SOC 257: New Religious Movements Lectures
University of Virginia
Department of Sociology
Jeffrey K. Hadden
Why Do People Join NRMs?
Social Science Models
Lecture Outline:
Conversion and the Web of Group Affiliation
Conversion As a Problematic Status
Theories of Conversion
Suggested Readings
Part I:
Conversion and the Web of Group Affiliation
Introduction: Conversion as a Special Form of Joining
In the course of our lifetimes, we all belong to many groups--special interest groups, business or professional associations, fraternaties or lodges, sporting clubs, political parties, alumni associations, and on and on. Membership in some groups is easy. For a small donation one can become a member of the Nature Conservancy or the Christian Coalition. Other groups are very exclusive, requiring extensive screening and then substantial financial assessments to maintain active membership.
Membership in some groups is the result of birth. If one is born to Italian parents in Italy, for example, one will simultaneously become a member of an ethnic group [Italian] and a citizen of a nation [Italy]. The individual had nothing to do with either affiliation. Sociologists refer to these as​ascribed statuses​. But note that the latter status could be changed at a later point in life. One could emigrate to Australia and become a citizen of that country.
Thus, citizenship is ascribed at birth, but it can be changed. This is an ascribed but reversible status. When on gets to Australia, one would still be Italian by ethnic origin. That can't be changed. Sociologists refer to this as an ascribed and irreversable status.
If one were born in Italy, chances are one would also be Roman Catholic -- most Italians are Catholic. Whether an Italian grows up to be a firm believer and practices the faith is another matter. Let's say our Italian moves to Australia. He or she arrives and, discovering that both Protestants and Anglicans substantially outnumber Catholics, decides to join the Anglican Church.
It is common for people who have switched faiths to say they converted. But most people who join a faith tradition different from the faith of their birth do not experience a conversion in the classic sense of Saul of Tarsus' conversion on the road to Demascus. There is no blinding light, no life transforming experience. People frequently switch from one denomination to another for reasons having nothing to do with belief. To say that they converted stretches the meaning of that word.
Obviously, the concept conversion can have radically different meanings. We need to keep this in mind when we examine why people join new religious movements. We ought not to assume that everyone who joins a cult or a sect did so because of some radical, life transforming experience. On the other hand, as scholars, we should be open to the possibility that what people experience in joining NRMs is no more unusual than switching membership from a Baptist to a Methodist church.
To better understand what does happen, it is helpful to place the matter of religious conversion in the context of joining or affiliating with groups. Why are people members of one religious group rather than another? Why do people elect to affiliate with any group? And why do they similarily elect to disaffiliate or simply become inactive in a particular group.?
By approaching conversion as a unique form of joining , rather than assuming it to be a radically different means of affiliating , we create the opportunity to examine conversion in a comparative sense. What is conversion? When and how does it happen? How does it differ from other ways that people become involved and join groups (religious and otherwise)
We begin with the simple question: why do people belong to groups?
Why join religious groups?
In the contemporary modern world, one's faith is usually a matter of choice.
People elect to join a faith tradition.
Still, most people do not elect to stray far from the religion of their birth.
When they do, what are some of the most common factors that lead people to join a religious group?
Factors affecting decision to join
It is clear that most faith affiliations have nothing to do with the classic conception of conversion.
Still, throughout history, some people have always been attracted to particular faith traditions as the result of some extraordinary experience:
Summary: Reasons for joining religious groups
  1. Birth
  2. Compelled to join
  3. Elected to join
  4. Experience conversion
Part II: Conversion As a Problematic Status
Conversion as problematic
Acceptance of a conversion experience depends on where the assessor stands viz a viz the convert.
When someone converts to my faith, I am likely to view it as authentic and genuine
When someone converts to a faith that is ideologically distant from my own I am likely to see the conversion as:
Three Variations in Conversion Experience
  1. Intensity
  2. Demands of the new faith
  3. Ideological distance from former faith
Variation in Conversion Experience
Low ------------------------------------------------------->High
Low ------------------------------------------------------->High
Ideological distance
Low ------------------------------------------------------->High
In the lecture on the concepts of our inquiry we noted that the social sciences are in the business of building theory
that the purpose of theory is to provide a road map for predicting human behavior.
Can you begin to construct some elements of theory about how people react to the conversion of others?
What are the elements or concepts we have to work with?
 Two propositions:
The greater the intensity of the conversion experience, the greater the demands​, and the greater the ideological distance​, the greater the potential for conflict with significant others.
The lower the intensity of the conversion experience, the lower the demands​, and the less the ideologial distance​, the greater the ease of accepting or accommodating to the conversion by significant others.
Part III: Theories of Conversion
Theories of Conversion:
  1. Deprivation theory
  2. Social process theory
  3. Role theory
  4. Commitment Model
  5. Social Networks Model
A. Deprivation Theory
B. Social Process Model
C. Role Theory Model
Stresses volunteerism
Learn roles appropriate for participation
D. Commitment Model
Three Types of Commtment
  1. Instrumental Commitment
  2. Affective Commitment
  3. Moral Commitment
Kanter's Commitment Theory
Type of CommittmentProcesses that Enhance This Commitment
Instrumental commitment
1. Sacrifice
(Commitment to the organization)
2. Investment
Affective commitment
1. Renunciation
(commitment to the members)
2. Communion
Morral commitment
1. Mortification
(commitment to ideas )
2. Transcendence
Source: Kanter, Rosebeth Moss. 1972. Commitment and Community. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
E. Social Network Theory
Building on these observations, David Snow reasoned that new recruits to all kinds of groups would likely return to old groups to seek yet additional recruits.
Summary of Lecture:
  1. Belonging to groups is a natural human activity.
  2. People belong to religious groups for essentially the same reasons they belong to other groups.
  3. Conversion is generally understood as an emotionally charged experience that leads to a dramatic reorganization of the convert's life.
  4. In reality, conversion varies enormously in terms of the intensity of the experience and the degree to which it actually alters the life of the convert.
  5. Conversion is one, but not the only reason people join religious groups.
  6. Social scientists have offered a number of theories to explain why people join religious groups.
  7. Most of these explanations could apply equally well to explain why people join lots of other kinds of groups.
  8. No one theory can explain all joinings or conversions.
  9. What all of these theories have in common (deprivation theory excluded) is the view that joining or converting is a natural process.
  10. Stark and Bainbridge have questioned the utility of the concept conversion. The suggest, instread, that the concept affiliation is a more useful concept for understanding how people join religious groups.
Lecture last revised: