wondered if the feelings surrounding that experience (and the motivations) aren’t as fresh as they used to be, so I wanted to see how it looks for someone else going through that experience.
Where can you find personal accounts of people changing their religion? Youtube, of course!
So I settled in for a few hours of mindless internet TV. My first instinct was to watch conversions into Christianity, but I’m too close to that culture. I figured that in the West, when a non-immigrant decides to become a Christian, it’s in some way a reversion back to the traditional culture of the area, so the dynamics are different than if someone converted to a faith more outside of their comfort zone (like the Baha’i Faith?). I’ve heard a lot of people in the West are converting to Islam, so I thought that might be more relevant subject matter in regards to the Faith.
So off to watch videos of people changing their religion to Islam!
I ended up at a Youtube channel called “Allah’s Deen”, which means something like “creed”, “religion”, or “way of life” (in the context of Islam). I think this channel is pretty high quality, and their videos are well done. They have a subchannel called My Journey to Islam that has about 100 videos at present, so there’s a lot to go through. The videos generally consist of a more long-term Muslim interviewing converts about how they found Islam, what their obstacles were, and what their experience has been afterward. Here are a couple of good examples (but there are many, many more):
The stories are compelling.
I watched four stories, and they had a few things in common: While there were a mix of girls and guys, all were in their late teens to early 30’s (at the oldest). They were all white, of European ancestry, which seems to the demographic this section of the channel is trying to reach. Some of the converts are from Europe; some are from North America. All of the interviewees seemed to be intelligent and thoughtful young people who considered this choice carefully.
So why did they leave their previous religion and / or culture and become Muslim, members of a relatively foreign faith that is in many ways at odds with the lifestyle of their family, friends, and society?
Most had dabbled in religion before.
Most of them had gone through a phase when they were younger where they identified with Christianity (the traditional local religion), but they found it unsatisfying. Interestingly, this includes both converts who were actively raised Christian, but also those raised in a non-religious home.
The wider culture had lost its allure.
Almost all of them found contemporary secular culture in the West lacking in meaning. They all agreed that going out and partying, hook-up culture, and drinking to excess could be fun, but left them feeling empty. Their view of wider society mirrored this realization: the West has lost its sense of self and mission and has settled on a culture of numbing and nihilism, set to a pleasant background of sex, booze, and reality TV.
They knew Muslims personally before being interested.
In every single instance that I saw, the converts had pre-existing relationships with Muslims (plural, not singular) before they seriously started exploring Islam. They did not open a book or see a website and convert — the experience of real, live Muslims was paramount in their stories. More on this in a later post.
Islam is a way of life, not a set of beliefs.
The idea that Islam was more than just a meaningful set of beliefs that one could believe privately was something that often came up. Our idea of religion in the West is usually that of a private belief that doesn’t interfere in our lives (or that of others) too much. The converts generally found such a private, isolated way of faith weak and ultimately unconvincing. After all, if you really believe your faith is true, why would you live your life in a way that seems designed to minimize its impact on society and the people in your life? Real religion should be lived in community.
The Muslim community wasn’t afraid to be different than the surrounding culture.
Consequently, they seemed to love the fact that the Muslim community was different than the rest of society. It was loving, interested in the lives of others, had laws and structure that were taken seriously, and offered a real sense of meaning.
Islam answered hard questions without apologizing.
Islam offered a rich intellectual environment where they could ask questions and get concrete answers — they felt like Christianity either bent too much to whichever way the cultural wind was blowing (and so wasn’t really based on authentic truth from the Bible) or was too based on emotion and logical contradictions.
That’s a lot to consider, but I think there are some real thought-provoking points there. How much of this is applicable to how we teach the Baha’i Faith? What’s applicable to how we live our lives as Baha’is? How much should the Baha’i community seem different from the surrounding culture?
What do you think?